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The word

The Joy of –ext

Sexting, chexting, drexting...the rise of a salacious suffix

By Erin McKean
April 18, 2010

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As even the most sports-averse people know, Tiger Woods returned to golf this month, which was an excuse, however flimsy, for people to revisit the scandal that led to his hiatus from the sport in the first place. The Tiger Woods story has plenty of head-scratching details (including the irony of Billy Payne, the chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club — which does not allow women as members — lecturing Woods about his inappropriate behavior) but has been relatively short on iconic vocabulary, with one notable exception: chexting.

Chexting is, of course, “cheating on one’s spouse or partner through the medium of text messages,” and it’s not really a new word — there are examples of use dating back to at least the mid-2000s. But what chexting lacks in recency it makes up for in interestingness, at least linguistically.

It’s the quasi-suffix -exting that first grabs our attention. We’re used to it from the shock-horror, kids-these-days, what-is-the-world-coming-to word sexting, which refers to taking nude or seminude pictures with a camera phone and then sending them as texts (usually with tragic results). Texting is blended into other relationship words as well — brexting (breaking up with someone via text message, a truly slimy thing to do), drexting (sending text messages — often amorous ones — while drunk), confexting (confessing something — possibly chexting? — via text message), and fexting (fake-texting, that is, pretending to be sending a text message in order to avoid talking to someone, or just so that you don’t look as if you’re such a loser that no one is texting you for real).

And those are just the quasi-serious, relationshippy ones. There are also plenty of jokey or facetious -exting words, including hexting (sending curses via text message), Czexting (sending text messages in Czech), Quebexting (sending text messages in Canada), objexting (what lawyers do when they text in the courtroom), vexting (sending intentionally upsetting text messages), and wexting (texting while walking).

When we see a burgeoning family of neologisms like these, we have to wonder what need they are trying to fill. Why is it necessary to emphasize the text-messaging part of the sordid story? Why is cheating somehow worse when it’s done in 160 character bursts? Back when people engaged in infidelity via e-mail or “going to the corner for a pack of cigarettes” (and to use a pay phone), we didn’t get chea-mail or chelephoning, did we?

We’ve seen this kind of flowering of new words before, with a much earlier interpersonal text-message system, the telegram. The words built on telegram were more concerned with the pure mechanics of the service than with the content — aerogram (sent by air), cablegram (sent via cable), marconigram (sent by the “Marconi wireless service”), tannergram (in New Zealand, a telegram that cost a sixpence — a “tanner” — to send). We had to wait more than a hundred years to get the more humorous words playing off telegram — nastygram didn’t show up until the 1960s, and we didn’t get kissogram or stripagram until the 1980s, well after the telegram had passed from modern convenience into retro novelty.

It seems that -exting has its own kind of cultural pop, with an overtone of salaciousness — but why? Part of the reason is that we already “know” that text-messaging is supposed to be bad for us. It’s making us dumber, and degrading our language, or so the thinking goes. (It’s a rare week when I’m not asked, sympathetically, how I feel about text-messaging destroying English — a sentiment that David Crystal, the noted linguist, efficiently debunks in his recent book, “Txting: The gr8 db8.” At least one study has found that children who used the most abbreviations in their text messages scored the best on tests of reading and vocabulary. So there.)

It may also be that, unlike lipstick on the collar, a salacious text message leaves no room for innocent explanations. No one accidentally hits the “flirt” button on their cellphone, and there’s no “can’t stop thinking about you, baby” autocomplete. When we hear the word chexting, we think not only of the chexter’s behavior, but also of their partner’s dismay at having to discover the infidelity on a tiny screen. (Of course, maybe that partner was “pexting,” peeking at another person’s text message.)

At the deepest level, though, the personal, relationshippy nature of these new -exting words reflects the unusual nature of our relationship to texting itself. Text messages come to us over the air, straight to our pockets, seen by no one — intensely private, near-instantaneous messages between two people. If they were any more direct, they’d be telepathic.

This makes texting a great way to chat and plan movie times, but also a natural way to send something secretive, and it’s this meaning that -exting picks up most strongly. Sure, we know that text messages are just as liable to be intercepted as any other communication, but somehow we don’t truly believe it...which is what gets us into trouble. As yet, I haven’t seen anyone use the word apologexting — but give it time.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at erin@wordnik.com.