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THE WORD

Ads on an empty stomach

ON BOSTON STREETS last week, the orange detour signs bloomed like daylilies, but they weren't the only baffling signage in town. Far above the steaming highways was a billboard blaring a mysterious one-word message: HUNGERECTOMY.

Sounded painful, whatever it was. But a colleague soon clued me in: It was a Snickers ad, he explained, with the candy bar relabeled as a surgical cure for the munchies. But was it a bit, um, tasteless? ``I suppose some appendectomy patients will chortle," he said, ``but what about women who've had mastectomies?"

Tasteful or not, the Snickers campaign has achieved advertising's first goal--to get noticed. Another goal, apparently, is to reinforce the candy-as-food message its parent company has long embraced, from the decades-old ``A Mars a day helps you work, rest, and play" up to ``Hungry? Grab a Snickers": Three of the new words I've seen--SUBSTANTIALICIOUS, SATISFECTELLENT, and the aforementioned hungerectomy--refer to satiation, though a fourth, NOUGATOCITY, doesn't (I think).

But can these new coinages be transmuted into gold? Will they ever say Snickers the way ``Snap! Crackle! Pop!" says Rice Krispies and ``Fahrvergnugen" says VW--or, short of that, tempt us to buy more candy bars? Or are they just fleeting headscratchers, like Diet Pepsi's ``brown and bubbly"? Nobody can say. But if taglines are meant to be tantalizing, these could use some help.

The simplest is substantialicious, a straightforward blend, its pattern so familiar nowadays that the combining form -alicious gets an entry in the online Oxford English Dictionary. It's used to form adjectives, says the OED, ``with the sense `embodying the qualities denoted or implied by the first element to a delightful or attractive degree."' Substantial plus delicious: It's not quite hunkalicious, but at least it makes sense.

Nougatocity, on the other hand, is a sad Frankenword, a limping assemblage of ill-matched parts. It must be a noun meaning ``nougatness," on the model of ferocity and atrocity. But unlike those nouns, nougat doesn't have an adjective form--nougatious?--on which to hang the noun-forming -ity suffix; you're on your own figuring out what -ocity is supposed to evoke. Precocity, velocity, impetuosity, bogosity? Or is the idea ``nougat city," like ``fat city," with a random O thrown in for obfuscation? I'm still looking for an appetizing interpretation--or the missing magic decoder ring.

Satisfectellent, similarly, is a monster mashup of an adjective. If it's satisfaction plus excellent, then what's the fect? And where's the X that excellent so badly needs? Fectellent sets the analogizing mind adrift in the realm of infection, repellent, and other not-so-XLNT associations. Still not salivating here!

But the strangest of the bunch, to my mind, is hungerectomy. Not because it's oddly constructed, nor because it's potentially offensive to surgical patients, but because the metaphor it embodies is so headspinningly counterintuitive.

Consider some jocular ectomies already in circulation: walletectomy, for instance, the removal of large sums of money by your mechanic or divorce lawyer, or humorectomy, excision of one's sense of humor. We get it; money and humor are things you have, and therefore can have removed, like moles and wisdom teeth.

But hunger isn't metaphorically a possession, a swelling, or a growth; on the contrary, it's emptiness, need, craving, a void to be filled. If you've got plenty of nothing, what does the figurative surgeon cut away? Hungerectomy is wordplay for people who aren't quite clear on the meaning of -ectomy; that may be the target audience, but I'd like to think otherwise.

But then, what do I know? The amply paid creators of ads like these must have some idea of what works; maybe hungerectomy is a poetic inspiration that will sell candy, spawn imitators, and end up in our dictionaries. If anything like that comes to pass, the Snickers copywriters will have earned the last laugh.

. . .

CANDY LANDS: ``Why do Brits snigger--and Americans shiver--at sex scandals?" asked Slate magazine in a May headline. And why, they might also have asked, do Brits snigger while Americans snicker? It's the same word, after all--both versions of the verb, meaning ``laugh covertly," showed up in England around 1700 (the nouns came later). But America adopted the snicker variant, England settled down with snigger, and there the matter rests. A Snickers bar needs no translation, but the lowercase laugh we call by that name is still, for most Britons, a snigger.

For four weeks' worth of The Word, visit boston.com/news/globe/ideas/freeman. E-mail freeman@globe.com.

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