Why We Hate the Word 'Phablet' So Much

We have reached Peak "Phablet": This week the term for the popular (and quite awkward) devices was called "horrible," "stupid," and "worst word of the year" (to which we're about two weeks in). Even linguists agree.

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It appears we have reached Peak Phablet — and not just because sales are up and the big-screen cellphones were all over the Consumer Electronics Show this week. No, we have also reached Peak "Phablet" — the term for the popular (and quite awkward) devices has also this week been called "horrible," "stupid," and "worst word of the year" (to which we're about two weeks in). The name itself has become as popular to loathe as the gadgets have to buy. Even linguists says so:

Problem No. 1: A Poor Blend

"A satisfying blend is derived from two words that overlap in their sounds, such as motor+hotel = motel, where the 'o' is shared," University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Gene Buckley wrote to us Friday. "But phone and tablet don't share any sounds at all, so that might be why it sounds clumsy."

Problem No. 2: A Bad "ph" Scale

English words generally use "ph" as eff for words from Greek origin, Ben Zimmer explained today in his Word Routes column. Now "phablet" obviously isn't Greek, but the Greek words it conjures sound kind of gross, Stanford linguistics PhD candidate Lelia Glass told us; a lot of "ph" words followed by the letter "a" happen to be body parts — "like 'phallus' and 'phalanges,' which perhaps grosses people out," Glass said.

Zimmer has a different theory. "Phablet" isn't the first non-Greek word we've made up with a "ph" making an eff sound, but unlike other modern word innovations — like "phat" — it doesn't have a sense of humor, or at least not a very good one. Zimmer wrote to The Atlantic Wire:

Historically, "ph" has represented the /f/ sound only in words of Greek origin, and extensions of that spelling have been made playfully -- think of the Phillie Phanatic, or "phat" in hiphop usage. In the tech world, "phreak(ing)" led the way (with the "ph-" from "phone"), and then other playful respellings such as "phishing" followed suit. But in "phablet" the "ph-" on its own isn't really enough to suggest the "phone" component of the blend, so it ends up looking like a silly version of "fablet" (a fabulous tablet?). Of course, when the word is spoken, the connection to the "ph-" of "phone" is lost entirely.

Yes, those macho tech writers would not find a fab tablet very funny — it makes their manly gadgets sound wussy. Glass notes that the suffix "-et" or "-ette" is often used to signify cute/little things, which give "phablet" another strike against manliness.

Problem No. 3: A Bad Subconscious 

Face it, Zimmer adds: "Phablet" sounds too much like "flab" and "phlegm" and other words that remind us of things we don't like. But, as we've noted, phablets look kind of awkward when you hold them up to your ear, despite their many other benefits. An ugly word for an ugly product, no?

Problem No. 4: A Thing Thing

Glass says we might just have "thing discrimination," with everyone disliking the term because it represents the coming of a gadget of which they don't approve. The techies seem to have it out for the big phones, even as people are buying them.

Problem No. 5: A Pure Hatred

"Ultimately, such word aversion is rather arbitrary (look at the hostility against "moist," for instance)," Zimmer told us. "Some people have a big problem with another techie blend, 'webinar,' but that one seems completely innocuous to me."  

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.