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The Word

Let’s go owling!

Where trends go, the language follows

iStockPhoto; Globe Staff Photo Illustration

If you’ve been within shouting distance of the Internet over the last six months, you’ve probably heard of planking, a social-media-driven pastime involving lying facedown on some unlikely surface, arms against your sides, very still, while someone takes your picture. As adolescent pranks go, planking is fairly innocuous, although one young Australian man did fall to his death while trying to plank on a balcony railing last May.

Both the gerund form of planking (though it’s also known as “the lying-down game” and “extreme lying down”) and the idea of taking ridiculous photos in uncomfortable positions have become extremely productive--at least linguistically. Apparently, ubiquitous cellphone cameras (both still and video), high spirits, and the Internet add up to limitless photo-fad variations. If you can think of a noun and add –ing, it seems, you can find a picture or video of some absurdist interaction with that noun online.

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Planking begat pillaring, in which the photographee stands very still, upright, a planker turned 90 degrees. Toothpicking is pillaring turned on its head, literally: The prankster is photographed doing a rigid headstand. In peeping or peeking, you have a photo taken that shows you looking into or out from behind some structure: from around a post, from inside a Dumpster, and so on. Escalating is planking (or leaning) on the handrails of a moving escalator; balling involves being photographed on top of something while curled, arms around legs, into a ball. There’s also owling, which involves perching on something like an owl.

Not all these photo pranks are as simple as planking: In stocking, memesters choose a banal stock photo and try to re-create it as faithfully as possible. The singer Nicki Minaj claims to have started fridging, taking a photo of yourself posing in a refrigerator (a photo in front of a dorm-sized fridge is, of course, mini-fridging). Certainly the weirdest photomeme is catbearding, which requires positioning a cat so that it looks like facial hair.

A subset of planking-inspired pranks targets the long-suffering people who work in fast-food drive-throughs. Cone-ing involves ordering a soft-serve ice cream cone, and then, when handed it by the drive-through worker, grabbing it by the ice cream. A UK variant is flake-ing, where the customer takes only the Cadbury Flake chocolate bar (a standard garnish for soft-serve in the United Kingdom), leaving the rest of the cone behind. In ignore-ing, food is ordered and paid for, but the prankster ignores the proffered bag and drives away without a word. Trophying and gnoming involve handing the drive-through attendant a trophy or a miniature garden gnome, respectively.

Plumbking, a form of planking that involves a toilet (don’t ask, and think twice before you Google) seems to have been formed from a blend of planking and plumbing, keeping the k of planking in order to differentiate from plumbing in its normal sense. Leisure diving (in which the photographee dives into a body of water while striking a “leisurely” pose, such as a hands-behind-head hammock-lying posture) is a rare two-word –ing variant. Another is airport rowing, best captured on video, in which several people sit on a moving walkway, facing backward, and pretend to be rowing a boat.

Some of the –ing formations are sarcastic: Many people have declared sitting to be “the new planking.” Others have suggested smiling as a new fad to do in front of a camera. Some are mean-spirited: After nude photos were hacked from the actor’s phone, more than a few exhibitionists and jokesters posted similarly posed pictures, in a meme called ScarlettJohanssoning. Only the ones starring Barbie and Chewbacca dolls are safe for work.

ScarlettJohanssoning may be a new addition to English, but some of these words already exist, albeit with different meanings (balling, peeping, peeking). Others are just a little bit off. The hyphens in cone-ing, flake-ing, and ignore-ing are little tipoffs that these new words mean something different than their standard forms. Of course, since these words are so new, they show up in both hyphenless and hyphen + -ing forms, as does bubble-ing, in which you surreptitiously blow soap bubbles in a public place, taking video of the perplexed bystanders.

Other terms are wavering between adopting the conventional spellings of a similar word, or striking out for a simpler form: The prank of Batmaning or Batmanning involves hanging upside-down from something by your feet (like the superhero), but its n (unlike that of the standard verb manning) doesn’t always double. You can choose one n or two for horsemaning as well, where two people position themselves in a photo to create the illusion of a single body, albeit with a severed head. (According to The Huffington Post, similar photos were also in vogue in the 1920s.) In Goding (as it’s often spelled), you take a photo re-creating the God and Adam finger-touch of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Planking and the rest of the photo-ing memes are an excellent example of what happens when two powerful forces meet: the desire for a few minutes of Internet fame and the extremely flexible word-formation possibilities of English. If only it were possible to take pictures of the act of word-creation, we might just see a new fad: verbing.

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