Ideas

Ideas | Mark Peters

Mark Peters: The weird pageantry of the ‘promposal’

Lewiston High School students walk the runway for the school's pre-prom fashion show at the Franco American Heritage Center in Lewiston, Maine, Thursday, March 16, 2017. Fifteen years ago, the school district had an enrollment of 4,500 students and falling, a sign of a city on its knees, says Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster. Today, there are 5,400 students, more than one-quarter of them immigrants, and the number is going up. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

AP Photo/David Goldman

Lewiston High School students walk the runway for the school's pre-prom fashion show .

“Promposals,” those elaborate, staged prom invitations get more popular — and viral — every spring. GOOD magazine reports, “This Teen’s Terrifying Ploy Might Be The Worst ‘Promposal’ Ever.” USA Today coos, “Emma Stone turns down teen’s ‘prom-posal’ in the sweetest way.” Pennsylvania’s Bucks County Courier Times describes a blow to romantic theatricality, specifically “. . . a new rule banning promposals on school property during school hours.” Like all word blends, “promposal” sounds a bit contrived at first, but it’s very much a sign of the times, as an old ritual of adolescence mixes with reality TV and social media.

“Promposal” has been around since at least 2006 but picked up steam in 2013, when the word gained coverage in The New York Times and many other venues. There would be little hubbub (and probably no word blend) if “promposal” referred to any old prom invite. But the word suggests a level of production that might outshine the school play. Making a sign — as if you were going to a political rally or pro wrestling match — is obligatory, and it’s even better to have a series of signs held up by friends, culminating in “the big ask.” Music is part of many promposals, hearkening back to the immortal boom box of John Cusack in “Say Anything” — though some teens recruit a full band. Props can include a dog, pizza boxes, or even a fake bomb, which was part of an ill-advised promposal in 2015. And you thought the prom was high pressure in your day.

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Such theatricality, whether cute or deranged, has definite pop-culture influences. Reality TV has often been compared to high school, but promposals are an example of high school becoming like reality TV. These hyper-planned invitations — sometimes involving an event planner — are influenced by shows like “The Bachelor,” in which marriage proposals become performance art. But a truly successful promposal demands more than a good show and a yes: It needs likes and retweets. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are full of photos and videos documenting the trend, often with the #promposal hashtag. Getting a prom date is sweet: Going viral with one is sweeter.

“Promposal” is a word blend — one of the most common ways to make a new word. Older blends such as “smog” and “motel” don’t even register as blends anymore, though the origins of “brunch” are hard to forget. New blends pop up all the time, like the creative “verbicaine”: a blend of “verbal” and “novacaine” to describe the soothing words spoken to a patient during a no-anesthetic surgery. A “fuddle” (food huddle) is a new, less extravagant form of dinner party. Blends can be found in dog breeding (“puggle”), celebrity journalism (“Brangelina”), and politics (“Brexit”).

Like a promposal, a word blend tends to either be a home run or strikeout. “Mansplain” was a blendy hit, while Robitussin created a groaner when it warned, “Don’t Suffer the Cough-equences.” “Promposal” looks like more of a home run, capturing the eternal drama of high school and the share-happy, fame-hungry obsessions of the present. As a great romantic poet never said, “Be mine. Please retweet.”

Mark Peters is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.
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