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Creativity is a ‘zombie noun’

August 3, 2012

July 23rd, NYTimes Opionator published “Zombie Nouns” by Helen Sword:

zombie helen sword

Take an adjective (implacable) or a verb (calibrate) or even another noun (crony) and add a suffix like ity, tion or ism. You’ve created a new noun: implacability, calibration, cronyism. Sounds impressive, right?

Nouns formed from other parts of speech are called nominalizations. Academics love them; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings


Zombie nouns do their worst damage when they gather in jargon-generating packs and infect every noun, verb and adjective in sight: globe becomes global becomes globalize becomes globalization.

Similarly, create becomes creative becomes creativity; a popular abstract entity substituting for human being (more on this below).

The comments section on this NYTimes article are also interesting with many comments disagreeing with Sword’s opinion and defending use of nominalizations but many others agreeing.

Debra Romanick Baldwin of Irving seems to accuse Sword of plagiarism for failing to cite “Joseph Williams for coining the term [nominalization] in his 1981 book _Style: Toward Clarity and Grace_ (University of Chicago Press).”

Edwin Battistella of Ashland, Oregon would prefer to call them “‘Frankenstein nouns’ because they are made up of parts of words stiched together by overambitious creators and then stumble awkardly around.”

Bosco from Boston notes that “if zombie nouns suck the lifeblood from adjectives, they are really vampires in disguise”

jacobs5977 from Chicago commented “Next, Draft should publish something on the clichéd abuse of zombie metaphors.” = if only he/she could see this ZombieLaw blog

Multiple comments pick up on the connection to law and Corinne from DC explicitly blames the legal profession for the proliferating zombie nouns. But Curt from Los Angeles blames academic psychology:

“The Initiative to Abolish Nominalizations (IAN) is a byproduct of the behaviorist school of psychology propagated by APA Style’s increasing influence on academic, business, and governmental institutions.”

I think Curt’s is an interesting point in context of psychological study of creativity. Like lawyers, psychologists of the behaviorist tradition favor objectivity. But consider issues of causation and free will; if we are all behaviorist zombies, acting habitually and mostly subconsciously, where does that leave creativity? It is a mere abstraction not clearly traceable to one specific action, and rather more of a network effect and a narrative to account for complex change. In this way, creativity substitutes as an abstract concept for humanity.

What happens as the machines take over? See Slate article from last October “First, Eat All the Lawyers: Why the zombie boom is really about the economic fears of white-collar workers” by Torie Bosch. Creative workers, producers of intellectual property, so-called educated classes are being replaced. Bosch cites Farhad Manjoo “Will Robots Steal Your Job? You’re highly educated. You make a lot of money. You should still be afraid.” Creativity is shifting to the machines.

There will be problems and false starts (see recent problem with machine stock trading US Brokers Knight Capital lose $440m on zombie trading ) but bugs will be patched. More and more machines will do what we thought only humans could do. And it won’t be clear which are the zombie. For now, nominalization and new words may be the best Turing test we still have; but not for long.

Human is a zombie noun.

From → Academics

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