Daily Archives: March 9, 2011


There are those among us for whom there is no such thing as bad publicity, for whom the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, who would view any lapse from the public oculus as an unbearable privation. There are those among us who would at least like to have to put up with the burden of fame for a while (and who wouldn’t mind the chance to prove that being rich wouldn’t spoil them, but that’s another matter). And then there are those who would really rather not be so well known, thank you.

This latter type we may also bifurcate as the former: one the one hand those who have never been well known and who do not wish to become well known; on the other those who have been famous (and perhaps still are) and who want to be alone, or anyway could do with a bit less attention.

Into this last camp, it seems, falls – at least to a modest degree – Ken Jennings, who won at Jeopardy! 74 times. In his really quite entertaining question-and-answer session on reddit, he says, “I don’t want to be famous. I keep getting asked who my publicist is. Why would I have a publicist?!? I’m just a guy on a game show. I got mine. I need a privacist.”

Not that Jennings scorns what his fame brings altogether, of course; he has a book and his fame helps him sell it (though he rates someone else’s book on the topic more highly – he really is refreshingly frank). But I’m here to taste words, not to taste the sweet bitterness of fame (well, OK, I wouldn’t mind that, either, but a Campari and soda will hold me for the moment), and the word du jour is, of course, privacist.

As Wilson Fowlie, who drew my attention to Jennings’s reddit session, put it, quoting  me, “Regarding the subject of ‘He used it, you understood it, it’s a word’…” So, yes, privacist is in fact a word. No, you won’t find it in a dictionary, yet. And Jennings may or may not have heard it before he used it. But he’s not the first to use it. It’s a natural enough coinage for the purpose.

Until recently, it didn’t really seem needful to have someone (theoretical or actual) who could help ensure privacy. Publicity, yes, sure, and still today those are needed, but privacy was something one could usually lapse into with no more than a little bit of effort unless one were enormously famous. But now the digital revolution and social media have made our personal information very widely and easily available indeed. Not so long ago, the idea of seeing an apparently public ad, from some company you’re not on close terms with (or any terms at all), that was tailored to you personally might have seemed unsettlingly creepy. Actually, it may still seem unsettlingly creepy, but now it’s not an idea, it’s something that peeks up at you from your web browser all the time. And occasionally calls you on the phone.

And of course some of those who gather your information may want not to sell to you but to pretend to be you. Impersonation is not exactly new, but it has now evolved into a category of crime called identity theft. Privacy is getting to look rather appealing. And so there are privacists. They do exist already. Their role, mind you, is more the protection of personal information than helping people evade unwanted fame, though I’d imagine you could find someone to help with that too.

But, now, why privacist? Is it morphologically well formed? And for that matter, why is it privacy but publicity? Why not privacity or publicy?

To answer the last question first, the roots are not analogous: private is from the Latin past participle privatus, nominalized to privatia, of which the modern analogue is privacy, while public is from the Latin adjective publicus and the ity suffix is from the Latin suffix (i)tas which replaced the us ending. This also leads us to the answer to the question of whether privacist is morphologically well formed: no. Privatist would be the morphologically “proper” formation.

So we should use privatist then, right? No, actually. There’s nothing wrong with neologizing by blending; we do it all the time. If we can have, for instance, chocoholic from chocolate and alcoholic, we can have privacist from private and publicist. Besides, privatist sounds too much like privatest. And, it might be added, those wanting the services of a privacist want not to be private but to have privacy (there is a difference), so it makes sense to form it with the c of privacy.

Anyway, what else could we call them, given that privatist could be mistaken? Privateer is already taken. And in fact it is often from privateers and other profiteers with their omnipresent ears that those who want privacists want privacy. They do not want to be deprived of all the furniture of modern life, but they want someone to assist them in controlling their info outflow. At the very least, they don’t want to give it away. Let the privateers pay a private eye to pry, if it’s worth it to them.