vexeme

We all have our pet peeves. Some of us have many and some have few; some of us have bigger ones and some have smaller ones. Some people have pet peeves like leashed Rottweilers that precede them in all situations (the worst grammar grumblers can be like this), but for most of us, they are more like purse dogs, easy enough to carry around and produce as needed – almost cute, even, though they might make a mess on your wallet. For many of us, though, they’re not even pets so much as little flags we take out and wave at certain moments, kind of like sports fans.

Some pet peeves are simple: the sound of a car horn; strong gusty winds; farts in elevators. Some are more detailed: people who rush onto a subway train as the doors are about to close and then stop right in the way the moment they’re through the door, without regard for anyone rushing on behind them; intrusive noises (drilling, car horns, sirens, loud birds) that seem to wait until you need a moment of quiet to write an article, talk on the phone, or record a podcast; skin on your nose that gets flaky in cold weather and is always worst when you want to look your best.

It seems obvious to me that something of such variable magnitude and complexity may be subject to detailed analysis and measurement.

Pet peeves would not be the first impressionistic thing to get such a treatment – jocularly, of course. Various people in the 20thcentury have been credited with postulating a measurement unit for beauty; Robertson Davies credited mathematician W.A.H. Rushton, while Isaac Asimov credited himself. Taking their cue from Christopher Marlowe’s line “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships,” referring to Helen of Troy, they determined that a helen is an amount of beauty sufficient to launch a thousand ships. It follows trivially (and multiple people observed independently) that a millihelen is an amount of beauty sufficient to launch one ship.

So, then. We may deal with peeves in a generally similar way. But I am a linguist, and so I will approach the measurement of peeves with a linguist’s eye.

Now, in linguistics, we have phonemes, which are the basic bits of speech sounds as we think of them. Our speech is actually a running stream of sound, but we analyze it into segments, and although those segments have a great deal of variety, we group them; we tend to think of the a’s in hand and had as the same, even though they’re a little different; we tend to think of the p’s in pot and spot as the same, even though one is aspirated and one is not. But we distinguish hand from hound and had from head and pot from cot and spot from snot.

We also have morphemes, which are the smallest meaningful units in putting together words in a given language. Dog has one morpheme; dogs has two (dog + s), and so does doggy (dog(g) y); bulldoggish has three (bull + dog(g) + ish). And we have lexemes, which are items that speakers of a language treat as individual words, however many phonemes and morphemes may make them up.

So I propose that the basic component of the pet peeve be the vexeme.

A peeve that is very simple may have just one vexeme: just one simple detail that pisses you off (“Argh! I hate having to wait! For anything!” – monovexemic, that). A peeve that is more complex may have several (“Loud sharp noises are bad enough, but loud sharp noises that startle me and cause me to have to wait when I am already feeling time pressure are the worst” – looks like at least four vexemes to me).

Alternately, we could use it to refer to a single instance of vexation. If a word, for example impactful, is a pet peeve of yours, any given instance of it on the page or screen (like that one there) would be a vexeme.

Or perhaps a vexeme is a specific instance of a specific detail of irritation and it proceeds from there in two dimensions. Why not.

I do like the word vex. It tends to refer to things that cause you to get bent out of shape and carried away about, which is suitable, because its Latin origin vexare, which refers to agitating, harrying, damaging, and similar attacks, may be related to vehere, ‘carry, convey’, which we see in vehicle and which is also the origin of the vex in convex (‘bent together’) and vexillum (‘banner, flag’).

Oh, and if you search vexeme online, this article will be the first hit for using it to mean ‘smallest unit of peeve seen as such’, but it won’t be the oldest hit for the lexeme vexeme. It shows up on some Brazilian sites. It’s actually a misspelling of vexame, said /ve.ˈʃɐ.mi/ (like “vay sha me”), which means (per Wiktionary) “embarrassment; an instance of shame or vexation.”

So perhaps I’m not the inventor of the vexeme after all. Or, well, we can say it emerged in more than one place independently. Whatever. No skin off my nose.

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