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Vape

Oxford Dictionaries announced today (18 November) that they have made vape their international Word of the Year 2014.

This odd little word, with its compounds, has risen from almost total obscurity to high fashion in less than half a decade. The award has been made because its use has more than doubled in the past year alone.

It’s now widely known that if you vape, you inhale and exhale the vapour produced by electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes or e-cigs). These contain a solution of water and glycerin plus nicotine and flavourings. This mixture is passed over a hot filament to deliver it as a vapour. Using an e-cigarette makes you a vaper. The action is vaping, and a single inhalation and exhalation is a vape. The e-cigarette is also sometimes itself called a vape:

Her post-shoot model kit today is a simple pair of jeans and a lumberjack-check, cheongsam-style Marc by Marc Jacobs shirt, plus vape in hand that she occasionally puffs.

Sunday Times, 2 Nov. 2014.

The apparent rise has been rapid. The first e-cigarettes were put on sale by a Chinese company in 2003. They were initially marketed as ways for smokers to cut down their tobacco consumption or kick the habit altogether. Instead, they came to be widely used by smokers and non-smokers alike because they seemed to be a cleaner and more healthy alternative to traditional cigarettes. This is denied by many health experts and their advertising and use are being restricted in some jurisdictions.

It seemed inappropriate to describe using them as smoking and so these new terms were created, obviously enough from vaporise or vaporiser. One reason for the increasing popularity of vaper is that e-cigarette smokers are banding together, using it as a self-identifying term, to campaign against proposed EU rules banning many e-cigarettes because their nicotine levels are too high.

A good marker for the success of something new is the rise of a specialised vocabulary. The first generation of e-cigs were disposable items, designed to look like the tobacco sort, and have been nicknamed cig-a-likes. They’re being replaced by second-generation pipes, vape pens, sold in vaporiums (you may prefer vaporia, though vapers generally don’t), vape shops or vaping lounges by specialists called vapologists. These pipes are more expensive to buy but are refillable with a cartridge — variously called a vape tank, clearomizer or cartomizer (shortened to carto), according to type. The flavoured solution of nicotine is called e-juice or e-liquid. That’s turned into vapour by the heating element, the atomiser (shortened to atty). Enthusiasts — flavour junkies and cloud chasers — like to customise or mod (modify) their pipes, all the better to blow killer clouds of pungent vapour. The retronym tobacco cigarette has appeared to make it clear which sort of cigarette is meant.

Vape and vaping aren’t new as abbreviations. The oldest I’ve found is from the early 1950s in the name of the doubly-abbreviated Vape-Sorber, a device for removing petrol and oil vapour from the air. There’s also the long-established electric vape mat, which releases insecticide. Some science-fiction writers have used vape for killing opponents with an advanced weapon that flashes them into smoke, while others (especially those writing Star Wars spin-offs) have found vape, helpfully rhyming with rape, to be a usefully euphemistic epithet. But Oxford Dictionaries say that the first use in the current sense is astonishingly early:

There have also been experiments with a “non-combustible” cigarette, looking much like the real thing, but again delivering a metered dose of nicotine vapour. (The new habit, if it catches on, would be known as “vaping.”)

New Society, 28 Jul. 1983.

So the word existed long before the phenomenon. The evidence suggests that this sense began to appear in online bulletin boards in the 1990s but that it took until the rise of widely available e-cigarettes around 2009 for it to be encountered regularly in mainstream sources:

His study of 40 smokers is trying to determine how e-cigarettes deliver nicotine and whether they suppress withdrawal symptoms. I found “vaping” too, well, plastic to be enjoyable.

Independent on Saturday (South Africa); 16 May 2009.

The active component isn’t always nicotine. A newspaper report from San Francisco in 2005 suggested that cannabis was already being used instead. The recent legalisation of the drug in a few US states has encouraged this:

"Our mission is to rebrand marijuana," said Miss Mannix, holding a smokeless “Vape-Pen” containing cannabis oil.

Daily Telegraph, 27 Jan. 2014.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 18 Nov. 2014

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 18 November 2014.