McCall it what you like, but you didn’t invent it: “menopausing”

In June of this year, a couple of months ago as I write this, the Intellectual Property Office received an application to trade mark the word menopausing. Not especially exciting news, all things given. Nor was the fact that, on Friday the 20th of August, that trade mark was formally published. Indeed, thousands of trade marks are registered every year, and this extremely commonplace matter would likely have gone entirely unnoticed, except for one detail. The trade mark owner was listed as Davina McCall. That’s the Davina of Big Brother fame (amongst other things) whose current life course seems to plot generally towards the eighth house of Gwyneth Paltrow rising.

Back to the trade mark for menopausing. The matter may have passed everyone else on earth by, but somehow, in the predawn hours, a single Daily Mail thread vibrated, and immediately journalist Katie Hind rapelled down from that gigantic web to chalk a horrified outline round the matter in the shape of wronged menopausal women everywhere.

The headline was not flattering, and the content itself was unrepentant in its allusions:

DAVINA MCCALL IS TURNING HER MENOPAUSE INTO A MONEY-SPINNING BRAND BY TRADEMARKING THE ‘NEW’ WORD ‘MENOPAUSING’ – IN BID TO END TABOO AROUND THE SUBJECT

[…] The Long Lost Family host insists the move is not to make money out of the menopause but more about raising awareness. […] (Daily Mail, 21/08/21)

Seemingly nettled, the next day, Davina tweeted a 49 second video along with the words:

I am fuming @MailOnline. Here is the truth (@ThisIsDavina, 22/08/21)

(Note: there was a slightly longer video on Instagram but to keep things simple I’ll just stick with the Twitter one.) For ease I’m going to transcribe the video:

Erm, hey there. I have just seen the headline in the Daily Mail, and I am so furious about it that I thought I would take this measure and erm post something on here because I’m really angry. I have trade marked the word menopausing because I am writing a book and it’s called Menopausing and it’s a word I made up and I don’t want anybody else to nick it ‘cos I wanted to safeguard it for my book which I am doing in conjunction with lots of people and I’ve done a little website collecting your stories erm about the menopause and that is it. I’m not making any products. I’m not starting a business. I’m not making anything to try and make money out of anybody. I am so angry about it so I just wanted to put the record straight.

Alright. Well. In less than 150 words, Davina covers a lot of ground, so I’ll just deal with one major issue – did she coin the word menopausing?

“It’s a word I made up”

Did Davina make this word up?

No.

It’s actually surprising that she’s claimed as much, and that I’m having to even write this, but before we get there, let me take you on a whirlwind tour of the word menopausing through the ages.

First stop: Google Ngrams.

This is a tool that gives us a way to search for, and even compare, the frequency of words in all the books that Google currently has in its rather impressive data stores. Those books range from the 1600s to 2019, which makes the Ngrams Viewer an excellent diachronic corpus – that is, a window across time rather than a single snapshot of one moment. Sure enough, when we type in menopausing, Ngrams promptly returns plenty of hits neatly plotted out in a timeseries. And when we do the 94 or so seconds of legwork required to find the publication behind the very first hit, we discover something rather incredible.

It turns out that Davina McCall possesses her very own linguistic Delorian (a Delexicon?) with which she travelled back to 1952, fifteen years before she was born, purely to ghostwrite the sentence, “Therefore it has become common practice for a menopausing woman to expect her shots as a means of relieving symptoms and tensions” in the Maternity Center Associations Briefs (Volumes 16-20).

Or, you know, she didn’t invent the word.

Whichever.

But there’s more. We also find menopausing in academic literature, and particularly in articles focussing on the biological sciences, from 1975 onwards. For context, McCall would have been about eight. That’s a bit early to be formulating thoughts on counteracting hypothetical neurohumors but at about the same age, for reasons I am still not yet clear about, I could name and identify about forty species of ant, so… eh. Maybe.

Anyway, assuming that McCall wasn’t an extremely early career researcher, the genre here is important. At the risk of leaking a major ivory tower secret, academia is generally a real killjoy when it comes to newly coined words. Neologisms tend to be seen as informal, unruly, dare I say it, trendy, and if the arc of the research universe bends absolutely anywhere at all, it inexorably plummets towards stuffy, conservative formality. When we factor in this squeamishness for neologisms, we can tentatively infer that if menopausing is actually appearing without scarequotes or explanatory glosses in a hand to god academic publication in the 1970s, then it’s probably been in general conversational circulation since way before that.

I could throw out more hits besides – the 1997 news article and the 2013 book with menopausing in the title and the 2016 Twitter account – but I think the point is made. The status of original creator does not rest with Davina McCall. Quite who it does rest with is probably lost to time.

And that brings me back to my surprise in Davina’s confident claim that “it’s a word I made up”. It takes a remarkable degree of… something… to imagine that, out of the billion English-speaking people on the planet, you were the divine architect with the genius to leap from menopause to menopausing. It doesn’t take any special linguistics training to infer how obvious this derivation is, either. In fact, if you asked a selection of people, “Do you think menopausing appears in the dictionary?” I suspect many of them would say, “Yes”. Why is this? Well, for one thing, menopause contains the word pause, with which the average English speaker is au fait. Those same speakers are probably equally at home with the progressive verb, pausing. Google Ngrams even tells us that pausing has been A Thing all the way back to the 1600s. This is a ready-made lexical mapping and it means that deriving menopausing from menopause simply requires taking a slightly longer step down an already very well-trodden path. Indeed, coining words by hauling them into new word-classes is so commonplace that it’s one of the major ways of neologising. We use similar methods all the time to populate entire family trees. Take Google, TikTok, and WhatsApp, all created in their single root forms with no derivations or inflections. Five minutes later we’re googling a tiktokker who whatsapped us. (Incidentally, brands hate it when we do this because it supposedly weakens their trade mark claim, but if you want to know more, go podcast the episode I did on it: S01E04 – David Elliott. See what I did there? Verbing nouns.)

In the spirit of absolute fairness, I should acknowledge that Davina may have independently (re)coined the word without realising that it already existed. However, for it to be a genuinely independent neologism, she couldn’t have come across it in any guise, written or spoken, especially during the last few years when she has been interviewing experts, collecting experiences, and researching this topic extensively enough to write a book on it. Even if this were true, though, when it came to considering a trade mark, I have to wonder if McCall did even the most basic due diligence on the word? On a phone, it took me under a fifteen seconds to find literally anything predating June 2021 (the month the application was filed) and once on a proper computer, under five minutes to find the 1952 publication. By contrast McCall has been researching this topic, and contemplating this name, for quite some time now. Perhaps she did do the background research, but if that were the case, why then hang onto the claim of having invented the word menopausing in the face of so many historical usages…?

Let’s wrap up

Did McCall invent the word menopausing? Patently not.

Is it possible that McCall has never been exposed to this word before, in any guise, written or spoken, even throughout her research into this topic over the past few years, and has therefore independently reinvented menopausing? Maybe.

And perhaps most interesting of all, which will die first – the trade mark? Or the principle of not profiting from it?

I guess we’ll find out.