A new figurative sense of zip turned up in reports of the Liberal Democrat party conference in Eastbourne this week. The conference agreed to introduce zipping for the European parliament elections in 1999, which are to be run using proportional representation for the first time in Britain. Zipping is, it seems, a technique of alternating male and female candidates on PR lists to increase the number of women elected, an obvious enough reference to the alternating teeth of the halves of a zip. I’ve not heard it before, but it seems to be a bit of political jargon well enough understood among the LibDems.
Now zip is such an archetypal monosyllable and so much an integral part of the language this century in its sense of zip fastener that it is slightly surprising to find it to be a comparatively recent introduction. The first recorded use is from the middle of last century, when it referred to the noise made by some small object moving fast through the air or to a tearing sound, an example of onomatopoeia that could have been invented any time in the past few hundred years.
Its application to the invaluable little device that I have discovered was called by its manufacturers the hookless fastener (and later the slide fastener), dates only from the early 1920s. The story of how it took Whitcomb Judson three decades to perfect the zip, with the help of Otto Sundback, in whose name the master patent for the fully-working design was awarded in 1917, is one of determination against all odds (see The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski for the details).
But it was only in 1923 that the slide fastener got its modern name. The story goes that Bertram Work, the president of B F Goodrich, which bought up much of the early production to fit to its galoshes, hated the name and said “what we need is an action word ... something that will dramatise the way the thing zips”. So they decided to call their range of boots fitted with the new fasteners Zippers. It was only later that, as a result of this decision, the word came into general use for the fastener itself (it seems that neither zip nor zip fastener was ever a trade name). Incidentally, zipper still tends to be an American word, not so much heard in Britain, where zip is more common.
There have been a few compounds and derivatives based on the word since, such as zip lock (and the tradename Ziploc) and zip gun. Erica Jong invented the infamous zipless fuck (for a brief but passionate sexual encounter in which the zips “fall away like petals”) and as a result of the invention of a well-known piece of archiving software called PKZIP, in a figurative reference to the act of zipping files up into a single compressed unit for storage, a new sense was born for the verb in the eighties (originally the program was called just Zip but as a result of a lawsuit concerning another program of the same name the author added his initials to the front). The US colloquial usage meaning ‘zero; nothing’ may be a separate invention on the model of zilch.
Will the political sense of zipping join these in the dictionaries? Somehow, I think not; it will most likely end up with other short-lived political terms like prawn-cocktail offensive and feel-good factor in the great lexicographical waste bucket.
Page created 27 Sep. 1997
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