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Words, Nov. 8

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“Paris Hilton, the 26-year-old socialite, won't be heading to Rwanda next month as planned …”

Socialite, is it? I suppose that's one way to refer to Paris Hilton. I'm not sure it's the best way, or even that socialites still exist in the way they did when the word was popular. The socialite seems to have run off with the man about town. Celebrity is a better fit today, when everyone gets her 15 minutes of celebrity and it doesn't really matter what she's celebrated for. Famous for being famous, as they say.

Socialite belongs to the pre-WWII, pre-television age, when people still got famous for being members of high society. Brenda Frazier was about the last of these. By the time she was the Debutante of the Year (1938), her picture on the cover of Life magazine, Hollywood had pretty much taken over the celebrity business, but a columnist like Walter Winchell could still produce the occasional celebrity from East Coast society. The Wikipedia entry on Brenda Frazier says that Winchell coined the word publiciety — a combination of money, social standing and news coverage — for those in Frazier's set. Wikipedia also calls Hilton a celebutante. Sounds like another Winchell coinage.

A reader wonders where flea market comes from. “I've never wanted to buy a flea,” she writes. Me either, but I'll bet you could get one cheap. The supply far exceeds the demand.

Random House says that a flea market is “a market, often outdoors, consisting of a number of individual stalls selling old or used articles, curios and antiques, cut-rate merchandise, etc.” The term has been around since the early 1920s, RH says, but it offers no explanation. The Word Detective has a couple, the most likely of which is that the term originated in Paris, “where Le Marche aux Puces (literally, ‘market of the fleas') was a popular shopping venue. Le Marche aux Puces took its name … from the semi-humorous (and probably at least partly accurate) popular perception that the market's ragtag goods were more than likely to be infested with fleas.”

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