As we find ourselves stuck hopelessly online, our lexicon grasps desperately back toward the physical world. An example: The word “adjacent” has recently packed its suitcase and taken the short trip from the literal to the figurative.
It used to be that “adjacent” meant “next to,” as in buildings, or city blocks. These days, it is more likely to signify a more conceptual and vague relation, which the speaker or writer would rather not describe in depth.
On Christmas Day, the CNN commentator Chris Cillizza called Michelle Obama “probably the most popular politics-adjacent figure in the country.”
A few months before that, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said that Megyn Kelly’s remarks on the use of blackface in Halloween costumes were “not quite racist, but racist-adjacent” and also hate crime-adjacent.
“We almost might need to write a new subsense for this,” said Peter Sokolowski, the editor at large of Merriam-Webster, of the flock of “-adjacents.” (Subsense is dictionary-world jargon for a secondary meaning of a word.) The usage, he said, was “so new it’s not in the damn dictionary.”
“Adjacent,” in this usage, is a postpositive adjective. That just means that it comes after the subject it modifies. This is unusual in English, but standard in French and Latin syntax. Because the conventions of those languages can often read as fancy in English, calling something “cannabis-adjacent” or “cosmetics-adjacent” grants a nifty sheen.
“Like the technical vocabulary of law and medicine, the Latin nature of this word brings the discourse up a notch,” Mr. Sokolowski said. “It makes it seem more formal and technical.”
Such shifts in meaning irk purists like Lionel Shriver, a writer who recently decried in Harper’s what she called “semantic drift.” In an interview, Ms. Shriver described her reaction to the use of “-adjacent” and “space,” another term she said was increasingly being used in a figurative sense.
“The weird thing is that it’s imposing geography on what could not be more abstract,” she said. “It’s almost like a need for geography in the digital world, where everything’s floating around. We’re living increasingly in a world beyond space, beyond physicality.”
Ben Zimmer, a lexicographer, said that he began to notice the usage more and more about five years ago. He thought it may have originated with “real-estate talk, where, say, ‘Beverly Hills-adjacent’ indicates that a property isn’t actually in Beverly Hills, but close enough.”
Others see the word as useful in Silicon Valley, where start-up founders can’t quite be sure what it is their companies are making, even as they’re selling it to investors. Its best to keep options open in case the need to pivot suddenly arises. The chat application Slack, for instance, was once TinySpeck, a gaming start-up with a particularly sophisticated chat feature; it was chat-adjacent. It left the gaming space, entered the chat space and became a billion-dollar company.
Erik Torenberg, a founder of the early stage venture capital fund Village Global, said that he sees technology entrepreneurs use the word as if they are preparing for a similar pivot (to use their favored jargon for “change in strategy”).
“When people are trying to pursue one path, that path doesn’t necessarily work so they go into an adjacent space, a space next to that path,” he said.
(Mr. Torenberg said that, when it came to the frequency of the phrase’s usage, it was a seven or an eight on a scale of 10. A 10 out of 10, he said, was the term “doubleclick,” which investors use as handy shorthand for “let’s go deeper or zoom in on this topic!”)
Ms. Shriver said that “-adjacent” was probably useful in a climate where businesses were “started up in the spirit of going fishing.”
“It’s something between angling and gambling,” she said. “Rather than setting out with a specific intention to produce a product and sell that product, it’s capitalizing on vagueness.”