The Grammarphobia Blog

Vape gets in your eyes

Q: The e-cig crowd has coined the word “vape” to distinguish the vapor from electronic devices from the smoke of burning tobacco. Just curious, but is there by any chance some ancient usage of “vape” or “vaping”?

A: “Vape” and “vaping,” as you say, are to e-cigarettes what “smoke” and “smoking” are to the tobacco versions.

No, these words weren’t around in ancient times. Like the technology that ushered them in, they’re new, so they have the field all to themselves. (We’re not counting science fiction, in which “vape” sometimes means to vaporize an enemy.)

They’re apparently derived from the noun “vapor” (or “vapour” in British usage), which has been part of English since the 1300s. Its source is the Latin noun vapor (steam) and verb vaporare (to become vapor, or evaporate).

The terms “vape” and “vaping” showed up in the early 21st century in reference to the use of a vaporizer to inhale marijuana. Here’s an example from a May 22, 2003, posting to a discussion group for pot smokers:

“With my vaporizer the quality isn’t as important. Don’t get me wrong, vaping beatifully [sic] cured organically grown buds is waaaaay better. But this way I can go economy class if needed, and not hack up a lung.”

And here’s an example from the June 20, 2005, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle:

“In the past two years, more than a dozen manufacturers have sprung up as vaporizers have wafted to the surface of the culture. Which explains the bumper sticker in an Oakland cannabis cooperative: ‘Got vape?’ ”

As e-cigarettes grew in popularity, the terms “vape” and “vaping” came to be used in reference to smokeless cigarettes by the end of the first decade of the new century. Here’s an example from a Jan. 7, 2009, contribution to an e-cigarette discussion group:

“I left behind 2 of my 3 batteries over the holidays on accident, and thus got a pack of smokes. I have been vaping only for a month and a half, and going back to cigs for a few days was disgusting! They tasted awful, stank, and gave me an instant headache and nausea!”

Not surprisingly, standard dictionaries haven’t yet caught up with “vape” and “vaping.” No doubt they soon will.

This definition of “vape” is from the online Urban Dictionary: “To inhale vapor from E-cigarettes.” It comes with this example: “I’m able to vape in a movie theater.”

And this definition of “vaping” is from the same source: “The process by which one inhales vapour from a personal vaporiser, or e-cig.” The example: “Obama really ought to quit smoking and start vaping.”

Contributors to Urban Dictionary logged both of those entries in 2009, the same year that “vape” and “vaping” began showing up in newspaper databases.

Five years later, e-cigarettes are hot news, and the terms “vape” and “vaping” are on their way to becoming common usage.

The lexicographer Grant Barrett, writing in the New York Times last December, defined the verb and adjective “vape” this way:

“To smoke electronic cigarettes, which use moisture to deliver nicotine without tobacco. Vape lounges are places where e-cigarette supplies can be bought and used.”

In late March, the NPR program All Things Considered ran a segment entitled “OK to Vape in the Office? Cities, Feds and Firms Still Deciding.”

To give you an idea how fast the terminology is changing, the Times ran a front-page article in early March about all the devices—variously called “hookah pens,” “e-hookahs,” “vaping pens,” “vape pens,” “vape pipes,” and so on—that are “part of a subgenre of the fast-growing e-cigarette market.”

But “vape pen” seems to be the term of choice—at least for devices shaped like pens. 

High Times magazine published its “2014 Vape Pen Buyer’s Guide” last December, offering detailed reviews of 32 devices “based on their durability, versatility, hit/pull, stealth, style and ease of fill,” and broken into categories by size (standard, short, minis, cigars, and slims).

The folks at High Times also use “vape” as a noun: “We hope that the information provided will make it easy for you to choose the right vape for you.”

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