Buzzword of the Week: Passionistas Are in Fashion in the 'Ista' Parade


From boardrooms to restaurants, focus groups to malls, "passionistas" are on parade. Loosely defined as engaged consumers who are highly loyal to certain brands, these are the evangelizing brand addicts whom every company dreams about, the ones who sound like they belong in a commercial when they proclaim the wonders of Tide with bleach or Skippy peanut butter.

A relatively recent addition to the buzzword lexicon, passionista has quickly gained public attention. Lionized by Yahoo (YHOO) analysts, name-checked by Moleskine notebooks and beloved by marketers of all stripes, the word managed to convey both enthusiasm and sophistication, a seemingly impossible pairing.

Almost immediately, however, the word's meaning began to morph: Author Ian Kerner adopted it to suggest a particularly lusty woman in his Passionista: The Empowered Woman's Guide to Pleasuring a Man. Blogger Mommy Passionista uses the term to express her love of motherhood. Wine Passionista talks about the joys of the grape. And Paper Passionista explores the wonders of stationary. In short, passionista has made the jump from indicating a devoted brand loyalist to suggesting a devotion to. . .well, anything.

Istas on the March

While passionistas are grabbing the spotlight right now, they're merely the latest entry in a long series of "istas." The Spanish suffix, which was often applied to political groups like Argentina's Peronistas or Nicaragua's Sandinistas, made the jump to common American usage in 1993, when author Stephen Fried coined the term "fashionista" in his biography Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of the SupermodelGia. While the word has since come to mean anyone who follows designers and loves clothes, Fried originally defined it as applying to insiders of the fashion industry, specifically "the army of models, photographers, designers, hair and makeup people who toiled daily in the fashion trenches."

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Once the "ista" was out of the bag, it quickly became an all-purpose suffix for any fan or follower. It was particularly popular in political circles, where right-leaning thinkers could be Reaganistas or Palinistas, while those on the other side of the spectrum could be Clintonistas, Obamistas or -- in Britain -- Guardianistas. And, regardless of ideological stripe, fans of Beltway bloviation could be Beltwayistas or punditistas.

But there remains a place for ista-istas -- those who are passionate about the use of ista -- in the fashion industry, where fashion-forward city dwellers are sometimes called urbanistas, and those who keep their clothes in the fridge are known as kitchenistas.

In fact, the economic downturn of the last few years has really benefited the ista-ization of fashion: The New York Times' William Safire nominated "frugalista" as 2008's word of the year. Arguing that the term seemed likely to survive -- even thrive -- long after the recession was over, the New Oxford American Dictionary defined it as "a person who lives a frugal lifestyle but stays fashionable and healthy by swapping clothes, buying secondhand, growing own produce, etc."

Passionate About the Recession

Unfortunately, frugalista came out at roughly the same time as "recessionista," which New York Times writer Natasha Singer hailed as "the new word for a style maven on a budget." While more confusing than Safire's pick, recessionista caught the public imagination, quickly becoming the title of a popular blog and the go-to term for people who couldn't give up shopping, but couldn't quite stomach spending at their pre-recession levels.

In a particularly fun twist of fate, it also became the title of Alexandra Lebenthal's thinly disguised memoir of New York's moneyed class. While The Recessionistas didn't quite burn up the bestseller list, fans of karmic payback enjoyed its depiction of Wall Street's superrich investment cowboys screeching their way through their slow tumble from power. The fact that Lebenthal is the ultimate insider -- former CEO of investment advisers Lebenthal and Co., she grew up among the city's moneyed class -- added a level of verisimilitude that outweighed the book's mediocre writing.

In the grand scheme of things, istas are more than a bit unnecessary. After all, the English language is already packed with words that cover the same territory. However, for all their variety and intensity, terms like maven, addict, aficionado, buff, devotee, freak, groupie, lover, zealot, savant, connoisseur and expert don't quite convey the same sophisticated enthusiasm as ista.

With this in mind, it seems likely that the suffix has found a permanent place in the arsenal of boardroom buzzwordistas.

Originally published