Wednesday December 31, 2008
New words odd to political
By GRANT BARRETT
NOTES FROM THE LANGUAGE UNDERGROUND
THE 19th annual Word of the Year vote will be held by the American Dialect Society on Jan 9 in San Francisco. It’s the granddaddy of all Word of the Year votes – the longest-running, the most academic, and the most fun.
I’ve happily been involved with the event for years. It’s a widely varied bunch of stuffy academic types letting their hair down (relaxing and having fun).
The criteria for the vote are pretty simple. Primarily, the society is looking for the word or phrase (compound nouns or phrasal verbs, for example, might technically be more than one word, but they behave like a single lexical item – but who would understand if it was called the “Lexical Item of the Year”?) that has been incredibly common in the calendar year.
It doesn’t have to be brand-new, but it should at least be newly popular and widely used.
It also needs to reflect the preoccupations of the American public and press. What events were most discussed? What ideas were most often talked about? What was on everyone’s mind?
One very odd one that caught my eye this year was “nuke the fridge”.
Putting it politely, it means to exhaust the possibilities or merits of a movie franchise.
Putting it negatively, it means to destroy a movie franchise through the hubris and arrogance of a successful producer or director.
The term was coined based upon a scene in the latest Indiana Jones movie, in which the hero survives a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator.
“Nuke the fridge” is patterned after “jump the shark”, which was coined a few years ago to refer to anything that had peaked in popularity or quality and was now on a downward slide.
“Jumping the shark” referred to an episode on the sitcom Happy Days in which the main character Fonzie water-skied over a shark. It is a scene thought by Happy Days aficionados (there are such things!) to be the surest sign of the show’s decline.
Being an election year, 2008 of course generated a huge amount of political language.
One expression that was not new, but which certainly seems to have exploded in use, was “ground game”.
“Ground game” is a political term that refers to the door-to-door, one-on-one tactics used in the presidential campaigns.
The victory of the Obama campaign, in particular, has been widely credited to its voter registration drives, its organised efforts to sway undecided or independent voters, its e-mail lists, and its repeated reminders of when and where to vote.
“Ground game” has its roots in sports.
In American football, playing a ground game is about not kicking or passing, but pushing the ball step by step towards the goal with scrimmaging. It’s a slog to the end zone, but it avoids investing too much hope on a single play.
In martial arts, a ground game is the kind of fighting that happens on the mat or floor, as opposed to the kicking and punching that happens when standing up.
It puts the combatants face-to-face. This, too, is a tough slog towards victory, although perhaps a more sure one as it does not rely on a miraculous kick or punch.
Another political term that I crossed paths with was “PUMA”.
PUMA is an acronym for Party Unity My Ass, which began as a Facebook group.
Members of that group were Democrats who were disaffected after Hillary Clinton failed to secure a sufficient number of delegates to win the Democratic nomination.
Some of these disaffected Democrats formed groups and committees in order to try to bring the matter to a head-to-head smackdown vote at the national convention.
Other PUMAs, as they call themselves, switched allegiances completely and came out in favour of Republican candidate John McCain.
The PUMA umbrella name was widely embraced by the Republicans and was even seen as a false front for true Republicans masquerading as ex-Democrats in order to lure fence-sitting Clinton supporters over to McCain.
As the PUMA movement grew – its true size is not really known – the acronym was revisited and it began to be said that it stood for the much politer Party Unity Means Action.
The PUMA organisation became increasingly irrelevant when Hillary Clinton acknowledged Barack Obama would be the party’s nominee.
We will have to wait another four years to see if the term continues to be used.
> Grant Barrett is co-host of the radio show A Way with Words, waywordradio.org, and a lexicographer and writer living and working in New York City. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org