When a word or phrase appears out of nowhere and quickly becomes omnipresent, it’s usually for one of two reasons: It allows people to describe something new, or it allows people to describe a familiar feeling or situation in a more precise way. (Think of spam, coined to describe a new brand of luncheon meat, then quickly employed to describe other processed meats, redefined to describe a new brand of junk mail, then reemployed to describe other things that resembled junk mail.) That’s the usual progression, but the past few years have been anything but usual. So it’s only to be expected that the most useful phrase to enter the language recently is neither precise nor descriptive, but deliberately and defiantly vague. As disaster follows disaster and catastrophe follows catastrophe, it’s become both unpleasant and unnecessary to specify exactly which horrible person, thing, or event we’re talking about most of the time. We need a way to succinctly allude to everything that stinks about this moment without gazing too long into the abyss and suffering a complete breakdown. Fortunately, we’ve got one: gestures broadly at everything, the internet’s favorite new way to refer to the vast scope and staggering magnitude of the big suck. More precise than the human condition, classier than the shit we’re in, and shorter and slightly less depressing than if we’re lucky, the cops or the plague will kill us before we watch the planet boil, it’s already clear that gestures broadly at everything is the phrase that defines our wretched era.
By this point in summer 2020, you can find the phrase all over Twitter and the internet at large, and its enduring popularity made us wonder: Where, exactly, did it come from?
After digging through more internet detritus than you can gesture broadly at, we determined that patient zero, at least when it came to popularizing the phrase, was Katie Loewy, a London-based jewelry designer with less than 1,000 followers, who tweeted out a theory of the universe back in July 2016 that subsequent events have done nothing to disprove. (Loewy’s tweet did have some antecedents, but none had so perfected the phrase or gone so viral. As of this writing, it has accumulated more than 9,000 retweets and nearly 13,000 likes.)
It seems quaint, now, to think that so many things had gone wrong by the summer of 2016 that people had to resort to broad gestures, but a lot of things had gone wrong, as Loewy reminded me this month when I asked her what her inspiration was for the phrase. David Bowie had died in January, Prince had died in April, Donald Trump had clinched the Republican nomination in May, Omar Mateen had killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in June, the same month the U.K. voted for Brexit, and although it’s inarguable that things have gotten worse since then, everything was already pretty terrible. (Remember Zika? This was also the spring Americans began to freak out about Zika.) Indeed, things were terrible enough that Slate’s Rebecca Onion asked historians whether 2016 really was the worst year of all time.
“It’s a feeling we’ve become desensitized to in the intervening years, as things have continued to deteriorate, but that summer really felt like the start of it all,” Loewy told me. Since then, David Bowie has remained dead, the fabric of the universe has continued to unravel, and people all over the world have found Loewy’s shorthand useful. In fact, it jumped the internet for the real world in less than two weeks:
It was a phrase whose time had come. In the days after Loewy’s tweet, Prince fans quickly theorized that he had also contributed to the health of the universe, and fans of other recently deceased celebrities from Harambe to Dr. Sebi chimed in. Then, in November, usage spiked for some reason. By the time the novel coronavirus turned the outside world into something we could only gesture broadly at, having a way to refer to the cavalcade of disaster without thinking too hard about the implications of any individual world-ender was the only way to stay psychologically healthy.
Part of the reason the phrase caught on, though, is that there’s a gesture of solidarity buried beneath the pessimism. Yes, so many things have gone so badly wrong that it would be a waste of time to list them, but the other reason it would be a waste of time is that most people already know which things have gone wrong, because we’re all wading through the same shit together. What’s more, since a frightening number of people have decided to respond to the ongoing collapses by sticking their fingers in their ears and denying anything is going wrong, it’s a compliment (sort of—the bar has been lowered to the center of the earth) to assume you’re speaking to someone who acknowledges objective reality. That belief—that we’re not alone in this, that other people can see what’s happening and will fight against it—is the foundation the future will have to be built upon.
As for Loewy’s future, having inadvertently summed up our age, she’s hoping we can “whittle down the list of terrible things” until her tweet is no longer accurate. “Maybe one day people can use *gestures broadly at everything* to encompass just how great and lovely the world is,” she wrote. It’s a beautiful thought—but if that day ever arrives, it’ll be a long time from now, because, well … *gestures broadly at everything*.