The Spectator

Notes on Catch

Which catchphrases should be “thrown under the bus”?

When Susan Sontag wrote “Notes on ‘Camp’ ” back in 1964, she was foregrounding—to use a current catchphrase—something familiar but not yet defined.

“Many things in the world have not been named,” her famous essay began, “and many things even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility—unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it—that goes by the cult name of ‘Camp.’ “

I would choose nearly identical words to describe the phenomenon, the linguistic sensibility, that I’d name “catch”: the way our language has become increasingly dominated by rapidly cycling catchphrases. Rapidly cycling because in blogospheric time, they speed from clever witticism to tired cliché in the virtual blink of an eye.

Look how long it took “jump the shark” to jump the shark. But “under the bus”—as in, “throwing someone under the bus”—got old from overuse in a matter of weeks.

I present these “Notes on Catch” in a Sontagian spirit: My thoughts thus far are preliminary, fragmentary, and digressive (some might say disjointed). I’m hunting for clues as to what makes a catchphrase catch on and which ones deserve to be cast aside. And I’d like to make distinctions among the welter of catchphrases in use today, to identify variations and to distinguish the ones that still have some life in them from those that are “past their sell-by date,” as the catchphrase has it, and need to be thrown under the bus along with “thrown under the bus.”

I’m interested in catchphrases because I think a case can be made that our language has become more catchphrase-driven, catchphrase-focused. So much so that catchphrase self-consciousness has become a phenomenon of its own.

In fact what prompted this essay was the convergence of three instances of catchphrase self-consciousness I came upon on a single day: Friday, June 20, 2008.

First, the estimable A.O. Scott in the New York Times noted that Mike Myers’ talent for catchphrases is not in evidence in Love Guru the way it was in the undoubted classic Wayne’s World, which immortalized (if it didn’t originate) “Party on.” (Fave variation: “The party is now.” Someone actually gave me a T-shirt with that on it, perhaps as a subtle hint to lighten up, but I think the phrase takes “Party on” to a whole new level of philosophical complexity if you think about it. It says: Don’t wait for the party, or at least not for any particular party; the party—the best party you’ve ever been invited to—is the now, is “everything that is the case” as the philosopher Wittgenstein, a notorious party person, put it.)

Then there was a Gawker item that mentioned Tim Gunn’s appealing Project Runway catchphrase “Make it work,” which I hadn’t been aware of but, belatedly, really like; it says a lot more than it seems to say. (Take-home test: Compare and contrast “Make it work” with “Fake it till you make it.”)

Then, in the Times on the same day, David Brooks engaged in an emblematic struggle with catchphrase obsolescence. At least that’s what I think it was. In a column on Obama’s alleged Machiavellianism, Brooks used variations on “throw X under the truck” no fewer than six times! Was this a deliberate attempt to say, in effect: I know—as he must know, right?—that “throw X under the bus” has been painfully overused, so I’m making a joke about its overuse by switching “under the bus” to “under the truck.” After all, they’re both large motor vehicles, right? Except that a distinction is being lost. The admittedly overused “bus” carries with it the suggestion that the person thrown under it was originally on the bus, with the people doing the throwing, making it all the more stinging a rejection. Most trucks carry cargo, not passengers.

Why use the phrase, even a variant of it, at all? Well, the overuse of “under the bus” began with conservative blogs using the phrase (unfairly, I think) to describe the way Obama, in his Philadelphia speech on race, spoke about his white grandmother’s occasional use of racial slurs. The resulting meme? He “threw his grandmother under the bus.” The phrase recalls other transportation-related terms of abandonment, such as “threw her off the sled” (i.e., threw her to the wolves) and conjures up dim pop-culture memories of the Danny DeVito movie, Throw Momma From the Train, I guess.

By changing “bus” to “truck,” Brooks seemed to be trying to have it both ways: acknowledging the obsolescence of “under the bus”’ while still attempting to reap the (now rather devalued) currency of the phrase. Or perhaps he was simply attempting what Henry Watson Fowler disapprovingly called, in his usage manual, an “elegant variation.” Was it worth the trouble? Did he “Make it work”? Am I overthinking this?

But the whole phenomenon is worth thinking about more closely, because of the way catchphrases can become—through clever compression that verges on, or amounts to, distortion—political weapons. And the way the rapid cycling of catchphrases can confuse what is really being said or meant, obscure what stage, what flavor of irony is being employed.

It is possible to think of catchphrase use in stages. There’s Stage 1, when you first hear a phrase and take pleasure in its imaginative use of language on the literal and metaphorical level. This may not be the most beguiling example, but consider “throw up a little in my mouth.” I’m still kind of attached to it.

Then there’s Stage 2, when you use it to establish “street cred” (time to throw “street cred” under the catchphrase bus?) or convey a sense of being au courant.

Then there’s Stage 3, when the user acknowledges a phrase’s over-ness and tries to extract some final mileage out of it by gently mocking it, usually by using ironic quotes, or adding “as they say” to the end.

Finally, there’s Stage 4: terminal obsolence, dead phrase walking. Take “at the end of the day.” It kind of stuns me whenever I find someone still saying “at the end of the day” with a straight face. What are they, stuck on stupid, as they say?

And then there’s the danger that arises when Stage-4, zombie catchphrases that have previously been confined to a subculture escape their niche. We recently saw this happen with “It is what it is,” which used to be an all-purpose coach-speak sports-night cliché. But since then, it’s broken out and become a wise-sounding but profoundly empty surrogate for wisdom and perspective all too often used by idiot consultants and talking-head political pundits who seek to make themselves sound both worldly and gurulike: “It is what it is.” To which one wants to say, using a monosyllabic catchphrase that is a particular favorite of mine and deserves its longevity: “Duh.”

But if “It is what it is” is over and “broken”—a favorite catchphrase of Mitt Romney, who argued that “Washington is broken” (duh)—what about “It’s all good”? This one belongs in the faux-mystical category I’d call BSBS: Buddhist Sounding Bullshit. I admit I still have a shameful fondness for “It’s all good,” although now mainly ironically. (Does anyone recall that “It’s all good” can be traced back to a Hammer song circa 1994? The year of the Rwandan genocide. But, hey, “It’s all good.”)

At least “It is what it is” doesn’t suggest that the is-ness in question is good or bad; it’s just that you can’t argue it doesn’t exist. Is “It is what it is” pop existentialism, at once an acknowledgement of the tragic immutability of being and a challenge to us to “take arms against a sea of troubles,” as some well-known guy once said? Or is it an Eastern quietism, a rationale for resignation?

A lasting catchphrase often earns its longevity because it has some philosophical question buried in it that hooks us. “It is what it is” is something I struggle with: How much should I accept in an “It’s all good” way? Much of the time I’d much prefer if “it” isn’t what “it” is. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. As they say.

And what about “not so much”? As in, I really admire Sontag’s essays. Her novels, not so much. Has that moved from Stage 2 to Stage 3 or even the dreaded terminal Stage 4? I still like “not so much.” Not as much now. But I liked “not so much” when I first began to come across it. And it still works for me if used skillfully.

In fact, about six months ago, I became slightly obsessed with “not so much”—so much so that at one point, I asked readers of my blog to see whether they could trace its earliest use. I was pleased when one commenter cited some research by my friend Jesse Sheidlower, the American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and a witty writer on language, who weighed in with a 2004 citation that read, “A romantic thriller? Interesting. Starring Josh Hartnett? Not so much.”

But then another commenter claimed that “not so much” had been used on the sitcom Mad About You, which ran seven years starting in 1992. Anyone else have an earlier “not so much” sighting? I don’t see it as likely to have been in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but you never know.

And what does the success of “My bad” mean? It’s brilliant in its way. I know I’ve been seduced by the way it infantilizes and trivializes whatever it ostensibly, forthcomingly apologizes for. Cheap absolution. (Check out Paul Slansky and Arleen Sorkin’s great work of humor and moral outrage My Bad for hilarious examples of people finding the stupidest most self-incriminating ways possible to say, “My bad.”) The culture of offense and incorrectness had created a counterculture of “My bad” bad apologetics.

“The optics”—as they say—don’t look “all good” for the future of “My bad” (and “the metrics”—as they also say—probably don’t, either), but I think it’s still in Stage 3: a usable gray area.

Another blogospheric favorite that occupies that gray area: “Oh, wait …” Proper usage: Something obviously wrong is attributed to an opponent and then a mocking “Oh, wait …” is appended.

I like it and haven’t gotten tired of Slate’s Mickey Kaus using it (did he originate it?), but I feel as if I can’t use it myself because it’s one of those catchphrases that seems already to belong to other bloggers—branded, if you will. (Which brings up an issue for another day: Is using catchphases at all, if not plagiarism, then secondhand or second-level—or second-rate?—thinking and writing? Or is it just enjoyable swimming in the communal pool of culture?)

Then there’s the whole category of commercial phrases that cross over into common speech. I promise not to mention the over-obvious “Where’s the beef?” Oh, wait …

More recently, we’ve seen the variations on “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” apparently destined for the Catchphrase Hall of Fame, as my friend Jaime Danehay pointed out to me. She found a scholarly blog that noted more than 100,000 variations on it. Why that phrase? Because it’s a variation on “My bad,” isn’t it? The demand for clever-sounding ways of excusing bad behavior is as infinite as our capacity for bad behavior. As Mike Myers used to say: “Behave!”

To my mind the most unfortunate recent catchphrase is also the title of the new public-radio show: The Takeaway. Excellent show from what I can tell, but that title! So Dilbert! So Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. So sales-boosting seminar at the airport Marriott.

Really, if you “drill down,” to use another corporatism, there’s something kind of industrially extractive about “takeaway,” isn’t there? The impulse to reduce everything to a PowerPoint action item? All the most interesting things in life are the things you can’t extract and “take away.”

Please don’t try to defend it, public-radio people. Please just take it away.

Then there’s the case of “teh.” I’m sure Susan Sontag would have a “note” on “teh.” I’m sure there will be academic studies on it if there aren’t already. (Just as there has been a proliferation of academic studies of “dude,” a subject I first wrote about in 2003.)

“Teh” is unique because it’s such a purely blogospheric phenomenon. “Teh”—the deliberate misspelling of “the”—already has … wait for it (as they say) … its own Wikipedia entry. Its meaning, though, is still fluid and fungible. But there’s something appealing about it as a specifier with more character than plain old “the.” It has a kind of self-deprecating delicacy to it. “Teh” calls attention to a word in a subtly more tentative way than just “a” or “the” does. It’s the third specifier. It’s a little fey, a little twee, a little “teh” goes a long “weh,” you might “seh.” But I wouldn’t vote it off the island, so to speak.

I don’t mean this to be an exhaustive study, just notes. But I hope that it will start a conversation about how to decide when a phrase should be thrown under the bus.

Here are some I’m on the bubble about, as they say, because they have some virtues that make up for the feeling they’ve been overused. Or maybe there’s a good reason they get overused. I’d be interested to see which ones Slate readers would want to preserve or make disappear. Gawker has “commenter executions.” I’d like to see occasional Slate “Phrase Purges,” “Bus Tosses,” or something like that, so we can identify at what points a phrase goes from buzz to buzzkill (as “buzzkill” is due to) and from buzzkill to roadkill (which still rocks). (By the way, what about the formulation “X rocks a retro ‘90s look”? Roadkill?)

So, thumbs up or thumbs down:

  • stay classy
  • up in your grill
  • overshare
  • tell us something we don’t know
  • man up
  • go-to
  • drinking the Kool-Aid
  • mad props

I still like “mad props.” I’m a sucker for anything with “mad” in it, basically. It’s a great praise word. And “stay classy” still feels new and still performs a useful function. I’m on the bubble on “drank the Kool-Aid,” which has been used unfairly on Obama supporters by those who bought the Clinton talking points, but you’ve got to respect that it’s been around for a quarter-century now and still has “punch,” so to speak. Mass cult suicide will do that for ya. But, seriously, “Kool-Aid” must speak to an enduring concern: lemminglike destructive cult behavior, an unfortunately recurrent, if not always deadly, cultural phenomenon. As for the others: under the bus.

Finally, “Dude.” Sorry, guys, but the whole Lebowski cult just killed it with its heavy-handed attempt at lightheartedness by geek dudes who—how shall I put this delicately?—don’t do lighthearted well. Sorry dude geeks: I now pronounce “Dude” over.