The Spectator

The Catchphrase of the Decade

And those that have had their 15 minutes of fame.

Gather round, it’s time to catch up with some catchphrases we’re using at the end of the decade. And this time, it’s personal. For a while now, I’ve made it a point to keep track of them, catch as catch can, so to speak, and to seek what lies beneath the surface. The value of a close reading of contemporary rhetorical tics and tricks is that one often finds a kind of hidden agenda embedded in the euphemisms and evasions.

In my last piece about catchphrases, I sought to send some to the catchphrase graveyard, but since then, we’ve witnessed the emergence of a whole new cache of them: some just catching on and some that have passed their sell-by date and should be cashed-out now that the decade is closing down. And one that I will nominate as the catchphrase of the decade.

It’s not a trivial subject. In domestic politics, for instance, we had the misbegotten political framing device public option, which, in masking a complex hidden agenda, baffled even potential supporters. We also saw how misbegotten “philosophical” clichés like the banality of evil continue to cheapen thought. So much can be compressed in an often ambiguous, deceptive way into so few words. And once these words calcify into catchphrases, their influence, left unexamined, can make us stop thinking about what we’re saying or say things we don’t think about until we catch ourselves and catch on that we’ve become prisoners of our catchphrases.

And you have to be attentive. Sometimes significant ones slip through my net. So I’m sure this list isn’t comprehensive. (Please speak up in the “Fray” with any you believe deserve preservation or execution.)

Here’s one that nearly escaped me: I was reading the galleys of the forthcoming Sam Lipsyte novel The Ask (nobody does Bad Attitude better than Lipsyte), and I realized that I didn’t even knowthe ask had already become a catchphrase outside of the covers of the book. It had snuck up on me. Flown under the radar, to use a C.P.

After I finished the book, though, I began hearing the ask everywhere. Well, not everywhere but elsewhere. Here it is in an excerpt from my old friend Jeff Jarvis’ blog, embedded in a nest of media-guru consultant-speak:

… market research (aka reporting); competitive analysis; product plan; revenue plan; marketing/distribution plan; operations (cost) plan; launch plan; and the ask (how much they want from the jury [deciding what new media business plans to fund] and what they’ll do with it).

Don’t you love, by the way, “market research (aka reporting)”? Not exactly a catchphrase, but it sure captures something: It sums up the implicit contempt for reporting that doesn’t slavishly serve the market, reporting driven by curiosity and integrity and a desire to serve the truth. Reporting that creates a market for itself and its readers. And since we’re briefly on the topic of new-media sophistry, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the favored pseudo-sophisticated catchword adopted by new media gurus: You show you’re totes with the program, on the same page as Jarvis et al., when you call the media an ecosystem. So deep! Indeed calling anything an ecosystem adds superficial pseudo-profundity to whatever you apply it to: Can you say “falafel ecosystem”? Why not? “From the chickpea farms to the urban sidewalk vendors, the falafel ecosystem encompasses a complex web of socio-economic relationships …”

I think at this point we really need to vote ecosystem off the island, to use an old C.P. that is enjoying a second life. (Note to self (C.P.): Keep notes on “second life” catchphrases.)

State-of-the-tweet, self-aggrandizing gurus like Jarvis (who tweeted his prostate operation) should be penalized karma points every time they add another ecosystem to the echo chamber.

Speaking of eco in the strictly green sense, the “Climategate” controversy (I know, enough with the -gates) has raised a crucial C.P. question: When is a catchphrase not a catchphrase?

You’ll recall that one of the e-mails from the leaked or hacked files of the East Anglia Climate Research Unit used the word trick in referring to one scientist’s effort to make a graph of climate data better conform to his theory. The defense was that trick is a catchphrase often used by scientists to mean something between a technique and a tweak. Nothing serious. Move along, folks (C.P.).

Not all scientists agreed that this is standard operating procedure (C.P.). Some didn’t buy the rhetorical-catchphrase defense of trick and insisted that it nonetheless was deceitful—a trick in the old-fashioned sense.

But to return, for a moment, to The Ask (the novel), the inspiration for this column: Lipsyte’s antennae are so finely tuned, it’s as if he’s an astronomer catching a distant star swimming into view. With the ask, he’s caught a baby catchphrase taking its first steps out of the subculture it was born into: the “philanthropic development,” or grant and fundraising, world. (There’s actually a nonfiction 2006 book about that world also called The Ask.)

But Lipsyte’s novel sees the phrase the ask in its larger metaphorical context, no longer just a catchword, but a watchword of the zeitgeist: We live in the Age of the Ask. Everybody’s hustling. But the Big Ask (the novel implies) is: What’s the point?

Just how much political and social power can be packed into one- two- or three-word phrases? A recent 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll reported that two-thirds of Americans still didn’t understand what the “public option” was. Who knows whether the whole history of the health care debate would be different if proponents had come up with a phrase that people could not only understand but rally around. Now it looks as if whatever health care bill passes won’t contain the “public option” (which I favored). The Senate version dropped it like it was hot (C.P.), and I blame the catchphrase framers.

But before proceeding with the newest of the new, there’s a painfully antiquated catchphrase that just won’t die, but needs to be death-paneled.

Fifteen minutes of fame has had its 15 minutes of fame. Way more than 15 years of fame, actually. And its original meaning has been subtly but ineradicably distorted. When Andy Warhol uttered it in his faux-naive way (or real-naive—I could never really tell; I’m not sure even he could), he meant it, at least in part, as a celebratory observation, not an anti-celebrity thing. When he said “in the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” he was pointing out how much fun that would be. Fame, in other words, would be as widely accessible a popular commodity as Campbell’s soup. And, he implied, that’s a good thing.

OK, maybe that didn’t turn out to be true in all respects. Still, the phrase is inevitably used now with a disdainful sneer. A self-satisfied tone of elitist condescension. I mean, didn’t you feel there was some of that in the sneering at the White House party crashers? How dare those little people, those nobodies, seeking their “15 minutes of fame,” aspire to be seated next to the truly important people in Washington who have done so much good for the nation? Who had to put in years of sucking up to get invited to a White House dinner, while these climbers waltzed right in?

So dismiss them with the Warholian sneer. And for those whose sucking up failed, or who weren’t in the right place to suck up, there was even more unexamined anger. Cue the ritual outraged denunciation of “reality show culture”: Gee, those people seeking their 15 minutes are so superficial!

Before unveiling this year’s list, let’s review some of the phrases I consigned to catchphrase hell last time I wrote a column on the subject—and some of the ones I thought worth preserving:

Among those I wanted thrown off the island and under the bus: it is what it is (in the “tough-luck” sense),the optics, drill down, under the bus, not so much, and the take-away. Oh, yes, and dude—at least when it’s a Big Lebowski reference.

Ones I thought still worked: make it work, it’s all good, it is what it is (in the existential/Buddhist sense). And oh, yes, throw up a little in my mouth—I still like that.

One thing I’ve noticed (and I’m sure you have, too) is that many new catchphrases these days first take root among blog commenters. But there’s a whole set of phrases from the blog-commenter community that have not aged well—just sayin’, well played, what he said, epic fail, crickets—and are getting a little long in the tooth from overuse. Just sayin’.

I was ready to add what planet are you from? to the list of overused blog commenter catchphrases, but then I saw a variation that makes me laugh: What color is the sky on your planet?

And what about stay classy, an ironic comment usually made about another commenter’s abusive comment? In my last examination of catchphrases, I was still unsure about stay classy, but I have to say that, despite its becoming an all-too-common staple of blog-comment culture, I like it, because it’s one of the few catchphrases through which members of the commentariat display an awareness of their own tendency for abusiveness—display any irony at all—and it actually makes me laugh out loud when I read it in conjunction with the comments of an abuser.

One kind of blog-comment abuser I’m sick of is the infantile right-wing commenter types who think they’re being incredibly clever by making fun of Obama’s name.

Yes, there were nitwits on the left who gave us the offensive “Bushitler,” etc. But enough with the Obama variations! The Nobama, the Obummer, the O-nada, the Ozero, the Obambi and the like. All indices of the commenter’s subprime (C.P.!) playground-level intelligence. And then there’s Obongo, not uncommon among right-wing blog commenters, which is pure, inexcusable, low-IQ racism. Stay classy.

And then there’s the case of Monica Crowley, the former Nixon-in-exile assistant and apologist and now radio pundit/talking head (on the McLaughlin Group—yes! it still exists). Crowley, a smart, sharp-tongued personality I’ve sometimes found entertaining, even though (most of the time) I disagree with her, has perhaps ineradicably, irretrievably made herself look unserious by referring to Obama over and over and over again, scores of times in every radio broadcast, as “The Bama.”

And guess what? It doesn’t get any funnier with repetition. It’s just a childish, content-less insult.

I’m curious, Monica: What makes you think “The Bama” clever as opposed to abusive in an infantile way? If you were ever to get into a position of power or influence and someone called you, rightly or wrongly, “Botox Crowley,” would you find this to be brilliant political invective?

On to the C.P.s of the moment.

Not brand-new but never fails to annoy: How’s that working out for you? What makes this phrase particularly annoying is its combination of smugness and self-congratulatory virtue. But is it a virtue to be smug in a hostile way? I mean, who asked you for an intervention? How’s that working out for you, dude (C.P.)? Making lots of new friends with your incisive interrogatory critique of other people’s life choices? Life choices that might involve a …

Work-around: I see this all over now, I’d call it the most popular new all-purpose catchphrase. (Or maybe it’s tied with game-changer.) On the one hand, it can be an ethical-sounding way of doing something dodgy or sketchy. A trick! The Cayman Islands used to be a good work-around for your insider-trading profits, say. An ethical-sounding way of bending the rules (akin to the somewhat more straightforward bending the curve, which can or cannot involve a dodgy or sketchy work-around).

Work-around’s getting a good workout, but I feel work-around still has a half-life to it, especially when used in an ironic or self-deprecating air-quotes way. Tiger Woods thought he had a “work-around” in dealing with marital fidelity. How’s that working out for you, bro? (Anyone who calls you bro should not automatically—or, indeed, ever—be considered to have brotherly intentions.) And work-around doesn’t have to be dodgy; it can be appealingly offbeat, with the unofficial, improvised, no-standard, sometimes Machiavellian/sometimes pragmatic ethos it implies. The way some jazz gives old standards a work-around that is more than a dodge; it’s an embellishment.

But don’t call it outside the box anymore, please. By now, the injunction to “think outside the box” has become inside the box airline-magazine management-guru cliché. Please, some of you should get back into the box, please, and take your quirky Power Points with you. What about thinking outside outside the box? Not outside the box but not inside the box again, either. Transcend the box.

And is in the weeds the new outside the box? In the weeds, far afield, lost in too much detail or data. It hasn’t quite coalesced, although everybody’s somehow using it. Is it a golfing term? A Tiger Woods work-around? OK, Tiger Woods jokes are so over. From now on.

By the way: 2.0 and 3.0? Really abused by now. Let’s put them back inside the box.

And how about spot on? I’d thought this Anglicism, this purported, imported faux sophistication—a sophistication as authentic as Madonna’s British accent—would have died the death of the terminally pretentious. But along with the apparently ineradicable at the end of the day, it’s still with us. It’s the end of the day for you, spot on. Or as the lower orders used to say over there: Sod off, spot on.

Game-changer: I liked this when I first heard it. I’m an inveterate watcher of pro-football-highlights shows that air nothing but game-changers, so the gestalt of game-changer resonates for me. It’s not only the play that does something great; it’s the blow to the morale, to the momentum of the other side. It’s a rare catchphrase with a psychologically complex dynamic embedded in it. It’s dramatic! I think it’s going to be with us for a while. Up in the Air may have given it classic status.

Note how The New Yorker picked it up in its “World Changers” issue, though their usage has too much of a rah-rah, goody-goody thing going on. Game-changer contains within it a winner and a loser. World-changer has all the tragic sense of life of a petrochemical company’s “green” ad.

And how about push-back? It’s kind of a counterpart to take-away, right? Although maybe after something’s been taken, away there’s nothing around to push back against. It’s become a kind of macho politico catchphrase, but I like it because I see a kind of existential dimension to it. Pushing back against fate, the irrationality and injustice of the universe. Job-like. With a capital J.

Doubling down: It’s hard for Politico or any of those beltway Web sites to go through the day without somebody doubling down on some political maneuver or other. It’s a kind of response to push-back. Or a redoubling of push-back.

That’s how I roll.I roll deep:Sure, dude, you’re totes awesome (another two words ready for the death panel). You’re using a word first mainstreamed in a certain particularly well-named 1995 film, Clueless, which satirized the phrase even then. (Remember “Rollin’ with my Homies”? By the way, I wrote this just hours before learning about the death of poor Brittany Murphy, who sang the song in the film. Freaky.) I don’t use it, but some people can get away with it, sort of ironically. The only mainstream media guy to get away with “roll” these days has to be David “strong for [my] posse” Carr, as I think Gawker called him. But he’s put in the time. Dude rolls deep. (On the other hand, I think he should drop the overused catchphrase on steroids.)

And your point is?: I almost always find this funny still.

Oh, snap!: First used on me by a certain zeitgeisty MTV executive when I’d corrected a pop culture reference. It’s an unconvincing way to say “you haven’t gotten to me” when you maybe have. Another variation: the melodramatic ouch.

Typographical catch devices: There’s a good one that’s catching on: “/sarc.” or sometimes just “/s”.

Rock the X; rocking the Y: Yeah, you rock is what you’re saying. You rawk. But if you say you rock, you don’t rock. And if someone tells you that you rock, it’s likely he or she and you don’t rock.

Curating: Oh, please. What a phony stay classy kind of euphemism. Curating is a new-media term for selective swiping and rearranging other people’s stuff. My friend Jeff Jarvis, master of jargon, actually had a headline: “Content farms v. [writers as] curating farmers.” Yes massa J!

Polite-sounding pre-negs: Don’t take this the wrong way, or, as Larry David has it, Having said that followed by the intended insult or unwanted critique. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (C.P.), but, actually, there is: the pretense at politeness and civility in a futile attempt to hide the hostility.

I could go on, but after great deliberation, I have decided that the catchphrase of the decade is:


Because, really, isn’t this decade about the things that have been taken away from us? The “holiday from history” after the end of the Cold War. Being able to focus on whether it makes a difference what ” ‘is’ is.” (It is what it is!) All that frivolity taken away by 9/11.

Physical security gone, economic security gone, all remaining security about the future of the planet—they’ve all been taken away.

I know; it’s commonly used in a different sense: a take-away is what you get out of something, a Power Point bullet-point representation of reality. The skeleton of the full-bodied reality.

But all that’s left after the final take-away is … the ask.