Lexicon Valley

That Word for a Meme-Obsessed, Self-Aware Age

Any consumer of the broadcast news media will have encountered a certain formulation over the last fortnight. You could have heard it from Erica Hill on the Today Show on March 9: “We do want to get you caught up, though, on the investigation into that missing Malaysian jet.” And you could have heard it from Megyn Kelly on Fox News on March 21: “The new twist in the search for that missing Malaysia Airlines jet that seemingly disappeared into thin air with 239 people on board.”

The formulation consists of the word that followed by the naming, in a phrase, of a continuing story: “that escaped cougar,” “that federal money-laundering probe,” “that East New York tenement blaze.” It’s long been a staple of radio and TV news—so long, in fact, that some in the field deemed it an egregious cliché decades ago. When I was putting together my book When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse, a friend who had worked in television news in Philadelphia in the 1980s directed me to a boss of his who had actually banned this that on their station—along with such other clichés as “blaze” (for fire) and “probe” (for investigation).

The meanings and uses of the word that are legion. The relevant definition of this one in the Oxford English Dictionary is:Indicating a person or thing assumed to be known, or to be known to be such as is stated. Often (esp. before a person’s name: cf. Latin iste) implying censure, dislike, or scorn; but sometimes commendation or admiration.” One early citation by the OED is Shakespeare, Cymbeline,That Drug-damn’d Italy.”

That that, and its plural form, those, show up in a lot of titles, perhaps earliest in Twain’s short story “Those Extraordinary Twins.” More recently, they’re found in the play That Championship Season; the songs “Those Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer” and “That Old Black Magic,” the TV show That Girl, and a whole bunch of movies, including That Certain Woman, That Uncertain Feeling, That Forsyte Woman, That Touch of Mink, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, and, it almost goes without saying, That Darn Cat!

That last item, a 1965 Disney film starring Dean Jones and Hayley Mills, represented a turning point, for its concluding exclamation point no less than its opening that. Post-Cat!, it became hard if not impossible to use this that without some level of irony or cutesiness, kind of an implied arm-fold, lip-purse, head-shake, and wink. (Luis Bunuel’s final film, That Obscure Object of Desire, released in 1977, is a special case. The first word was translated from the French cet, which can mean either “that” or “this.”) Thus, the titles of the TV show That ‘70s Show and the film That Thing You Do! signal their self-consciously retro quality.

That self-conscious quality has only increased in recent years, as befits a meta age. Most notably, the phrase “That awkward moment when … ” is fully viral, spawning photo memes, websites, Facebook groups, and, earlier this year, a movie called, you got it, That Awkward Moment.

I first became aware of another variation when my daughter Elizabeth Yagoda was in middle school, a dozen or so years ago. She would be describing a situation and explain why she didn’t take a certain action, saying, “I didn’t want to be that kid who … ” and then name the action. I subsequently heard other people swap in “that guy who,” “that girl who,” or “that person who” in similar contexts. I recently asked Elizabeth about it, and she speculated that the origin may have been the 1996 horror film Scream, whose characters may not have used that exact phrase but were constantly aware that they were inhabiting this or that archetypal horror-movie character.

In any case, “That guy” has become a meme of its own, with manifestations and spin-off memes everywhere. A couple of days ago there appeared on a gaming message board a thread called: “Okay I don’t want to be that guy that compares but. … ” A popular website is called That Guy With the Glasses, and Urban Dictionary offers multiple definitions for that guy, the most popular being:

The person everyone loves to hate and never wants to become. You’re driving and get stuck in the middle of the intersection just as the light turns red. Now, because of you no one can get by. You have now become “That Guy.”

I don’t mean to suggest that the phenomenon is gendered. Last year, Jennifer Nettles recorded a song called “That Girl,” and she clearly did not intend a Marlo Thomas reference. The lyric goes, “I don’t want to be that girl/With your guy.”

I would say that the that trend is a fitting one for our weirdly self-conscious era, where it does not seem possible to escape the awareness that any situation in which one finds oneself can be seen in terms of some trope, archetype, or cliché.

I would say that, but I don’t want to be that guy.

A version of this post appeared on Lingua Franca, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s language blog.