Dear copywriters, editors, and reporters: Do you really think you’re being clever with your “’Tis the season” line? Trust us: you are not. I refer you to that wise man John McIntyre, of the Baltimore Sun, reminding us to beware holiday clichés:
My latest column for the Visual Thesaurus, “Laughing Matters,” looks at the spread of ludicrous, ridiculous, and absurd (and their adverbial counterparts) as positive intensifiers. Full access to the column is restricted to subscribers; here’s an excerpt.
On the language-of-humor scale, where funny, droll, and amusing are positive or neutral, ludicrous, ridiculous, and absurd have traditionally skewed negative: You might say yes to an amusing hat, but not a ridiculous one. And yet here we are in Branding Land, circa 2017, where disparaging modifiers such as ridiculous are paired with positive words like delicious and attached to messages intended to persuade and sell, such as "Ridiculously Tasty Beer" (for Full Sail brewery), "Ludicrous Small Batch" (for the new Seven Caves Spirits distillery), and "Absurdly Fresh Groceries" (Good Eggs grocery-delivery service).
“Ludicrous performance”: poster in Tesla showroom, Glendale, California.
One source for this semantic shift may be the language of sports, where, as language maven Ben Yagoda told me via Twitter, sportscasters have evinced a "recent fondness for calling a great play 'ridiculous'" (or even, sometimes, "stupid"). I don't follow sports closely enough to have noticed this trend, so I looked it up. In short order I discovered "One of the most ridiculous [read: excellent] plays of the 2017 season" (SB Nation), "Manny Machado Made a Ridiculous [read: impressive] Play Yesterday" (NBC Sports), "a ridiculously [read: outstandingly] good closer" (Business Insider, on Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen), and "ridiculously [read: extremely] fast" (in a 2007 book about baseball). I also found plenty of stupidly intensifiers, and not only in sportswriting: "stupidly fiery" hot peppers, "Stupidly Simple Snacks" (a cooking show), "The Stupidly Simple Way to Stop Bombing on Your Goals," and many more.
The word first flip-flopped from negative to positive in the late 1950s, cropping up in jazz circles. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the usage back to 1959 (“His technique is ridiculous!”) and quotes the 1960 book “The Jazz Word” as saying, “To a jazzman...ridiculous is wonderful.” A 1955 interview with Dave Brubeck in the oral history “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya” may offer a clue to how being ridiculous became respected in the jazz world. Brubeck describes how a jazz combo can begin with an arrangement and then have soloists freely improvise, before “going out” with the arrangement again. “And when we’re playing well,” Brubeck explains, “the out parts are ridiculous, usually, because the inner parts have come up to the level where you’re truly improvising.”
Suppose you built a condominium building in a certain Manhattan neighborhood and named it for an adjacent but different Manhattan neighborhood. Suppose the zoning laws wouldn’t allow a residential tower on the site, so what you actually were selling were rooms in a “condo-hotel.” Suppose you publicly claimed that 60 percent of the units had been sold when in fact the figure was 15.8 percent.
What to call these inaccurate public statements: Lies? Fraud?
In my newest column for the Visual Thesaurus, I take a look at backronyms, defined in an Oxford Dictionaries blog post as “an acronym deliberately created to suit a particular word or words, either to create a memorable name, or as a fanciful explanation of a word’s origin.” Backronyms are rife in the names of legislation: witness the recent HONEST, COVFEFE, and MAR-A-LAGO acts. It’s a tradition that goes back to the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, whose rah-rah title expands into “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.”
Backronym was coined (as bacronym) in 1983; examples were rare before then.
Full access to the column is available only to subscribers for three months. Here’s an excerpt:
Eater magazine published a five-part series on bad restaurant names, from bad puns to “distressingly sexual” to “crimes against language” to “just really bad.” Start with Part 1 and follow the links at the end to read about the others.
When is a billboard not a billboard? When it’s a freakin’ 227-word manifesto – 239 if you include the headline.
“This is our only billboard. We need it to say a lot.” No you don’t.
Yes, I counted the words in this screwy outdoor ad from Public Mobile, a Canadian wireless-telecom company. (I lifted the photo from Tim Nudd’s post on Adweek, which called the ad “clever.” I disagree.)
Fox News is dropping its “Fair & Balanced” slogan, which was invented by Roger Ailes when he launched the network in 1996. Ailes died last month. “In the annals of modern advertising, ‘Fair & Balanced’ will be considered a classic,” writes Gabriel Sherman for New York. “The slogan was Ailes’s cynical genius at its most successful. While liberals mocked the tagline, it allowed Ailes to give viewers the appearance of both sides being heard, when in fact he made sure producers staged segments so that the conservative viewpoint always won. (If you haven’t read Sherman’s biography of Ailes, The Loudest Voice in the Room, I highly recommend it. Yes, it’s fair and balanced.)
“At some point, we’ve all wondered about the incredibly strange names for paint colors,” writes Annalee Newitz in Ars Technica. “Research scientist and neural network goofball Janelle Shane took the wondering a step further. Shane decided to train a neural network to generate new paint colors, complete with appropriate names. The results are possibly the greatest work of artificial intelligence I've seen to date.” They include Bank Butt (a lavender-mauve), Grass Bat (dusty rose), Stoner Blue (grayish), and these winners: