My new post for Strong Language (the sweary blog about swearing) asks: When the old swears no longer shock, what’s an advertiser to do? One answer: swear-ify inoffensive words by inserting asterisks into them.
People have been cheerful since the 15th century and have cheered one another on for just about as long. But you may be surprised, as I was, to learn that we’ve been saying “Cheers!” as “a toast or salutation before drinking,” as the OED puts it, only since the 20th century, and relatively late in the century at that—the OED’s earliest citation is from the Sunday Times of Perth, Australia, September 14, 1930: “The brief toast of ‘Cheers, dears!’” We can also credit the Aussies with Cheers! as a parting salutation (“goodbye”), which they’ve been saying since 1937. The Brits, for their part, took to saying Cheers! to mean thanks by the mid-1970s, if not earlier, according to the OED blog. You can read more about British cheers on Lynne Murphy’s linguistics blog, Separated by a Common Language.
But drinking-salutation cheers as a verb? That was new to me until very recently.
It’s Word of the Year season, and two British dictionaries are leading the pack. Collins picked lockdown – a word we threw around here in the US but never experienced the way they did in the UK and elsewhere. (A friend of mine is literally confined to her London apartment after spending a month in France: she can’t go outdoors at all.) And Oxford Languages, publisher of the Oxford dictionaries, chose a phenomenon instead of a single word: the impact of the COVID-19 on language. “What struck the team as most distinctive in 2020 was the sheer scale and scope of change,” Katherine Connor Martin, the company’s head of product, told the New York Times’s Jennifer Schuessler. “This event was experienced globally and by its nature changed the way we express every other thing that happened this year.”
“Social distance”: sign in an Oakland produce-store window, May 2020.
Election Day, November 3: A polarizing Republican candidate who has spent much of his adult life heading a family business faces a Democrat who has spent most of his adult life as an elected official. The Republican has been branded as an extremist, a narcissist, and possibly a fascist—none of which deters his fanatical supporters. The Democrat is overshadowed by a glamorous predecessor and tarred by a specious eleventh-hour scandal. In the background—or foreground, depending on your perspective—are widespread racial and youth uprisings that some people suspect are ignited by “Communists” and “anarchists.”
2020? No, I’m describing 1964, when the November election date was the same as this year’s. It was a year of violence in Harlem and Jersey City; of the murders of three civil-rights workers in Mississippi; of heated free-speech protests in Berkeley. It was the year Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, running for his first full term less than a year after the JFK assassination, faced Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, a far-right Republican who had beaten all of the Establishment contenders—Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Scranton—to win his party’s nomination.
One 1964 event stands apart for its strangeness and impact: the Johnson campaign’s rule-breaking late-campaign TV spot. It’s known today by a one-word title, “Daisy,” and it permanently changed the way political campaigns were waged.
This month I’ve been reading Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, published in August by Kurt Andersen. According to the publisher, it’s “the epic history of how America decided that big business gets whatever it wants, only the rich get richer, and nothing should ever change.” Andersen also pinpoints a when for the everything-going-to-shit: around 1980. (Perhaps you remember who was elected president that year.) Andersen is a deft writer who makes even dense economic theory fun to read—he is, after all, one of the founding editors of Spy, the satirical magazine of the 1980s and 1990s that dubbed DJ Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian.” For me, though, the book’s most interesting insights are about nostalgia and how everything became “retro” or a “reboot”—or, in movies, a sequel or remake. Andersen says we started retreating into nostalgia in the 1970s, as an exhausted response to the “disorienting” newness of the 1960s. But we’ve never really shaken off that nostalgia-fever. The entries under “Nostalgia” in the Evil Geniuses index fill more than a column, and include these headings: “of blue-collar workers for time when they were majority,” “default to, enabled building of reproduction-old-days political economy by economic right-wingers,” “as fuel for fantastical or irrecoverable post politics,” and “‘USA! USA!’ chant.” I quoted a particularly excellent sentence from Evil Geniuses in last month’s linkfest, which you can read here.
Dan wrote: “To me, this doesn’t mean what I think SC Johnson” — parent company of Windex—“wants it to mean.”
Investigating exactly what ocean bound means led me down some twisty paths. According to a Danish organization called Ocean Bound Plastic, ocean bound plastic—yes, there should be a hyphen in there—is land based, whereas ocean-waste plastic is retrieved from waterways and then recycled. But that was just the beginning, because bound has multiple meanings and at least four unrelated etymologies.
Access to the full column is paywalled. Here’s an excerpt:
Is our modern obsession with showering just another form of hygiene theater? That’s the premise of James Hamblin’s new book Clean: The New Science of Skin, which Brooke Jarvis reviews in the August 3 & 10 issue of the New Yorker. (In May, the New Yorker published Jarvis’s wonderful piece about eels. No matter what you think you think, or don’t think, about eels, you should read that piece.)
James Hamblin stopped showering five years ago (he still washes his hands, you’ll be glad to know), and is doubtful, Jarvis writes, “about all the scrubbing and soaping—not to mention moisturizing and deodorizing and serum-and-acid application—to which we subject the rest of our body’s largest organ, and about the companies that spend a lot of money to convince us that we must do so to be clean.”
It’s those companies, and their massive marketing budgets, that interest me.
I wrote last month about Schulz’s excellent pieces for the New Yorker, and I’m here to tell you that Being Wrong is every bit as well researched, witty, and graceful. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that I’m fascinated by failure, but hey—everyone has a story to tell about wrongness petty or vast. Schulz’s catalog of errors includes explorers undone by mirages, buyers beset by remorse, the famous gorilla-on-the-basketball-court experiment, the impossibility of saying “I am wrong” (as opposed to “I was wrong”), and the ’Cuz It’s True Constraint (a name I love). She dips into cognitive psychology, history, philosophy, aesthetics, and religion; Newsweek called the book “intellectualism made fun!” and it is.
I listened to the audiobook, and immediately discovered that I’d been wrong for ages about the pronunciation of the author’s last name. It rhymes with pools, not cults.
RVAT has been churning out ads featuring people who voted for Trump in 2016 and intend to vote against him in 2020. “Rather than showing President Trump saying deranged things or listing his missteps,” observesWashington Post opinion writer Paul Waldman, “we hear from a Republican voter who has turned against him.” There are dozens of these first-person stories on the RVAT YouTube channel (and you can record your own, if you’re so inclined). But the ad I want to talk about here is a more conventional attack ad—with some distinctive twists.