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.