The catchphrase of the decade.

Scrutinizing culture.
Dec. 29 2009 7:27 PM

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).

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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?

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