Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

Aug. 1 2016 4:26 PM

How Did Gold Stars Come to Represent Grieving Military Families?

The families of 17 American soldiers slain in action delivered a letter to Donald Trump on Monday demanding that the Republican nominee for president apologize for his comments about gold star parents—and Democratic National Convention guests—Khizr and Ghazala Khan. If you somehow missed this utterly insane and depressing story, Trump blew his chance to react with grace to the Muslim lawyer’s poignant tribute to his son Humayun, an Army captain who died in Iraq protecting his base from a truck filled with explosives. Smarting from Khan’s accusation that he had “sacrificed nothing and no one,” Trump first insinuated that Ghazala Khan, standing on stage beside her husband in a clear show of support, didn’t speak because, as a Muslim woman, she wasn’t allowed to have an opinion. (She later clarified that her silence flowed from sorrow.) Then he compared the vicissitudes of his own career—decades of catered boardroom meetings, luxurious galas, fancy flights—to the sacrifice endured by military families who’ve lost their loved ones.

In the letter, the gold star families, led by Karen Meredith of VoteVets.org, called Trump’s remarks “repugnant and personally offensive.” Veterans of Foreign Wars also issued a statement Monday, saying, “to ridicule a Gold Star Mother is out-of-bounds. … Election year or not, the VFW will not tolerate anyone berating a Gold Star family member for exercising his or her right of speech or expression.” And as the controversy has grown, the phrases “gold star mother” and “gold star family” have erupted on social media.

But how did gold stars come to represent grieving military families? (And has Trump ever met a sidereal symbol he couldn’t turn into a controversy about his own bigotry and political incompetence?)

Many of us are more familiar with the sarcastic use of “gold star”—as in, “Millennials want a gold star for every kabocha squash they compost.” And yet the origins of the military gold star reach back to the service flag, a banner first flown during World War I by households that had sent loved ones to fight. The simple white pennant, bordered in red, glowed with a deep blue star for every living soldier, and a gilt one for each soldier who had died. In May 1918, President Wilson approved a motion put forth by the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defenses proposing that U.S. mothers, sisters, and daughters wear a black band with a gold star on their left arms in lieu of traditional mourning garb. In 1928, the bereaved mom Grace Darling Seibold, a D.C. native, founded a national organization she called American Gold Star Mothers to help support military families and provide care for returning veterans.

The United States entered fresh conflicts, and the gold star continued to blaze as a badge of mingled pride and grief. President Roosevelt declared the last Sunday in September “Gold Star Mothers Day” in 1936. World War II brought the gold star wives and an official gold star lapel button. In the ’60s, activist Eleanor Boyd even created the Gold Star Manor in Long Beach, California, a 348-unit retirement home for parents of fallen military men and women.

In 2005, the emblem sneaked into the heraldry of antiwar activism with the creation of the Gold Star Families for Peace, an organization founded by Cindy and Patrick Sheehan and devoted to ending the occupation of Iraq. But perhaps one of the most interesting recent twists for the gold star—at least in the context of this election—has been its evolving relationship to family members that are not U.S. citizens.

American Gold Star Mothers restricted enrollment to those born or naturalized in the United States for the first 77 years of its existence. In 2005, it rejected the application of Ligaya Lagman, a Filipino woman who paid taxes and lived in New York; her son, Anthony, had died in Afghanistan on a mission to rout the last few fighters from a Taliban campsite. The outcry against the decision—and particularly against a cavalier quote from national president Ann Herd, who said “There’s nothing we can do. … We can’t go changing the rules every time the wind blows”—attracted the attention of politicians, including a certain female senator. “We now have many noncitizens serving honorably in our armed services,” Hillary Clinton scolded the mothers at the time.

Several months later, Gold Star Mothers accepted its first noncitizen: the Jamaican-born Carmen Palmer, whose 22-year-old son was killed in Iraq in 2003. And now a coalition of gold star families are speaking up on behalf of the Khans—American citizens, of course, but also Muslims more likely to be targeted by all-too-familiar waves of racism and prejudice.

With every advance like this, the always-honorable gold star shines brighter.

July 29 2016 11:54 AM

Why Did a ​Pearls Before Swine Strip About ISIS Get Spiked? A Slate Investigation.

On Thursday, Stephan Pastis, who pens the comic Pearls Before Swine, tweeted that one of his strips had been rejected in these, our “sensitive times”:

In the strip, a naïve pig’s effort to correct his sister’s grammar moves him to cry “I, sis” into the phone. Naturally, the National Security Agency is alarmed and leads the pig away in handcuffs. (Imagine that Aesop got sunstroke and then tried to illustrate a cautionary fable against pedantry.) It was hard to tell from the tweet whether the syndicate was concerned that the strip was mocking the government, trivializing ISIS, or trafficking in terminally not-funny wordplay. When I reached out to Pastis for an explanation, he unbosomed the backstory.

Pearls runs in newspapers across the country, and Pastis, who says he’s never run a repeat in 15 years, files completed strips weeks or months ahead of their publication date. After he submitted the “ISIS” panel, a representative of his syndicate contacted him to warn that if some kind of terrorist event occurred on or near the day that the strip was slated to appear, he’d become a “lightning rod for readers’ anger and sadness.”

“Oddly enough, people think the artist is commenting on that day’s events, even though he or she has sent in the work up to eight weeks in advance,” Pastis continued. The newspapers couldn’t risk such a painful coincidence.

There’s also the twisty matter of media sensibilities. Pastis, a creature of the buttoned-up print world, sometimes yearns to channel the subversions of the web. “I wish I could have a fraction of the edginess of the online guys,” he admitted. “Internet writers don’t realize how extraordinarily tame newspapers can be. You reference Lincoln’s assassination, and readers shout, ‘Too soon!’ It’s a different world, and it’s inhabited by your parents and grandparents.”

John Glynn, of the Universal Uclick syndicate that handles Pastis’ work, confirmed that “there’s lots of sensitivity—the strip would have caused serious problems if it had been coupled with a terrorist event.” Though Universal has never outright rejected a Pearls panel, the group has sent advisory notes back to Pastis and various newspaper editors cautioning them against publishing particular comics. They tend to shy away from themes of “drugs, drinking, sex—for lack of a better word, anything beyond PG-13,” Glynn said. Pastis remembered one message that reprimanded him for using the word midget, even though the strip itself only evoked the term to highlight its inappropriateness. (“You should say ‘little person,’ ” a character explains.) But Pastis is not interested in fighting his editors’ decisions. “That’s how it works,” he said. “What I think is great is how this story has taken off on Twitter, how it’s generating discussion and allowing the online world to see what the world of traditional media is all about.”

After all, “this was simply one of my dumb plays on words,” Pastis added. “I wasn’t trying to say anything more. I heard the words and realized I could make a pun.”

OK. This is all very plausible and sane. But could it be that Universal Uclick bagged the strip because it’s not, well … because it, ah, it, you know, it’s not …

Did they kill the strip because it’s not funny?

The syndicate does not monitor comics for quality, Glynn insisted. “We’re too busy.”

Really? You can tell us.

“Yes, really.”

Off the record?

“We’re too busy saying how good they are.”

July 28 2016 9:00 AM

Clinton’s New “Trash-Talk” Line Is the Perfect Weapon Against Trump

All summer long, commentators have been describing Donald Trump’s campaign as a dumpster fire, but there’s a new garbage-related metaphor igniting on the trail: trash-talk. In his debut speech at a Miami rally over the weekend, Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, worked supporters: “Do you want a trash-talking president or a bridge-building president?” Then, he doubled down: “Donald Trump trash-talks folks with disabilities. Trash-talks Mexican-Americans and Latinos. … Trash-talks women. Trash-talks our allies.” Winning the desired boos, he finished with a twist: “He doesn’t trash-talk everybody. He likes Vladimir Putin.”

Clinton herself has since cottoned to Kaine’s use of trash-talking. Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars this week, she answered Trump’s convention speech, which composed a dark portrait of America. Fully broadening the targets Kaine identified in his trash-talk, Clinton objected: “I don’t understand people who trash-talk America, who act as though we are not yet the greatest country.” As the presidential race careens from the conventions to the general election, we’ll be sure to see plenty more actual trash-talking between the nominees. But we should also expect to hear more of the trash-talk line from the Clinton camp. It’s an effective packet of rhetoric, imagery, personal appeal, and cultural history.

The word trash-talk packs a strong rhetorical punch. It doesn’t just concisely characterize Trump’s language as bigoted, as we saw in Kaine’s trash-talking crescendo. It also hits back on loaded implications the Clinton campaign finds in Trump’s wider messaging: “Make America Great Again.” To many, this slogan’s adverbial anchor, again, implies America isn’t great anymore, with Clinton specifically charging that it devalues the hard work and efforts of everyday Americans. By calling out such language as trash-talk, she also threads together who Trump trash-talks with why he is trash-talking them, i.e., America isn’t great anymore because of immigrants. Rhetorically, Clinton’s usage of trash-talk upends Trump’s sloganeering as covert scapegoating and fearmongering.

The word trash-talk also carries an evocative image. The Clinton campaign can—and does—avail itself of any number of words to describe Trump’s verbiage: insulting, bullying, offensive, divisive. (Others would surely add racist, sexist, vulgar, and xenophobic to the list.) These modifiers, regardless of accuracy, are abstract. But trash-talk, owing, of course, to its core metaphor, runs on garbage. In depicting his language as trash-talk, Clinton and Kaine challenge voters, “Who is Trump to speak about America as if it’s garbage?” On the one hand, the image arouses indignation and outrage. On the other hand, it brands Trump as a someone who treats people as if they are disposable.

Through stereotypes and generalizations, one can easily disparage whole groups of people. Trump has done this. But talking trash is different. Take, for example, “Low-energy Jeb,” one of the stickier epithets Trump issued earlier in the race. “Low-energy” indicts former candidate Jeb Bush’s personality, not his ability to govern. It’s taunting. It’s below the belt. It’s going-out-the-way name-calling. It’s personal. But as a word, trash-talk is also personal. It’s gritty. It’s street. It’s playful. It’s vernacular. By labeling it as trash-talk, Clinton portrays Trump’s language as personal attacks on Americans without herself making a personal attack, all while sounding personal.

Finally, we’ve become so inured to trash-talking in politics that it’s easy to forget where trash-talking first originated: sports. The Oxford English Dictionary first finds the term trash-talking in reference to baseball back in the early 1970s. Sports-based bad-mouthing, no doubt, has a rich history and culture. Muhammad Ali, for instance, flexed political and poetic power with his boasting. But trash-talking can also serve up bread and circuses. To its targets, talking trash is a mind game, using detractions to create distractions. To its viewers, trash-talking is a form of theater, creating spectacle out of conflict. From World Wrestling Entertainment and The Apprentice to his debates, rallies, and tweeting, Trump has made trash-talking a sport all its own. In deploying the term, Clinton’s trash-talk ties Trump’s language back to entertainment and gamesmanship. It moves the spotlight from the offensiveness of the trashing to the seriousness of the talker: Is the U.S. presidency, Clinton’s trash-talk asks, just another show, just another contest for Donald Trump? If so, he’s playing a dangerous game.

July 27 2016 7:20 PM

What Should We Call Bill Clinton if Hillary Is Elected?

What should we call Bill Clinton if Hillary is elected?

First gentleman

First gent

First husband

First Bubba

First lord (FLOTUS)

First man to be married to a president of the USA

Adjacent man


Dude prime

Dude-o primo



Roger Spelman, a 35-year-old insurance salesman from Boise





Do you smell that?

I guess Thai is fine.

Why did no one like my Facebook post?

Have you ever fantasized about forcing 19th-century slave-owners into a time machine and taking them to a Beyoncé concert?

Clicks! Clicks? Clicks!

Will someone please let me out?


10,000 ghosts of the exact same article about what to call Bill Clinton when Hillary is elected

I just don’t know anymore









Mr. Clinton

July 27 2016 3:05 PM

Why “Change-Maker” Is Such an Effective Slogan for Hillary Clinton

In an ambling love letter of a convention speech on Tuesday, Bill Clinton summoned all of his ramshackle charm and warmth to build a case for his wife Hillary, who is running for president. The Southern raconteur poured on the folksiness. Change “sure is” hard, he said. And yet Hillary Clinton works tirelessly to enact it, from her time as an attorney representing the poor and sick to her busy, productive tenure as first lady of Arkansas and then of the country. Hillary “is the best darn change-maker I ever met in our entire life,” Bill said, as Dems in the audience waved “change-maker” signs. The next morning, commenters were hailing the “change-maker speech.”

Change-maker? We can get the jokes out of the way first. This is a change-maker. In many pockets (heh) of our great land, a change-maker just means a human cashier. But even if Clinton’s coinage (heh again) doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue—it evokes both Bush’s decider and Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker”—it still did profound, effective work in Philadelphia.

Obama, of course, was the candidate of Hope and Change in 2008. When he arrived in office only to face congressional gridlock, an anemic economy, and an endless stream of mass shootings and terror, the dreamy electorate felt its hopes dashed. So Clinton’s focus on the “change” part of the equation asserts a welcome pragmatism, a commitment to tangible receipts.

Crucially, the former president’s speech functioned not only as an awkward, lovely kiss blown to his wife but as a record of her many specific accomplishments, from state education reform to new laws supporting employees with disabilities. “You can drop her into any trouble spot— – pick one— – come back in a month and somehow, some way, she will have made it better,” Clinton promised. “That is just who she is.”

Clinton’s unstoppable “change-making” stands in stark contrast to Trump’s disturbing ideological slipperiness, his unwillingness to propose specific policies or solutions. She is a known quantity, an independent variable acting on the American experiment in demonstrable ways.

Yet change acquired a soaring, politicized valence during the Obama campaign, and Clinton would have been foolish to abandon those loftier associations. Hillary may be a practical, roll-up-your-sleeves candidate with tons of experience, but she is also a symbol. And so Bill didn’t call her a “changer,” someone who just, you know, changes things. That usage would have spotlighted change as a workaday verb, often taking an object, as in “changing the sheets.” Instead, Clinton reached for the abstract, as befits a historic moment: The first female presidential nominee of a major party is a “change-maker,” a person who controls a beautiful and important political force called Change, like the custodian of some sacred vestal fire. “If you win elections on the theory that government is always bad and will mess up a two car parade, a real change-maker represents a real threat,” Clinton said. He cast change as powerful, mythic, and American—a tide that sweeps out the corrupt and ineffective, moving inexorably in the right direction.

July 22 2016 9:30 AM

Brexit Blends Caught Fire. Why Haven’t Pokémon Portmanteaus?

Pokémon Go, Nintendo’s new augmented reality game for smartphones, seems primed for wordplay. Equal parts beloved and bemoaned, the overnight hit is smashing records, grabbing headlines, and even causing deaths. If you’re not playing Pokémon Go right now, you’re talking about Pokémon Go. It’s Pokémania out there.

But what has been less viral since Pokémon Go’s launch is precisely that: a lot more words like Pokémania. This is surprising, given our cultural appetite for blending and insta-commentary. Only a month ago Brexit blends choked social media like kudzu. Where’s the poképocalypse in Pokémongolia? Why aren’t we all talking about Pokémon portmanteaus?

It’s not for lack of trying. Plenty have attempted pokémanteaus. At a D.C. bar, you can order a round of Pokémongaritas. Friends and family might stage a pokevention for an addict. Pokémandering results in an unequal distribution of Pokémon in neighborhoods. A pokémontage shows off a player’s best captures. A Pokémon Go pro studies at a Pokémontessori school. Players unimpressed with the game, meanwhile, are letting out pokéyawns, saying it pokésucks. Citizens outraged by the ensuing public infestation lambaste the pokémorons. Doomsayers are trumpeting society’s pokémadness. Gamers devastated by slow servers have even threatened a pokéxit. The rest of us are simply asking, “What the pokéfuck is going on?”

All of these blends are funny, well-formed reactions to the Pokémon Go phenomenon, er pokénomenon. But they aren’t capturing our broader linguistic imaginations in the way, say, regrexit did. One immediate reason is familiarity. Many are still learning just what this foreign-feeling yet familiar-sounding word Pokémon is, let alone what any of these poké-blends are. As the name of the game, the creatures in it, and a whole media franchise, Pokémon is already working overtime. Dictionary.com recently added Pokémon to its online dictionary: Its entry is impressively concise for a word that requires explication more than definition.

Full blends of Pokémon are also hard to pull off—and overindulgent. As one tweeter provided in a wry spree: Pokémonster, Pokémonographed, Pokémonsoon, Pokémonsplaining, Pokémonday Night Football, and The Count of Pokémonte Cristo. These pokémongrels are clever but absurd contortions of word formation. They read more like Jeopardy’s cumbersome “Before and After” answers than anything meaningful or usable. They are the splitting headache of the Brexit hangover, the inevitable consequence of blending to excess.

The internal linguistics of Pokémon also poses challenges to wordplay. The word Pokémon cleanly snaps into poké- and -mon. The latter part, -mon, can swap with many rhymes; pokéyawn, and more acrobatically, pokémorons are examples. But -mon doesn’t carry enough information on its own, thus limiting blend supply. A zombiemon, say, doesn’t evoke a hunchbacked, Matrixed-in Pokémon trainer; it sounds like a crappy take on a Jamaican accent.

Then there’s the former component, poké-. English speakers, experts in polysemy, are unlikely to confuse it with a fish salad or Gumby’s sidekick. But should we pronounce it with a long E or schwa E? Do we include the accent mark or not? The choices affect what other words poké- sticks to. They also influence how we decode new combinations, especially in text: We approach pokefuck very differently than pokéfuck. And the very fact of choice might further deter wordplay in our fast-paced environments—or at least give us a moment’s pause, that rare filter of thinking before tweeting.

But it’s not just phonetic ambiguity that hamstrings Pokémon portmanteaus: It’s also unambiguity. Pokémon is an effective, successful, and distinctive brand name. Wordplay is in its DNA. Pokémon itself is a Japanese mashup of pocket monster. Its creatures names are mashups, too; Charmander splices together char and salamander, for instance. Blends are part of the vocabulary of gameplay. Players flock to catch PokéBalls in public PokéStops. Teams can compete at PokéGyms.

So, if -mon conveys too little information, poké- conveys too specific of information. Poké- is Pokémon. It’s unmistakable, but it’s branded, which hinders the spread of Pokémon wordplay. We tend to recoil from corporate portmanteaus. Framily (friends and family)? Frushi (fruit and sushi)? #PortmantNO, we revolt. These efforts reek of gimmicks, contrivance and pandering, of adding more din to our noisy lives, of passing off banality as originality. It’s also why Hillary Clinton’s own attempt at wordplay—“Pokémon Go to the polls”—felt forced and hollow, if adorably clumsy in its Marge Simpson squareness.

In our media-saturated lives, we’ve trained our noses to sniff out sales pitches. Otherwise catchy Pokémon Go portmanteaus—like a pokéconomy—still give off a stench, if faint, of capitalism. While many are still registering Pokémon as a new word, many are also registering it as a registered trademark, conjuring up, like Disney, its specific stories and characters, its world, its brand.

The ultimate test for any neologism or usage, finally, is its utility. What gap in the language does it fill? Brexit and the -exit libfix gave needed expression a particular political phenomenon. Will the game radically transform how we use smartphones or think of public areas? If so, then we might talk of Pokémoning a space like we do googling information. A few interesting contenders along these lines are pokébond, poképal, and pokéfriend, which some use to name a distinctively Pokémon Go–related experience: a new relationship or positive social interaction that came about from playing Pokémon Go.

For now, Pokémon wordplay is in keeping with the game: It’s cute, curious, and charming but ultimately encapsulated. For now, blends like pokéxit are a welcome bit of frivolity and disposability in a reality that feels much in need of augmentation these days. For now, Pokémon portmanteaus are—wait, you said there’s a Vaporeon where? Maybe we’re just too busy playing the game to play with its words.

July 21 2016 4:15 PM

What Conscience Means to a Conservative

When Ted Cruz took the stage in Cleveland on Wednesday night, he shockingly offered an anti-endorsement of Donald Trump—and he used carefully calibrated language to do so. “Don’t stay home in November,” he implored the conventiongoers, promoting time-tested ideals of civic engagement and responsibility. “Stand and speak and vote your conscience.” That was it: no subsequent mention of the Republican Party’s official nominee, no rousing foretaste of the glorious changes Trump would enact in office. “Vote your conscience,” Cruz instructed, like a teacher urging students to adhere to the honor code while he stepped out of the room. The arena erupted in boos.

As my colleague Jim Newell noted, Cruz’s phrasing subtweeted a lot of the “Never Trump” tumult that preceded his appearance. The senator’s supporters had attempted to slide a “conscience clause” into the party rule book that would unbind the delegates, relieving them of the obligation to vote Trump. The measure failed, and then a petition demanding a roll call vote on the rules got snuffed. In that context, “saying ‘vote your conscience’ wasn’t just a non-endorsement of Trump,” Newell concluded, “it was a big kiss blown to the anti-Trumpers, thanking them for their service in Cleveland.”

But conscience signified something to Republicans long before it joined the Cruz side of the Trump-Cruz tug-of-war. Since Barry Goldwater’s seminal 1960 book Conscience of a Conservative, the word has suggested a uniquely right-wing brand of protest, a principled and individualistic challenge to the status quo. Conscience is how Republicans defy the government—it’s their take on civil disobedience or conscientious objection (two concepts historically aligned with the left). And it has blended in fascinating ways with the GOP’s Christianity, positing the idea that in each citizen thrums a kind of spiritual core that must remain unsullied by politics.

In Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater writes that “the first principle of totalitarianism” is “that the State is competent to do all things and is limited in what it actually does only by the will of those who control the State.” (What would he make of Trump’s authoritarianism?) Meanwhile, the ideal government gets out of the way so that its citizens can follow their own lights. Goldwater felt that a person needed to lead a sacred portion of his life beyond the scope of the state, in an autonomous, pristine space devoted to the cultivation of conscience: “Conservatism therefore looks upon the enhancement of man’s spiritual nature as the primary concern of political philosophy” (itals mine).

So when conservative politicians invoke “conscience,” that prize jewel of the individual psyche, they are often staking out a moral objection to something the “majority”—and especially the political majority—seems to support. For instance, John McCain broke ranks with much of his party when he condemned the practice of waterboarding in a 2014 speech on the Senate floor. Terrorists “act without conscience,” he said, “but we must not.”

Or consider Mitt Romney declaring last month that his “conscience” wouldn’t permit him to cast a ballot for either Clinton or Trump. “It’s a matter of personal conscience. I can’t vote for either of those two people,” he admitted to John Dickerson in an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Or think of the Conscience Protection Act, a bill proposed by the Republican congresswoman Diane Black and lifted to prominence by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. The measure hits back at Roe v. Wade, offering cover to health care providers that refuse to perform abortions as “a matter of conscience.”

In all these cases, conscience is what one might call the personal—especially the spiritualized personal—when it clashes with the political. Even the alternative interpretations of Cruz’s non-endorsement are rooted in the senator’s individual psychology—they are intimate character judgments, not suppositions about his policy aims. “I think it was something selfish,” said Chris Christie after the speech. Meanwhile, radio host Laura Ingraham attributed the never-Trump crowd’s moral distaste for the nominee to “wounded feelings and bruised egos.”

But conscience as a political force is about more than that, and its early historical displays have an almost preternatural resonance with Cruz’s convention address. In 1844, troubled by the rise of the nativist, hate-fueled “Know Nothing” party, Abraham Lincoln convened a gathering of fellow Whigs. “He did not believe the political ostracism of foreign-born voters was Christian,” writes John Wesley Hill in his 1920 book, Abraham Lincoln, Man of God. And so, with a xenophobic movement threatening “to sweep the country and place Proscriptionists in power,” Lincoln introduced a resolution defending his homeland against “intolerance and disorder.” “RESOLVED,” it read, “that the guarantee of the rights of conscience, as found in our Constitution, is most sacred and inviolable … and that all attempts to abridge or interfere with these rights … directly or indirectly, have our decided disapprobation.”

July 21 2016 3:38 PM

Where the “Spicy Boi” Meme Came From (and Why It’s Spamming Hillary Clinton’s Instagram)

Visitors to Hillary Clinton’s Instagram account over the past couple of days have been treated to yet another instance of the internet run amok. Comments reading “spicy boi” (and all possible variations in spelling and capitalization) had been posted tens of thousands of times under the pictures on Clinton’s account, with some users digging back in the archives to comment on pictures that were more than a year old.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Google Trends tweeted that “What is Spicy Boi Hillary Clinton” was the top Hillary-related query for the search engine on Monday. Several in-the-know publications (i.e. media outlets with a steady supply of millennial interns) felt compelled to run pieces explaining the meaning behind the “spicy boi” meme, and to settle any remaining concerns that Hillary Clinton might be dead. New York magazine correctly reported in its piece that the meme originated with a petition, addressed to Michelle and Barack Obama (and, inexplicably, Mark Zuckerberg), asking that fire ants please be renamed “spicey boys.” That piece goes on to state that it was this image, posted to iFunny.co, that spawned the idea to bombard Clinton’s Instagram with the term.*

At this point, my fellow meme-loving millennials are raising their eyebrows in skepticism, since memes originate on sites like iFunny and 9GAG about as often as they originate on Facebook (i.e. never). More likely, our suspicions tell us, it’s 4chan, right? What did they do this time? Indeed, friends, it was.

4chan is a site that baby boomer journalists often refer to with eye-glazing terms like “anonymous message board,” and is the home to the hacker collective Anonymous. Compared with the site’s previous exploits, posting “spicy boi” on the pictures of a presidential candidate is relatively innocuous. In 2014, users of the site concocted a hoax to convince owners of the iPhone 6 that the device could be charged in any standard microwave. Later that same year, when Mountain Dew held an open online naming contest for their new soft drink, 4chan struck again, voting names like “Diabeetus” and “Moist Nugget” straight to the top. The contest’s site was quickly taken down.

While many of us think of “memes” as an image with a joke written over it (invariably in the Impact font), this is actually what’s called an image macro, which only becomes a meme once it reaches a certain level of notoriety within a community. Memes as such are “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture,” kind of like an inside joke.

But words and behaviors mean something. The fact that one idea spreads in a community while another doesn’t indicates something about that community. So what’s important about the “spicy boi” meme on Clinton’s Instagram, beyond the humor that, depending on one’s age, may or may not be apparent?

The New York magazine piece concluded, incorrectly I think, that the meme doesn’t actually transcend humor. “It’s just for kicks,” one iFunny user told them. But there is an undeniable political undercurrent to it all. The Twitter handle @OldRowOfficial, an account followed by the unwaveringly conservative demographic of Southern frat boy, was responsible for signal boosting the raid. So was the recently banned conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos. Many comments followed “spicy boy” with references to the email scandal or the Black Lives Matter movement.

It’s an oversimplification to say this meme caught on because it was spread by people who like Donald Trump and dislike Hillary Clinton, or that it was any kind of concerted attempt to help him win the presidency. Rather, what memes like this convey, when a hive of internet users rise up to humiliate or confuse a corporation or public figure, is a deep sense that the current systems are not working (ironically, most of the members of these raids are white educated American men, a group for whom the current systems are actually working quite well). These raids point to the power of the same forces that have allowed Donald Trump to get as far as he has in this election: rebellion against the establishment, a desire to shake up the status quo.

Memes like this tap into those forces, and into the earliest, most anarchic days of the internet, when lawlessness and anonymity were among the culture’s most important virtues. These memes are a reminder, an assertion of independence. An act of protest. An attempt to declare, in coded, meme-based language, “How can you control us? You can’t even understand us.”

*Correction, July 25, 2016: This post originally misidentified the website iFunny.co as iFunny.com

July 21 2016 9:30 AM

How “Show Me the Receipts” Became a Catchphrase for Holding the Powerful Accountable

There are two types of receipt: The receipt you have and the receipt you don’t. They complement each other—supply and demand, triumph and challenge, “I’m here with the receipts” and “Really? Show me the receipts.

We aren’t talking about translucent little slips of paper itemizing expenditures. We are talking about proof, evidence, confirmation. Receipts equal the contraband found under the mattress, the DNA on the trigger, the absolute final word.

When Kim Kardashian leaked Snapchat footage of Taylor Swift apparently approving some lines in a Kanye West song she would later criticize, the internet threw a party. “Looks like she’s got receipts,” crowed GQ, referring to Kardashian, who released the video to defend her husband after Swift publicly took him to task. (Problem couplet, which, sure, partakes of the problematic: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ I made that bitch famous.”) When the track dropped in 2016, Taylor acted mad and even negged Kanye while accepting her Album of the Year Grammy—a feminist “victory” rusted over with the implication that, huzzah, a dewy white woman had overcome a hostile black man to net a prize that rightfully belonged to another black man, Kendrick Lamar.

ANYWAY. Kim Kardashian torched Swift’s I’m-disappointed-in-you-Kanye charade this week, posting a Snapchat story that captured the pop star assuring the rapper, re his lyric: “I really appreciate you telling me about it, that’s really nice.” “Kardashian,” mused the brilliant Damon Young over at Very Smart Brothas, “is actually Swahili for ‘white woman with receipts.’ ”

How to account for the cathartic satisfaction of receipts? Maybe it has to do with the fact that the receipt first manifested in pop culture as an absence—as something yearned for but out of reach. As Alex Abad-Santos tells us at Vox, Whitney Houston introduced the concept of the receipt during a fantastically woozy 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer. Asked to comment on an alleged $730,000 drug habit, Houston tilted her head to the left and cocked her thumb and pointer finger. “I wanna see the receipts,” she said smoothly. “I wanna see the receipts.”

It was a subversive taunt, the equivalent of O.J. Simpson penning a “fictionalized” tell-all with the title If I Did It. Houston called up the specter of the missing receipts to poke fun at Sawyer’s impotence. She wasn’t so much clearing her name as luxuriating in immunity.

But asking for receipts can also express sincere distrust, especially of authorities that might assume they’ll receive the benefit of the doubt.

Interestingly, receipts circa now are just as likely to be present as absent. It’s not only let’s see some receipts; it’s and I’ve got the receipts right here. The year 2016 is flush with documentation, stupid with hard evidence. Tumblrs like Problematic Fave are devoted to curating “celeb receipts”—social media posts that prove a famous person’s wrongdoing. (Recent revelations from the page: “Richard O’Brien says trans people can’t become women.” “Rapper B.O.B. promotes Holocaust denial.”) The receipt boom registers a shift in our society: Where the powerful once exercised their power with relative impunity, now we might be seeing glimmers of accountability.

At least, that’s the spirit in which receipts got started on the internet. Post-Houston, the concept appears to have germinated on LiveJournal—particularly a blog devoted to celebrity shenanigans called Oh No They Didn’t—and moved to Tumblr, where “receipts” referred to screen caps of abusive or offensive comments. Mainstream Hollywood coverage jumped on the bandwagon. In 2013, Page Six reported that comedian Julie Klausner had spiced up a promotional appearance for Difficult People by declaring Gwyneth Paltrow “one of the phoniest backstabbers in Tinseltown.” Klausner refuted the charge on Twitter, writing she had “no idea why Page Six decided to report on an alleged beef I have with Gwyneth Paltrow, whom I have never met.” Journalist Oli Coleman then released the audio in which Klausner clearly dissed the Goop founder. The refrain of the ensuing media tempest-in-a-teacup: Coleman “provides the receipts.”

Now that Melania Trump seems to have cribbed lines from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech, we’re again seeing a snowfall of receipts, in the form of video, audio, and transcript comparisons of the two addresses.

As with Swift and West, here receipts are being procured to make sure a white person doesn’t get away with the kind of nonsense she might have been able to subject a person of color to in the past.

Likewise, in asking to see the receipts, Whitney Houston did something more profound than mock Sawyer’s inability to pin her down. She appealed to a higher authority than a white woman’s suspicions. Much of contemporary race relations is slippery, unspoken, or unconscious, with  bias often wrapped in plausible deniability. But no one can argue with a piece of paper.

And that’s why this bit of slang—which like most U.S. slang has flourished especially in black vernaculars—packs an undeniable punch. Those who deal with a lot of nebulous discrimination have found power in the impartiality of screenshots and audio clips. Without calling them “receipts,” impromptu videographers have been brandishing the evidence, from the bystanders who recorded two police officers pinning Alton Sterling to the ground and shooting him to Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of the Minnesota man who was executed during a traffic stop. In his “I Have a Dream Speech”—excerpted by Beyoncé in a stunning performance that opened the 2016 BET Awards—Martin Luther King Jr. described “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness … we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt … So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Perhaps the soaring idealism of his address didn’t permit King to say it outright, but his check-cashers at the bank of justice would be foolish not to ask for a receipt.

July 19 2016 1:08 PM

Where Does “Your Word Is Your Bond” Come From, and Why Did Melania Steal It?

When Melania Trump graced the podium in Cleveland on Monday night, she delivered lines that sounded eerily reminiscent of Michelle Obama’s address eight years before. Among those lines: “From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life. That your word is your bond. And you do what you say and keep your promise.”

And here’s Obama in 2008: “And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond, that you do what you say you’re going to do.”

The phrase your word is your bond” has roots in black America, with a rich hip-hop history. The internet consensus seems to be that Trump’s use of the slogan is an obvious “tell”—a clueless bit of parroting from a Slovenian immigrant who would never organically find her way to those words.