Handle Popular Culture Terms with Care

By Mark Nichol

Writers and editors must exercise caution when using terms and idioms that organically develop in popular culture. A misunderstanding of meaning or implication can adversely affect the message or impact of written content, so if you’re unsure about something, take a little time to research an unfamiliar or ambiguous word or phrase online.

Sometimes, a pop culture pileup occurs because an idiom takes on two or more meanings. Take, for instance, the term redshirt. The traditional definition of the noun form describes a collegiate athlete kept out of competition in their freshman year to allow them to be eligible in their second through fifth years of higher education, rather than in the usual first four years. (These students, though still permitted to train with their teams, were originally distinguished from eligible teammates by wearing red shirts.)

The term, thanks to the flexibility of the English language, also came to be used as an adjective (“The team has four redshirted players this year”) and a verb (“She redshirted last season.”) Furthermore, it has recently been extended to refer to children held back from kindergarten as a purported developmental benefit.

However, a new, quite distinct meaning developed from usage among the fans of a cult television series that later expanded into an extensive multimedia franchise, and the term has become correspondingly more ubiquitous.

On the original Star Trek series, initially aired during the late 1960s, at least one crew member of the starship Enterprise was often killed by some extraterrestrial menace or other — and that person was usually a security officer, designated by a red uniform. Therefore, fans came to refer to these expendable stock characters as redshirts. (The latest Star Trek film, released in 2009, pays tribute to that trope by foreshadowing a bit character’s fate through the color of his uniform.)

As familiarity with the Star Trek universe, and as appreciation of science fiction in general, became more pervasive in our culture, the concept of futuristic cannon fodder already had a name, and now the term is used throughout the sci-fi genre. (Similarly, at least one horror movie fan site, in its reviews, refers to doomed film characters as monster chow.)

Numerous other references to the phrase pertain to various political and social movements that use or used such a garment as a unifying theme, and there’s even a Red Shirt School of Photography; this derogatory term refers to the tendency among National Geographic photographers and their imitators to favor (or even stage) brightly colored subjects for dramatic visual impact.

Another pop culture reference with divergent meanings (though in this case, one was hatched from the other) is “rubber chicken.” The original trope is the prop of that description used in stand-up comedy and other entertainment such as juggling, and sometimes displayed at home or at the office as a goofy sight gag. (The rubber chicken apparently evolved from inflated pig bladders used as props by court jesters.)

Subsequently, the term was employed to refer to the entree served as large invitation-only events that include a meal. Because of the time constraints, numerous plates of chicken are precooked, then reheated just before serving, giving the meat a tough consistency suggestive of the comic prop. From this term, the idiom “the rubber chicken circuit” was derived to describe the milieu of events such as fund-raising dinners for political campaigning, where such food is served.

The next step in the pop culture progression, I suppose, is redshirted rubber chickens.

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2 Responses to “Handle Popular Culture Terms with Care”

  • Stephen

    I had never heard the original meaning of redshirt before. Thank you for sharing!

  • Julie

    If chicken is held under heat lamps for an hour before advancing to the table, I suppose it can accurately be termed redshirted rubber chicken.

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