The Shelf Lives of Expressions and Slang

By Mark Nichol

Several weeks ago, President Obama, in announcing during a television interview that he didn’t want to inflame Islamic extremists by releasing photos taken of Osama bin Laden’s body following the al-Qaeda leader’s assassination by a U.S. military unit, said, “There’s no need to spike the football.”

Huh?

In American football, players have been known to triumphantly punctuate a touchdown by spiking the ball, or throwing it point first against the surface of the playing field so that it emphatically bounces away. By summoning that imagery, Obama expressed his reluctance to have the United States be perceived as gloating about bin Laden’s death.

So, do you think that analogy has legs? (The stem of that expression, in turn, is from theatrical slang for a stage production with the potential for long-running success.)

The truth is, the entertainment industry, whether in the form of a professional sports or any one of various theatrical endeavors, has enriched our language with a wealth of idiomatic expressions: The sports world has given us “A-game” (an excellent effort), “Hail Mary pass” (a desperate gambit), and “slam-dunk” (a definitive accomplishment), among a stadium full of other vivid phrases.

Meanwhile, the performing arts have contributed “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings” (meaning “Don’t give up” — interestingly, often voiced late in seemingly one-sided athletic contests), “Break a leg” (meaning “Good luck”), and “It’s a wrap” (meaning “We’re done”).

Other expressions derive from a wide variety of other fields and pursuits, and though some of these figures of speech may induce groans because of the excess of their success through viral propagation, many are quite effective in conveying a message — at least for now.

Any such phrasing, however, is subject to the cultural forces at play at any time. Ronald Reagan would not have said, “There’s no need to spike the football” in response to the fall of the Berlin Wall more than twenty years ago, because the gridiron tradition in question postdates that event. Two decades from now, it may die out, and the expression may fade into obsolescent oblivion.

And that’s the moral of this story: If you’re writing for an ephemeral medium like newspapers, magazines, or the Internet, you need not concern yourself with the staying power of current slang or expressions derived from pop culture. But if you’re writing a book, or are otherwise more concerned about the legacy of your efforts, take care in the use of idiom so that your prose does not come under fire (as the military-based expression goes) for being tired or passe.

You are allowed a pass (but not a Hail Mary pass) if, say, you’re writing a coming-of-age story in which you want to re-create the zeitgeist by resurrecting the lingo of the time, but be careful not to have your characters indulge in incessant ’70s-speak, for example. Ask any survivor of that era, and they’ll tell you that “Far out,” “Right on,” and “Keep on truckin’” were far from ubiquitous.

Admittedly, some idiom has survived years, decades, centuries, and even millennia: The entrance to a house in Pompeii, inundated by volcanic ash in 79 AD, has an inscription on the floor that reads “Cave canem” — “Beware of the dog.” But cave this: Whoever coins or borrows an expression isn’t entitled to determine its staying power or whether it survives only in ironic or derisive usage. Bummer, huh?

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7 Responses to “The Shelf Lives of Expressions and Slang”

  • Jon

    I’ll be the first to add the usual caveat this time round: don’t forget that some expressions and slang are not as well travelled as others.

    (Thanks for explaining what “spike the football” means to me, and to other non-American readers. I assume I’m not alone in imagining that to ‘spike a football’ involves a football, and something pointy…)

  • Rebecca

    Slang words in the U.S. could be offensive in other countries just like ‘finger gestures (thumbs up) could be offensive. Mind your words wherever you go and you’ll be fine.

  • Terry

    “Cool big daddy, groovy post.”

    Ah words,…devices used by one to visit and entertain in the rooms of your mind. Ironically, it takes characters to create such characters.

    TIME…For our Best Deeds and Words

  • Kraig

    I was going to mention that the rest of the world (outside of the U.S.) mistakenly thinks a football is a round thing you kick into a goal (silly, aren’t they?) and may not understand “spike the football.”

    Then I saw Jon’s comment above…and laughed. 🙂

  • Maeve

    I’m an American reader and the expression “spike the football” was unfamiliar to me. When I read it, I imagined a player stomping on the ball with his spiked shoe so that it could not be used again.

  • Round One

    Spiking the football is an act in which the player throws the ball against the ground point first. A football, unlike a soccer ball, is oval with distinct points on either end.

    I would contend; however, that spiking the football was in the vernacular way back in the Reagan years. But it would likely have been inappropriate usage in context. Spiking the football is more of an act of defiance, as in, “So there” or “Take that.” In light of the wall coming down, Reagan’s approach was right. And we would have been much better off as a nation had we not returned to ground zero to celebrate Usama Bin Laden’s demise. It would have been much better to have left it alone and walked away. It was a task, a chore, and once complete did not require embellishment.

  • Nick

    A couple of things about comments on American slang (from a Yank):

    The first time a football was spiked in celebration was in 1965 by Homer Jones, so the tradition most certainly predates Reagan. See Round One’s explanation for why it would not have been appropriate for the Berlin Wall coming down.

    Also, the ball does not have to be slammed down point first, just slamming it down hard qualifies as spiking (I’d bet, but cannot verify, that it was named “spiking” as an analogy from the volleyball technique).

    Also, “it ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings” in its current form originated in the sports world (NBA playoffs, 1978, according to what I’ve read). A “slam-dunk” is usually not a definitive accomplishment, it is an easily achieved objective, because a basketball player is never supposed to miss a slam-dunk attempt, and is mocked on the rare occasions that it does happen.

    So I would add another reason to be wary of idiom: you have to be absolutely sure of its meaning, or it hits an off note, even if it is still timely.

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