The Shelf Lives of Expressions and Slang
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.”
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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