Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Bad Language: Jumping The Shark Vs The Nicolas Cage Version

This isn't a new phrase exactly.

Technically, it's been (or at least could have been) around for longer than me: since 1977 to be precise, when the offending episode of Happy Days - a programme I dimly remember from my youth as being fair evidence of my mother's nonspecific assertion that TV was bad for you - first aired.

However, I've only noticed its use on these shores over the last few years; from being a sort of niche phrase employed (presumably) specifically to describe plotlines in American TV shows it's fast become a voguish term for anything happening anywhere than anyone has an opinion about that they want to furnish with some gravitas and ironic humour.

I have no problem with the idiom, on the surface: it's colourful, surreal and as a phrasal verb it has endless possibilities for adaptation:
"You totally jumped the shark there dude..."
"I hear they're getting a new actress to play Madge in Neighbours - it's gonna jump the shark, isn't it?"
"My variable rate mortgage is totally jumping the shark with these new caveats they're introducing."
Well, I say endless...

My problem with the phrase is that there doesn't seem to be a satisfactory level of agreement on its meaning. A troublesome quality for any idiom, I'm sure you'll agree, although certainly not a unique one; idiots all around us constantly misuse language, primarily due to an ambivalence toward etymology and - by extension, we presume - an apathy toward the relationship between the sounds and shapes - emitted from the mouth or displayed on a screen - and the meanings they evolved to convey.

The definitions on Wiktionary and Wikipedia are examples of this.

The Happy Days page describes the phrase as indicating:
"Something successful that is perceived to irreparably decline in quality."
Wiktionary's take:
"To undergo a storyline development which is so exceptional that all content following is disappointing."
There's even a whole Wikipedia page devoted to the phrase, which chips in with the following definition:
"When a brand, design, or creative effort moves beyond the essential qualities that initially defined its success, beyond relevance or recovery."
There is little agreement between these phrases, except in that what follows is inferior to that which occurred prior to the jumping of the shark. I have never watched Happy Days - or at least not with sufficient concentration to discern any variation in quality between episodes, which always seemed consistently low to me.

This is an issue: most idioms we know (or think we know) the meanings of through experience and association. The virulent popularity of the phrase in question has fast elevated it to cliché status, but from the great disparity in intended meanings in the sentences in which I see it employed, it seems comprehension hasn't had time to catch up with intention. Often when you refer to the source material of an idiom you'll find it has a rather different meaning from the one you or others associate it with, and that in evolving (or mutating, depending on your P.O.V.) the phrase has both lost and gained, but I would argue the weight is in favour of the loss in these instances.

A recent example that springs to mind from my own research is "spitting feathers", which is commonly used to mean "angry", and has somehow come to that misunderstanding from originally meaning "thirsty".

Ironically our colonial "friends" often offer warmer clues to the true sources of these linguistic kinks than our own vernacular can.

So if you truly want to understand what someone means when they say the Liberal Democrats' new party political broadcast has "jumped the shark" - just an example - other than that they are claiming a fairly comprehensive understanding of the narrative or plot of said party's policy as expressed by marketing from the party's genesis right up to the modern day, and that they believe some irreparable damage has been done to the party's brand and (presumably) future election hopes, you really need to gauge one or both of:
a) their appreciation and understanding of the TV show Happy Days.
b) their diligence in rooting out the meaning in the language they choose to employ.
Frankly, you can rely on few people to show the latter, and I personally do not value the former as a quality.

In this instance, did the phrase user think the Lib Dems were good before they saw this broadcast or not? was the broadcast itself spectacular or merely a spectacle? It's difficult to tell, isn't it?

If we truly require a quirky phrase to indicate a new incarnation of a previously valuable or effective thing in which much of the original integrity is compromised beyond repair, although done so in a way which afford the smug observationailsts among us a degree of self-satisfaction in observing it - a touch of schadenfreude, if you will - I propose the following, which could probably be used in 85% of the instances you use that shark phrase:
Adjectivethe Nicolas Cage version
An amusing but disastrous take on a previously well-thought-of concept.  [quotations ▼]
"Man, that new Lib Dem broadcast really was the Nicolas Cage Version."
Admittedly it won't do for American TV show plotline metaphors, but as an American movie remake metaphor I'm sure you'll agree there's some cross-over with the possible instances in which you may employ it, if you just check on whatever Venn diagram you use to work these things out in your brain.

Yours, studiously,


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