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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

poster child

(1990’s | athletese? | “public face,” “ultimate example,” “advocate”)

Now on the one hand, the meaning of this expression hasn’t changed much; it’s still often used to mean “face (or representative) of a cause,” just as it did in 1950. (According to the Smithsonian, the March of Dimes selected their first poster child in 1946.) The March of Dimes doesn’t have poster children any more; it has “ambassador families” and “celebrity spokespersons.” O tempora, o mores. As charitable organizations have stopped relying on poster children, the literal use is drying up. Fortunately, metaphorical uses have taken over and become more or less standard.

There seem to have been two pathways for this change. One was the gradual adoption of the phrase for organizations that did not and would never have poster children. I collected two relatively early examples (1989): one from a movie review (describing Clint Eastwood in Pink Cadillac as “a Polident poster child” because his character had bad teeth) and one from sports journalism (describing Kiki Vandeweghe as a “poster boy for the American Chiropractic Association” because he had a lot of back problems) late in 1989. Once you start down that road, it’s an easy step to expressions like poster child for alcoholism or anger management or what have you. But there seems to be an athletese link, too, that I hadn’t suspected. I found a number of examples in the 1980’s of sportswriters referring to the “poster boy,” meaning “the boy you put on the poster because he’s the best player on the team.” I expect this usage is related somehow to the original sense, but it really seems to mean something a little different. This ambiguity may well account for the double meaning of “poster child”; it’s also used to mean the “ne plus ultra,” the most prominent exemplar of a phenomenon.

More subtly, there seems to have been a change in the force of the word “child” since I was one. It used to be a fairly neutral, standard term for person under twelve (or whatever), whence it has been thoroughly displaced by “kid” except in the most formal writing. Now “child” is the word you use if you want to be solemn about kids. Sure enough, nobody ever says “poster kid” — just as you never hear anyone say “kid abuse” — because “kid” leaches out the earnestness required by those who are trying to raise money for a good cause. (The Simpsons’ “Won’t someone please think of the children?” is an effective parody of this kind of use; the show may not be much on contributing single words, but it’s been a great phrasemaker.)

As a novice blogger myself, it occurred to me that “poster child” ought also to be definable as “child who writes a blog,” but I guess that would be “child poster,” wouldn’t it? Give it ten years, and they’ll be trying to figure out how “child poster” was derived from “poster child.”

senior moment

(2000’s | “brain fart,” “temporary memory lapse,” “memory slip”)

Another word that everyone seemed to understand and pick up right away. That’s not quite true, actually. When it first reared its head in the mid-1990’s, it got the usual quotation marks and definitions, but it got comfortable quickly. I haven’t been able to pin down an origin for this term. The first citation I got out of LexisNexis dated to November 15, 1996, but within a few years it was quite common. That’s the sign of a useful word — one that gives us a quick and punchy way to express an everyday idea or occurrence. The growth was propelled in part by the growth of our elderly population, which continues: more seniors, more senior moments.

There was never much question about what the phrase meant. Forget your friend’s name? Senior moment. Can’t find your car keys? Senior moment. It’s temporary, it’s natural, it’s part of growing old — and hardly unknown among the young. I found one interesting exception in a discussion of the life of Isaiah Berlin, which his biographer Michael Ignatieff presided over, in which the phrase was used to mean “moment at which one realizes one is old,” which might apply to many of our everyday applications of the phrase but is grander, more what you’d expect from a philosopher.

I doubt you could have “senior moment” without “senior citizen,” bureaucratese that arose in the 1950’s and qualified as the standard, neutral term for “old person” when I was a boy. That got shortened to “senior” as a noun, which I heard first in the early 1980’s. There are a few other adjective uses, like “senior discount.” It may be that “senior” the adjective comes from “senior” the noun, rather than directly from the adjective in “senior citizen.” And now “elder” is returning as an adjective (and even a noun on occasion) in phrases like “elder abuse.”

William Safire noted in 1998 the growing frequency of the word “moment,” as in “teachable moment,” “Zen moment,” “Kodak moment” (an advertising slogan). Recently I read “flashbulb moment,” meaning an experience that produced an indelible memory (Newsday, May 9, 2011). “Senior moment” has taken its rightful place in that brigade.

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