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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Joe Sixpack

(early 1990’s | advertese?, journalese? | “John Q. Public,” “the average joe or American,” “working stiff,” “man in the street”)

The mythical yet representative Homo sapiens (sub-species Americanus) may have been born in the febrile brain of an anonymous ad man. If it was, he was probably thinking of his brewery client and ginning up a word to refer to the average beer purchaser, probably with a snicker or sneer. Neither Google Books nor LexisNexis yields any citations before 1977 or so, and some of the earliest ones do have to do with beer advertising. Forbes magazine (1978) offered this commentary: “Anheuser had always concentrated its marketing fire on Joe Sixpack: male, a heavy beer-user, blue collar.” William Safire helped cement that link with this taxonomy (December 19, 1982): “Thus, today we have John Q. Public wearing respectable spectacles; Joe Sixpack is sitting in his undershirt looking like Archie Bunker.” But even that early, the phrase could be used in a less loaded way. The use of the phrase spread in the 1980’s, but the number of hits returned by LexisNexis doesn’t go up sharply until after 1990. As early as the mid-1980’s, LexisNexis found uses of the phrase in major foreign publications in French, Italian, German, and English, suggesting that the name appealed to the rest of the world as a colorful, evocative, and none too flattering personification of Americans.

Politicians soon picked this one up, I’m afraid, and so did their journalist camp followers. The expression was invented and perpetuated by elites, in other words, the advertisers and elected officials who tell us what to wear and what to think. So here was a term for “average joe” that came from those who get rich by manipulating average joes one way and another. Now politicians must walk a fine line, as every schoolboy knows. In terms of status and power, they travel in circles far above the vast majority of their constituents, even in the wealthiest districts. A certain amount of talking down is necessary, and you can’t be too obvious about it. Politicians often use “Joe Sixpack” to signal, “I understand you folks, and I’m prepared to use my political power to do your bidding.” Thus the name can be used approvingly, to imply down-home virtues and a salt-of-the-earth quality. Yet it is inevitable, perhaps, that the phrase when used by the powerful always bears an undercurrent of condescension if not active disdain.

But something else again happens when others use it. “Joe Sixpack” is generally used to refer to the average American by everyone except the elites without the least apparent irony. When non-elites use this expression, as far as I can tell, it is much more likely to be neutral or laudatory, except when a writer objects to the term because it sounds demeaning. A valid point, but it raises a question: Could this be an example of the masses taking over a contemptuous label and turning it into a term of solidarity, like gay men calling themselves “queer”?

Here is an expression, like “inner child,” “type A personality,” and “whistleblower,” that leads a persistent double life. Is it the average guy, or the average uncultured beer-swilling slob? Or is it nobler: an honest citizen working hard, paying taxes, raising the kids, and living in peace with the neighbors? Maybe we should not be surprised that an expression beloved of politicians is steeped in ambiguity and duplicity.

six-pack abs

(2000’s | athletese? | “well-defined stomach muscles”)

A popular on-line dictionary reports that the term arose in the early eighties, but I haven’t found anything before 1995 in LexisNexis or Google Books, except one reference in the Herald Sun of Sydney, Australia in 1994. Does the expression come from abroad? I doubt it, but I don’t know, and my usual Internet sources don’t offer much help. You’d think it was a bodybuilder’s term, and I wouldn’t argue with you. “Abs” for the rectus abdominis muscle seems to be a little older, dating back to the eighties; the elaboration came along later. A plural word to refer to a single muscle? That’s just how we do things around here.

Many have noted the irony of describing well-defined and developed stomach muscles in such terms, since just about anything that comes in a six-pack is likely to be fattening. Urbandictionary.com records fifty-odd variations — but not a definition of “six-pack abs” itself, oddly enough — many of them involving the word “keg” or other sarcastic references to beer bellies. But the phrase caught on quickly; Charles Atlas himself had adopted it in his advertising by 2000. It’s punchy, easy to envision, and I doubt anyone ever needed to have it defined — a photo from a body-building magazine is all you need. (In this case, one picture nets you only three words.) The phrase built muscle quickly and now is showing enviable stamina. In a culture where physical fitness is extolled, admired, and occasionally even practiced, “six-pack abs” will have no trouble maintaining its supremacy in the weight room of words.

It’s strange that only abs get this treatment: you never hear about “crystal-ball biceps” or “boxing-glove pecs.” Then again, maybe it’s not so strange.

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