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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

sound bite

(late 1980’s | journalese | “(short) film clip,” “snippet,” “digest”)

I’m not quite sure when it arose, but “sound bite” started life as a technical term in television editing. It referred to any short film or video clip with sound, or more specifically, any “segment of sound film, video, or audio tape selected for use in the newscast” (G. Paul Smeyak, Broadcast News Writing (Grid, 1977), p. 175). Diffusion began in the early 1980’s. The first use I found in LexisNexis was due to columnist Jane Bryant Quinn (Newsweek, October 6, 1980). The phrase began to crop up more insistently during the 1984 presidential campaign and was very common by 1990, generally in discussions of television journalism, particularly political reporting. The phrase was used most often back then to deplore lowered standards imposed by television news. Sound bites were regarded as insubstantial and oversimplified, empty slogans disguised as policy statements.

“Sound bite” is not always a term of contempt, but that seems to be the normal implication. Here’s a recent example, uttered by the Democratic candidate for Senate from Arizona, Richard Carmona: “I’m not a sound-bite guy, I’m pretty much a straight-talker.” Not just short and pat, but deceptive. It’s unusual to see the inherent deceptiveness of the sound bite laid out quite this way, but there’s no getting around the fact that a one-sentence summation of even a relatively uncomplicated political issue will cut corners and leave out pertinent facts. In 1984, Gerald Ford came at it in a different way: “political candidates too often are not allowed to speak for themselves but are condensed by the networks into 10 or 15-second ‘sound bites’ for the evening news.” Here the deception is laid not at the door of the speaker, but the editor. Since television news depends on creating sound bites, it cannot help but leach useful information and commentary out of the political process. Inevitably, though, politicians have adjusted themselves to the rigors of television and moved to create their own sound bites — why trust an editor when you can do the job yourself?

It’s only fair to note that sometimes “sound bite” is a term of praise. A recent definition: “short, wonderful quip that [is] repeatable.” The right sound bite can work wonders, and not just for politicians. The advertiser, or anyone trying to influence public opinion, seeks the grail of a pithy, clever, and memorable catch phrase that sells the product. In this view, the sound bite is seen as more of a summation than as an evasion of substance and so escapes the taint of superficiality and deceit.

As “sound bite” has mutated from a phrase used almost invariably in discussions of political news coverage to a term used in any context having to do with influencing taste or opinion, the opprobrium attached to the term has weakened. Politicians must deal with complex, multi-faceted issues which must be dumbed down to rousing slogans if they hope to get voters to pay attention. But advertisers don’t generally have to deal with the same built-in complexities, so they get credit for being good salesmen rather than blame for misleading the public.

where’s the beef?

(1980’s | advertese | “that’s a lot of hot air,” “what do you have to say for yourself?”)

This phrase entered the culture with a bang that has never quite stopped reverberating, although it never was much more than a flash in the pan. At the beginning of that portentous year, 1984, Wendy’s released a commercial which is still remembered fondly by historians of popular culture and political junkies of approximately my age. An old woman played by Clara Peller visited a made-up fast-food joint with two other old ladies. They observed that the hamburger bun was huge, but the hamburger itself was tiny. So Clara began braying “Where’s the beef?” It was a big hit. Walter Mondale seized on the slogan to mock Gary Hart (haven’t heard their names called in a while) in a Democratic primary debate in March, and “Where’s the Beef” zoomed up the charts (there was even a song — I kid you not — performed by Clara Peller and Coyote McCloud). For a while after that, the term had some life as a way to say “I’m not impressed” or “give me something I can use.” But for the last twenty years it has mostly been moribund, and references to the slogan now have an elegiac tone. Wendy’s actually revived it last year for a new ad campaign, but even the new commercial relied on the fact that you have to be of a certain age to recognize the slogan and what it means. The phrase has not vaulted back into popular discourse.

In fact, it has been supplanted by phrases like “all sizzle, no steak” and “all hat, no cattle,” which still have their followings. These references to a hollow facade boil down to the same message as Peller’s slogan: the important stuff, the heart of the matter, the substance, just isn’t there.

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