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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

feeding frenzy

(1980’s | businese?, journalese? | “pigs at the trough,” “every man for himself,” “swarm (of . . .),” “melee”)

This expression had to learn to stand on its own in order to take its place in our vocabulary. It was quite possible in 1980 to use it as part of a simile, almost always juxtaposed with the noble shark. “Feeding frenzy” seems to have been invented after midcentury to describe the way hungry sharks eat; the first citation in the OED dates from 1960. The first citation I found in LexisNexis that dispensed with the sharks occurred in 1981, in the context of corporate mergers. Within a few years, it had come to be applied to lots of other things: the press, government officials, greedy litigants, or investors, for example. (Nowadays it may often evoke criminals or consumers.) It’s my sense that the merger mania of the eighties did more than any other cultural excrescence to propel “feeding frenzy” into prominence. Now the phrase most commonly refers to the press, especially the entertainment press, as in “tabloid feeding frenzy.” We have no trouble envisioning mobs of desperate reporters and photographers competing for the smallest scraps of sensation. But it’s also used to talk about political reporting, at least partly as a result of political scientist Larry Sabato’s 1991 book, “Feeding Frenzy: Attack Journalism and American Politics.” And then, surprise! sometimes it just refers to a lot of people stuffing their faces, as at a barbecue or banquet.

Metaphorically (for now we switch from simile to metaphor), “feeding frenzy” denotes a group of people competing in aggressive or violent ways. The violence may be wholly figurative, and it may be real, as when newshounds or shoppers jostle each other. Feeding frenzies usually arise suddenly and end soon, but always in relative terms — the feeding frenzy following Lindsay Lohan lasts until she can duck into a car, but dueling corporations can keep it up for months.

One highly mutable aspect of this term: when does it have an edge of contempt? When corporate executives snap up profitable firms, it doesn’t seem to bother anyone very much, but when paparazzi hound Princess Diana, the sneer is clear. For profit-minded executives, or consumers on Black Friday, the feeding frenzy is the norm, nay, commendable. On the other hand, some of us cling quaintly to the notion that unchecked intrusion into celebrities’ private business is not a worthy occupation. The expression may call to mind indiscriminate acquisition (especially when referring to wealthy collectors at tony auction houses), crude gorging, or even bestial cruelty. But it may also suggest fierce competition, which we generally celebrate, at least in the abstract. Most of the time, “feeding frenzy” bears at least a touch of scorn, but you have to watch the context. It’s not always there.

Who remembers John DeLorean? His lawyer in 1983 called prosecutors’ pursuit of his client a “feeding frenzy,” but with a twist. He used the image of sharks surrounding a wounded creature, eager to tear it to pieces. Why isn’t this idea more common? Sharks go ape at the scent of blood, right? We’ve all learned from a hundred disaster movies that the minute a drop of blood hits the water, the sharks close in. Real life has something to say about it, of course: Executives prefer to go after a healthy corporation to a hemorrhaging one, and the gutter press doesn’t wait until the movie star is down to start kicking. I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect such similes to hew too faithfully to their referents.

Back to the literal use at last. When we use the term “feeding frenzy,” it’s always aquatic animals, for some reason. Sharks, mainly, occasionally some kind of fish. Why? Rats, coyotes, and other land animals feed in voracious packs, but we don’t use the term in that context. Maybe sharks are just more evocative, or maybe “Jaws” was the most influential film ever, but this continues to seem strange to me.

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