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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

stick a fork in him, he’s done

(2000’s | journalese | “he’s dead in the water,” “his goose is cooked,” “(you can) forget about him” “it’s (all) over”)

One of those top-down terms, like “smartest guy in the room.” It owes its celebrity to the fact that it is used by prominent people about prominent people, so we all have to know what it means even if we seldom use it in our humdrum everyday lives.

From the earliest sightings in the late eighties until now, this phrase has most readily been directed at politicians or athletes. Ann Richards, then governor of Texas, seems to have been responsible for the first widely-noticed use of “stick a fork in him, he’s done” in her dismissal of George Bush’s candidacy in October 1992, a few weeks before the election. (The earliest I found in LexisNexis dated from 1987 in Spin magazine, and it had nothing to do with politics.) Other political figures who felt the lash: Fidel Castro, Bob Dole (1996), Hillary Clinton (2008), and a bunch of people you’ve never heard of. The phrase seemed poised to take off in 1996, the second election in a row for which the Republicans put up a lackluster candidate. Like “soccer mom,” it looked ready to jump into the mainstream. Yet LexisNexis coughs up one solitary example between the end of 1996 and 2000. As you might expect, the phrase turns up more often in election years, and sportswriters have grown more fond of it over time, but it has not become as frequently used as many other expressions I have considered.

By definition, the phrase applies to losers. It’s a way to call someone a loser without using the word, one reason politicians like it (see also “humbled,” “unintended consequences” and “Joe Sixpack“). It is used only when it is clear that not only is the target hopelessly behind in the contest, he can’t possibly catch up. Dewey would not have used it against Truman in 1948 because the race never got lopsided enough. Not only does the phrase carry an unmistakable stamp of finality, it crows and gloats as well. It is not at all unusual for the phrase to carry a healthy dose of contempt.

Chronologically, “stick a fork in him” follows two other pithy dismissals (say that five times fast), “he’s history” and “he’s toast.” Actually, both of those expressions feel most comfortable in the second person, but they work in the third (very unusual in the first person, however). “You’re history” came along first; I remember learning it during my freshman year in college from my more sophisticated classmates. “You’re toast” came in a few years later. Like “stick a fork in him,” (and “goose is cooked”), it relies on a culinary vehicle. Because if it’s not dead when you start cooking it, it is by the time you’re done. Both of these vigorous expressions share the note of finality, and the note of extreme prejudice, that we noted above in “stick a fork in him.” Notably, the latter expression cannot be used in the second person, but it can be used in the first and is most commonly used in third person. So in pronominal terms, it complements “you’re history” rather neatly.

The reason you put a fork in a roast is to determine whether it is sufficiently cooked. But a canny politician uses the expression only when he knows his opponent is completely done. You don’t do it to find something out, you do it for spite — not unlike “twist the knife.” Utensils make for treacherous figures of speech.

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