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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

perfect ten

(late 1970’s | athletese | “goddess,” “knockout”)

Bo Derek, meet Nadia Comaneci. The Romanian gymnast achieved a perfect score in the 1976 Olympics, as no one had ever done before, and that was the source of the phrase “perfect ten,” also spelled “perfect 10.” Not until the tail end of the decade did Bo Derek come along to wrest the phrase into a new realm. Bo made it go, though; after that, both senses became noticeably more common.

Nadia Comaneci was on the cover of Sports Illustrated back then, when I was reading it, and I can still visualize the photo. What I can’t remember is whether I saw her medal-winning performance. She was elfin and charming, contrary to our usual image of women athletes from the Eastern bloc. Her combination of attractiveness with stunning skill and poise added up to adorable.

One wonders if it would have occurred to anyone to say “perfect ten” in reference to a woman’s physique — the woman herself may be called simply a “ten” — if it hadn’t been for Comaneci. It is a different kind of perfection, to be sure. I was of just the right age and sexual orientation to be struck dumb by Bo Derek. Yet for all the lust she provoked, the point about Bo Derek’s character in that film was that she was unattainable, as all goddesses must be.

Between 1900 and 1980, Google Books shows only occasional instances of the exact phrase, generally having to do with numerology — in some traditions, ten is a perfect number, along the lines of three and seven (which add up to ten! Proof of the existence of the Illuminati!) — though the use of grading scales in which ten equals a perfect score goes back at least a century. But here’s one from New Catholic World (1957) that seems prescient: “Ellen McRae is not only a perfect ten but an honestly engaging actress.” Sure sounds like Bo Derek to me (except for the “engaging actress” part), a score of years and more before she came along. So the true origins of this expression may snake back somehow to Rome.

Whether you’re using it to talk about athletic prowess or sheer pulchritude, “perfect 10” means you’re keeping score, tallying up attributes and moves and declaring the denominated one flawless. Today it is still used in the context of scoring sporting events (not only gymnastics) and to denote a gorgeous woman. The phrase may be used in other contexts to mean anyone or anything truly outstanding. I do not have the sense that it is often used ironically or even jocularly; when you call someone a perfect ten, you mean it.

The implication when used of women is that, like the gymnast, they are scrutinized and rated according to a detailed list of qualities and features that are spelled out to some extent but also lie partly within the whim of the judge. In other words, looking her over good and grading various anatomical features, reducing women quite literally to the sum of their parts — a practice to which women, and even a few men here and there, rightly object. It still goes on constantly, of course, although I’d say men today are less likely to discuss or rate women’s bodies in public or in print than they were in my boyhood, which might be considered progress.

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