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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: fast food


(1990’s | advertese? | “Ring it up!,” “Rake it in!,” “Score!”)

An onomatopoetic rendering of an old-time cash register — none of this infernal beeping we hear all the time nowadays, just a cheery little bell that rang whenever the cashier opened the drawer. (The sound was also attributed sometimes to slot machines, taxi meters, and pinball machines.) Like many onomatopoeias, it doesn’t feel quite like a real word somehow, but language comes from many places and need not trace its lineage back to the Mayflower, nor yet the Indo-Europeans. There is also a one-syllable form; how well I recall the introduction to Beard and Kenney’s Tolkien parody, Bored of the Rings, one of many unfortunate childhood influences on my sense of humor, in which the authors freely admitted they were in it for the money and recorded hoped-for sales of the book with a gleeful “ching!” No prefix, which is a more accurate translation of the cash-register bell — although maybe the two-syllable version is descended from an old-time adding machine. My guess is that the opening syllable is an elaboration born of exuberance. “Cha-ching!” is a common variant. It is used most commonly, by far, as an interjection, but it may see spot duty as a noun or verb.

It’s not invariable, but typically “ka-ching” carries a strong suggestion of unseemly greed. One common way to use the expression is as the response of a litany, in which each item of a list of features, services, or transactions is met with “ka-ching!” In such cases there is usually an implication that the items enumerated have the primary purpose of mulcting, rather than helping, the customer. It is a tricky expression to translate into regular ol’ words, which is no doubt why it has been successful. There is no quicker, breezier way to say “someone’s making money off of this” in speech or gesture. (Does the old gesture of rubbing the tip of the thumb against the fingertips mean anything any more? That meant “give me money,” or more poetically, “cross my palm with silver” and implied bribery.) The expression may also have a disagreeably exultant tone when one is enjoying one’s own financial success. It’s not always accusing, but I think that’s predominant.

I found an example or two before 1991 in LexisNexis, but that seems to be the year “ka-ching” took wing through the good offices of young actor Seth Green in a commercial for a fast food chain called Rally’s. After every item the customer ordered, Green (as the cashier) ejaculated “cha-ching” or some variant (one of which was “ba-da-bing,” by the way, Sopranos’ fans). The commercial did not have national circulation, but it did become a hit with New Orleans Saints’ fans, who adopted “cha-ching” as a celebratory expression. Maybe that’s where Mike Myers picked it up, as it completed its journey to the center of the mainstream by way of of Wayne’s World (1992), which also popularized such immortals as “Not!” as an interjection, “hurl” (vomit), and “we’re not worthy.” “Ka-ching” existed before the movie; a 1992 New York Times article cites it as an example of a distinctive phrase from the film. But it doesn’t seem to have been as iconic (or moronic) as “babe” and its derivatives or the once-ubiquitous “party on.” (There are dissertations to be written about the effect of “Wayne’s World” on the language.) By the time the nascent Oxygen Network used it as the name of a show and a web site in the late nineties, the usage was probably still hip but hardly new.


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(1980’s | journalese (politics) | “much ado about nothing,” “tempest in a teapot,” “big fat zero,” “empty suit”)

Chalk up one more for the Reagan administration, by far the most prolific presidential source of new vocabulary since Kennedy or possibly FDR. Actually, Reagan’s EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch Burford, made it famous in 1984, by which time she was his former EPA administrator, having resigned rather than turn over subpoenaed documents to Congressional committees. She used “nothing-burger” to describe the next post to which she had been nominated: head of the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere. (Antiquarians like myself will observe that it happened the same year as the “Where’s the beef” ad campaign.) I must add that Google Books yielded one instance before Burford: none other than Helen Gurley Brown in Sex and the Office (1964), who tossed it off in a discussion of dressing for success (i.e., attracting a man) at work. I quote: “Wearing one great pin four days in a row is better than changing to nothing-burger clinkers.” An adjective, it’s true, but easily turned into a noun. Apparently gossip columnist Louella Parsons used the expression even earlier, though my sources are all second-hand.

The point of “nothing-burger” is that it denotes a statement, event, or (sometimes) person that promises more than it delivers, or doesn’t live up to its hype. Or maybe a small solution to a big problem. (Good exposition here.) By now the term has broadened so that it denotes any non-entity, regardless of advance publicity. It’s always an insult, a quick dismissal of a policy statement, an opponent’s sally, or even sworn testimony. Therefore, it may be used defensively, as a means of suggesting that the very telling blow one has just absorbed had absolutely no effect. To this day, it is used overwhelmingly by politicians and political commentators, though one stumbles across it now and then in movie reviews or sportswriting.

The use of “burger” as a suffix is not all that widespread, despite America’s obsession with the hamburger and its many variants. Lighter’s slang dictionary lists only two examples (of course, that was over twenty years ago), and the only one I could think of was “slutburger,” which was pressed into service to discuss salacious commercials for the fast-food chain Carl’s Jr., although it was the name of an underground comic book drawn by Rip Off Press regular Mary Fleener before that. Even now, most “-burger” words are strictly food-related.

Though it’s used now by politicians of all persuasions, “nothing-burger” has always been more prominent among right-wingers, befitting its first popularizer. Burford was an early right-wing martyr, head of an agency whose mission she opposed, like so many of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries. She sold simple obstruction of justice — stonewalling the people’s representatives for the sake of a profoundly dubious assertion of executive privilege — as principled resistance to intrusive, pettifogging gummint bureaucracy. Of course, she had a willing audience, and the same third of the country that cheered her on has just put Trump in the White House. He has repaid them by placing her son on the supreme bench. We may well wonder how many of her notions about the law and the Constitution he has absorbed.

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