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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: Henry Kissinger

wand (v.)

(1990’s | enginese? bureaucratese?)

I don’t believe “wand” ever did duty as a verb in a Harry Potter book, but I never read one and I could be wrong. That part of speech had been available for some time by the time J.K. Rowling rocked the world in 1997. The first cites in LexisNexis date from the late eighties and have to do with stocking shelves with the help of a bar code scanner. An employee “wands” the bar code (actually, the verb was almost always used passively, as in “the bar code is wanded”) at the shelf or the cash register, and the central warehouse sends over another hundred units. Bar code readers are not generally called “wands” now, but hand-held metal (or explosives) detectors have borne the name since at least 1980, and it is there we turn for the evolution of the verb. In 1991, two sporting events provoked writers to use it, the Super Bowl (long a favored occasion for introducing stricter security measures) and the monarch of Great Britain’s visit to a baseball game in Baltimore (long known as the queen city of the Patapsco drainage basin). At Memorial Stadium, not only spectators but even the popcorn had been wanded. Time marches on, and now every spectator must be wanded at every major-league game. No one has tried to blow up a stadium since the policy was put in place a few years ago, which proves it works and has to be kept. Not that anyone had tried to blow up a stadium before the new regulations took effect.

I would venture that now most of us associate wanding with airport checkpoints, and the practice became more popular, or at least tolerated, after 9/11. As the equipment and procedure became enshrined in TSA parlance and practice, the use of the verb grew and it began to sound more normal. “Wander” and “wandee” don’t seem to have become words yet, but these things can change quickly. The pomposity of bureaucracy works against such locutions nosing into the language, of course; what agent or specialist would want to be known as a nine-days wander?

The apparatus of security is immune to whimsy, and the humorous potential of wanding has not been exploited. How about some good old-fashioned male wanding at the ol’ ballpark? Next time you get pulled aside for extra screening at the airport, try telling the friendly agent, “I wand-a be alone.” Maybe the agent will don a conical wizard’s hat and will throw in an incantation or two with your wanding. The practice is oddly egalitarian; all us normal people who fly or go to ballgames undergo it, but the rich and famous — even Henry Kissinger — must also submit to it when attending soirées thrown by, or in honor of, heads of state or billionaires. Presumably the wanders for big celebrity events are better trained and more deferential than the brusque shlubs at the ballpark.

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smartest guy in the room

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “know-it-all,” “show-off,” “genius,” “best and brightest”)

A top-down phrase, “smartest guy (or person) in the room” has from the beginning been applied to powerful politicians by powerful journalists. This expression has been foisted on us by our overlords, and we have accepted it placidly. Yet the phrase seems to have derived significant momentum from the film “Broadcast News” (1987), in which a sarcastic boss asks a stubborn young reporter (played by Holly Hunter) if it’s nice to always think you’re the smartest person in the room. She replies, “It’s awful.” (True enough. The eminent poet and critic John Hollander liked to point out that one of the drawbacks of being intelligent is having to put up with all the blockheads.) This line from the film was quoted by Vincent Canby of the New York Times and by reviewers for the Washington Post and the Associated Press. Even there, a boost from some powerful journalists, or at least journals. Political reporters Helen Thomas and Mary McGrory both used it early on. Broadcast News aside, the phrase didn’t turn up regularly outside of political contexts until the mid-1990’s. Based on my own ear and LexisNexis, “guy” seems to have won out as the most frequently used noun some time after 2000 (“person,” “one,” and “man” are other possibilities, in descending order of frequency). “Guy” in the singular still normally refers to a man, although in the plural it can apply to a group of women, at least among the younger set.

Aside from the question of whether “guy” or “person” sounds more idiomatic, the principal question about this expression has to do with how much self-awareness goes with it. Does the smartest guy in the room have to be aware of his superiority? Further, does he have to ensure that everyone else is aware of it, too? Inherently, there is no reason the SGITR couldn’t be humble and self-effacing, and the phrase is used that way on occasion. Sometimes the SGITR is credited with being a good listener who makes a point of finding out what others have to contribute rather than simply talking over everyone else. And sometimes you will see sentences like, “He’s the smartest guy in the room, and he makes sure everyone else knows it,” a construction that implies the phrase still is neutral. But usually when someone is hailed as the smartest guy in the room, it is assumed that he will make sure that his audience recognizes his intelligence, at length and at high volume. Through use, the expression has picked up baggage: arrogance, vehemence, petulance. It is still possible to use the phrase without the accretions, but it doesn’t happen that often any more.

When aggressive, self-promoting, intelligent people look foolish, this phrase will pop up every time — it has a lot in common with the old idea of being too smart for one’s own good. The first use of “smartest guy in the room” I found it in LexisNexis (1985) applied to David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, who notoriously led the charge for the administration’s tax and (non-war-related) spending cuts, only later to admit that the economic theory — tax cuts lead to greater revenue; spending cuts lead to economic growth driven by the private sector — behind them was completely fabricated. I hoped to discover that Henry Kissinger was the first mucky-muck to whom this term was applied, way back when he was running the world in the early 1970’s, but in fact, Robert MacNamara, whose job it was to louse up the world before Henry Kissinger came on the scene, would have been a better guess. Richard C. Holbrooke, then a young diplomat, used “smartest man in the room” in an essay for Harper’s magazine in 1975. He didn’t apply the phrase to MacNamara explicitly, but it was clear that he could have if he felt like it. The cases of Stockman or MacNamara or the Enron criminals, and those of countless other SGITR’s, reveal that even when the smartest guy in the room is by general consent the most intelligent (smart means intelligent, and then some — quick-witted, ready to speak up, a little sassy) person working on the problem at hand, he can screw up at least as royally as the dumbest, and probably more. Holbrooke: “The smartest man in the room is not always right.” Human intelligence is fragile and unreliable, prone to all kinds of blind spots and dubious assumptions that slither out from under you when you need them most. Sometimes, giving the smartest guy in the room a free hand is the smartest move you can make. But you’d better keep a sharp eye on him. Don’t let him ruin the show.

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