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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: Supreme Court


(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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chilling effect

(legalese | “prior restraint,” “restriction,” “constraint,” “threat”)

The knowledgeable among you will cry that this expression was commonplace by 1980, and I concede the point. It was widely used, but mostly within a narrow legal context having to do with civil rights enjoyed by individuals and institutions. A “chilling effect” was a threat to fundamental freedoms caused by intrusive government action, most often due to overzealous law enforcement. (But in some cases court decisions may be said to have a “chilling effect” on the police.) It might affect an abstraction, like dissent or the exercise of a particular right, or it might affect actual people, like reporters or abortion providers. In November 1984, no less a defender of press freedom than Nat Hentoff used the phrase reluctantly on the grounds that it was already a cliché, but still within that same narrow context. The phrase used this way lies close to the very old concept of “prior restraint” — the ability of the government to prevent the press from publishing disagreeable material, rather than prosecuting a news outlet after publication — although it has a wider application.

And now? Chilling effects are everywhere. The phrase is still used in its old sense, but it ranges far beyond. Publisher Barry Diller’s announcement that Newsweek would “go digital” in the future had a “chilling effect” on advertising — not on advertisers’ freedom of expression but their willingness to pay Newsweek to print their copy. A writer in Slate dismisses on-line literary culture (August 4, 2012) as “an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page” which has produced a “chilling effect.” My current favorite involves the “Renewable Fuel Standard” applied to biofuels; according to one author, “undermining the RFS will have a chilling effect on the development of cellulosic feedstocks that are not used for food or feed.” In this year’s political campaign, the term comes up with numbing regularity in discussions of economic policy, as in a “chilling effect” on hiring or job creation. We have come a long way from the language of rights and how far the government may go in suppressing them.

I hoped to trace this expression back to a single jurist, but LexisNexis is inconclusive on that score. My legal antennae are not very good, but searches of federal and state cases suggest that this term was used rarely if at all before 1960. A noticeable increase in uses in the 1960’s was followed by a veritable explosion in the 1970’s, which evidently gave the phrase a powerful boost into everyday language. Two Supreme Court justices, William O. Douglas and William Brennan, both noted for their defenses of liberty against government encroachment, seem to have used the expression most, although it turned up in a few decisions by others as well. Most of the early examples of the phrase come from Supreme Court decisions — not surprisingly, legal language, like the law itself, depends on precedents set by higher courts. It would be satisfying to find a definitive first use of this expression, but my limited investigations have failed.

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