Arts & Culture

You can quote them

Yale law librarian Fred R. Shapiro is editor of the <i>Yale Book of Quotations</i>.
Photo illustration: John Paul Chirdon

Photo illustration: John Paul Chirdon

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Many Yale alumni and faculty have successfully launched new words into wide use. But who was the most influential phrasemaker of them all?

For my last column, I started an investigation to identify the preeminent Yale coiner. I reviewed such neologisms as radio (Lee De Forest, Class of 1896), quark (Murray Gell-Mann ’48), and laser (Gordon Gould ’48MS), but concluded that the champion should be someone with multiple verbal contributions.

One such candidate is William Graham Sumner, Class of 1863, professor of political and social science from 1872 to 1910. His sociological word and phrase coinages were multiple and significant. In his classic 1906 book Folkways, Sumner introduced the terms ethnocentrism, in-group, out-group, and the word folkways itself. His course descriptions in the 1898 Yale University Catalogue contained the earliest known uses of the words societal and mores. The expression the forgotten man (who, Sumner pointed out, was often a woman) was given currency by Franklin D. Roosevelt in a 1932 radio address, but it was originated by Sumner in an 1883 essay in which he described the forgotten man as someone who "works, he votes, generally he prays -- but he always pays -- yes, above all, he pays."

Another contender is George H. W. Bush ’48. In a single speech, accepting the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention in 1988, Bush popularized a thousand points of light, read my lips, and a kinder, gentler nation. Earlier, in campaign remarks in New Haven in March 1980, he memorably referred to Ronald Reagan's proposals to increase government revenues by reducing taxes as voodoo economics. (After becoming Reagan's running mate, Bush denied using this term. But he had to acknowledge having done so after the media produced evidence, including footage of him referring to "voodoo economic policy" during an address in April 1980 at Carnegie-Mellon University.) The 41st president also popularized new world order and appears to have devised two more-personal phrases, the big mo (momentum) and the vision thing.

It's an impressive linguistic legacy -- but it does not make Bush ’48 the lead Yalie coiner, as speechwriters played a role in much of his phraseology. Peggy Noonan, for example, wrote the acceptance speech. She may have drawn "thousand points of light" from the writings of Thomas Wolfe, with which she was familiar; Wolfe used "a thousand tiny points of bluish light" in Look Homeward, Angel; "a thousand points of friendly light" in The Web and the Rock; and "ten thousand points of light" in You Can't Go Home Again.

I am somewhat tempted to go with William Graham Sumner's brother-in-law, Walter Camp, Class of 1880, an official or unofficial Yale football coach from 1876 to 1909. Camp, as part of his transformation of rugby into the sport we now know as American football, appears to have introduced to American football the rugby terms quarterback and scrimmage, and he apparently chose the word safety for the two-point play when the ball is downed in a team's own end zone.

I think, however, that the outstanding Yale-affiliated phraseological creator-popularizer was Tom Wolfe ’57PhD (not to be confused with earlier novelist Thomas Wolfe). Tom Wolfe's coinages include the me decade, which he used in a 1976 essay of that title, and masters of the universe. He derived the latter from a superhero action figure set, but made it his own in The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) as a label for highly successful Wall Street financiers.

As a popularizer, Wolfe was responsible for launching radical chic, right stuff, and pushing the envelope. Seymour Krim used radical chic in an essay he wrote in 1962 and published in January 1970; Wolfe made it well known with his New York magazine article in June 1970. I have traced right stuff as far back as 1856, when the following appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine: "The old mate will roysterously bellow forth -- 'If I didn't know as you've got the right stuff among ye, I should think I'd found a lot of chicken-hearted greenhorns.'" The OED records pushing the envelope in Aviation Week and Space Technology in 1978. It was certainly Wolfe, though, who launched those two locutions into the lexicon by prominently featuring them in his 1979 test-pilot epic The Right Stuff.

In general, as the me decade has been succeeded by even-more-selfish subsequent decades, and the masters of the universe have continued their machinations to the point of a worldwide economic crash, Wolfe's social criticism and terminology seem more relevant than ever today. He earns the title of Yale's foremost contributor to our common discourse. 

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