That's So Gatsby! It's More Than a Name

You've heard of the book. You've heard of the major motion picture. But what's in a name, when the name is Gatsby? An investigation into the popularization of a word that is only sort of a word.

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You've heard of the book (I hope you've heard of the book). You've heard of the major motion picture that's bound for theaters by the weekend (and you've probably heard of the other major motion pictures, too). Now real-estate developers are getting in on the Gatsby action, reports Elizabeth A. Harris in The New York Times. In fairness, they've been in on it for a while, since before Baz Luhrmann ever got his hands on the novel. And they're not the only ones who've appropriated the word for their own purposes.

Gatsby is a word that's become mildly synonymous not only with Robert Redford, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or even Leo DiCaprio, but also, and more importantly, with money — and all those things that go along with liquid cash that Jay Gatsby desperately wanted: status, privilege, sophistication, class. That's why developers, including those behind the Gatsby condos on Manhattan's Upper East Side and the people who named "Gatsby Lane" in Montgomery, Alabama, have glommed onto it. Throw the name Gatsby onto something, and people cannot help but admire whatever it may be! There's another Gatsby Lane in Kings Point, New York, itself the possible inspiration for West Egg, where "there is an empty 3.4-acre plot for sale for $17 million." Brokers agree that the name is a good one, writes Harris: It's "a nice, affluent name ... very smart."

Therefore, Gatsbys of all shapes and sizes abound. There's a real estate company with the name. "Online searches turn up a Gatsby Circle in Rock Hill, S.C., a Gatsby Place in Alpharetta, Ga., and a Gatsby Court in Lansing, Mich. There is even a Gatsby Lane in Topping, Va., named a dozen years ago, which is now dotted with prefabricated houses and mobile homes," writes Harris. And Gatsby goes beyond real estate. There's a SoHo bar that serves chicken fingers. There is hair wax, and face wash, too. As Harris notes, there was a car, built in the '70s, made to look like a vehicle from the flapper age. It would likely be driven by a man who wears a J. Peterman Gatsby shirt: "Gatsby, of course, could afford stacks of these shirts—rooms of them. Never mind. All that matters is that you have one, just one. A piece of how things were."

 You know when something makes it into Urban Dictionary (from way back in 2003), it's for real:

But how in the Gatsby did we get here from Fitzgerald's novel, published in 1925? Merriam-Webster editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski says that uses of phrases like "Gatsby era" and "Gatsby generation" "are promising starts" for the increasing generic use of the name. He provided a few examples from the M-W citation files. It seems that the Gatsby movie featuring Robert Redford (released in 1974) had a significant impact on the use of the word:

From October 1974: "Gatsby tradition"
Shoes especially designed to look superb with trousers. | Broguey, punch-hole detailing in the great Gatsby tradition. | Fined-down platforms, T-straps, | slingbacks. "Advertisement"  P. 17 ANNABEL No. 104

From April, 1974: "Gatsbyisation"
You are about to experience the spring-time delights of "| Gatsbyisation". In America, hit a little earlier, they are peddling Gatsby clothes, hair-cuts, scotch, kitchenware, mansions and, no doubt, Gatsby | bath-taps and toothpicks. "If The Cult Fits"  P. 569 William Davis PUNCH April 10, 1974

From September, 1990: "Gatsby era"
Take the easy elegance of the Gatsby era, the soulful mystery of New Mexico, the carefree luxury of California, throw in a spectacular view of Long Island Sound, and what have you got?  The answer, if interior designer Michael de Santis has his way, is a stylish and|witty waterfront|guesthouse that redefines the spirit of leisure. "American Playhouse" 203 Brooks Peters ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST   Vol 47  No 10 September 1990 

From August, 2004: "The Gatsby generation"
[Journalist Stephen Rebello:] These characters drink, | drug, party, are obsessed with celebrity, and have their heads up their pretty asses, so they seem completely modern. [Actor/author/director Stephen Fry:]  We think we're the first era to indulge in celebrity worship, that we have a new breed of party animals who | crash and burn. The "Gatsby generation" in America, the "Bright Young Things" in Britain, pioneered the youth culture and were the first generation seen as completely irresponsible by their parents and the first who sacrificed themselves in the eternal search for the next | buzz. I considered brining Waugh's characters into a New York or Los Angeles | club-land sort of atmosphere, but the odd thing about doing something like that is that people would automatically say, "Who is that character supposed to be?" and that reduces the interest. "Bright & Brassy"  P. 56 Stephen Rebello THE ADVOCATE August 31, 2004 

From April 2010: "a Gatsby" (in reference to a sandwich) 
IN CAPE TOWN, South Africa, a Gatsby is a soft, foot-long roll stuffed with fish or meat, vinegary french fries known as | slap chips, and a sauce-usually achar (curried Indian pickle) or piri piri (a chile sauce). Rashaad Pandy of the fish-and-chips shop Super Fisheries, in the Athlone area on the city's outskirts, claims to have invented it one night in 1976 when, trying to feed some day laborers he had hired, he found that he had sold out of fish. So he filled a round Portuguese loaf with what he had:  chips, fried bologna, and achar. One man exclaimed, "This is fantastic-a Gatsby | smash!" (Smash was local slang for a tasty dish.) The film The Great Gatsby [starring Redford] had recently played to enthusiastic crowds at the Athlone Bioscope. The early Gatsby's round loaf was also said to be shaped like the newsboy cap worn by Robert Redford in the movie. "The Great Gatsby"  P. 18 SAVEUR  No. 128 April, 2010

And who could forget The Observer's coinage in June of 2012, "the Gatsbabies"? "Call them the Gatsbabies: three dandyish gentlemen—but straight, mind you, very, very straight—who seemed to come out of nowhere. In this, they were not unlike the former James Gatz himself, on whom they unconsciously styled themselves, the emperor of West Egg, the subject of a million high school book reports and any minute now, a glistening slice of Oscar bait starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Baz Luhrmann."

The appeal of the word Gatsby becomes a bit counterintuitive if you think about it deeply (is it a spoiler to say our main character ends up not so much alive as dead?). But on the surface, Gatsby bespeaks of a glitzier time, full of parties and splendor, as does, to some degree, the word Fitzgerald, which is associated with its own building on the Upper West Side, Harris points out in the Times. And of course, it's also literary. Much like the superficial nature of Gatsby's life, the word Gatsby relies on superficial interpretations. That's so Gatsby

It bears mentioning that the word Gatsby doesn't appear on its own in Merriam Webster's online resource, but there is the word Gatsbyesque, with a first known use of 1977. The word was added to the Collegiate Dictionary for the 11th edition in 2003, M-W's Sokolowski tells me, and means, as you might guess, "resembling or characteristic of the title character or the world of the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald." I feel comfortable saying that it would be a terrible name for an apartment building. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.