The Lexicon of Tom Wolfe
Remembering the writer’s contributions to the English language, which went far beyond the most obvious catchphrases that he popularized
The paeans to Tom Wolfe, who died on Monday at the age of 88, inevitably extol his colorfully inventive use of language across his decades of fiction and nonfiction writing. As the New York Times obituary observes, “He had a pitiless eye and a penchant for spotting trends and then giving them names, some of which—like ‘Radical Chic’ and ‘the Me Decade’—became American idioms.”
Wolfe’s contributions to the English language go far beyond the most obvious catchphrases that he popularized. The Oxford English Dictionary includes about 150 quotations from Wolfe’s writings, and in many cases, he is the earliest known source for words and phrases that have worked their way into the lexicon. Here is a survey of some of his key linguistic innovations.
As an early proponent of what came to be known as New Journalism, Wolfe had a flashy sense for language from the very beginning: Consider the title of his 1963 essay that put him on the map, a piece for Esquire on custom cars: “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm)…”
A year later, an essay of Wolfe’s for Harper’s Bazaar titled “The New Art Gallery Society” provided the first of his many OED-anointed neologisms: aw-shucks as a verb meaning “to behave with (affected) bashfulness or self-deprecation.” Describing a party for the reopening of the Museum of Modern Art, Wolfe wrote, “Up on the terrace, Stewart Udall, the Secretary of the Interior of the United States, is sort of aw-shucksing around.”
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his 1968 account of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, introduced a number of terms straight out of the drug-fueled counterculture, like Owsley, for “an extremely potent, high-quality type of LSD” (named after Owsley Stanley, the Grateful Dead soundman who manufactured millions of doses of acid). The book also brought us edge city, defined by the OED as “a notional place outside the bounds of conventional society” (“It’s time to take the Prankster circus further on toward Edge City”), and the adjective balls-out, defined as “unrestrained, uninhibited” (“The trip, in fact the whole deal, was a risk-all balls-out plunge into the unknown”).
Wolfe was clearly in a neologistic frame of mind in 1970, when he wrote two of his most famous essays. From “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” published in New York, we of course get radical chic (“the fashionable affectation of radical left-wing views”), though he seems to have appropriated the phrase from Seymour Krim, who had used it earlier in the year in his collection of essays Shake It for the World, Smartass. And the title of “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” contributed two more coinages: mau-mauing (“using menacing or intimidating tactics against”), and flak catcher (“one who deals with and deflects adverse or hostile comment, questions, etc., in order to protect a person or institution from unfavorable publicity”).
A 1976 New York cover story is responsible for one of Wolfe’s most enduring phrases: “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening.” Along with me decade as his term for the 1970s (“regarded as a period characterized by an obsessive preoccupation with personal fulfillment and self-gratification”), the OED credits Wolfe with a lesser-known expression: hardballer in the sense of “a person who is ruthless and uncompromising, esp. in politics or business” (as in: “Charles Colson, the former hardballer of the Nixon Administration, announces for Jesus”).
Wolfe once again picked a title that was destined for lexical immortality when he wrote his 1979 book on the Project Mercury astronauts, The Right Stuff. Though the right stuff is actually documented by the OED back to 1748 in the sense of “something that is just what is required” (especially alcohol or money), Wolfe’s book provided a new semantic twist: “the necessary qualities for a given job or task,” that mysterious essence imbuing the test pilots drafted for the Mercury program.
The Right Stuff also helped popularize some expressions that were previously known only in aviation and aeronautics circles. One is push the envelope, meaning “to approach or go beyond the current limits of performance,” which the OED notes had appeared in the magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology a year before Wolfe brought it to a mainstream audience. Another is screw the pooch, meaning “to make a (disastrous) mistake,” which Wolfe famously used in recounting Virgil “Gus” Grissom’s botched splashdown after becoming the second American in space. The movie version reinforced the notion that Grissom had screwed the pooch, though the malfunction was likely not the astronaut’s fault. (For a deep dive into how screw the pooch evolved from the earlier expression fuck the dog, see my 2014 piece for Slate.)
Wolfe kept up his penchant for concocting new words in the go-go ’80s, such as his coinage of plutography, a play on pornography. “This may be the decade of plutography,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1985, explaining that “plutography is the graphic description of the acts of the rich.” At the time, Wolfe was busy working on his own plutographic opus: his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987.
The most notable expression to come out of The Bonfire of the Vanities is Master of the Universe, though that phrase actually dates back to the work of John Dryden in 1690, with the meaning “a person or being that controls everything.” In the early 1980s, “Masters of the Universe” took on a new life for Mattel’s superhero franchise of He-Man, She-Ra, and the rest, spun off into action figures, comic books, and animated TV series. Wolfe’s protagonist, Sherman McCoy, applies that omnipotent term to the financial world: “On Wall Street he and a few others—how many?—three hundred, four hundred, five hundred?—had become precisely that … Masters of the Universe. There was … no limit whatsoever!”
Bonfire also illustrated Wolfe’s keen ear for the vernacular, with different characters voicing the now-famous New York City refrain, fuhgedaboudit. To take the example cited by the OED, Goldberg, a police detective, says, “In the Bronx or Bed-Stuy, fuhgedaboudit. Bed-Stuy’s the worst.” Former Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz must not have taken the knock against Bedford-Stuyvesant to heart, since during his tenure he put “Fuhgeddaboudit” on a highway sign leaving Brooklyn, showing how the interjection had become firmly entrenched as a tongue-in-cheek marker of local identity.
Wolfe’s later novels (A Man in Full, I Am Charlotte Simmons, and Back to Blood) were not quite as fertile for introducing new words, though he continued to keep tabs on developments in the language. The germ for I Am Charlotte Simmons came from a 2000 essay, “Hooking Up,” that investigated the “hook-up” culture of American college students. But Wolfe was hardly in the forefront on this, as Connie Eble reports in her book Slang and Sociability that undergraduates at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were using hook up to mean “to find a partner for romance or sex” since the mid-’80s. While Wolfe at the end of his career may have moved from being a linguistic leader to merely a follower, his decades of creativity with the written word have undoubtedly left an enduring impact.