October 15, 2014

We’re still hearing that “giant sucking sound”

On most days, if you do a Google news search on “giant sucking sound” you’ll usually find that phrase used in a number of recent news-related stories and blog posts, even though many people today are unaware of its origin or original context.

Although it was first used in an economic and political context, “giant sucking sound” now seems to be used in references to all types of things.

For example, a recent story by journalist Madeleine Thomas on the Grist.com environmental news site opened with the line: “That giant sucking sound you hear on the West Coast these days is the state of California, hoovering up as much renewable energy as neighboring states can produce.”

I suspect that many readers of Grist.com may not know that American businessman Ross Perot coined the phrase “a giant sucking sound” or when he coined it or what he was talking about.

In fact, I suspect many people in general, especially those under the age of 40, aren’t aware of the famous quotation that firmly planted the phrase in our language.

So then why, if most people aren’t aware of it, do I call it a famous quotation?

Well, basically because I think the term “famous quotation” is best applied to quotes that are cited or include lines or phrases that remain familiar for more than a short period of time, even if the exact origin is unknown to most people.

On the flip side, familiarity for a limited period of time does not make a quote worthy of being called famous.

One of my favorite quote mavens, Nigel Rees, has pointedly criticized the tendency of some modern quotation reference books, such as the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, to elevate things like pop song lyrics to the level of other truly famous quotes simply because they are widely known at the time when the book was published.

“Remember the dreadful example of the 1999 edition of the Oxford DQ, stuffing in remarks and supposedly quotable lyrics from the Spice Girls?” Rees wrote in an issue of his great “Quote...Unquote” newsletter. “What a surprise that they have mostly gone from the most recent edition.”

Do you remember those Spice Girls quotes? I don’t. That’s Nigel’s point. Quotes and phrases that have a short shelf life are not really “famous quotes.”

They may be heard and repeated for a year or so, or even for a few years, but they do not have real longevity in our language and culture. Thus, in Nigel’s view (and mine) they don’t qualify as famous quotations.

Scholarly quotation reference books like Bartlett's Familiar Quotations usually include many historical and literary quotes that are not actually familiar to most people, along with the truly famous quotations that are.

These less familiar quotes may be worthy bits of wisdom or wit, or worth knowing for the purpose of cultural literacy. But they are not necessarily “famous quotations.”

My own working definition of a famous quotation is a quote that is both widely known and which has had, or is clearly likely to have, a long life in our language – as a result of being frequently and widely cited, quoted, misquoted, adapted, recycled and/or repurposed.

I think the phrase “a giant sucking sound,” which began it’s journey to becoming a famous quotation on October 15, 1992, is a good example.

On that night, Independent candidate Ross Perot appeared in a televised presidential debate with Republican President George H. W. Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton.

During the debate, Perot made this prediction about the effects of the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA):

“If you're paying $12, $13, $14 an hour for factory workers and you can move your factory south of the border, pay $1 an hour for your labor, have no health care, have no environmental controls, no pollution controls and no retirement, and you don't care for anything but making money, then there will be a giant sucking sound going south.”

His prediction was included in hundreds of news reports about the presidential debate. Probably thousands. The catchy phrase “a giant sucking sound” that was embedded in it quickly gained what turned out to be long-lasting fame.

Perot’s entire sentence did not become well known, but “giant sucking sound” did and it continues to be used and repurposed today on a regular basis.

So, in my book (metaphorically speaking), and on my quotation blogs, Perot’s original use of it qualifies as “a famous quotation.”

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