Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Lexicon of Tom Wolfe

The Atlantic has a nice piece on author Tom Wolfe, who died earlier this week at the age of 88.

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.

The Atlantic notes that Wolfe's book The Right Stuff introduced

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.

The term "screw the pooch," we are told, originates from an earlier phrase: "feed the dog" or "fuck the dog" or "walk the dog" which meant loafing or procrastinating.

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