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Just a Thing Called Joe

Geoffrey Nunberg

”Fresh Air,” Dec. 22, 2008

Ever since the "word of the year” business was started by the American Dialect Society in 1990, people have had different ideas about what the qualifications for the honor should be. Some look for a clever or timely neologism. This year the editors of the Oxford American Dictionary chose hypermiling, which refers to trying to get maximum mileage out of your car. It hasn't exactly become a household item, but it'll be handy to have around the next time gas goes over four bucks a gallon. William Safire picked frugalista, another item in tune with the pinchpenny Zeitgeist, even if does sound like it was rescued from the wastebasket in the Colbert Report writer's room. And Webster's New World Dictionary somewhat unaccountably chose oversharing for divulging excessive personal information. That one has actually been around since the early nineties. But then lexicographers don't get out much.      

I prefer to go with those who look for a word that encapsulates some major story of the year, particularly in a year as epochal as this one. The people at Merriam Webster chose bailout, the word which got the biggest spike in lookups on the dictionary's web site (my guess is that it's also the word that figured most prominently the captions of New Yorker cartoons, which is a more suggestive indicator). And you could certainly make an argument for change or post-racial or collateral debt obligation. But none of those is particularly interesting as a word. If it were up to me, I'd fasten on the brief and curious resurgence of Joe.

In 1942, FDR's vice-president Henry Wallace made a famous speech in which he declared that the twentieth century was ”the century of the common man." For most of that period the common man went by the name of Joe. The generic Joe Blow made his first appearance in the 1920's along with his aliases Joe Bloggs and Joe Zilch, to be joined later by Joe Schmo from Kokomo. And by the thirties Joe had replaced John and Jack as a generic word for a chap or a fellow, as in a good Joe or a regular Joe. Maybe that was because Joe seemed more ethnically inclusive and urban than John -- Josephs have always been thicker on the ground in New York than in Arkansas.[1]

GI Joe was popularized in 1942 by a comic strip in the Army weekly Yank. It quickly replaced Johnny Doughboy, a holdover from World War I. And since that period Joe has always suggested blue-collar unpretentiousness. You think of Joe Palooka, the good-natured heavyweight champ from a popular comic strip that went back to the thirties. There was Jackie Gleason's garrulous Joe the bartender, and Josephine the plumber, who was featured in long-running ads for Comet cleanser. Joe Camel slouched onto the scene a few decades later, shooting pool or sitting on his motorcycle in a black leather jacket, always with a cigarette dangling from his split lip. Man or dromedary, you couldn't imagine him as a Jeremy.

Joes don't stand on ceremony, which is why the truncation is irresistible for any politician called Joseph, particularly if he can lay claim to modest roots. Hey, can I call you Joe? Actually, that's sort of the idea.

Joe Lunchpail appeared in the 1960's, and Safire has traced Joe Sixpack back to a 1970 Boston congressional race. At the time, some people heard the phrase as a slur on Irish voters, but it caught on as a slightly jocular handle for ordinary working-class Americans -- Homer Simpson expanded on the idea when he called himself ”a regular Joe Twelve-Pack."

Those are the voters both parties have been wooing since the late 1960's, but usually under oblique labels like the silent majority, working Americans, or the forgotten middle class. (The working class and lower middle class have always been invisible in the American political lexicon.) Before Sarah Palin, no national candidates had ever invoked Joe Sixpack by name, much less offered themselves as a representative of what Palin called ”the normal Joe Sixpack American."

And then in one of those you-can't-make-this stuff-up moments, the NJSA constituency achieved a photogenic personification in the form of an Ohio man who happened to go by his middle name of Joe and who worked in the canonical twentieth-century blue-collar job.[2] (He was also a dead ringer for Peter Boyle in his title role as a hippie-hating factory worker in the 1970 movie Joe). That was pure serendipity -- there's no way Wurzelbacher would have been transformed into a campaign mascot if he'd been Dwayne the dry wall guy.

Between Joe the plumber and Joe Sixpack, the Republicans' populist appeals in this election were more explicit than at any time since Nixon and Agnew. Their partisans were adrenalized, and piled into Palin's rallies with placards bearing their first names and job descriptions. But outside of the Republican base, there was no rush to enlist in the Joe Sixpack nation. Of course there are lots of reasons for that. Some had misgivings about Palin, and Joe the Plumber turned out to be something of a loose spigot. And then most people simply had a lot of other things on their mind this year. But it isn't likely the Republicans will be resuscitating any of this year's Joes when they make their way back to Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2012.

There's always a risk that what sounds populist in one ear will sound patronizing in another. Notwithstanding Henry Wallace's speech or Aaron Copland's fanfare, the common man has never been crazy about being referred to as the common man. And with the notable exception of Homer Simpson, most people aren't comfortable having their social identity reduced to a beverage preference, whether it's for beer or chardonnay. Americans may still feel a nostalgic affection for the picturesque working-class characters the name Joe evoked in the last century. But when they catch a glimpse of themselves in a mirror -- well, it's funny, but they don't look Joeish.

[1] That may explain why John continued to be used generically in the itinerant's derisive John Farmer (see Jonathan Lighter's Historical Dictionary of American Slang). It's also used in John Law and John Q. Public, both of which imply a (usually spurious) gravity. Most languages seem to have a proper name that can be used generically -- in Italian it's Tizio, in Spanish it's Fulano or Juan Perez, in Latin it was Gaius, and in Dutch it's Jan, as in Jan Boezeroen (John Overalls), "workman" and Jantje Beton (Johnny Cement), "inner-city child." return

2. Well before this election, "Joe the plumber" was sometimes used as a generic term for the ordinary workingman:

For example, Funk and Wagnall's Encyclopedia is a reliable source; but Joe the plumber's Guide to Waterfowl in Hoboken, is not. College and University Writing Essentials, 1995

But, if Joe the plumber cleans out someone's kitchen drain for $75 and then takes his customer out to a $100 lunch, it hardly looks ordinary and necessary. Tax Savvy for Small Businesses, 2007

While it may be interesting enough in its own right, Joe the plumber's view of the literary value of Huckleberry Finn is probably not as relevant as the expert who has made his or her life study the life and work of Mark Twain. College and University Writing Super Review, 2000 return

Copyright © 2008 by Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.