The Making of the Buzz Boom
Listen to the sweet sounds of Charlie Sheen, BuzzFeed, and the midterm elections.
By Liesl Schillinger
Illustrations by Keetra Dean Dixon
Earlier this year, as a service to humanity (or at least to the U.S. electorate), BuzzFeed published a quiz on the subject: “How well do you know basic U.S. politics?” For one candidate in the run-up to last week’s midterm elections, however, a more relevant question turned out to be: “How well do you know BuzzFeed?” At a debate with Eric Schneiderman, his Democratic rival for the office of New York attorney general, the Republican contender, John Cahill, was stumped by a question from the press. “Have you ever taken a BuzzFeed quiz?” the reporter asked. “A what?” asked Cahill. He lost his race (he hadn’t been favored to win, anyway) but in the wee hours of Wednesday on Fox News, as Karl Rove, Chris Wallace, and other self-styled “campaign cowboys” exulted over Republican victories, wearing bandannas and Western hats, Cahill was one of comparatively few GOP candidates to feel the sting of defeat.
At a time when social media has made it possible for politicians and journalists to tap into the hive mind with a click on a keyboard, it is easier than ever before (and more necessary) to scout out what has voters abuzz. Given the legion of buzzy words and names winging their way through the post-internet world — from buzzword to buzzkill, to BuzzFeed and its new rival, PlayBuzz — you might assume that the source meaning of bee-related words has been changing lately. But from its inception, in the 17th century (according to the Oxford English Dictionary), the word “buzz” has carried a cloud of contrasting meanings that apply to both bees and people. For Shakespeare, in 1623 (King Lear), a buzz could be a “groundless fancy, whim” or fad; for John Milton, since 1645, it could also be “A sibilant hum, such as is made by bees, flies, and other winged insects.” For a forgotten moralist named Owen Felltham, in 1628, the “frothy buzze of the world” signified “The confused or mingled sound made by a number of people talking or busily occupied.” That means that for four centuries, whenever somebody asked “What’s the buzz?” someone had a fair chance of knowing the answer.
Still, there’s room for neologistic newcomers to the hive. In New York magazine in October, Gabriel Sherman credited Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, with expanding the verbal apiary with a term for TV networks’ relentless, all-points, pack coverage of big, breaking stories: “Zucker calls it ‘swarming,’” Sherman wrote. And British athletes and sports fans recently started putting a new spin on “buzzing,” using it like the Yiddish word “kvelling” — to rejoice. In October, Arsenal’s Welsh midfielder Aaron Ramsey posted a celebratory tweet after his teammate Danny Welbeck scored three goals in one game: “Buzzing for Welbeck.” Fellow Arsenal player Jack Wilshere tweeted his agreement: “I told you all about Welbs!!!! Buzzing for him. Good win tonight!” It was that kind of buzzing, pretty much, that GOP media hornets Rove and Wallace got up to last week, as the news spread that Republicans had retaken the Senate.
On Wednesday, the morning after the midterms, post-election swarming commenced on all the networks. On the Today Show, NBC News White House correspondent Peter Alexander observed that President Obama’s “speechwriters better start looking up synonyms for the word shellacking.” (“Shellacking” was the overly expressive yet apt word the president used in 2010, when the Republicans retook the House of Representatives.) That night on The Daily Show on Comedy Central, “senior demographer” Jessica Williams told Jon Stewart that Democrats — who, she observed, had lost the knack for politics but were still terrific at social media and raising money — ought to turn their energies to creating an app called “AirDNC.” How would it work? Ousted Democratic officials would rent their vacant D.C. homes to online travelers, she explained. “BOOM!” she concluded, making a swirling abracadabra gesture with her hands. “‘Boom!’ Is right,” Stewart responded. “The truth hurts.” The next night, Stewart boomed on his own, unprompted, after playing a nostalgic clip of the time President Obama roasted the republican senator Mitch McConnell (now the majority leader of the newly-red Senate), at the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. To those who asked Obama why he didn’t get a drink with Mitch McConnell, the President had retorted derisively, to thunderous laughter, “Really? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?” “BOOM!” Stewart shouted, making a bombs-away gesture (and dropping his pen).
That same week, Joe Scarborough, the anchor of Morning Joe, dropped a “Boom!” on air, but he had boomed most resonantly back in August, when he worried aloud that GOP contenders who took extreme positions to court far-right voters sometimes hurt their chances at the voting booth. “If the candidate wanted to make a win, they needed to go further and further out there, and then boom! — it hammers them,” he said. But on Wednesday, it was the Democrats who got hammered or thumped, or trounced, or shellacked (choose your own synonym), as Republicans took control of both houses of government and snagged multiple governorships, significantly reddening the electoral map.
Strangely, though perhaps not surprisingly, both “boom” and “shellacking” come to us, like “buzz,” from the insect world — from the chitinous multitudes of busy beetles and bees. Shellack is a resin oozed by lac bugs, which human workers harvest and transform into a shiny, hard glaze. To be “shellacked,” therefore, is to be drubbed until your skin takes on the crimson sheen of a lacquered Chinese screen — much like the current electoral map of the United States. And “boom,” which most of us once used interchangeably with “bang,” heeding its most common definition, “A deep resonant sound, as of an explosion,” actually comes from Late Middle English, by way of (it is thought) the Dutch verb “bommen,” which means to hum or buzz.
If you’ve turned on your television in the last few weeks, watched a football game with a boisterous group of friends, or read a magazine, you may have noticed that a whole lot more of these booms are being dropped, unconnected to politics. Advertisers, picking up on the “Boom!” boom, have started dunking the word into TV spots for everything from car insurance (Liberty Mutual) to mattresses (Sleep Number) to sandwiches (Dunkin Donuts). The word even popped up in this permutation in The New Yorker (with a comma, rather than a sensation-seeking exclamation point) in a profile of a purveyor of “élite” sustainable meat, who told the reporter she had seen a hipster food court in L.A., and thought, “Boom, I want to do that.”
Traditional dictionaries do not yet reflect the ongoing evolution of this percussive word. Today’s boom does not have to suggest TNT and bombs bursting in air (though it can); rather, it signals that someone is emphatically or ironically underscoring a point. To find a definition of the usage now in vogue, you will need to consult an online slang tracker. The word, in its new sense, is defined (clumsily) on Urban Dictionary as an “oral exclamation” used in a “purely conversational context,” which is “designed to simply reinforce one’s point or statement,” in “lighthearted, but not overtly humorous, situations.” The TV critic Melissa Maerz put it more succinctly in an L.A. Times blog in 2011, when she published a glossary of the actor Charlie Sheen’s signature expressions. “Boom” by his definition, she wrote, was “an exclamation used to signify the end of a mind-blowing statement.” She provided a usage example from the quotable Sheen: “You have the right to kill me, but you do not have the right to judge me. Boom.”
Sheen, alas, did not invent the current whir on the word. When an expression catches the public imagination, an origin story usually accompanies it, crediting the man who minted it. For instance, when the ancient Greek scholar Archimedes, stepping into his bath, noticed the water level rise and intuited the theory of volume displacement, he shouted (so it is said), “Eureka!” — meaning, “I have found it!” — then ran naked through the streets of Syracuse in triumph, proclaiming his discovery. If Charlie Sheen had done such a thing, we surely would have heard about it, given the buzz he generates. Still, his explosive mojo may have played a role in boosting the word into the current conversation. After all, as he himself has said, “I got magic and I got poetry in my fingertips.” Boom.