Jock, meathead, and other words used to describe Ryan Lochte

(c) MacX - Fotolia

Part of what makes the Olympics so riveting is our voracious, Michael Phelps-sized appetites for controversy. From bad-attitude badminton players to the trending topic of Gabby Douglas’s hair, we can’t seem to get enough of Olympic-inspired drama. As viewers, we judge and score the athletes from afar (“She wore that much mascara for a race?!” or “They gave a 9.5 to that guy who runs like Charlie Chaplin?!”) like the Olympian gods from on high.

One of America’s favorite Olympians to watch was Ryan Lochte: Will he win another gold? Is he better than Michael Phelps? What ridiculous thing will he say next in an interview? His interviews were so bad, they became an Internet sensation of their own

What followed was a slew of articles calling Lochte “more brawn than brains,” a jock, a meathead, and even sexy but dumb. Now, I won’t defend everything Lochte has said or done. But I will say I’ve never been a huge fan of labels like jock or meathead. So where do these words come from? Well, they’re certainly nothing new. The term jock came into use in the 1950s or 60s and is actually shortened from jockstrap. Meathead probably goes as far back as the 1860s and is quite literal in its origins (a head made of meat), but rose to popularity thanks to All in the Family. (Interestingly, nerd also rose to prominence in the early 1950s, and sissy dates all the way back to the late 1800s.)

In other words, we still rely on old-fashioned words and thinking to fit people who are different from us into neat little boxes, because we’re too lazy to deal with the fact that nobody is that simple. If we’re going to have high expectations around cultivating Olympians who are well-rounded citizens for life — not just heroic athletes for two weeks every four years — we need to have more meaningful discussions. We can’t just criticize China’s Olympic program and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.

I remember a moving NPR piece from 2008 that looked at what happened to Olympians after their prime — especially the vast majority who never win a medal. They give their bodies and their best years in pursuit of something bigger than themselves. But when it’s all over, they have the extremely difficult struggle of trying to find out who they are when they can no longer do what has defined them their whole lives. Ryan Lochte isn’t going to be able to avoid the question Michael Phelps is facing now, and that so many Olympians have faced before: what next? (After all, partying and appearing on The Bachelor or Dancing With the Stars aren’t long-term plans.) Jock or not, I wish him the best.

Welcome to ‘This Wonderful Word’

(c) rodolphe trider - Fotolia.comI love words. Since I spoke my first, my life has pretty much been a non-stop barrage of talking, reading and writing. Just ask my friends and family.

Growing up, I romanticized print media and fantasized about the day I’d work as a writer or editor. I eventually reached my goal — but by the time I got there, everything we thought we knew about books, newspapers, and magazines had been turned on its head.

For a while, we expected to witness the death of journalism and publishing at any moment. But it’s been nearly 20 years since the Internet went public. And while the turn of a page has been replaced with a click of a button, the ability to communicate world-changing ideas to the public hasn’t become obsolete — and it probably never will.

The problem is, as a society, we’re slowly losing our ability to think, read and communicate deeply. If you want to know just how bad it is, read Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It’s sort of like the Hunger Games, only your brain is Panem and the Internet is the Capitol, trying to deprive it of any real sustenance.

Don’t get me wrong — I work as an online editor and I love the way the Internet and mobile technology have cracked open how we create and share information. I like trying to convey complex ideas in 140 characters on Twitter… it’s like a puzzle. I embrace the fact that language is constantly changing with the times, and I don’t have a problem with the fact that BitTorrent and cybercast are now in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But as the world gets smaller and faster thanks to technology, there’s a growing crisis of faith in the written word as the institutions struggle to keep up. Faltering newspapers. Journalism scandals. Stumbling book publishers. Grammar gone wild in an era of texting and tweeting. But I believe that language, while sometimes clunky and limiting, is all we’ve got. It doesn’t just shape how we view the world — it IS how we view the world. It’s important to preserve our brains’ ability to use it and process it with agility, as well as the publications offering up ideas that encourage us to think deeply and differently.

So, welcome to ‘This Wonderful Word’ — my love-blog to language that’s part media criticism, part linguistic trivia and trends, and entirely the ramblings of a devoted word nerd.