The Romney campaign debacle and the evolution of a ‘shitstorm’

© Ben Chams - Fotolia.comYou’d have to be living under a rock to have missed the secret video showing Mitt Romney wailing about how 47% of the country will never vote for him. Poor Mitt. The video made me think a lot of things about America, but in particular, it reminded me about a very special word in the English language.

Earlier this year, linguists in Germany voted the word ‘shitstorm’ one of English’s greatest gifts to the German language. As German newspaper The Local reported, “Shitstorm fills a gap in the German vocabulary that has become apparent through changes in the culture of public debate… Established German words, such as Kritik (criticism), were simply not descriptive enough.”

Apparently scheisse, German for ‘excrement,’ just didn’t have the same “oomph” when it came to talking about the European financial crisis. But as Michael Lewis noted in his 2011 Vanity Fair piece on Germany, “the German word for ‘shit’ performs a vast number of bizarre linguistic duties—for instance, a common German term of endearment was once ‘my little shit bag.'” It’s no surprise, then, that they were so taken by the word ‘shitstorm.’

So what is a shitstorm? Well, putting the literal definition aside, the jury of German linguists defined it as “a public outcry, primarily on the Internet, in which arguments mix with threats and insults to reach a critical mass, forcing a reaction.” This adds a new spin to the older Oxford Dictionaries definition, which is simply “a situation marked by violent controversy.”

Indeed, regardless of your politics, the current brouhaha surrounding the Romney campaign fits both definitions of shitstorm. It is undoubtedly a situation marked by fury and controversy (that is, Romney verbally spewing a big pile of scheisse about 47% of the electorate that even many Republicans have to disagree with). It’s also a shitstorm in the German sense, in that the Internet played a major roll in causing public outcry to reach a critical mass, forcing a reaction from Romney.

Still, despite the German adoption and evolving of ‘shitstorm,’ in my mind, it’s still very much a word unique to the English language. One of my favorite aspects of American (er, and British) culture is the flexibility of the language that allows us to create compound words to describe new phenomena with ease — like cybercast, brainstorm, or hellcat. This gives us the ability to make up words with nuanced cadences and connotations that say just what we mean. For example, a shitshow (a display of incompetence) is not the same thing as a shitstorm (widespread outcry and controversy that’s difficult to control).

We’re constantly making up compound words like this in our daily lives, even if they don’t have formal definitions. For example, we’ll add “-fest” to the end of anything to indicate “a gathering or celebration” — nerd-fest, food-fest, tech-fest, etc. It’s no wonder, then, that our compounds make their way into other languages, where they express concepts for which there are no single words. The Germans also took a liking to “stresstest,” and France’s L’Académie Française tried unsuccessfully to strike “le week-end” from daily usage (it just flows off the tongue better than le fin de semaine). Of course, we have a big debt to German, French, and a host of other languages for some pretty choice words, too.

So while critics might say that Romney lacks foreign policy experience, at least now he can say that thanks to his ‘shitstorm,’ he’s participated in a German-American cross-cultural exchange.

FAQ: What’s up with South Asians and spelling bees, and what the heck is a “bee” anyway?

© Paul Maguire - Fotolia.comSyamantak Payra spelled his way to the top last week at the 5th annual MetLife South Asian Spelling Bee, winning the championship with the word “dghaisa.”

Now, you’re probably thinking two things. First, what in the world is a “dghaisa”? Well, apparently it’s a Maltese boat similar to a gondola. Yeah, I didn’t know either. Second, you’re probably wondering why South Asian Americans seem to have taken such a shining to spelling bees (the last five winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee are all of South Asian descent, and now the community even has its own spelling bee circuit). As a South Asian American who happens to love spelling, I thought I’d take a stab at this one.

In my years of pondering this topic, I’ve read a number of interesting theories and been asked some pretty hilarious questions on why the South Asian American community has fallen head over heels for spelling bees. Here’s my response to the FAQs:

Are spelling bees big in India? What the heck is a bee anyway?
Despite what some people might think, no, spelling bees aren’t really a thing in India. In fact, spelling bees are very much an American phenomenon. According to the Scripps National Spelling Bee website, the first recorded usage of the phrase “spelling bee” was in the U.S. in 1875, but the etymology of the word is a bit of a mystery. Most sources suggest the term “bee”  for a communal gathering is a reference to the insect (being busy or social like a bee), but this is just a theory.

Is there something about Indian culture that makes people go crazy for spelling?
Um, no. I love spelling, but I can’t speak for a billion people. I never entered a major spelling bee and my non-South Asian best friend always trounced me at the school bee.

Yes, rote memorization is emphasized in the Indian education system, but that’s a total oversimplification of both the education system and spelling. In my opinion, good spelling isn’t actually rote memorization. Nobody can memorize every word in the language, especially since so many words we use aren’t actually English. You have to learn how to recognize the root of a word and the rules that come into play as a result (that’s why being bilingual can provide an advantage). Second, the kids competing in this bee might have South Asian parents, but they grow up in America. And when they’re standing in front of a microphone trying to spell “logorrhea,” they’re on their own.

Lastly, I’m not a fan of the “but Indians make their kids study so hard” argument for a number of reasons that I won’t get into here because that’s an essay. If you’re interested, you can read more about why I have a beef with the model minority stereotype.

You still haven’t answered my question. Why spelling bees?
Okay, okay. Here goes. James Maguire, author of American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds, offered up the simplest yet most convincing reason in his 2006 interview that aired on the PBS NewsHour:

“Indian-Americans are very, very strong at the bee. And, of course, an Indian-American boy won in 1985, and I think it inspired a lot of immigrant pride. I think recent Indian immigrants said to themselves, ‘Well, if one of our own can win this quintessentially American contest, then we really want to be, you know, interested in this.’ So Indian-Americans put a lot of emphasis on it.”

In other words, South Asian Americans saw somebody that looked like them win the spelling bee and thought, “Hey, I can do that!” Mind you, 1985 was before South Asians had risen to national prominence in the U.S. It was just two years before the Dotbusters committed a spree of hate crimes against South Asians in Jersey City, and Indians were often the butt of jokes in TV and movies. I can’t emphasize enough how empowering it must’ve been to see a fellow South Asian American excel at something — anything — on the national stage.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to South Asian Americans and spelling bees either. In Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code, there’s actually an entire section of the book called “If she can do it, why can’t I?” Coyle answers the question of why so many Russian women were dominating tennis all of a sudden, or why a slew of South Korean women golfers were joining the LPGA tour. The reason is that talent hotbeds developed when a single star rose to prominence and prompted others to say, “If she can do it, why can’t I?” To us, it looks like a sudden, strange anomaly. In actuality, it’s a slow and steady climb.

So there you have it. The more South Asian American kids win the National Spelling Bee, the more other South Asian American kids become interested in trying to win it. Over time, the South Asian Spelling Bee circuit  has become the hotbed to nurture and grow talent. But it all started in 1985 with Balu Natarajan, a little luck, and the word “milieu.”

What’s the matter with ‘Millennials’? Let’s start with the definition

© Thomas Pajot - Fotolia.comBy now, you’ve probably read a whole lot about the Millennials. As a generation, they’ve been called spoiled, entitled, needy, narcissistic, and most recently, well, totally screwed.

For a while, I’d read these articles that ragged on ‘trophy kids’  and nod my head in agreement: “Darn whippersnappers don’t know the value of a hard-earned dollar!” That is, until I had a horrifying realization akin to Bruce Willis at the end of The Sixth Sense: I AM a Millennial… !!

Furious Web research ensued. How could this be?! I learned how to type on a typewriter. I made mix tapes and read newspapers. Two of my favorite movies were Singles and Reality Bites. And I still think the Dewey Decimal System is a superior method of classifying information! But there it was, staring me in the face: “Generation Y, also known as the Millennials,” born between the late 70s and early 2000s.

I had always thought of myself as Gen Y — born just after Gen X (aka the MTV generation) but before the Millennials, the generation raised online. Other writers talked about this conundrum of feeling like the in-between generation, too. Doree Shafrir wrote a piece for Slate suggesting that we call ourselves “Generation Catalano” (if you don’t get the reference, you’re not Generation Catalano). But somehow, that didn’t seem satisfactory.

After I got through the denial, I started to wonder — why do we lump people together, who are born 20-30 years apart, for the sake of categorization? Do people born in the late 70s who first learned about Facebook well after college really have that much in common with babies born into a world where it’s ubiquitous? But it seems defining generations has long been a messy science with lots of overlap. The Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. Gen X is still sometimes defined as people born between the early 60s and early 80s, and there’s already a struggle to define Gen Z.

The idea of defining cultural generations first rose to prominence in the late 1800s. In 1863, Emile Littre defined a generation as “all men living more or less in the same time” (from The Generation of 1914 by Robert Wohl). Soon after, the naming of generations followed — The Lost Generation, who lived through World War I; the Silent Generation, who lived through the Depression; the Greatest Generation, who fought in World War II; and of course, the Baby Boomers, born after World War II.

Baby Boomers, interestingly, have a lot in common with Millennials. They came of age in a time of turmoil. They were youth-obsessed (you know, “hope I die before I get old”). They even ushered in the “Me Decade,” a term coined by Tom Wolfe to describe the ’70s. And recently, the criticism has shifted away from younger Millennials (who can’t find jobs no matter how desperately they want to) and onto the Boomers as the self-absorbed ones. As Joel Kotkin’s piece for The Daily Beast states: “Boomer America never had it so good. As a result, today’s young Americans’ never had it so bad.”

My intention here isn’t to place blame, though — there are a lot of complicated reasons we’re in a huge mess right now. Rather, it’s to rethink how we define generations. On some level, it feels like we’re creating sports teams and pitting them against each other.  Which generation will emerge the greatest of all time?

So first, let’s openly acknowledge that the boundaries are fuzzy — there’s inherently a lot of overlap. Second, let’s be okay with generations being shorter, as massive changes (you know, like the Internet) create wider cultural gaps much more quickly. When you look at it culturally, Gen Y and the Millennials really should be separate generations, and I’m not saying that because I have a problem with being a Millennial (on the contrary). After all, we are living at the start of a new millennium.

That brings me to my last point. Generations are huge swaths of time — even if you’re only talking about 15 years. Even though the purpose of these categories is to generalize about ideas and trends that define a certain time period, let’s stop with the nasty ones directed at young people who haven’t even had a fair chance to self-actualize. After a while, as Erika Andersen notes in Forbes, it just makes you sound like a bad parody of that song from Bye Bye Birdie: “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way? What’s the matter with kids today?”