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My Mistake? BFD!

Health-care T-shirt, courtesy storebarackobama.com

It’s salutary to make a mistake. Not enjoyable, but salutary.

If you get something right, that’s that. But if you get something wrong, people take action to set you straight. And you learn more than you would if you were right.

I was wrong about something the other day: BFD. That’s an abbreviation for “Big … deal,” with a familiar four-letter word in the middle as an intensifier.

BFD made it into the news recently with a T shirt for the Obama campaign reading:

HEALTH
REFORM
STILL A
BFD
OBAMA – BIDEN

And that’s when a reporter for Slate phoned to ask my opinion on the durability of the initialism BFD. I hadn’t noticed it, and I hadn’t done any research or even thought about it before the reporter asked. Shooting from the hip, and thereby shooting myself in the foot, I gave a wildly wrong answer, assuming that the abbreviation had been invented for the T-shirt.

I knew that the reference was to Vice President Biden’s private remark to President Obama, “This is a big …  deal,” in May 2010, when the health-care reform bill was passed. It was overheard because a microphone wasn’t turned off.

But I didn’t know how wrong I was about the origin and use of the abbreviation BFD until 88 people posted comments on the Slate article, offering plentiful recollections of using BFD going back as far as 60 years or more.

Here’s where making a mistake becomes so useful. Instead of me needing to do research, the commenters thoughtfully did it for me, and with detail and explanations I couldn’t have come up with on my own.

Also, it gave me an opportunity for this post, to explain how I can know whether a new word is going to be a flash in the pan or a permanent resident in our everyday vocabulary. I do, after all, have the ability to predict the linguistic future, or at least the future of new words. You can read all about it in my book, Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), but here’s the gist of it. I’ll illustrate it with a corrected prediction for BFD.

Having inaugurated the American Dialect Society’s annual vote on Word of the Year in 1990, I was puzzled to note that sometimes a word that was prominent one year would vanish the next, while others would endure. What were the qualities that would make a word likely to be picked up for “the dictionary” and stay there?

I found five, which I arranged to form the acronym FUDGE:

 

Frequency of use
Unobtrusiveness
Diversity of users and situations
Generation of other forms and meanings
Endurance of the concept

Each new word gets a score of 0, 1, or 2 on each factor. It’s not a mathematical formula but a judgment call. The higher the total, the more likely a word will endure for generations.

So, evaluating BFD more accurately:

Frequency: 1. Used by a lot of people but by no means everyone.

Unobtrusiveness: 1. Noticeable because it requires explanation on first glance, but otherwise it looks like a typical Internet abbreviation. F in the middle adds intensity to other initialisms like snafu and RTFM, as well as to unabbreviated expressions like “abso-…-lutely.”

Diversity: 1. All over the Internet and texting worlds, but not much in traditional media. The Obama-Biden T shirt brought BFD to a wider audience, but only for one news cycle. In nontexting contexts, furthermore, the “big deal” interpretation of the abbreviation has to compete with others, including the “B” Fire Department, where B=any city whose name begins with B, such as Berkeley and Boston.

Generation of other forms and meanings: 0. I can find only one possible derivative of this BFD: “Big … Day,” described as “an annual alternative music festival hosted by the alternative-rock radio station Live 105” in the San Francisco Bay area. In 2012 it was the 18th annual BFD, so it probably derived from the older “Big deal.” Of course, if I’ve missed derivatives, someone will let me know.

Endurance of the concept: 2. No question, the “big deal” attitude will last as long as there are humans.

This gives BFD a score of 5 points out of 10, rather than the 3 I had told the reporter. A score of 5 means it does indeed have a chance to become permanently embedded in the vocabulary of English, but it’s still far from certain.

After all, the current fad for abbreviations in electronic communication, so useful in an era of texting, may fade, just as a fad for abbreviations like O.F.M. (our first men) in Boston in the 1830s faded, leaving behind only O.K. New technology like Siri may make text abbreviations unnecessary and obsolete. And who is to say we’ll have Twitter 40 years from now?

The only way to know for sure whether a newly prominent expression will last is to wait about 40 years, to see if a new generation will pick it up. So please file this post in a secure place and set your alarm to remind you look at it in 2052. And whether or not the abbreviation in question remains viable in 2052, I say, BFD.

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