Idiom Strong


Residents of Barrett, Pennsylvania, sold t-shirts to help local police defray costs associated with a recent manhunt.

Back in September, Barrett Township, in Pennsylvania, was the center of a  manhunt for an armed fugitive and adopted the motto “Barrett Proud.” When the suspect was caught, in October, the entire region appropriated it and dubbed itself “Pocono Proud.

This week The New York Times reported that after an 11-year-old Indiana boy, Calvin Clark, suffered a severe head injury in a football game, “his classmates came up with the saying #CalvinStrong, which soon popped up around the county, on T-shirts, on signs posted along the streets, and even on badges that were made and worn by first graders.”

The noun-adjective construction seen in both examples is most closely associated, of course, with “Boston Strong,” the municipal motto that emerged after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. Writing on the Visual Thesaurus site, Ben Zimmer noted that “Boston Strong” sprang from Lance Armstrong’s “Livestrong” (which actually has a different syntax: verb + flat adverb) and the slogan “Army Strong,” which started in 2006. In the following years, Zimmer pointed out, its dissemination was pretty, well, strong, as witness:

  • Country Strong: the title of a 2007 country song by Britni Hoover, later covered by Gwyneth Paltrow for a movie of the same name

  • Jersey Strong: a phrase trademarked by the New Jersey fitness club chain Work Out World in 2007, repurposed after Hurricane Sandy for rebuilding efforts on the Jersey Shore

  • Vermont Strong: fund-raising slogan used for Vermont after it was ravaged by Hurricane Irene in 2011

  • Colt Strong: a motto of the Indianapolis Colts introduced for their 2012 season, changed to ChuckStrong after head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia

  • Aurora … Strong: the name of a community festival honoring first responders in Aurora, the Colorado city recovering from the 2012 theater shooting

  • Newtown Strong: a slogan on T-shirts sold by a group raising money for the families of the victims of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Participants on the American Dialect Society listserv broadened the discussion to other adjectives, bringing up “Built Ford Tough,” which dates from at least 1976, and the later “Dodge Trucks are Ram Tough.” Bill Mullins recalled “a line from the 1974 Planet of the Apes TV show. A human astronaut is helping an ape improve his farm’s productivity. He shows the ape how to build a better wooden corral fence. He builds one and says that it is ‘lock tight and bull strong.’”

It’s an odd construction. It’s not the same as “Me Tarzan you Jane,” where the verb to be is simply omitted, or a compound adjective such as “fork-tender,” “love-sick,” or “match-fit” (which Roger Federer, a few days ago, said he wasn’t). Rather, the space between the noun (X) and the adjective (Y) has various meanings: a reference to Y in the manner of X, an exhortation that X aspire to Y, or a more general invocation of the Y-ness of X.

It’s obviously effective. But at this point, X-adj. has turned into a cliché. And it’s become just too easy for this idiom to be used by idiots.

In October, the CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh reported: “Five football players from California University of Pennsylvania were arrested and suspended from the school after police say they beat and stomped a man outside an off-campus restaurant, then fled yelling ‘Football strong!’

“The victim was in intensive care Friday with severe brain trauma.”

So let’s give it a rest, why don’t we?



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