These quotes all appeared in the last week:
- “Nothing to see here: Man casually puts on deodorant; officers find meth in deodorant.” --Headline in Northwest Florida Daily News.
- “A U.S. Steel spokeswoman said the discharge wasn’t serious enough to report to the feds and did not pose a threat to public health. In other words, move along. Nothing to see here.” --Chicago Tribune, on a chromium spill in Lake Michigan.
- “This time around, Mayak [nuclear plant] authorities have similarly denied being responsible for the leak, and Rosatom, the state-run body that oversees Russia’s nuclear industry, also says there’s nothing to see here.” --Science Alert, on a mysterious radiation cloud over Russia.
- “If Donald Trump had given a $500,000 speech paid for by a Kremlin bank, and his private foundation had accepted $145 million from Vladimir Putin-linked oligarchs and their Western business partners, do you think that his critics would be insisting there was nothing to see here?” --Marc Thiessen in a Washington Post column arguing that the Clintons should be investigated.
They are just a few examples of what I would nominate as the catchphrase of the moment. The Urban Dictionary user Icemaniceman1111 offered this useful definition:
Short for “nothing to see here, move along folks”. A ironic or sarcastic phrase uttered by a person who feels that he/she has detected a hidden, usually unpleasant or sinister, deeper meaning of a story or event that the reporter or authority on that event wishes to conceal possibly to avoid upsetting the general public. From the police phrase, “nothing to see here move along,” which is often said to a crowd of people that have collected at the scene of an accident or crime and who the officer wishes to disperse without communicating the cause of the crime or accident.
That was posted in 2009, by which time the phrase had already been in pretty heavy use for some years. It was jump-started, I reckon, by Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) in the 1988 film The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
Drebin wasn’t being ironic -- he is incapable of irony -- and neither was Officer Barbrady of South Park (pictured at the top of the post), who also favors the phrase, but basically everyone else who’s said “Nothing to see here” since has been trying to be funny. The first notable post-Police Squad instance was this Far Side cartoon from 1990 (hat tip to the commenter who mentioned it on a wordwizard.com forum):
The phrase’s first appearance in the Proquest Newsstand database is a 1991 humor column in the Orlando Sentinel: “If you have mistakenly wandered into this column and thought you were reading some wimpy piece on the latest nose hair fashions or the first TV anchor to have journalism experience, please move along. Nothing to see here. Please move along. Nothing to see here.” A New York Times review of The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland (1999) describes a “scene in which Elmo chases his blanket, accidentally whisked away by a passing Muppet Rollerblader, down the street and tells the gathered crowd to move on. ‘Nothing to see here,’ he tells the onlookers. ‘Just a little monster trying to get his blanket back.’”
Things didn’t really start taking off till the early 2000s, as seen in this chart, showing the frequency of “nothing to see here” in the ProQuest database of newspapers. (Google Ngram Viewer tells a similar story.)
As the chart suggests, 2017 (which still has a month to go, don’t forget) is the most popular year, by far, for the phrase. A February cover of Time showed Donald Trump sitting behind his desk as a hurricane seems to be engulfing the Oval Office. The caption: “Nothing to See Here.” And it’s Rachel Maddow’s go-to comment as she describes the scandal of the day, each evening on her MSNBC show.
The general recent popularity of the phrase stems from the way it nails a bureaucratic tendency to sweep inconvenient or damaging news under the rug. And its ubiquity this year speaks to the daily drip of malfeasance, scandal, and idiocy coming from the halls of power and influence. The perpetrators really have no recourse but to express, by everything they say and do, “Move along, there’s nothing to see here.”
They normally don’t say the words. An exception occurred a few weeks ago, when Jim Zeigler, the state auditor of Alabama, gave his take on the actions of the Republican senatorial candidate Roy Moore. “Single man, early 30s, never been married, dating teenage girls. Never been married and he liked younger girls. According to the Washington Post account he never had sexual intercourse with any of them.” Zeigler’s conclusion:
“There’s nothing to see here.”
Sorry, Mr. Zeigler. At this late date it is impossible to utter that phrase unironically, and one cannot but conclude that in the case of Roy Moore, there’s a whole lot to see.