Meme Me Up

The evolution of the ‘terrorist fist jab’

Bill Safire must be loving this. Campaign 2008, for everything else it has to recommend it, has also proven to be a word-lovers’ dream: we’ve gotten new spins on old phrases (“bitter,” “Jeremiad,” “McBush”) and new phrases themselves (“Huckaboom,” the verb “red-phone,” and, of course, “Obamania,” “Obamacon,” and, my personal favorite, “Obamamatopeia”). It’s an etymological Eden!

One of the more absurd of the semantic novelties the campaign has bestowed upon us is the “Hezbollah-style fist jab,” or, as it’s often shorthanded, the “terrorist fist jab.” Most of us know the term’s general genesis, its evolution from etymology’s protean ooze—E.D. Hill’s use of it on Fox News—into a Full-Fledged Meme. Even though the phrase was proven to be incorrect—the “jab,” or “dap,” of course, has nothing to do with terrorism, unless you consider junior campaign staff to be terrorists—it has stayed alive in the media. First through irony (“terrorist fist jab!” It’s funny because it’s untrue!), and then, after the irony faded, as a regular member of the broader political vernacular.

This week, though, we’ve gotten a bit more detail about the Etymology of the Jab. Slate’s campaign-trail blogger, Christopher Beam, steps up and blames the phrase’s presence in our political dialogue on…himself.

It’s often asked, “Where does stupid stuff on the Internet come from?” In this instance, I think probably it came from me. Although I didn’t originate the conceit, I’m pretty sure that I’m the one who put it in circulation. Er, sorry. Like The New Yorker, I never intended anyone to take it as anything other than a laughable example of ignorance.

Beam explains that he was writing a piece about the difficulty many in the media were having in naming the dap Michelle Obama gave her husband the night he claimed the Democratic nomination. (“Fist-pound”? “Knuckle-bump”? “Fist-to-fist thumbs up”?) “One of them—‘Hezbollah-style fist jab’—was particularly risible,” Beam notes. He’d come across it on the Web site of the ultra-conservative weekly, Human Events—not from an article on that site, but rather from one of the reader comments posted in response to a column by Cal Thomas. “I linked the phrase to the column,” Beam writes, “but didn’t explain that the words weren’t Thomas’.”

When I realized the confusion I’d helped cause, I posted a correction. But it was too late. Liberal bloggers from all over had already seized on the phrase. Time and Politico misreported that the words were Thomas’. Then, fatefully, Fox News anchor E.D. Hill jauntily paraphrased “Hezbollah-style fist jab” on air as “terrorist fist jab.” Hill wasn’t endorsing the phrase, but she failed to make clear that she was citing someone else’s characterization. She apologized the next day but lost her show anyway.

As this chronology makes clear, what began as one Human Events reader’s paranoid claim quickly became, to nearly everyone who cited it, an example of appalling anti-Obama paranoia.

Beam’s piece is framed as a mea culpa, and, yes, it’s got a bit of the “all apologies” thing going on. But there’s something more interesting and instructive than apologia in the Beam-on-Meme narrative: his chronology makes for a fitting cautionary tale when it comes to the perspective-loosening tendency of the media’s megaphone. In this case, serendipity met necessity; the media needed a way to describe the Obamas’ gesture, and Hill’s half-off-the-cuff “terrorist fist jab” fit the bill. It was misleading, sure, but at least it was universal. And it expressed something—a question, an assumption, a fear—that fit the zeitgeist. So it stuck. Irony eroded into banality. Now, after one little misstep on the part of one little blogger, we have a term that will likely be with us long after the campaigns have ended. Talk about a jab.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.