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What You Do When the Rat Isn’t Gross Enough Anymore

Rashomon can be seen as a cinematic extension of Einstein's theory of relativity.
The Dallas Morning News, September 7, 1998

"We look at getting rid of the Confederacy as cultural genocide. They're attacking my ancestors, they're attacking my culture, they're attacking my heritage."
— Mr. Robert Banks, Member of Sons of the Confederate Veterans
Atlanta Journal, December 14, 1992

It is a stretch to claim that Rashomon extends Einstein's theory of relativity, or that modern verbal attacks on the Confederacy constitute cultural genocide. But it is clear what the speakers intended in these examples, though they failed — they were trying to advance their own agenda by "borrowing" the emotional significance of the words relativity and genocide.


The above passage is from Chip's paper on semantic stretch. "Semantic stretch" refers to the way that words can be overused to the point where their impact is diluted. I.e., if people start using the word "genocide" to mean "saying bad things about the Confederate flag," and if the word is overused enough times and in enough situations, the term starts to lose the full measure of emotional horror that it should rightfully possess.

In the book, we talk about how semantic stretch happened to the word "sportsmanship." "Sportsmanship" used to mean "profound respect for one's opponent and the game itself." Now it means, "You're a loser. But thanks for not assaulting anyone."

We heard about a coach who told his players that if they ever won a trophy for sportsmanship, he'd make them run laps. Classy. (An organization called the Positive Coaching Alliance reclaimed the spirit of sportsmanship with their new phrase "Honoring the Game." We tell the whole story in our book. Hope that's not a spoiler.)

Turns out semantic stretch also applies to inflatable rats. At least in a non-verbal sort of way. From a great Nick Paumgarten piece in the New Yorker on January 15, 2007:

No doubt, you've seen those giant inflatable rats around town, which union representatives sometimes station in front of work sites to protest the hiring of non-union labor. Perhaps you've stopped even noticing them. Their bared fangs and claws and red eyes no longer startle, as they did when they began turning up, fifteen or so years ago. They have become as unremarkable as sneakers hanging from street lamps.

And so the cockroach cometh. The cycle of indifference requires intermittent escalation, ever more lurid sequels. Roaches may be preferable to rats, if you're talking apartment infestation, but, when it comes to street-corner-protest infestation, they may be worse. Perhaps this has something to do with relative magnitude of enlargement or with the inflatable roach's authentic mahogany sheen or the creep wagging tumescence of its legs — not the kind of thing you'd want to see silhouetted on the shower curtain....

"Unions are diversifying," Kent said. [Kent is one of the organizers from Local 78, a hazardous-materials removers' union. Kent borrowed the giant cockroach from Local 12A.] "It's not your grampa's union. People are too used to the rat. It's just like cliches, right? An analogy can be good, but once people use it all the time, it ceases to have any meaning."

From "unusual" to "unique." From "sportsmanship" to "Honoring the Game." From inflatable rats to inflatable cockroaches. The cycle continues.

Maybe it will happen to our own favorite word, "sticky." Maybe soon it won't be enough for an idea to be "sticky." It'll have to be "ubersticky" or "permafixed" or "anchorized" or "mega-rooted" or "diamond-etched."

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas...
    Used Hardcover $9.50

Chip and Dan Heath is the author of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

2 Responses to "What You Do When the Rat Isn’t Gross Enough Anymore"

    Moving From Me To We.com » Blog Archive » Want Others to Listen? First, Ask Yourself This Question January 3rd, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    [...] important to me or I know too much on the topic I fall victim to what the Heaths dub the semantic stretch). I confuse or bore them with the underbrush” of qualifiers and background. They aren’t [...]

    redpepper » Blog Archive » Does Social Media need a new name? August 19th, 2010 at 7:29 am

    [...] is a term that has been semantically stretched since the late 1500s. Back then, medium referred to “a middle ground.” Around the same [...]

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