TERRY GROSS, host:
It is not exactly the Oscars, but early in January, the American Dialect Society will meet in San Francisco to vote for the word of the year. Several dictionaries have already made their own selections. After looking over the field, our linguist Geoff Nunberg has a candidate, too.
GEOFF NUNBERG: People have different takes on this word-of-the-year business. For some, it's just a particularly clever or useful recent coinage. This year, the editors of the Oxford American Dictionary chose "hypermiling," which refers to trying to get maximum mileage out of your car. It hasn't exactly become a household item, but it will be handy to have around the next time gas goes over four bucks a gallon. And Webster's New World Dictionary chose "oversharing," for divulging excessive personal information. That one has actually been around since the early '90s, but then, lexicographers don't get out much.
But I tend to go with those who look for a word that encapsulates some major story of the year. The people at Merriam-Webster chose "bailout," the word which got the biggest spike in lookups on the dictionary's Web site. And you could certainly make an argument for "change" or "post-racial" or "collateral debt obligation," but none of those is particularly interesting as a word.
If it were up to me, I'd fasten on the brief and curious resurgence of "Joe." In 1942, FDR's vice president Henry Wallace made a famous speech where he described the 20th century as the Century of the Common Man, and for most of that period, the common man went by the name of Joe. The generic Joe Blow made his first appearance in the 1920s, to be joined later by Joe Schmo from Cocomo. And by the '30s, Joe had replaced John and Jack as a generic word for a chap or a fellow, as in a good Joe or a regular Joe. Maybe that was because Joe seemed more ethnically inclusive and urban than John. Josephs have always been thicker on the ground in New York than in Arkansas.
G.I. Joe was popularized in 1942 by a comic strip in the Army weekly Yank. It quickly replaced Johnny Doughboy, a holdover from World War I, and since that period, Joe has always suggested blue-collar unpretentiousness. There was Joe Palooka, the good-natured boxing champ from a popular comic strip that went back to the '30s. There was Jackie Gleason's garrulous Joe the Bartender, and Josephine the Plumber, who was featured in long-running ads for Comet Cleanser in the 1960s. Joe Camel slouched onto the scene a few decades later, shooting pool or sitting on his motorcycle in a black leather jacket, always with a cigarette dangling from his split lip. Man or dromedary, you couldn't imagine him as a Jeremy.
And Joe is compulsory for any politician who is called Joseph, particularly if he can claim modest roots. Hey, can I call you Joe? Actually, that's sort of the idea. Joe Lunchpail appeared in the 1960s, and Joe Sixpack goes back to a 1970 Boston congressional race. At the time, some people heard it as a slur on Irish voters, but it caught on as a slightly jocular handle for ordinary, working-class Americans. Homer Simpson embraced the idea and upped the ante when he called himself a regular Joe Twelvepack.
Those are the voters both parties have been wooing since the late 1960s, but usually under oblique labels like silent majority, working Americans or the forgotten middle class. Before Sarah Palin, no national candidates had ever invoked Joe Sixpack by name, much less offered themselves as a representative of what Palin called the normal Joe Sixpack American. And then the constituency was unexpectedly personified in the form of an Ohio man who happened to go by his middle name of Joe and who worked in the canonical, 20th-century, blue-collar job. On top of that, he was also a dead ringer for Peter Boyle in his title role as a hippie-hating factory worker in the 1970 movie "Joe." That was all pure serendipity. You can bet that nobody would have tried to make a campaign mascot out of Wurzelbacher if he had been Dwayne the Drywall Guy.
You'd have to go back to Nixon and Agnew to find Republicans making a populist appeal as direct and explicit as this one. It adrenalized their partisans, who piled into Palin rallies carrying placards bearing their first names and job descriptions, but outside of the Republican base, there was no rush to enlist in the Joe Sixpack Nation. There are lots of reasons why it didn't take: Some people had misgivings about Palin, and Joe the Plumber turned out to be something of a loose spigot. But it isn't likely the Republicans will be trying to resuscitate any of this year's Joes when they make their way back to Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2012.
It is never easy to keep populist rhetoric from slipping over into condescension. Notwithstanding the speeches of Henry Wallace and the fanfares of Aaron Copland, the common man has never been crazy about being referred to as the common man, and with a notable exception of Homer Simpson, most people are not eager to reduce their essence to a beverage preference, whether it's for beer or chardonnay. Americans may still feel a nostalgic affection for the picturesque working-class stereotypes that the name Joe evoked in the last century, but whatever they do for a living, that isn't what they see when they catch a glimpse of themselves in the mirror. Funny, but they don't look Joe-ish.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the school of information at the University of California at Berkeley. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Bob Perdick. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Sue Spurlin directed the show. All of us at Fresh Air wish you a very Merry Christmas.