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Do you want fries with that?

Gene Weingarten on

WASHINGTON -- Today, we are going to discuss a word that rose to inane ubiquity in Washington in the past few weeks, as defenders of President Trump scrambled to find the right expression to trivialize charges that his family colluded with Russia to help defeat Hillary Clinton. Almost unanimously, virtually simultaneously, they settled on "nothingburger." For 10 straight days it was all over the airwaves. When appearing in print, it has been spelled "nothing burger," "nothingburger" and "nothing-burger" in almost equal proportions. By my incomplete reckoning, it has been paired with the adjectives "massive," "tiny," "total," "gigantic," "complete," "huge," "absolute" and "phony."

What is the actual, correct spelling?

"Nothingburger." All of the other spellings are wrong and must be purged from the record. This is because the stem expression from which "nothingburger" derives is not "ham burger" or "ham-burger," but "hamburger." Even the McDonaldland character "Hamburglar" (technically, "Hamilton B. Urglar") is officially condensed to one word.

Hamilton B. Urglar? Really?

Believe it or not, yes. McDonald's has copyrighted it.

Has there ever been a word that has spread so rapidly among the Washington political elite?

Not exactly. The sudden spread of words seeking to add color and excitement to the tedious processes of bureaucracy is not uncommon. We have seen extended popularities of "connect the dots," "touching base," "walking you through," "deep dive," "gain traction" and "circle back." However, until the arrival of "nothingburger," nothing rivaled the sudden, startling appearance in the early 2000s of "drilling down" to describe the act of further investigating an issue, using a comparison either to petroleum exploration or tooth excavation. By and large, all of these bureaucratic terms have been yawn-inducing; sadly, some of the best ones never gained traction. One with a touch of genius but a tragically brief life is the term "boiling the ocean," meaning engaging in a tedious, complicated, long-term project.

Circling back to "Nothingburger": This was different. It is not a term of process or bureaucracy. It is oddly cynical, and thus, refreshing. In popularity, it passed "drilling down" during the second week of July 2017.

What exactly is a nothingburger?

A nothingburger is a hamburger bun filled with nothing. No meat, no veggies, no condiments. One theory is that it does not even have sesame seeds, because that would probably make it a somethingburger. If you attempt to eat a nothingburger, without a drink, you would likely get the hiccups.

What would be a great oxymoron bordering on Zen koan?

Ordering "a nothingburger with everything."

Is nothingburger a new expression?

No, Google reveals it has been around for at least a generation, but it has been used only sparingly until now.

But is it a new political concept?

Absolutely not! Prepare for a jolt. The concept of an empty hamburger as a political metaphor goes back at least to the 1984 Democratic presidential primary contest between Gary Hart and Walter Mondale. As the most colorless candidate in recent memory -- he was eventually eclipsed by Michael Dukakis, who lost to George H.W. Bush, a man as colorless as saliva -- Mondale was desperate for some sort of slogan. Thus arose "Where's the beef?," stolen from an ad for Wendy's and meant to imply that Hart's issues were all bun and no protein. "Where's the beef?" is not materially different from "nothingburger." I believe this is the first time this connection has been made.

Wow.

Yes. You are getting some major political dope here, free of charge.

OK, so is this Russian thing, in fact, a nothingburger?

Ty shutish'?

Nyet.

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Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon Eastern at www.washingtonpost.com.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post Writers Group

 

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