Looking for a Game-Changer Looking for a Game-Changer
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Looking for a Game-Changer

by Mark Peters

October 24, 2008

Breaking down a cliché-of-the-year candidate

This past Saturday, while wolfing down a preposterously large stack of Swedish pancakes, I commented to a fellow chowhound that this enormous pile of food could be a real game-changer. If I cleaned my plate the way our forefathers intended, I solemnly announced, I'd likely be in for a food baby, a food coma, or a coma coma.I immediately hated myself for using this ubiquitous word, which is stalking Americans at our diners, in our newspapers, and from our TV screens. Game-changer isn't quite as brain-melting as think outside the box, it is what it is, and the Wall Street/Main Street pairing, but it's surely passed the highway exits for Overused-ville and Lame-o City, on a determined journey to Please-please-make-it-stop-istan.Just after the final debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, this catchphrase-of-the-day was on the menu all over the news cycle:"…so far, no one is arguing that the event was the sure-fire ‘game-changer' so many pundits said Mr. McCain needed." (Nancy Kruh, The Dallas Morning News)"…the Republican nominee did not deliver a ‘game changer' needed to turn momentum back towards his direction."(Mark Preston, CNN.com)"The word ahead of time had been that McCain needed a ‘game changer,' and presumably Joe the Plumber was going to be it."(Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker)The word's omnipresence made it low-hanging fruit for the always-topical Stephen Colbert: "Yes, last night was a game-changer. In fact, it was such a game-changer, I'm not sure this is even a game anymore. These guys might really be running for office."Scary thought. But what hole did this game-changing twaddle crawl out of?Ben Zimmer, linguist and executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus--who provided his research on game-changer to another language columnist you may know-traces it back to a 1930 article in the Atlanta Constitution. The piece, about a card game that's slipped below even meerkat lacrosse and the NHL in popularity, offers a literal usage of the word: "Seldom are the game-changers idle. In their efforts to 'improve' bridge they tinker with every part of it, the best and the worst."At times meaning a person, strategy, or event, game-changer went on to make its mark in more popular sports. By the ‘90s, it had entered business lingo, as well. Since business and politics go together like mistresses and mattresses, it's another non-stunner that politics soon contracted this word virus. George Bush let it pass through his smirky lips in 2004, giving it a push along its path to prominence (and overuse).The word now turns up everywhere: from an iPhone ad to discussions about cystic fibrosis drugs, Iranian arms acquisitions, and in a message board post devoted to my favorite TV show, The Shield. (Thankfully for my sanity, this spoiler-reading fan didn't spill any specifics: "Oh yeah...next week's ep is definitely a game-changer.")Complaints of horse-race political journalism are almost as tired as the pony show itself, but as a symptom of the media's equine-related lust, game-changer is as subtle as a boulder dropped on the road runner. Words like game-changer and Hail Mary subvert actual ideas and issues and plans: Apparently, what each candidate really needs to do is catch the political football betwixt head and helmet, like David Tyree, when he hauled in the game-changer of last year's Super Bowl. Then we could all do a touchdown dance.But who has the magic decoder ring that can tell a game-changer from a game-leave-the-samer? Was the selection of Sarah Palin a game-changer? (That's what they say.) What about the financial meltdown? (Appears so.) How about Colin Powell endorsing Obama? (Um, who knows?) All three would seem to be potential touchdowns for Team Obama, but touchdowns have turned to dust before. … Guess we'll have to wait till it's game over to know for sure.Besides another pancake-fest, there's only one game-changer that has me drooling: the election itself.At least we'll be done with the campaign game for a while and the Bush game forever-though his Connect Four approach to the global chess game will long remain a … well, you know.
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Looking for a Game-Changer