The Grammarphobia Blog

Why are we linguistic lemmings?

Q: I recently changed jobs and encountered a new usage: my coworkers use “showstopper” to mean something so horribly wrong that a project comes to a screeching halt, heads roll, and nobody sleeps until we find a solution. Who hijacked “showstopper”? And why do people act like linguistic lemmings and turn a perfectly good word on its head?

A: When the term “showstopper” entered English in the 1920s, it referred to a song, an act, or a performance that gets so much applause the show is temporarily stopped.

The scribblers at Variety, who coined such beauts as “boffo,” “flack,” “flopperoo,” and “showbiz” itself, appear to be responsible for this one too.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary for the usage is from a 1926 issue of Variety that describes “two show-stoppers … the Dixie Four … who stopped the show … with their ‘itch’ dance finish, and Dave Apollon and Co., who stopped it, closing the first half.”

In addition to its literal entertainment meaning, “showstopper” has also been used figuratively in the sense of an especially arresting person or thing that draws attention from others or brings action to a halt.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) include both these senses.

None of the dictionaries I usually consult include the meaning used by your coworkers: “something so horribly wrong the project comes to a screeching halt, heads roll, and nobody sleeps until we find a solution.”

However, a little googling discovers that techies have adopted “showstopper” to describe a computer bug that’s arresting in a very negative way – a bug that’s flopperoo rather than boffo.

The Jargon File, an online glossary of techie and hacker slang, defines “showstopper” this way: “A hardware or (especially) software bug that makes an implementation effectively unusable; one that absolutely has to be fixed before development can go on. Opposite in connotation from its original theatrical use, which refers to something stunningly good.”

I suspect that your fellow workers, especially the techies among them, may have improvised on this computer slang to come up with a colloquial usage more compatible with your company’s line of work.

Why do people act like linguistic lemmings in adopting such jargon? Probably for much the same reason that lemmings act like lemmings. Our two species seem to have a biological urge to follow the crowd.

Interestingly, lemmings don’t commit mass suicide, as many people believe, though these rodents do migrate in large groups. This myth has been popularized by, among other things, the Disney film White Wilderness.

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