In the 1950s, workers on New York City's Madison Avenue--the original "Mad Men"--drew notice not only for driving the postwar economy, but for their language, populated by phrases like:
“I see pinfeathers on this, but you’re not flying yet.”
“Well, the oars are in the water and we’re headed upstream.”
N.Y. Admen Use an Off-Beat LanguageNEW YORK, Dec. 24—I’ve been over on Madison Avenue taking a refresher course in Madison Avenuese, which like any language is constantly growing. A man has to keep abreast if he’s to be properly understood over there.
Let’s review the bidding. (Where did I leave off when I was last on this kick?) Welcome aboard! (Go away and stop bothering me.) Nice to have you aboard. (Go to hell!) I’m not telling you how to write copy but . . . (I’m telling you how to write copy.) Sorry, old man, I wasn’t tuned in. (Whadja say?) I don’t get through to your switchboard. (I don’t understand.) I get no nourishment out of this material. (I don’t understand.)
Well, those are good enough for a starter anyway. I’ve even got one from England. One English ad man queried about the capabilities of another replied: “Oh, he’s a vacant lot.” (Not a brain in his head.) Frankly, I prefer our own home-grown derision, one of which, straight from Madison Avenue, is: “He doesn’t ride in our club car.”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -Of course, there are the usual endless variations on let’s kick it around, which means let’s, for heaven’s sake, somebody come with an idea. Let’s blow feathers around the room. Let’s run it up the rack and look underneath. Let’s run the flag up the pole and see who starts saluting.
And, for underlings, I’m rather fond of—“here are the apples, you bake the pie.” In other words, you do the work. I’m too big, dearie. And, as an expression of the high esteem with which the ad man regards the buying public:
“We’d better get down on our hands and knees and talk to the consumer.”
On undertaking a really arduous chore: “Better pack sandwiches. This is going to be a long trip.” Then there is the ad guy who—so help me, Hannah—opens up his spiel with: “Before I tell you the story, I’ll preliminate.” And another guy who was overheard to say: “I was brainwashed after the story joust so they dressenized me.” Means he was in a rut and couldn’t get a new story line so they put a new man on the job.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -Let’s say you got the job under way—but just barely. Then, sir, you preliminate with: “Let’s get out of the high grass and onto the green.” Well, you push matters along until you’re on the 50-yard line—but nowhere near the goal line. “Put it back in the bottle and let it ferment for a while.” And then after all that work, it’s a dud after all. “Put it in the deep freeze”—meaning “toss it away. I hate it.”
Then there was the advertising director of a large company who, discussing a hypothetical situation, said: “This is pure horseback.” No one to this day knows what he meant.
Then there’s the word one ad man is very fond of—premise-cize—which he defines: “To look at the whole apple from core to skin, check the corporate experience and then write the leads”—and if you don’t know what that means you don’t belong in this class.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -I’ve always loved the way ad people express wild but cautious enthusiasm. An actual example: “It’s terrific. It’s great. But let’s beef it up.” And one last one which did the rounds for a while: “This just a throwaway but when it lands I want it to make a dent in the floor.”
John Crosby, Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, December 24, 1954, page 8D
English on Madison Avenue Still Is Colorful JargonNEW YORK--The last time I was messing around with Madison Avenue English, I threw in one expression, "this is pure horseback," which just plain baffled me. Since then a couple of legal eagles I know have informed me this is an old lawyer expression. A horseback opinion meant an off the cuff opinion. It is believed to date way back to when judges used to ride the circuit on horseback. A horseback opinion was an on the spot judgment, pending the time when he could dismount and go into the question more thoroughly.
Since I last wandered around Ad Alley, Holiday magazine has come out with a little booklet, The Holiday Advertising Man's Diary, which contains a good many of the ad expressions which have been printed here and also a good many of their own.
I'm rather fond of this one, "Can you drop down and put out a small brush fire?" which freely translated means, "Help! Help!" Also, "it's time to put our feet apart and face up to the client," which is just another way of saying, "You wanna live forever?"
Keeping my own ear to the ground, I think I detect a small trend toward medical vernacular, as if Ad Alley had all turned into medics lately. "Let's give this a few days of bed care and see if we can't get the blood count up," one ad man was overheard to say recently. Another ad man, discussing a rather wan idea, exclaimed: "Given enough plasma, this one might live."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -All the way from New Orleans, an ad man writes to tell me Madison Avenue has no corner on timidity. They can be just as timid down there, he writes, and just as colorful in expressing it. Here are two southern ad expressions, both faintly redolent of magnolias: "I'm afraid to open that basket of snakes." And: "Let's take a long look through the keyhole before we open that door."
Some of the latest expressions from the avenue itself have been slipped under my door by a furtive character in a three button charcoal suit who hurries over between meetings while his notes are still fresh. His associates have been preoccupied with cooking lately, judging by these two: "Let's put some grease in the pan, the fish is burning." (Let's get this campaign back on its feet while there's still time.) "Back to the oven; you're not done yet." (That idea needs a lot of work.)
- - - - - - - - - - - - -There is a long list of expressions to choose from for the brave man who takes the plunge and decides they will try the idea: "Let's drop it down the well and see how big a splash it makes." "Let's pitch a mashie and see how close we are to the green." "Let's drop the cat in the woods and see if she comes home."
If a man does not want to go that far out on a limb, or on a twig, as they sometimes say in Ad Alley, and usually he doesn't, he can postpone things with "Let's swivel chair that one awhile."
A useful expression for passing some dirty work over to an underling is "Somebody's got to bird dog this." "We've got to be sure we've got the compass pointing true north" means "I want this done my way." And a few others: "Let's unseal it before the glue is dry." (You're not doing it my way.) "Let's steam it open and rewrite it." (You're not doing it my way.) "This needs revitaminizing." (Maybe we can still save it.) "We've really got to rev it up, this is a short runway." (You better work late tonight; we haven't much time.)
John Crosby, Modesto Bee, Modesto, California, February 28, 1955, page 7
Colorful Metaphors Mark LanguageNew York (UPI)—“I like to think of myself as the captain of a ship,” the advertising executive said solemnly, and anyone up on his Madison Avenue lingo would know what he meant:
Used by Press Agents and Ad Executives
“If we lose this account, I’m sunk.”
Such colorful metaphors, exchanged at lunch tables and sprinkled into interoffice memos, are fast becoming a professional trademark of the public relations man, press agent and ad exec.
I. Orrin Spellman, advertising manager for Holiday Magazine, has collected some of them and provided his own translations. Here are some examples:
“You will remember.” You have forgotten.
“Giving him the picture.” A long, confused and inaccurate statement made to a newcomer.
“He’s in conference.” I don’t know where he is.
“Passed on to higher management.” Pigeonholed in more sumptuous offices.
“Under consideration.” Never heard of it, or, the papers have been lost.
“Under active consideration.” I’ll try to find the papers.
“Have you any remarks?” Tell me what’s it all about.
“Can you drop down and put out a small brush fire?” Help, help!
“Snowed under.” Only able to take two hours for lunch.
“The diagonal nod.” Maybe, with an if.
“Let’s dumb it up.” Do it the client’s way.
“Put the saddle on the right horse.” Let’s do it my way.
“A growing body of opinion.” Two district managers agree.
“Opinion widely held.” Two division managers agree.
“Opinion is unanimous.” The president thinks this is the answer.
“Let me fill you in on it.” Here’s how to spell the name of the product.
“We’d better update you on this matter.” I forgot to tell you, we’ve discontinued that line.
“Let’s get in and pitch, men.” It’s 3:30, we’d better get back to the office.
Medford Mail Tribune, Medford, Oregon, March 22, 1955, page 3
Madison Avenue Gobbledygook:Recently at lunch with a Madison Avenue friend, I remarked that it had long been my desire to "do a piece" on the advertising man's lingo. He replied: "Why don't you put some grease on the cat and see if it comes back." Or, go ahead, "Maybe your compass is pointing true north."
'An Intimate Message From New York'
I no more than "dropped this idea down the well to see how big a splash it would make," when I received "over-the-transom," or unsolicited encouragement, in the form of "The Holiday Advertising Man's Diary."
This booklet clearly illustrated that advertising people are not above smiling at their own foibles. At the same time they are quick to point out that consumers are buying up the nation's productivity and that the Madison Avenues all over the country are largely responsible for it.
So, after "swivel-chairing" and "popcorning" the idea around "the mill" for a few days, I decided to join "the boys" and let the King's English fall where it may and have some fun.
Since the whole thing is "right off the top of my head"--it may not be a good idea--I decided to talk it over with Sir Boss. But he was "in conference" (no one knew where he was). But "that's the way the ball bounces." Sometimes things don't go so good.
It's too late to ask anyone to "rush in and put out the brush fire" or help, help! So I'm going ahead under a "side-saddle opinion"--I'd rather not commit myself. Thus this piece is what is known as a fishing trip or "Let's see what the client thinks."
Of course Sir Boss could well "blow me out of the tub" for this--you and your ideas--but I took "a long look through the keyhole" and decided it could be "practicalized" into "dramatic plus" with everyone grabbing "the brass ring of success."
The advertising man is a law-abiding citizen. He usually owns a nice home, has children, votes, and attends PTA meetings. But drop into his own Ad Alley and you have entered a new world.
There are such crisp remarks as "circular-file that one"--drop it in the basket, it's not my idea. "Better make a mother-in-law survey"--call home and see of anyone is watching television. "I can't put my finger on it, but I don't think it will go"--I don't understand it. "Let's get all our ducks in a row"--the client will be here in five minutes!
Occasionally the top executive of an agency will rush back from a "snowed under" luncheon--one that took two hours--and call his men together on an account. He has some conclusions: "A growing body of opinion" or two division managers agree that it is time for trying a "guinea pig for size." Try it out on a small scale before we get stuck on a big scale.
Or he will say "Opinion is widely held"--meaning two division managers agree--that it is time to "send up a trial balloon and see which way the wind blows." We'll get our client in a huddle and see if he is reading the advertising.
Finally, "Opinion is unanimous." The President thinks this is the answer.
If you have an account on Madison Avenue, your product will be properly "kicked around, brooded over, and cross-pollinated." You can be sure there will be enough "hamburger in the headline" or plenty of sizzle.
Harry C. Kenney, Christian Science Monitor, Boston, Massachusetts, April 11, 1955, page 16
Hollywood TodayHollywood—(NEA)—It takes more than a gray flannel suit to be a success in the advertising jungle of radio and TV. You gotta talk the language of the natives—a collection of stylized phrases that trademark advertising men from Madison Avenue to Hollywood and Vine.
The jargon gets a king-sized airing on the screen in a new movie, “The Great Man.” Keenan Wynn plays a Madison Ave. genius with a gift of gab and of a language that Berlitz doesn’t teach. Some of his chatter:
To edit a TV script: “Let’s toss it on the floor and walk around it.”
To move quickly because of a deadline: “We’re too close to the green to use a five-iron.”
To see what the client thinks about it: “Let’s stop rooting around on the ground for acorns and look up to see where they’re coming from.”
How much is it going to cost? “Let’s get down to where the rubber meets the road.”
Let’s try it out on the top brass: “Let run this one up a flagpole and see who salutes.”
Maybe it won’t work: “Don’t get the boat too far from shore or we’ll get our feet wet.”
Erskine Johnson, Humboldt Standard, Eureka, California, May 29, 1956, page 8
You’ll Find a Strange Lingo, Tranquilizer PillsNEW YORK (AP)—All right, what is Madison Avenue?
and Ulcers on the Street of Gray Flannel
As a physical entity, Madison Avenue, New York, begins in the relatively sedate, faded elegance of 23rd Street and, moving up, expires in the turbulence of North Manhattan, at the Harlem River.
But this is really begging the question.
For Madison Avenue is better known as a symbol and state of mind, not a place. As such it has been kicked around in a spate of novels, plays and television works.
Now both major political parties are using advertising agencies in their television campaigns and combat in other media. Madison Avenue, it seems has become a fighting phrase. People talk about it. Nobody denies it.
Thus, in our national ranks of symbols—like Wall Street for finance and Broadway for show business—Madison Avenue now stands as the capital of the highly competitive, frequently ulcerous multi-billion dollar advertising business.
The advertising part of Madison Avenue begins in the high thirties and ends in the low sixties, and in between spills over into other boulevards of commercial creation. But these are only the physical limits. The state of mind extends much farther.
By almost common agreement among authors of the “hard, fast” novel, the Madison Avenue man is a hollow shell surrounded by fear, so slavishly devoted to uniformity he wears a uniform and talks a special, esoteric lingo understood only by other tribesmen.
He is, in his fictional state, a man who lives high on the expense account, uses and destroys women, subsists on a strict diet of martinis and tranquilizing pills, develops ulcers, goes to a psychoanalyst, finds his “true self,” gives up the rat race and retires to a New England village to write the definitive novel about Madison Avenue.
Much of this, as you might suspect, has been overdrawn.
Before we go any further, it should be said that the advertising business can’t possibly be as wacky as portrayed. It does handle billions of dollars worth of business. It does require its own brand of intelligence and imagination and responsibility. And it has become a pillar of the American economy, without which mass markets, mass production and mass consumption would be impossible.
True, many men in advertising agencies do cling to the Brooks Brothers sack suit as if it were a life preserver. But many others dare to wear padding in their shoulders and actually scorn the striped tie without being drummed out of the regiment.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -Madison Avenue men will say “finalize” or “firm up” or “see you around the campus” (around the office), but only a small minority say:
“Let’s blue sky it” (We don’t have a clue about the client’s wishes but let’s give him a big buildup anyway).
“Let run this up the flagpole and see the way she blows” (Discuss a new idea).
“Let’s throw this on the floor and walk around it awhile” (Same translation).
“Pull the panic switch” (Alert everyone to a client crisis).
“Let’s shuck back the husks and just peck at the kernels” (Getting at the real, unvarnished truth).
Depending on their background, a few executives will welcome a new recruit “aboard” or “to the ball club.” At one of the bigger agencies, I heard of one man, now 30 years away from his third-string football days at Yale, who actually says: “I came down the field but you weren’t blocking for me.”
In a business where entertaining the client is important, the expense account ranks high as a weapon of war. But despite obvious enticements, agency men will tell you that an expense account frequently is a two-edged sword.
There are account executives—the agency men who are a direct link between the agency and the client—who dread the appearance of a new Broadway hit. One man already has seen “My Fair Lady” five times. In the course of entertaining out-of-town clients, he had to see “South Pacific” 15 times.
There are men in the advertising business who made $25,000 a year and are in hock. Why? For several reasons. One is that living up to the expense account can become personally expensive.
The agency may pay the direct costs of taking a client and his wife to dinner at “21,” to the theater and, later, night clubs. But there are hidden, out-of-pocket expenses. Since the client’s wife is present, the account executive takes his wife and she, of course, always needs clothes to match the occasion.
“Status,” said a television executive who socializes with many agency people, “is important to the advertising business. Thus, you find men with big salaries buying even bigger houses in Fairfield County, Conn., or on the north shore of Long Island. Houses they can’t afford, where they entertain on a scale they can’t afford, to keep up with the competition both outside and within their own agency.
“You see, it’s a business where you have to work hard and play hard. You’re always on the firing line. You can’t just relax and play golf with your wife; the competition may be out playing golf with your client.”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -The question of the Madison Avenue sex life, I gladly leave to future researchers. On the question of three-martini lunches, I can testify, on the basis of personal experiences with copy writers, artists, layout men and account executives, that some do and some don’t. I would say the do’s have the don’ts by a shade but this, admittedly, is based on unscientific surveys known in the advertising business as “horseback research.”
There definitely are ulcers and psychiatric tremors in the advertising business but the question of just how many, it would seem, is less important than the climate which brings them on.
The nature of the climate is revealed by the fact that many agencies will not hire a new hand until he has been subjected to intensive psychological testing. “They want to find out whether you’re emotionally adaptable,” explained one copywriter. “There is much to adapt to.”
There was common agreement among the varied sources I talked with that the business has a high level of tension. The competitive pressures are intense. The turnover of both accounts and personnel is great. This is one business where a man looking for a job need not be apologetic about the fact that he’s had five different jobs in as many years.
It is, in many ways, like living on a hot electric wire there the juice is controlled by one man—the client.
Clients spend billions on advertising in television, newspapers, magazines and other media, and generally the agency handling them gets 15 percent of every dollar spent. Thus one of the largest agencies will handle $200 millions worth of advertising a year and earn a gross income of $30 millions.
But the client giveth and the client taketh away. Nobody in the business will soon forget that just last year an agency with $50 millions worth of business the year before suddenly folded up. It lost two big beverage accounts in two weeks. The third week a big cigarette firm went. The blows were fatal.
Television has increased the stakes and the intensity.
“In the old days,” said one television expert, “if you guessed wrong on a magazine campaign, the most you could lose was $1 million or $1½ million. But in television, if you guess wrong on a half-hour evening series, you can lose $4½ millions.
- - - - - - - - - - - - -“And all the mistakes you make in television are made in public. The client, who knows all about making cheese, suddenly is a TV expert. So are the stockholders. The show is reviewed in the general press and the advertising techniques are dissected in the trade journals.”
A big agency is made up of various levels. At the base, there are the “creative” people—the copywriters, artists, TV and radio specialists. Over the creative heads, there is an overall director known sometimes as “the lord of creation.”
There are the executives and the account men, frequently intermingled. The incidence of vice-presidents is high. A man sometimes is given the title in lieu of more salary. Or he may be made a V.P. to satisfy a client who refused to deal at any lower rank. Or he is given the title to hold on to him, because he has the account in his pocket and just might wander off the reservation.
At all levels, you hear about the perils of getting along with the client.
An account executive dealing with a manufacturer was frequently awakened at 3 a.m. by the client’s wife. She had various suggestions to make about their TV show. After considerable loss of sleep, the account man had his wife call the manufacturer with suggestions for running his factory. The account man is no longer in the advertising business.
You also hear stories about clients who insist the account executive fly out immediately to see him, say in Des Moines, on emergency business. The account man arrives breathless only to find the client has forgotten the whole crisis and is out playing golf.
You hear about vulgar, insensitive clients who on viewing months of work by artists and writers will dismiss the whole project with “It stinks.” You hear about men within the same agency trying to steal each other’s accounts.
You hear much, in the advertising business, about man’s inhumanity to man, but if given too much emphasis this can be unfair.
Because you also hear, especially in the larger agencies, that the advertising business has matured, has grown more businesslike. You are told that the clients have become more responsible, that the days of eccentric, individual giants changing advertising agencies on a whim are passing.
Saul Pett, The Daily Oklahoman, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, October 14, 1956, p. 20
Words, Wit and WisdomThis column has been known, from time to time, to view with stern and reproving eye some of the wilder excesses of the advertising gentry. The excessive and unsubstantiated claim of excellence, the open-end comparative ("laboratory tests prove hot-shots better") and the calculated bad grammar designed to appeal to the "common man"--all these have drawn our fire on occasion.
But one aspect of life among the Madison Avenue cliff dwellers that never ceases to excite our somewhat rueful admiration is the shop-talk used by members of the advertising fraternity. As would be expected of craftsmen who deal daily in superlatives it is characterized by fanciful, free-wheeling metaphor. "What this account needs is men who can plug the holes in the dike without getting their thumbs wet" is a current sample. Or "take it to the lab and see if it's a mushroom or a toadstool."
The problems besetting an agency copywriter are not really much different from those faced by thousands of other modestly creative people working at desks in other industries. But the language he uses to describe each predicament bears little resemblance to the triter observations of lay folk.
Situation: A program into which much thought and planning has gone is rejected by management. Adman's comment: "Bigdome just exploded our lotus blossom."
Situation: First client reaction to a new campaign is less than enthusiastic. Adman's comment: "Let's throw a blanket on this and keep it warm" or "we'll have to put this in a traction-splint and hope it knits."
Situation: The hour is late and a crisis impends. Adman's comment: "Let's not open THAT can of peas."
And always there is the realization that man is seldom the master of his fate in today's business world. As the agency man says, "When you've got a bear by the tail, you have to go where the bear goes." Why? Because "that's the way the banana peels!"
So intriguing and fanciful is the language of Ulcer Gulch, as Madison Avenue is known to its habitues, that it has acquired its own amateur Websters in the persons of Holiday magazine's editors who annually put out a roundup of adman's jargon. It's from this year's collection, incidentally, that most of these samples come.
William Morris, Reno Evening Gazette, Reno, Nevada, May 9, 1957, page 4
Let's Read on and See How Businessmen Talk ShopJust as lovers develop their own language, so do businessmen. So (for that matter) do circus performers, soda jerks, college professors, psychiatrists, and men who rise early in the morning to open up banks with a gun. Some individuals even--such as Sam Goldwyn--develop a private lingo that becomes a public joy. But right now greatest interest centers in two new weird and wonderful languages--one spoken by the teenager, the other by the man in the gray flannel suit. This second language--now known as "businessman's bebop"--originated in the ivory tower world of advertising and has spread throughout all industry with the speed of chickenpox in a kindergarten. Edward M. Myers, a merchandising and sales promotion expert, has collected a number of these "gray flannelisms" overheard in conferences in many executive suites. Here are a few, selected at random, for the young go-getter who wants to pep up his conference vocabulary:
By Hal Boyle
What this idea needs is more of an idea.
Let's stick antlers on it and see if it scratches.
As long as the boss doesn't have to do it nothing is impossible.
Let's put it on a scale and see if it's gained any weight.
Let's get down to where the rubber meets the road.
It needs a transfusion and the account executive isn't our blood type.
Let's not just stand around with our backs against the hot pipes.
Let's follow it down the road and see what it eats.
I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm ready to pitch a tent and dig for worms.
Let's drive it into the parking lot and see if we dent any fenders.
Let's put on pith helmets and try running it around in the sun.
That's the way the banana peels and the mop flops.
Let's ignore it before we think about it.
Let's try it with an accent and see if it's subversive.
At this stage we're chopping wood--not burning it.
Let's throw a blanket on it and keep it warm.
Let's not show it to him. He might cancel his vacation.
I'm just painting with a broad brush. You fellows fill in the details.
Let's give it a name and see if someone will adopt it.
Let's wash it and see if it shrinks.
He's not interested in winners--he just wants to know if it can make the stable.
Let's take it up the stairs and see if it wheezes.
Let's not X-ray it. We might see it too clearly.
The drawbridge might be up--but you can still jump the moat.
Let's anchor it in deep water and see if it develops any leaks.
Let's frame it and see if it collects dust.
I've got the motor running but I think the mixture is a little weak.
Let's not bake any beans. I've got to catch the 5:27.
Let's put it in a cage and see if it sings.
I see feathers on it--but it's not flying yet.
Let's get down on all fours and look at it with humility.
Let's hang on to the tail. You can never tell where it will wag us.
Let's forget it before we file it.
Hal Boyle, Associated Press, Oakland Tribune, July 31, 1957
Recent slogans of advertising men that make Bergen Evans turn white include, "Let's run it up the flagpole and see who salutes," "Let's send this up on the local and see if it comes back express," and "Let's smear it on the cat and see if she licks it off."
Bennett Cerf, "Try and Stop Me," Nevada State Journal, Reno, Nevada, April 12, 1958, page 4
Gray flannelisms. Herewith a selection of "bright" sayings heard along Madison Avenue:
"Let's follow it down the road and see what it eats."
"Let's get down on all fours and look at it from the client's point of view."
"Let's take it up the stairs and see if it wheezes."
"Let's throw a blanket on it and keep it warm."
"Let's get down to where the rubber meets the road."
"As long as the boss doesn't have to do it, nothing is impossible."
Changing Times, May 1958, page 32
Gray Flannelisms (submitted by a member of the Los Angeles Art Directors Club): "Let's pull up the periscope and see where we're at" . . . "Let's not just stand around with our backs against the hot pipes" . . . "I see feathers on it--but it's not flying yet" . . . "Let's toss it around and see if it makes a salad" . . . "I'm just painting with a broad brush. You fellows fill in the details" . . . "Let's not bake any beans. I've got to catch the 5:27" . . . "As long as the boss doesn't have to do it nothing is impossible" . . . "Let's follow it down the road and see what it eats."
Walter Winchell, "Broadway and Elsewhere," Logansport Pharos-Tribune, September 12, 195
In the Nation:WASHINGTON, Dec. 6—Probably it was just luck, but maybe it was that sixth sense called a “a nose for news,” which was responsible for the unplanned encounter of this department today with one of the many reporters who were given a fill-in of the secret discussions among the nine top security officials of how the recent Cuban crisis should be dealt with by President Kennedy. But, whatever the reason, this colleague generously supplied these extracts from the transcript of who said what:
Last Drippings from the Great Certified “Leak”
(McG. B.) [National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy] “Let run all the ideas up the flagpole and see who salutes. What we need is a spell-out, everything-wise, and expertize, definitize, maximize and optimize escalation-wise until we finalize. In other words, let’s put the ideas on the train and watch which one gets off at Westport.”
(T. S—n.) [Special Counsel Ted Sorensen] “You mean toss it in the well and see what kinda splash it makes; follow it into the high grass and see if it eats; get things down to where the rubber meets the road. Remember, what the job will be and when it will be done is still a row of apple trees away.”
(McN.) [Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara] “So right! Let’s be sure we have plenty of options and be certain there will be no overkill. And then, I think, after these options are mirror clear, and to pursue this further would be counter-productive, we can melt this ball of wax and move the hardware from the shelf. Suppose I start batting up the fungoes. How’s about this opener—a kind of gradual naval blockade in the Caribbean, just the Honey Fitz and the Marlin at first, and wait for the Schmerdovolsk to heave in sight—“
(Himself.) [President Kennedy] “The word is ‘hove.’”
(McN.) “Okay, hove. Now you well may ask, what do we do then? Of course, our vessels will have Russian-speaking skippers. I repeat, what will we do then?”
(McC.) [CIA Director John McCone] “I thought you were going to tell us. But, interimwise, let me feed this one into the computer. While the Schmerdovolsk, with (according to our latest intelligence) a cargo of seven Kropotkin IRBM’s is getting within bow-shot of the Honey Fitz and the Marlin, Castro (also according to our latest intelligence) will be in the barbershop of the Nacional having his whiskers curled. While he is entangled with the curlers, we’ll launch an air strike on the factories that make his cigars. I predict this will cause utter demoralization of the regime; news of this situation will be passed by radio to the Schmerdovolsk; she will turn back; and the Honey Fitz and the Marlin can return to their stations, mission accomplished.”
(D. D.) [Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon] “Sounds inexpensive. I’m for that.”
(A. E. S.) [U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson] “No, John and Doug, we gotta negotiate first. I’ll negotiate with Kusnetsov. Norstad can negotiate with the Warsaw powers, our bases for theirs. Dean (I mean the one that doesn’t get up every day breathing fire through his mustache) can negotiate with the O.A.S. And if all this doesn’t come to much, we can negotiate a swap of Ft. Knox for the offensive Soviet weaponry in Cuba.”
(Voices.) “He wants a Munich” . . . “That soft stuff again” . . . “Boss, we’re eyeball to eyeball with you-know-who, and I think the other fellow just blinked” . . . “If they get away with this one we’ll be a paper tiger, a second-class power.”
(R. F. K.) [Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy] “Now, don’t let’s us get divided into hoves and dawks . . . No, I am not lugging in Brumus [RFK’s dog] again; I said ‘Dawks.’ . . . My brother will never be a party to a Pearl Harbor, will you, sir? But we may all be fighting for our lives in two weeks, according to how hairy it is, as Larry always says.”
(Himself.) “Whichever way the decision goes, those who are against it will be the lucky ones. I don’t want the Honey Fitz or the Marlin to intercept a single Russian ship until absolutely necessary. Send that order in the clear. Now all we have to decide is the definition of ‘absolutely necessary.’ But, as someone just said—oh, it was my brother—we’re all agreed, or anyhow we better be, that if the Russians are ready to go to nuclear war, we might as well have the showdown now as six months later . . . Any questions? (After a show of one hand) I’ll get back to you later.”
According to this authoritative fill-in, the only possible inaccuracy in the above is that this last remark could have been “I’ll get back at you later.”
Arthur Krock, The New York Times, December 7, 1962
Words, Wit and WisdomQ: Lately I have been hearing people using the expression “the whole ball of wax” meaning “in its entirety” or something similar. Can you tell me the history of this particular phrase, what occupational jargon it came from? (I am getting a little tired of it.)—Mrs. Donald F. Prince, Minden, Neb.
A: “The whole ball of wax” was popularized in the jargon of the advertising agencies about ten years ago. Nobody knows for sure what its antecedents were, but at a guess it might have been inspired by Madison Avenue’s penchant for creating new “images” for products. What could be more likely than that the fertile brain of an account executive, seeking a vivid metaphor, might think of the precedent of Madame Tussaud’s Wax Works, the famed London museum where wax “images” of famous and infamous people are displayed. Then he would demand “the whole ball of wax” to work up the new product image.
You think that’s far-fetched? Well, have a few samples of Mad Ave metaphor. “What this account needs is men who can plug the holes in the dike without getting their thumbs wet.” Or the observation of an account executive when a program into which much thought and planning had gone was vetoed by the president. “Bigdome just exploded our lotus blossom.” To which his boss replied with these words of consolation: “When you’ve got a bear by the tail, you go the way the bear goes.”
Everyone has heard the remark of the philosophical adman just before presenting a new campaign to the client: “Let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes.” Or the more parochial, “Let’s put it on the train to Westport and see if it gets off.” And the yacht club version: “Let’s leave it in deep water overnight and see if it springs any leaks.”
When it does “spring a few leaks,” the adman—abruptly switching metaphors—philosophizes: “Let’s throw a blanket on it and keep it warm,” or “We’ll have to put this in a traction splint and see if it knits.”
The New Yorker magazine’s advertising department once undertook to persuade Madison Avenue to hold down the superlatives in ad copy. The magazine titled its modest plea for moderation “Don’t raise the bridge, boys. Lower the river.” But the plea fell on deaf ears—at least so far as the “in-group” talk of the agency men themselves is concerned. Their attitude is reflected in the currently popular “think big” admonition: “If you’re going to build a bridge across the Mississippi—do it lengthwise.”
William Morris, The Morgantown Post, Morgantown, West Virginia, July 21, 1964, page 8
Last revised December 15, 2011