Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

An Army of "Strong" Slogans

In my latest column for the Boston Globe, I take a look at the rapid rise of the slogan "Boston Strong" in the month since the Marathon bombing. It seemed to come out of nowhere, but it's only the latest in a long line of "strong" slogans.

A decade ago, Lance Armstrong launched his "Livestrong" campaign, with its popular yellow wristbands, to raise money for cancer survivors. But since Armstrong's doping scandal, the reputation of the Livestrong Foundation has been similarly tarnished. Dan Bernstein, a sports columnist for CBS Chicago, hears in "Boston Strong" an unpleasant reminder of "Livestrong." He writes that "Boston Strong," or any other "___ Strong" motto, has been tarnished, as it "immediately brings to mind deception, lies and fraud."

But the backstory of "Boston Strong" is far more complex than a straight line extending from "Livestrong." Over the years, the variations on the "X Strong" theme have built up a tangled semantic web of associations. And the many precursors to "Boston Strong" make it seem rather absurd that some are now trying to trademark the slogan.

Nick Reynolds, one of two Emerson College students who created "Boston Strong" T-shirts shortly after the bombing, told USA Today that "Livestrong" was one source of inspiration, but he mentioned another influential "strong" slogan: "We developed Boston Strong off of Livestrong and Army Strong, because it was something simple people could get behind," Reynolds said.

It's "Army Strong," the recruiting slogan introduced in 2006, to which "Boston Strong" has the strongest family resemblance. In fact, "Army Strong" seems to have inspired an army of slogans that use the "X Strong" frame (where X can be a noun or, as is increasingly the case, a place name). Here's a sampling:

  • Country Strong: the title of a 2007 country song by Britni Hoover, later covered by Gwyneth Paltrow for a movie of the same name
  • Jersey Strong: a phrase trademarked by the New Jersey fitness club chain Work Out World in 2007, repurposed after Hurricane Sandy for rebuilding efforts on the Jersey Shore
  • Vermont Strong: fundraising slogan used for Vermont after it was ravaged by Hurricane Irene in 2011
  • Colt Strong: a motto of the Indianapolis Colts introduced for their 2012 season, changed to ChuckStrong after head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia
  • Aurora, Colorado Strong: the name of a community festival honoring first responders in Aurora, the Colorado city recovering from the 2012 theater shooting
  • Newtown Strong: a slogan on T-shirts sold by a group raising funds for the victims of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

The trend has been toward using "X Strong" to highlight the resilience of communities affected by natural disasters (New Jersey, Vermont) or by acts of violence (Aurora, Newtown). "Boston Strong" (as well as the more localized "Watertown Strong") is a continuation of this trend of sloganeering, but one that nonetheless has given Bostonians something to cheer about in a time of sorrow.

You can hear me talk about my column on the origins of "Boston Strong" on WBUR's Radio Boston.

Update: In post-Sandy New Jersey, along with "Jersey Strong" one also sees "Jersey Tough," as in the description for this commercial: "We're resilient, we're Jersey-tough, we are Stronger Than the Storm." That harks back to the "Built Ford Tough" slogan, used for Ford Trucks since at least 1976.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.