Word Routes

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"Winning" Words: The Language of Sheenenfreude

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past week, you've witnessed the spectacular media meltdown of Charlie Sheen unfold before your eyes. The endless stream of over-the-top pronouncements in Sheen's recent interviews has been captivating, and Sheenisms have quickly become inescapable online, especially on Twitter (where Sheen managed to attract a million followers in just over 24 hours). Tiger blood and Adonis DNA. Rock star from Mars. Gnarly gnarlingtons. Vatican assassin warlocks. And, of course, winning, the buzzword to beat them all. Does any of Sheen's frenetic verbiage have a chance of being remembered beyond the current moment of celebrity Schadenfreude, or should I say Sheenenfreude?

Sheen's series of remarkably unhinged interviews, beginning with the Alex Jones Show radio program on February 24th, have provided neverending fodder for Internet memes. Sheen's words have been repurposed for Twitter hashtags, captions for New Yorker cartoons and cat photos, satirical song lyrics, T-shirt slogans, and on and on. While Sheen appears to be committing career suicide, torpedoing his top-rated sitcom "Two and a Half Men" by attacking the show's creator Chuck Lorre and various other perceived enemies, he still professes to be winning at life.

On Tuesday, New York Magazine's Vulture blog provided a much-needed public service by compiling the "Charlie Sheen Glossary." A translation of Sheen's trademark expressions was necessary, since "he's like a veteran shock jock who's spent years broadcasting on a channel we've all just turned the dial to." Here's a selection from Vulture's glossary:

plural noun
men whose special powers (shooting poetry from one's fingertips, converting tin cans into gold) have earned them a dispensation from the Vatican to commit assassinations
See also: "gnarly gnarlingtons"

verb (frequently used)
1. the act of triumphing over studio executives, famous fathers, and jerky show-runners, who then have no choice but to "lay down with their ugly wives and their ugly children and just look at their loser lives"
2. an exclamation point used at the end of a sentence, e.g., "Sorry, you thought you were just messing with one dude. Winning"

jet with firepower comparable to truth bombs dropped by an addled celebrity, e.g., "Most of the time — and this includes naps — I'm an F-18, bro"

"The scoreboard doesn't lie"
baseball reference used to indicate the extent of one's winning, where the home team's tally is always a lit-up infinity symbol, while the visitors must make do with an LED rendering of Charlie Sheen giving the thumbs-down sign (with a smaller caption that reads, "Sorry, bro")

Of the Sheenisms now in circulation, the most popular by far is winning as a sentence-ender (sometimes accompanied by duh). A rather disturbing variant on the winning theme is bi-winning, explained in the glossary as "a term that can be used to lighten the mood when asked about mental illness ('I'm not bipolar, I'm bi-winning')." Sheen's own Twitter feed has stoked the flames by popularizing the #winning hashtag, along with #tigerblood (riffing off of Sheen's assertion on NBC's "Today Show" that he has "tiger blood and Adonis DNA").

As pop-cultural linguistic explosions go, we haven't seen anything quite like this since the Kanye moment of September 2009, when Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards with a line that should be engraved on his tombstone: "Imma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!" That single line generated a panoply of parodies and mashups, but Sheen has managed to outdo that by overwhelming us with a barrage of loony lingo.

Just as Kanye quickly turned into a verb meaning "to interrupt someone's speech," Sheen has been given the eponymous treatment. As noted by Vulture, "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone used Sheen as a verb when appearing on "The Late Show with David Letterman," explaining that they were "Sheening pretty hard" when they dressed up in drag for the Oscars in 2000. In that usage, Sheen would appear to mean "to behave in a manner so outrageous that only a celebrity could get away with it."

The current Sheenathon can't last forever, of course. But I wouldn't be surprised if Sheenian winning (with or without the duh) survives the media frenzy to become entrenched in the language as an interjection expressing ludicrous self-confidence. If it does gain a foothold in the vernacular, look for it to be a strong candidate in the race for 2011 Word of the Year. That is, unless the fools, trolls and soft targets can't appreciate Sheen's winning ways.

[For more on "the ever-expanding field of applied Sheen-guistics," see Visual Thesaurus contributor Mark Peters' column in Good Magazine.]

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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.

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Comments from our users:

Friday March 4th 2011, 2:21 AM
Comment by: paul B. (jackson, MS)
Ben, you do a great job with Visual Thesaurus. I really enjoy being one of your subscribers. Keep up the good work.
Friday March 4th 2011, 2:34 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
The word of the year might just be "sheenenfreude" if it gets out there. Explains why most of us seem to be so fascinated by this man's insanity. I may be crazy, but at least I'm not Charlie Sheen.
Friday March 4th 2011, 5:34 AM
Comment by: Cachelot (Fanore Ireland)
As a veteran bipolar myself, I see Charlie humptydumptying towards the Great Fall and he'll be the only one to whom these exciting expressions will be utterly meaningless
Friday March 4th 2011, 9:11 AM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
I gotta say that with all of the productive humor, discussion and, indeed, language that has emerged from the recent Sheenathon, I would challenge your descriptor of "meltdown." If anything, Sheen deserves the new word treatment to describe his own behavior.

Perhaps it's a meltup?
Sunday March 6th 2011, 1:51 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
My late husband had clinical depression, from his childhood on into his adult life, peppered with hospitalizations and various treatments.

I'm not overly thrilled at seeing someone who is likewise afflicted with mental illness of some sort being made into such a public spectacle.

It's not educational seeing him this way. And it doesn't bode well for his recovery, if indeed he can, to have this record of his bizarre behaviour.

Nor will it help his children, unless they can use this as a way of explaining the problems of drub abuse and the wxploitation of mental illness.

I'm not blaming Ben. Just saying...
Sunday March 6th 2011, 5:25 PM
Comment by: Nicholas Franco (Wappingers Falls, NY)
The only problem with Charlie Sheen and his outbursts is that anybody is paying attention. This age we live in of facebook, tweeting, chirping, and the overall accessibility we have to . . . well, everyone, just makes way too many vapid assholes famous for way too long. Sure, Charlie Sheen has had his moments (Major League is one of my favorite comedies) but come on now people, he's not even a good actor. He brings nothing to the table. "Two and a half men" is a steaming pile of lowest common denominator crap, and truly, this esteemed website should not be devoting a moment of its attention to Charlie Sheen's nonsense. Really, in these economic times do I need to have a scrap of sympathy for a filthy rich megalomaniac fried on drugs who can't keep his life together? Do I have to even discuss whether the strung together phrases of this ranting fool have any staying power in the collective consciousness of America? The answer is no.
Wednesday April 6th 2011, 9:01 AM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
Gogi Grant could have immortalized Charley with "Next of Kin to the Breaking Wind."

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