Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The day I bombed on "the bomb"

Growing up in the Fifties, I always understood the term "the bomb" to be the A-Bomb and then the H-Bomb. I suppose that now it is the neutron bomb.

As kids, we were drilled to dive under our desks in case of a nuclear attack. A lot of good it would have done, but at least that was the drill.

Of course "a bomb" was also considered a performance that utterly failed...or, well, bombed.

Sexually attractive women were considered "bombs" or "bombshells," which seemed strange in light of the other meanings floating around.

Perhaps the 180 was preparing me for "bad" morphing in meaning to good, and "politically correct" actually being something that was decidedly incorrect.

For all my preparation and linguistic vigilance, I was taken totally off-guard today in my visual communication class when I was introduced to a new usage of "the bomb." A hasty, non-scientific, post-class survey reveals that anyone under the age of 40 knows of this usage. Those over don't.

Back to the class, which was about cartoons and how cartoonists, a strange lot, come upon their creations. One way is to play off multiple meanings of the same word. Take one meaning and put it in the visual context of another and you have the makings of a cartoon.

The example I used was that of a New Yorker cartoon showing a sitting dog talking on the telephone and saying, "O.K., I'm sitting. What is it?"

Got it?

O.K., so I suggested that the recent rash of bomb threats on the Portland Community College campuses might have the makings of a good cartoon. Sure enough, when I asked my students to come up with a cartoon idea, one used the bomb idea. Her cartoon featured a young man in the grasp of two security officers and protesting, "All I said was that your shoes were 'the bomb.'"

I sort of half laughed knowing that there must be something to the joke, but I wasn''t sure what. On the other hand the cartoonist's peers thought the drawing and caption were very funny.

Some explanation was clearly in order.

This was a cherished teachable moment — for the teacher. And so I learned that for the past several years "the bomb" means, in effect, "a knock out," a clear winner. Apparently the term is used with regularity by one Randy Jackson, a judge on "American Idol," a program I have, until now, managed to do without.

My survey revealed that "the bomb" predates Randy and may have emerged in the mid- to late-Nineties.

I flipped my ignorance into the professorial observation that the messages needs to be crafted to the audience. My student had done just that. Her audience just happened to exclude me.

I have to confess, this sort of thing is happening to me with greater and greater frequency. This is why there are mandatory retirement ages.

I may mandate my own retirement age, and soon, especially if I'm forced to watch "American Idol" to stay relevant. On the other hand, students may find me kind of interesting as a living artifact from the days when a bomb really was a bomb.

My role is to remind them that, alas, it still is.

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