In a recent post about the benefits of getting exercise, I used the phrase “couch potato.” I chuckled as I wrote it, because the phrase perfectly captures the concept of the sedentary TV watcher sunk back on the sofa, ready to absorb whatever brainless programming might be thrown his way. It made me wonder about the history of this evocative phrase that has become so commonplace.
“Couch potato” traces its origins back to the 1970s and Pasadena, California, when comic artist Bob Armstrong created a “couch potato” club to celebrate inveterate TV watchers and designed buttons, like the one shown above, and t-shirts with a reclining, couch-bound, fez-wearing tuber next to a TV set with rabbit ears. Armstrong borrowed the phrase, with permission, from his friend Tom Iacino, who coined it and used it within his circle of friends.
The phrase so aptly described American TV culture that it was featured in an article in TV Guide magazine–a publication that was found in virtually every American suburban household of that era–and quickly entered the lexicon. The Merriam-Webster dictionary cites the first general use of “couch potato” as happening in 1976, and in the years since then it has become immensely popular, being used so often that the dictionary puts it in the top 4 percent of words. And the term isn’t limited to the English-speaking world, either–the couch potato concept is so universal that the phrase has entered other cultures as well. The Swedish term for “couch potato,” for example, is “soffpotatis,” and the equivalent French phraseapparently is “pantouflard.”
Imagine coming up with a phrase the just nails an element of popular culture, and then living to see your invention used just about everywhere. Here’s a hat tip to Iacino and Armstrong for the deft turn of phrase and popularizing visualization. Our lives would be a little less rich without “couch potato” in the vocabulary.