The Origin Of “Couch Potato”

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.

Word-A-Day

For many years now, one of my standard holiday gifts to Kish has been a “word-a-day” calendar.  It’s a calendar that features a different, typically unusual word each day, gives you the definition and the pronunciation — if you can decipher those weird pronunciation symbols, that is — and then provides a quote that uses the word in a sentence.

It’s an interesting thing to check out each day, and a chance to engage in a little vocabulary building.  Typically the words on the calendar fall into three categories:  words we already know and use, words that you would never try to work into a conversation, and words that you actually think could become part of your standard word-stock.  The first category is easily the smallest in size, but when the calendar does use a word we already use — yesterday’s word, for example, was rarefied — you feel a certain sense of accomplishment.  The second category is the largest.  Sometimes the words are so technical that there really is no chance to use them in everyday conversation, and others are so high-falutin’ you can’t imagine dropping them into a discussion.  Tomorrow’s word, for example, is faineant, with an accent over the e, which means idle and ineffectual or indolent.  I doubt I could even pronounce that one properly, much less find an opportunity to use it correctly.

But the third category is why you buy the calendar.  Today’s word, quiddity, falls into that category.  My favorite recent word in that category is gorgonize, which means to have a paralyzing or mesmerizing effect, and is synonymous with stupefy or petrify.  I’m saving that one up for a choice opportunity — like when one of my friends tells a long-winded story about people I don’t know at lunch and I confess that their tale gorgonized me.

 

Attempting An Eclogue

For years, Kish has gotten a “word-a-day” calendar as a Christmas stocking stuffer.  The calendar gives you a word, its definition, and its pronunciation, and then uses the word in a sentence, like you’re the contestant in the national spelling bee.  It’s an interesting, relatively painless way to learn new words and build that personal vocabulary to ever more impressive heights, and occasionally — O, happy day! — the word is one you actually knew already.

afghan_shepherd_by_ironpaw1Sometimes, though, the words aren’t exactly easy to fit into everyday conversation.  On Monday, for example, the word was “eclogue.” What’s an eclogue (pronounced ek-log), you ask?  Why, it’s a poem in which shepherds converse, of course.  The sentence the calendar offers to illustrate its meaning is:  “The poet’s new volume offers modern translations of Virgil’s eclogues.”  Even at an erudite workplace like mine, it’s hard to imagine a discussion where you could smoothly use “eclogue.”

Although I can’t see ever using the word in actual conversation, and therefore am likely to promptly forget it, I thought it might be fun to try to write an eclogue, just to give ol’ Virgil a little competition.

A Brief Eclogue

Far out yonder, on grassy plain

Where sheep did graze, were shepherds twain

As they silently did walk

One shepherd felt the need to talk.

Said Shepherd One to Shepherd Two:

“It’s time for dinner.  I brought stew.

The sheep all graze o’er by the lake.

No wolf in sight.  Let’s take a break!”

Said Shepherd Two to Shepherd One:

“I’m sad to say that I’ve brought none.

I’ve got no food, but none the worse.

Let’s use our break, then, to converse.”

Said Shepherd One to Shepherd Two:

“I’d start, but I don’t have a clue

What we’d discuss, or what I’d say.

I’ve been out tending sheep all day.”

Said Shepherd Two to Shepherd One:

“There’s nothing new under the sun.

And what is new I won’t discuss.

Clinton and Trump just make me cuss!”

So shepherds two sat ‘neath a tree

And watched as sheep grazed peacefully

It wasn’t much of an eclogue

But ’twas enough to fill this blog.