Jeremy Bentham, awaiting the outcome of the election.

The Right Honourable Member for Islington North recently made a highly emotive campaign speech (4 November) in which, after mentioning the by now clichéd chlorinated chicken and the novel rat hairs, he claimed the Conservatives want ‘to unleash Thatcherism on steroids on our society’. He continued: ‘The Thatcher government’s attack on the working people of our country left scars that have never healed and communities all over this country that have never recovered.’

There are too many rhetorical sleights of hand in this speech to analyse. To focus on one, he was invoking a hate figure for many on the Left and then upping the ante. Using the word ‘Thatcherism’ is an efficient, if cheap, populist rhetorical dog-whistle device because it contains the hated name but is also suggestively and usefully vague. Do you know what ‘Thatcherism’ is? Do I? Does anyone other than the economists? But it brings in the political termagant to end all termagants –  in some people’s imagination.

That ‘on steroids’ in Mr Corbyn’s speech is a potentially powerful image: if you’re visual, you might in your mind’s eye, for example, see King Kong-size muscle-bound Amazons attacking NHS hospitals with supersonic flamethrowers – or not.

Whatever

What interests me here is the meaning of the phrase and particularly its structure, because that specific structure is systematically exploited to create similar hyperboles, and not just in political speeches.

Steroids are a double-edged weapon,

if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor. Actually, what we’re talking about here are anabolic steroids. Steroids without the ‘anabolic’ have a range of uses in medicine, but anabolic steroids are widely used by athletes and bodybuilders to increase muscle mass and enhance performance. They may thus help some to achieve monstrous or enviable, according to taste, Schwarzeneggerish proportions. The downside is that they can cause aggression and anger.

Whether it is disaster movie-tinted or not, ‘Thatcherism on steroids’ certainly seeks to exploit that negative side of steroids, playing to the idea of ungovernable aggression and anger encapsulated in the punning  ’roid rage.

Terminator in his younger days.

New or just rehashed?

The phrase has not just been dreamt up for the occasion by Labour’s spin doctors. For instance, Labour MP for Stockton South, Dr Paul Williams, used it in a BBC broadcast on 20 February 2019 and then in a newspaper article published on 2 August 2019. As he’s a medical doctor, the steroids part might have had a special resonance for him.

And perhaps it was from him that magic grandpa or his speechwriter picked it up. However, the phrase itself wasn’t, as it were, plucked from thin air by Paul Williams, though it is in the ether.

For instance, ‘X on steroids’ to refer to something being a pumped-up, overinflated, overhyped yet substandard version of something else seems to be quite widely used to criticize films, musicals, TV series and the like.

…a mashup of ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ and ‘Mamma Mia!’ on steroids’. (referring to a musical)

Eurovision is ‘American Idol’ on steroids.

In the Oxford Monitor Corpora for February and April 2018, X on steroids pops up 14,863 times out of a total for the structure N SINGULAR + on + N PLURAL of 1,216,496, so about 1.2 % of occurrences of that structure. (The three most common collocations are war on drugs, war on women (?) and pressure on prices.)

The question that immediately arises is, how many are literal, e.g. I’m on steroids for a chest infection? And the next question in my mind was, how many of those non-literal ones refer to an abstract noun and how many to a concrete one?

Removing the lemma BE within three places to the left still leaves roughly 11,000 examples. A random sample of those suggests that less than 10 per cent of them are literal. In other words, the vast majority are metaphorical.

Contexts where the first noun is concrete seem more frequent, which makes sense because in general language we probably talk more about concrete nouns than abstract ones. Often the comparison is made explicit through the use of like, resembling, and so forth, turning it into a simile.

Concrete examples:

It’s your data transfer app on steroids reserved for use by Samsung’s customers.

Large fluffy, white flowers [sic] plumes resembling the blooms of astilbes on steroids begin blooming in June.

So she decided to write a book about weight loss to boost her credibility as a weight loss consultant. (Having her own book would be like a business card on steroids.)

…though Dubai strikes me like you say a weird almost fantasy city like Las Vegas on steroids.

A blizzard is a snowstorm on steroids.

Abstract examples:

Welcome to consumerism on steroids.

…and Obama is looking at the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or NAFTA on steroids.

It’s a Wall Street CEO mentality on steroids.

Well, Yelp reviews are word of mouth on steroids.

Silliness on steroids, WWE on wheels, little boys and their toys. One reason Americans are so DUMB.


X on Y

The crux, which, thanks to my learned correspondent Janet Gough of the OED I have to emphasize, is that whatever is on steroids has to be something that is capable of expansion, enlargement, and general blowing up.

I claimed earlier that there was a pattern. First, as regards on steroids, it can be used with almost anything that doesn’t defy reason or common sense, with the caveat of the previous paragraph. There are lots of one-offs. However, when it comes to abstracts, the collocations which are not one-offs tend to be political philosophies. Thus, in the February corpus we have (numbers in brackets):

capitalism (23)
political correctness (10)
socialism (8)
neoliberalism (5)
Keynesianism (4)
privatization (4)

Most frequent of all is NAFTA at 64. Not a philosophy, perhaps, but certainly the result of one.

It seems, therefore, that Thatcherism on steroids draws on a well-established pattern for political discourse, rather than being a striking creative novelty. The metaphor is conventional to the extent that the first slot in the frame is mostly drawn from a single lexical field, but creative in that it also allows for a degree of choice outside that field.

Second, the structure lends itself to three other stereotyped forms of hyperbole: X on stilts, X on legs and X on wheels.

Nonsense on stilts

Let’s look at X on stilts first as the putative granddaddy of them all.

It goes back at least to the eighteenth century (1735). The idea behind the metaphor is that if someone is on stilts or does something on stilts, they affect detachment from the hoi polloi, attempt to be lofty in person or in style, are pompously elevated in tone (hence the adjective stilted).

In the OED examples below, it is interesting that Horace Walpole described Dr Johnson, lover of the long word, in that way. Only with the Landor quotation does the pattern of N + on + N PLURAL emerge in the OED examples.

1781   H. Walpole Let. to W. Mason 14 Apr.   Hurlothrumbo talked plain English in comparison of this wight on stilts [Dr. Johnson].

1818   W. Hazlitt Lect. Eng. Poets i. 20   When artists or connoisseurs talk on stilts about the poetry of painting.

1826   W. S. Landor Imaginary Conversat. (ed. 2) I. ii. 26   [Ld. Brooke] Ambition is but Avarice on stilts and masked.

It might seem improbable that this structure used in this way could generate a series of set phrases, yet I believe it has. Not cited in the unrevised OED entry is Nonsense upon Stilts, a title used by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham1 and still going strong in the form nonsense on stilts. His words were: ‘Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, nonsense upon stilts.’ This was written in late summer/autumn 1795 but not published in English until much later.

Unlike on steroids, on stilts is mostly literal (houses, huts, buildings, etc.) When used metaphorically, however, nonsense on stilts – Bentham’s phrase, modified – is far and away the single most frequent metaphor with on stilts, which suggests the persistence of his phrase.

The February 2018 corpus has 69 examples of nonsense on stilts; no other instance of the metaphorical structure has anywhere near that number. Next is stupidity on stilts (9), which is paradigmatically related to nonsense on stilts, as are silliness on stilts (3) and madness on stilts (1).

There is also austerity on stilts (2), ego on stilts (4), gas guzzler on stilts (Qashqai SUV) (1), where the literal and metaphorical merge, as they do in hatch(back) on stilts (8); and a few other one-offs.

A recent example offered to me is to describe a political party’s programme as bollocks on stilts. While that creates a disturbingly surreal visual image, if you allow yourself to go there, it also raises the question of whether on steroids would work. I will leave that to the reader’s discretion.

Labour accused the SNP Government of creating ‘austerity on stilts’ by passing Westminster cuts onto councils…

Whether he’s interviewing an ego on stilts from The Apprentice

A leading Labour MP criticised the figures, saying they showed that immigration policy was ‘madness on stilts’.

The claim that there are just as many young people as old supporting this law is nonsense on stilts.

I’ve got to say this argument is just silliness on stilts.

Austerity on stilts could perhaps equally have been austerity on steroids, given that it falls into the category of political ideology mentioned previously; ego on stilts is paralleled by ego on legs, as we shall see in a minute.

Sex on legs

Turning now to look at the February data for on legs, apart from the hundreds of literal uses, we get the standard, not to say clichéd, sex on legs 56 times. (Do not, on any account, look for images, as I innocently did.)

But we also get the anatomically surreal ego on legs, which somehow makes me think of Alice’s Humpty Dumpty, three times. In addition, there is death on legs (3) and several creative one-offs, such as chaos on legs, class on legs, those in the examples that follow, and several others besides:

…then the likely short-term successor is Vince Cable, the Lib Dem conscience on legs…               

I lost my hair by the handful, I lost my appetite, my skin colour, my zest for life. I was death on legs.

This was the original Mr Perma-tan, an ego on legs who cruised around town in his Rolls-Royce…

She’s an encyclopedia on legs, and very witty and articulate.

(That one plays on ‘a walking encyclopaedia’.)

…there will be queues, with a running commentary from mouth almighty, a relative of gob on legs giving voice loud and long on how disgusting it is to be kept waiting, …



Bitch on wheels

The final prepositional phrase in the group is on wheels. Most of the collocations NOUN SINGULAR + on + NOUN PLURAL are, of course, literal, such as bags on wheels, billboards on wheels, homes on wheels, meals on wheels, etc., etc.

In the April Monitor Corpus, fewer than 5% are metaphorical. Among them, the most common is hell on wheels (102), followed by sex on wheels (26), followed by bitch on wheels (9) and then disaster on wheels (2). However, all but one of the sex on wheels quotations refer to cars.

Whereas Cole might be sex on wheels, Evan Black was the slow burn of sin and seduction – and tonight he was in rare form.

The 2014 Audi R8 V10 Plus is pure sex on wheels.

With hell on wheels, excluding the film title, the great majority are metaphorical:

Nicole is hell on wheels – charismatic, insistent, dramatic, angry.

He described Rahm Emanuel as ‘hell on wheels,’ and then suggested that the former White House chief of staff had attention deficit disorder.

Christmas can be hell on wheels!

I think a Cruz and Huckabee campaigns would be hell on wheels!

Next, bitch on wheels:

Alicia herself admitted that the client was probably ‘a bitch on wheels’.

From her skepticism of Donald Trump’s credentials to her White House dream-team pick ( Elizabeth Warren = bitch on wheels)…

Then:

That’s probably not much of a surprise given what a disaster on wheels the last CNBC debate turned out to be.

Apart from those, there a few one-offs, such as:

From actor, director writer and the guy who taught Tom Cruise in Top Gun, Tom Skerritt, comes what Skerritt has described as ‘Sex in the City’ on wheels.

Some, as we have seen earlier, mix the literal and the metaphorical, the wheels being literal, real wheels, the metaphor residing in the singular noun:

…bus companies, union officials say, are little more than ‘sweatshops on wheels’.

As the miles churned on, the highway became a metaphor on wheels for what America has become: fat, rude, stupid and self-centered.

I would rather be in the studio making music than driving around in a surogate [sic] penis on wheels.

The part metaphor is used particularly as a way of slagging off cars, e.g. box on wheels, brick on wheels, coffin on wheels, breadbin on wheels, etc., etc.


1 Jeremy Bentham, Rights, Representation, and Reform: Nonsense upon Stilts and Other Writings on the French Revolution, ed. P. Schofield, C. Pease-Watkin, and C. Blamires, Oxford, 2002 (The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham), pp. 317-401. The work was first published in French translation as ‘Sophismes anarchiques. Examen critique de diverses Declarations des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen’, in Tactique des assemblées législatives, suivi d’un traité des sophismes politiques, ed. Etienne Dumont, 2 vols., Geneva and Paris, 1816, ii. 269-392, and then in English as ‘Anarchical Fallacies; being an examination of the Declarations of Rights issued during the French Revolution’, in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed. John Bowring, 11 vols., Edinburgh, 1838-43, ii. 489-534.

Footnote information taken from Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Nonsense upon Stilts’ Philip Schofield University College London, Utilitas Vol. 15, No. 1, March 2003; IP address: 86.184.195.70, on 10 Nov 2019 at 19:37:31.

2 Comments

  1. A fascinating article, Jeremy. And interesting to consider the different Xs of X on Y, with different Ys. A friend of mine just today described Plaid Cymru’s manifesto as ‘bollocks on stilts’. Which would mean nothing (or would it?) as ‘bollocks on steroids’.

    Like

    1. Hi, Janet

      Good to hear from you. Am I right in thinking you are now a permanent part of the OED team? Anyway, I’ve amended the post in light of your comment, ;-). Bollocks on steroids would, to my mind, be too close to the literal, and conjure up a rather distressing image. Bollocks = ‘nonsense’, and is therefore part of the Benthamite paradigm.

      Like

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