Sun, Mar 13, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Money quote: a blockbuster of a blurb that doesn't age

`Money quote' is a synonym for `blurb,' meaning `effusive praise for advertising purposes,' but the former has gained in frequency

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

"At the outset of every sweep phoner," wrote Lisa de Moraes in The Washington Post in December about the calls placed by network officials to influence interpretation of the latest ratings, "one NBC exec begins with a money quote -- one the press is sure to jump on."

Last summer, former US president Bill Clinton's nicely phrased hope that debates would return to "where we argue who's right and wrong, not who's good and bad" was praised in The Des Moines Register with "Clinton had the money quote of the day." Before that usage, Time magazine noted in 1984 that a biography of the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton made the publisher, Random House, "delighted but not surprised by the enthusiastic `money quotes' in early reviews."

Here we have a phrase gaining in frequency that has bypassed the classic coinage "blurb." That stroke of onomatopoeic linguistic genius by Gelett Burgess in 1907, meaning "effusive praise for advertising purposes," now has a synonym that is more emphatic. A "money quote" has subsumed the blurb's primary meaning of "recommendation that helps its object make money," adding the sense of "the essence, or most newsworthy part of the statement."

The love of money may or may not be the root of all evil, but what is the root of money as an attributive noun? (That's a noun doing the modifying work of an adjective, like killer whale, street-corner conservative, world opinion or blogger commentary.)

In sports, a money player is one who comes through in the clutch. It may have begun in billiards. The Chicago Daily Tribune in 1890, quoting from a decision on the handicapping of players, reported: "Schaefer and Slosson are scratch men at 500 points each. ... Catton, being a money player, can outstay Heiser in a test game." In horse racing, the money position was the front. In baseball, the New York Daily News wrote in 1949, "Pee Wee Reese ... Duke Snider ... and Luis Olmo ... came through with money hits to break the tie." (And where was Carl Furillo?)

Then money as a modifier meaning "powerful, decisive" made the move to movies as money shot. Steve Ziplow, in his Filmmaker's Guide to Pornography, noted in 1977 that "there are those who believe that the ... money shot is the most important element in the movie." The staid but resolutely unblushing Oxford English Dictionary, now available online for US$295 a year, cites this climactic phrase as an American colloquialism for "a provocative, sensational or memorable sequence in a film, on which the film's commercial performance is perceived to depend; [specifically, in a pornographic film] one showing ejaculation; ... [also, in extended use] a crucial or pivotal moment, event or factor, especially in another art form, as a novel."

Generations from now, lexicographers and etymologists scanning The Times archives for the origins of attributive use of nouns in the late 20th century will find this scholarly entry and have no trouble determining the money quote.

BIG PICTURE

In The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood, the investigative author Edward Jay Epstein holds that what used to be the movie business, centered in "movie houses," has been transformed into the home-entertainment business. As a result, its familiar lexicon has been overtaken.

"Outdated vocabulary," he writes, "includes such terms as B-picture, first run, marquee name, long run, blockbuster and box-office gross -- terms from an era in which the paramount measure of success was the performance and duration of movies in theaters."

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