Sun, Jun 05, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Chump change: What a billionaire might call mere millions

The phrase appears to have metamorphosed in meaning from a petty amount of pocket change to a large sum being compared with a stupendously large one

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A source at The Times Magazine, on strict condition of anonymity, tipped me weeks ago that the theme of Sunday's issue would be Money. One article, whispered Rob Hoerburger, copy-desk head (oops! burned another source), would be about Silicon Valley's brat pack: "those who, for example, made upward of US$10 million in the dot-com era but who consider that chump change."

In the grand scheme of American economic linguistics, far more significant than the profits or predations of Web-site wizards is the emergence and staying power of the phrase chump change. The alliteration that drove its predecessor phrase, chicken feed, into innocuous desuetude is a stinging attack on the arrogance of those enviable richies who supposedly use the term.

Begin with chump. In the 1864 edition of J.C. Hotten's Slang Dictionary, it was defined as "the head or face. ... A half-idiotic or daft person is said to be off his chump." The chump then became synonymous with "fool": Senator Marcus A. Hanna, who considered "politician" to be a high calling, in 1902 derided an opponent: "I used to think he was a politician, but I don't now. He's a chump."

That sense of being a jerk, easily defeated, was accentuated by its contrast with the similar-sounding champ. But by 1930, in his Dictionary of the Underworld, Eric Partridge detected a sinister connotation in the verb form of chump, meaning "to hoodwink": "Every once in a while I chump a guy for some real dough." That meaning was taken up in the world of prostitution, married to "trivial amount," and in 1967, Robert Beck wrote in Pimp that in the 1940s "Western whores were lazy and satisfied with making `chump change.'" The novelist George Cain wrote in the 1970 Blueschild Baby, "The toughs stand at the entrances ... jingling chump change in their pockets." James Ellroy had his fictional villain in 1988 "only making chump change gigging on Central Avenue."

Now the phrase is used 24/7 (a numeric locution that has temporarily replaced the nondigital round the clock as well as the slangily natural allatime). It is most frequently used to describe a huge number that pales in comparison with an even bigger number: "An extra US$11 billion in the highway bill may seem like chump change to most of the Senate," grumbles the San Antonio Express. Or, as my source uses the phrase, it's what dot-com dukes think of as a measly US$10 million.



I had a hand, as a White House speechwriter back in 1969, in popularizing the word Nixonomics. It seemed like a nice encapsulation of a philosophy of a "full-employment budget" but soon became a handy phrase that liberals could use to castigate stagflation and conservatives to hoot at wage and price controls.

Now the last two syllables of economics are making a comeback. Nomics is in, with or without the initial n. We have genomics, mapping the DNA sequencing of sets of genes, and the more recent proteomics, analyzing the interaction of the proteins produced by the genes of a particular cell. Ergonomics is the science of designing modern equipment to reduce discomfort as we plonk our way painfully through the carpel tunnel of love. Leaping on the -nomics bandwagon, with the vowel o inserted, is rockonomics, the monetary machinations of the huge and lucrative music industry.

Here's my advice to White House aides of all stripes: If your president's name ends with an n, brace yourself for an -omics branding. Thus did we have Nixonomics, Reaganomics and Clintonomics. We did not have Fordonomics or Carternomics or Bushonomics, nor would we have had Dukakisonomics or Gorenomics or Kerrynomics. It has nothing to do with politics; it's the elision quality of the last letter of the president's last name.

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