Douglas Coupland’s Generation X lexicon

A quarter-century after publication seemed a good time to revisit Douglas Coupland’s self-consciously zeitgeisty novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. It remains a rewarding read, inventive and humorous, with a sincerity unspoiled by its often sardonic views.

A salient feature of the book is an ingenious, comical, cultural glossary supplementing the text as it unfolds. For example: Ultra short term nostalgia (unhyphenated in the book) is ‘homesickness for the extremely recent past: God, things seemed so much better in the world last week.’ This had special resonance after the UK’s Brexit vote last month, as did Historical Overdosing:

douglas coupland - generation x pink book cover abacusTo live in a period of time when too much seems to happen. Major symptoms include addiction to newspapers, magazines, and TV news broadcasts.

(The symptoms for Historical Underdosing are the same.)

Some of the near-100 such entries, like McJob – the first in the book – have become established in broader usage. The OED cites Generation X in its entry for McJob, but credits a Washington Post headline from 1986 as the first use.

It’s worth comparing the two glosses: where the OED is appropriately disinterested and concise, Coupland adds wry sociological insight:

OED on McJob: An unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector.

Coupland on McJob: A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one.

Below is a selection of entries from Coupland’s Generation X lexicon (Xicon?), in the order they appear in the book. Some are obviously aimed at the era; others have more cross-generational application. If you haven’t read the book and are curious based on these snippets or on its reputation, I can recommend it.

Emotional Ketchup Burst: The bottling up of opinions and emotions inside oneself so that they explosively burst forth all at once, shocking and confusing employers and friends – most of whom thought things were fine.

Clique Maintenance: The need of one generation to see the generation following it as deficient so as to bolster its own collective ego: Kids today do nothing. They’re so apathetic. We used to go out and protest. All they do is shop and complain.”

Consensus Terrorism: The process that decides in-office attitudes and behavior.

Power Mist: The tendency of hierarchies in office environments to be diffuse and preclude crisp articulation.

Overboarding: Overcompensating for fears about the future by plunging headlong into a job or life-style seemingly unrelated to one’s previous interests; i.e., Amway sales, aerobics, the Republican Party, a career in law, cults, McJobs. . . .

Anti-Sabbatical: A job taken with the sole intention of staying only for a limited period of time (often one year). The intention is usually to raise enough funds to partake in another, more personally meaningful activity such as watercolor sketching in Crete or designing computer knit sweaters in Hong Kong. Employers are rarely informed of intentions.

Bambification: The mental conversion of flesh-and-blood living creatures into cartoon creatures possessing bourgeois Judeo-Christian attitudes and morals.

Diseases for Kisses (Hyperkarma): A deeply rooted belief that punishment will somehow always be far greater than the crime: ozone holes for littering.

Spectacularism: A fascination with extreme situations.

Lessness: A philosophy whereby one reconciles oneself with diminishing expectations of material wealth: I’ve given up wanting to make a killing or be a bigshot. I just want to find happiness and maybe open up a little roadside cafe in Idaho.”

Status Substitution: Using an object with intellectual or fashionable cachet to substitute for an object that is merely pricey: “Brian, you left your copy of Camus in your brother’s BMW.”

Mental Ground Zero: The location where one visualizes oneself during the dropping of the atomic bomb; frequently, a shopping mall.

Cult of Aloneness: The need for autonomy at all costs, usually at the expense of long-term relationships. Often brought about by overly high expectations of others.

Celebrity Schadenfreude: Lurid thrills derived from talking about celebrity deaths.

Personal Tabu: A small rule for living, bordering on a superstition, that allows one to cope with everyday life in the absence of cultural or religious dictums.

Musical Hairsplitting: The act of classifying music and musicians into pathologically picayune categories: The Vienna Franks are a good example of urban white acid folk revivalism crossed with ska.”

101-ism: The tendency to pick apart, often in minute detail, all aspects of life using half-understood pop psychology as a tool.

Rebellion Postponement: The tendency in one’s youth to avoid traditionally youthful activities and artistic experiences in order to obtain serious career experience. Sometimes results in the mourning for lost youth at about age thirty, followed by silly haircuts and expensive joke-inducing wardrobes.

Conspicuous Minimalism: A life-style tactic similar to Status Substitution. The nonownership of material goods flaunted as a token of moral and intellectual superiority.

Café Minimalism: To espouse a philosophy of minimalism without actually putting into practice any of its tenets.

Squirming: Discomfort inflicted upon young people by old people who see no irony in their gestures. Karen died a thousand deaths as her father made a big show of tasting a recently manufactured bottle of wine before allowing it to be poured as the family sat in Steak Hut.

Conversational slumming: The self-conscious enjoyment of a given conversation precisely for its lack of intellectual rigor.

Occupational Slumming: Taking a job beneath one’s skills or education level as a means of retreat from adult responsibilities and/or avoiding possible failure in one’s true occupation.

Tele-parablizing: Morals used in everyday life that derive from TV sitcom plots: That’s just like the episode where Jan lost her glasses.”

Me-ism: A search by an individual, in the absence of training in traditional religious tenets, to formulate a personally tailored religion by himself. Most frequently a mishmash of reincarnation, personal dialogue with a nebulously defined god figure, naturalism, and karmic eye-for-eye attitudes.

Strangelove Reproduction: Having children to make up for the fact that one no longer believes in the future.

Underdogging: The tendency to almost invariably side with the underdog in a given situation. The consumer expression of this trait is the purchasing of less successful, “sad,” or failing products: I know these Vienna franks are heart failure on a stick, but they were so sad looking up against all the other yuppie food items that I just had to buy them.”

2 + 2 = 5-ism: Caving in to a target marketing strategy aimed at oneself after holding out for a long period of time. Oh, all right, I’ll buy your stupid cola. Now leave me alone.”

Option Paralysis: The tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none.

Personality Tithe: A price paid for becoming a couple; previously amusing human beings become boring: “Thanks for inviting us, but Noreen and I are going to look at flatware catalogs tonight. Afterward we’re going to watch the shopping channel.”

Derision Preemption: A life-style tactic; the refusal to go out on any sort of emotional limb so as to avoid mockery from peers.

Dumpster Clocking: The tendency when looking at objects to guesstimate the amount of time they will take to eventually decompose: Ski boots are the worst. Solid plastic. They’ll be around till the sun goes super nova.”

Metaphasia: An inability to perceive metaphor.

Obscurism: The practice of peppering daily life with obscure references (forgotten films, dead TV stars, unpopular book, defunct countries, etc.) as a subliminal means of showcasing both one’s education and one’s wish to disassociate from the world of mass culture.

Expatriate Solipsism: When arriving in a foreign travel destination one had hoped was undiscovered, only to find many people just like oneself; the peeved refusal to talk to said people because they had ruined one’s elitist travel fantasy.

Coupland’s book has many more.

4 Responses to Douglas Coupland’s Generation X lexicon

  1. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve had a few Emotional Ketchup Bursts myself last week!! McJob and Musical Hairsplitting – hilarious! I’m definitely going to read this :)

  2. old gobbo says:

    Er, thanks. Modified rapture perhaps. I am certainly guilty of attempted Obscurism, but I only did it to tease, and anyway it usually turned out that they knew far more about it than I did. Does being pleased with them afterwards make up for Strangelove reproduction ?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Pleased with the offspring? I don’t think it bears upon it. But there may be room for a related term meaning ‘pleased with one’s children despite their issuing from Strangelove Reproduction’ – maybe Suspended Salvation?

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