If you have an appetite for news, you know what’s on the menu this month: Nothing burgers.
They’re sizzling hot this summer. Cooked up in the realm of casual excuses, the nothing burger has been on the lips of Republican apologists ever since journalists began salivating over tantalizing whiffs of the meatiest political scandal since Richard “I Am Not a Crook” Nixon.
Hungry newshounds have been doggedly sniffing out the juicy evidence for more than a year now. They’re drooling over hints, and now much more, that the current occupants of the White House have a distinctly Russian flavor. As they turn up the heat, the evidence that started out rare is headed for well-done.
“Nothing burger” — that’s how the president’s defenders are dismissing growing evidence the Family Trump and their sycophants welcomed covert digital assistance from Russia to score their jaw-dropping victory. When Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was grilled about what Donald Trump Jr. had been cooking up with the Russians, he proclaimed it “a big nothing burger.”
Shades of “where’s the beef”! Not since Fritz Mondale’s run back in 1984 have we heard ground meat (or the absence thereof) served up so often in prime-time news. Back then, a classic Wendy’s TV commercial supplied what became the catchphrase of the campaign when a tiny female curmudgeon stared at an oversized but barren bun, demanding to know where the meaty part of her lunch had gone.
The phrase “nothing burger,” though — oddly girlish and coy — required some tracking down. Was it Valley Girl dialect from the 1980s? A remnant of stylish jabber from the TV comedy “Sex and the City”? It sounds familiar … but where did it come from?
Nothing burgers, it turns out, had lurked on the back burner for 65 years when Kellyanne and Reince and their troop of defenders served it up in its current context. Hollywood’s pioneering movie critic and gossip columnist Louella Parsons tossed it off in 1952, describing a minor performance in the sense of “much ado about nothing.” She was inspired, perhaps, by one of the hot trends of her day. California was falling in love with beef on a bun as the fabled McDonald brothers launched their burger chain with golden arches right in her backyard.
Helen Gurley Brown, though, deserves co-credit. You remember her, don’t you … the legendary editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, flagship voice of the female sexual revolution? Helen made the catchphrase her own. It first appeared in her book “Sex and the Single Girl,” a tome that shook the civilized world, just a little, back in the swingin’ Sixties. She tossed it in into her sassy magazine columns, too, along with the other term she coined, “mouseburger.” Both were handy to disparage all that was bland and unremarkable, be it too-innocuous accessories or a too-submissive outlook.
Like other terms that explode as sassy slang, then inch toward respectability, nothing burgers have crept into the English language’s chaotic, messy cupboard. They’ve even breached the ramparts of the sober, noble Oxford Dictionary with an official definition: “something that is or turns out to be insignificant or lacking in substance.”
Proper English or not, Reince may still rue the day he added nothing burgers to the menu, as grilling over the Russian scandal drags his team over the coals. But then again, they sound like just the thing when you’re going to have to eat your words.