Not so long ago, the way to convey that something was extreme was to simply call it extreme ("X" for short.) There were extreme sports (think bungee jumping), extreme tourism (think traveling in order to bungee jump) and, of course, the "Extreme Makeover" television franchise, which took self-improvement and home improvement to new levels by throwing in hefty doses of plastic surgery and new construction along with the usual hairstyle and paint color changes.
But perhaps you've noticed the new overused expression in town: "on steroids." It's been kicking "extreme's" butt. Last month alone, White House Middle East strategist Dennis Ross described the humanitarian crisis in Libya as "Srebrenica on steroids," a union leader in New Hampshire described his state's collective bargaining rules as "Wisconsin on steroids," and a developer of a multi-touch microscope described the instrument's 46-inch screen as an "iPad on steroids." Meanwhile London's Financial Times published a report called "How to Put Your Equity Income on Steroids" and CBS News, in a piece about the priciest one-family home ever sold in the U.S., dubbed the $100-million California estate "a French chateau on steroids."
The "on steroids" trope is fun and all — not to mention far superior to its idiomatic cousin, "on acid," which always struck me as the thing you say when you can't think of anything else to say. But anyone who's followed the headlines lately — and the trial of former home run king Barry Bonds — knows it's a misnomer. Bonds allegedly committed perjury several years ago when he insisted to a grand jury that he'd never knowingly used performance enhancing drugs.
As far as trials go, this one is steroids on steroids. According to testimony from Bonds' former girlfriend, Kimberly Bell, (not to be confused with the two wives that spanned the same period), his anabolic steroid use resulted in shrunken testicles, acne, bloating, hair loss and impotence. Bell told the court that Bonds had become increasingly aggressive and agitated, threatening to cut off her head, leave her in a ditch and burn down her house as well as "cut out [her] breast implants because he helped pay for them."
OK, so what exactly was all that steroidal about Libya and equity income and expensive houses and military Keynesianism? That they have qualities analogous to shrunken testicles and hair loss? That, despite these setbacks, they could still muster the bluster to threaten arson and violence, even if it meant destroying long-term investments like breast implants? (It's hard to imagine the Financial Times would endorse such a strategy, though you probably can't say the same for Moammar Kadafi's forces in Libya.) Moreover, should we prepare ourselves for news footage of balding, acne-covered state workers in New Hampshire protesting budget cuts?
Mercifully, no, since most state workers, despite their staggering pensions and (for teachers) languid summers off, have neither the time, the funds, nor the inclination to make anabolic steroids a part of their lives. (I presume that also goes for most military Keynesians, multi-touch microscopes and even $100-million mansions, though I encourage anyone with any dirt to the contrary to let The Times know.)
As bombastic shorthand, however, "on steroids" fills an important niche. After all, we live in an era of sound bites and screamed opinions. For a message to be competitive in the race for airtime and blogospheric amplification it needs to be catchy and concise and not bogged down with wordy, tiresome substance. A sentence like "the violence in Libya has the potential to become a bloodier, larger-scale version of the Srebrenica massacre" not only lacks the ring of "Srebrenica on steroids," it takes too darn long to say!
But given what's coming out in the Bonds trial, it's hard to imagine that "on steroids" will retain all its brawny connotations. In fact, it's probably only a matter of time until another ill-fitting catchphrase comes along and replaces it. What it will be — "on dialysis," "on beta-blockers," "on antifungals," — is anyone's guess. In the meantime, I'm opting for "on mute."
Let's all get off the term 'on steroids'
The overuse of the hyperbolic shorthand 'on steroids' has serious side effects.
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