I’m a lexicographer – get me out of here

Posted by on September 14, 2009

© Jason Yoder - Fotolia.comWe need a new definition for celebrity. None of the dictionaries I’ve looked at (ours included) really does justice to the way the word is used nowadays. Celebrity has become a far more common word in the last 20 years or so: statistics show that its frequency has more than doubled since 1990, its use as a modifier (celebrity chef, celebrity lifestyle) is relatively recent, and several related terms have entered the language on the back of it (the short forms sleb and celeb, the expression famous for being famous, and the various ‘-list’ words used to grade celebrities: A-list, D-list, Z-list).

But what does it mean? The Macmillan definition – ‘a famous person, especially in entertainment or sport’ – is better than most because at least it narrows down the field. (Many dictionaries just say ‘a famous person’, which would include the Queen or Salman Rushdie.) Looking at magazines like Heat or at TV shows with ‘Celebrity’ in the title, I’m tempted to go with something like:

an attention-seeking talentless nobody who regularly appears in gossip magazines, but who most normal people have never heard of

And it’s true there is a whole class of people who have achieved nothing of note yet crop up in these media with depressing regularity: ex-girlfriends of footballers, runners-up on Big Brother six years ago, former members of one-hit-wonder girl bands and the like.

However, that’s not the whole story. My guess is we would not apply the term to people such as Meryl Streep, Martin Scorsese, Keith Richards, or Serena Williams – even though all conform to the dictionary definition. So why wouldn’t we call them celebrities? Is it because their goal was to be the best at what they do, and their fame is just a by-product of their achievements? On the other hand, most people would have no difficulty applying the tag to Madonna or Angelina Jolie – yet neither could fairly be described using the new definition above: they are genuinely well-known and arguably quite talented.

Something else is going on, and I suggest there are two other defining criteria which effectively rule out Meryl Streep et al., but rule in Madonna and Angelina. First, they actively seek the limelight (whereas many genuinely famous people try to avoid it) and don’t feel anything they do is ‘real’ unless it is televised or photographed. Secondly, there is a tendency to move outside one’s chosen field and pontificate on subjects (religion, politics, nutrition, whatever) which one knows little about. Sharon Stone famously travelled to Israel in 2006 to promote peace in the Middle East: not a bad objective in itself, but how did she convince herself she was in any way qualified for this mission? You couldn’t really do this without a mixture of limitless self-belief and zero self-awareness. Oh, and there is one more criterion: celebrities are generally referred to by their first name only – so how clever of Madonna to anticipate her later fame by dumping her last name right at the outset.

Read more about Language Change and Slang.

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Comments (1)
  • I like your description of the celebrity – one which Samuel Johnson would have been proud of!

    Posted by Finn on 17th September, 2009
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