Wednesday Words: Muppets, Slacktivism and Aggravated Pimping

NewsFeed’s weekly highlight of our vocabulary includes useful, new, hilarious and surprising words (as well as some that are just fun to roll off the old tongue).

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Criminal cant: aggravated pimping

French authorities have charged Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF director, with “aggravated pimping.” In France, prostitutes can work legally, but pimps cannot. According to the Wall Street Journal, the “aggravated pimping” charge involves allegations that DSK “took part in parties organized by an alleged prostitution ring,” and that some involved may have used corporate funds for the shindigs, which could be an “aggravating” circumstance—in other words, a factor that increases the severity of the crime. DSK’s lawyers have countered that, sure, he may have cheated on his wife, and taken part in orgies, and paid for sex, but that doesn’t make him a pimp, even if it does make him a dog. Or, perhaps more appropriately, a chaud lapin.

(MORE: DSK Lawyers: Lust Isn’t a Crime)

Protest parlance: hashtag activism

In a recent New York Times op-ed, David Carr considers the power of what the paper calls “hashtag activism,” meaning protests fueled by social media like Twitter, and other viral means. He’s skeptical, given how easily and fleetingly people can hop on Facebook-type bandwagons, many ralliers feeling committed for, perhaps, a solid five minutes. Carr also explains that he may be cynical, having experienced “favorite” fatigue, a reference to the option on Twitter to save a tweet as a “favorite.”

Certainly the media have latched onto these numbers in an attempt to quantify importance or staying power: x number of people have signed this electronic petition; y number have “liked” this cause on Facebook. Particularly when it comes to do-good movements, there is a reality that some who show their solidarity, with all the effort of a click, will be what pundits call slacktivists.” These are people who join online fights and give some fraction of a hoot about the cause (compared to real activists who give a solid, full hoot).

Investment-banker insult: muppet

When a Goldman Sachs employee resigned amid the fanfare of a damning op-ed, he alleged that the good old boys at his company often referred to clients as “muppets.” And the word is sticking around. Media called the scandal “Muppetgate,” while Funny or Die produced a video imagining a meeting between disgraced executives and the Anti-Muppet Defamation League. And some reporters made silly insinuations that these were actually references to the likes of Kermit and Miss Piggy. Muppet in this sense is an abusive British slang term suggesting that someone is simply a fool, though that sense was likely derived, decades ago, from the name for Jim Henson’s creations.

Henson came on the scene in the late 1950s. By at least 1988, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, muppet was being used as British prison slang that referred to inmates who were vulnerable and easily controlled by others. The OED’s earliest reference for the “you’re an idiot” usage came the following year. There’s a plausible evolution there. Still, a Goldman Sachs exec calling a client a “muppet” doesn’t actually refer to the original inspiration, the same way that calling someone a douche isn’t actually meant to connote its namesake cleaning process.

MORE: With ‘Muppet’ Hunt, Will Goldman Sachs End E-mail Smack Talk?