Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"To Pull a X"

I am fascinated by the construction "to pull a [insert name here]." As an example, Friends introduced the phrase "to pull a Monica" based on the character (named Monica) who was known in her family for regularly messing up in big situations. "Pulling a Monica" is defined by the Urban Dictionary as "any and all screwups by an individual."

Recently, Steven Slater made the news as the JetBlue flight attendant who, in no uncertain terms, went ballistic on a passenger, chewed said passenger out on the plane's intercom, grabbed a beer from the plane, and exited via the emergency slide. Inspired by this incident, MSNBC.com reports:
Most of us will probably never pull a Steven Slater: curse out a customer, grab a drink and leave our place of employment in a blaze of glory. (article by Allison Linn)
I immediately found this interesting for two reasons: (1) less than a day after a singular incident, Steven Slater already has an "event" named after him; and (2) the event is well-known enough to be named a "Steven Slater" yet not well-known enough to be able to use the construction "pull a Steven Slater" without further identifying what that means.

Addressing (1) first, I would most likely not--in everyday usage--coin a phrase such as "to pull a Monica" after a single incident of Monica making a mistake. Oftentimes, this phrase requires a repeated behavior rather than a single incident. If Steven Slater had merely quit his job in a more typical fashion (e.g., a resignation letter), then no one would think of calling quitting a job "pulling a Steven Slater." However, if Steven went on to quit his next five jobs in a row, I might be tempted to call quitting a job "pulling a Steven Slater." I had never stopped to consider how "to pull a X" was applied until I read the MSNBC.com article and realized that it takes an extraordinary situation to apply "to pull a X" after only one incident.

Furthermore, I wouldn't typically think of saying "You just pulled a Monica" to someone who has no idea who Monica is or what "pulling a Monica" might mean. Because of that, it seems a little unnatural to think of adding the addendum in natural speech: "You just pulled a Monica: screwing up." In fact, I would think that most typical uses wouldn't merit a clarification clause. Yet, "pulling a Steven Slater", while national news, is new enough that clarification is necessary.

To take consideration of the construction one step further, I find it interesting how we decide to apply the construction. Saturday Night Live dedicated a sketch to "pulling a Peyton Manning" (when you show lots of promise but don't deliver), but I don't often hear phrases with celebrities' names inserted into the construction. For instance, when Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah's couch, instead of saying, "You just pulled a Tom Cruise," we adopted the phrase "You jumped the couch." As another example, when Fonzie jumped over the shark near the end of the Happy Days run, the phrase "to pull a Fonzie" never made it into the language; instead, "jump the shark" became a useful phrase for when something good goes terribly wrong. (The episode in which Fonzie jumps the shark roughly marked the end of the popularity for Happy Days.) Perhaps "pulling a Steven Slater" is only possible because he is not a celebrity but is rather an everyday guy who is enjoying his 15 minutes of fame for his antics.

So now the big question is whether the phrase will stick or not. Do you think you'll remember what "pulling a Steven Slater" is next year? Do you think you'll ever have reason to use the phrase in your own speech?

If any of you have a "to pull a X" example of your own, I'd love to hear about it.


  1. My brother always gets seperated from the family when we are in a store. He also orders the most expensive items on the menu when you are buying. In our family these are referred to as "pulling an Adam". Also, have a look at "Pullin' a Palin" on urban dictionary.com. There's also a "pulling a Charlie Sheen" and "Pulling a Leno". More interesting to me, is how the verb 'pulling' has become grammaticalized to its function in this construction. Is "pulling an all-nighter" or "pulling cleaning duty" the same semantic sense?

  2. You bring up some interesting points. The first is that "pulling a X" can refer to more than one thing; in your family, you could use it to refer to ordering the most expensive thing on the menu or getting separated in a store. That leads into a second interesting point: "pulling an Adam" means those things to you, but it could mean something entirely different to someone else.

    I had no idea that Palin, Charlie Sheen, and Leno had their own "pull a X" phrase. It's funny that "pulling a Palin" could mean so many different things.

    Looking into these also made me realize that "to pull a X" is reserved for situations that are either comical or socially dispreferred. For example, I couldn't imagine anyone saying something like "You pulled a Mother Theresa" after you visited an orphanage and volunteered your time.

    I haven't found any sources about the origins of the "pull a X" phrase, yet I feel that it makes sense to say "pulling an all-nighter" is related etymologically to "pulling a X". Other phrases like that are "pulling a fast one" and possibly "pulling rank" (though in that case, that is the only phrase so far that doesn't involve the determiner). In all cases, the X is a noun that denotes a related action, and the idea is that someone managed carry off an action (perhaps related to the phrase "to pull something off"?).

    "Pulling cleaning duty", while on the surface seems the same, sounds like it may have originated from situations where people literally had to pull straws (or something similar) to determine what chore they would be assigned. "Pulling cleaning duty" doesn't mean that you actually follow through with doing the cleaning--it just means you have that particular chore assigned to you. On the other hand, "pulling a Monica" points to you actually doing what it is that is associated with Monica (i.e., messing up in a big situation).

    This is even more intriguing than I originally thought!

  3. I would like to "Pull a Jessie" and be one of the most awesome people I know.

    That is interesting though, when you mention to "Pull a Steve Slater". Pop culture is so quick to over-consume the whatever du jour and then it's quickly forgotten. I don't even remember "Pulling a Monica"! I barely remember Steve Slater and that was only a few weeks ago. Whenever there is something obnoxious floating around I have faith in humanity that it will over exploit whatever is popular at the moment and leave it dead by the roadside in due time.

    I digress...I've actually forgotten my original point. I just wanted to comment on your awesome blog. I just pulled a Summer. Summer out! :)

  4. Aw, now I'm totally blushing. You are so right that we overexpose. It's like our culture has turned the "fifteen minutes of fame" into the "fifteen nanoseconds of fame." I suppose that's why fads come and go so quickly and why expressions like these are best remembered when they hold more import to you on a personal level--like knowing that "pulling a Summer" expresses so much to anyone who knows you without having to explicitly lay out what you mean. It takes on a lot of meaning but only for those involved, which adds to its allure--it's like having a secret handshake or something when you can lean over and say, "She just pulled a Summer" and know that not everyone will get it. I'm off to pull some Summers now. Oh, wait. That didn't work out well at all written out.