The Fame Threshold

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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, January 20, 2008

Fame is a difficult quality to define. We all know, for example, that Hillary Clinton is famous, and your local Jiffy Lube attendant is not. But how about that nerdy guy in the Verizon commercials? Can a person be famous if no one knows his name? And how about Rowan Williams? Is he famous? You're saying no because you've never heard of him, but do you change your mind when I tell you he is the archbishop of Canterbury? Yeah? Why?

To tell the truth, I don't find any of the questions in the previous paragraph particularly interesting. You're reading them here because the subject fascinates my editor, Tom the Butcher. Tom is forever trying to come up with some sort of empirical measurement of fame. The reason he does this, I believe, is to

establish irrefutable scientific evidence that, vis-a-vis being famous, I am not.

The other day Tom phoned me, all excited. He finally nailed it, he said -- the perfect measurement. And though I am loath to compliment Tom about anything, I have to agree with him.

Tom's Postulate on the Universal Nature of Fame

A person is truly famous if and only if his or her name, when entered in quotes into the Google search engine, returns more hits than does the phrase "she moaned."

At more than 2 million Google hits, "she moaned" is a stern mistress. Stern, but fair. For example, we learn (as we would expect) that Hillary Clinton is, indeed, quite famous. Barack Obama, the erstwhile state senator from Illinois and presidential wannabe, remained under the she-moaned line despite all the steamrolling hype until he actually did something: As soon as he won Iowa, he broke through.

The she-moaned line is unsentimental; it measures true fame, not an idealized version of fame, and not some PC notion of who should be famous. Paris Hilton is waaay over the line, but Mother Teresa only flirts with it. When she becomes a saint, she will ascend past it.

The she-moaned criterion can also produce some poetic juxtapositions. Bill Watterson, the reclusive cartoonist, does not hit the line, and he likely never will. But his brilliant

creation that will long outlive him -- "Calvin and Hobbes" -- is way above it.

(A search for Internet fame, when it hits the stratospheric levels, yields one rather exciting result. You may recall that,

in the mid-1960s, John Lennon infuriated devout Christians by saying that the Beatles had become more popular than Jesus Christ. At the time, this was preposterous. Soon, it won't be. On the day I write this, "the Beatles" and "Jesus Christ" get an identical number of hits.)

The great thing about the she-moaned paradigm is that it can be used to assess the degree of fame achieved by people far less well-known -- you, for example. You simply have to Google up a phrase that returns roughly as many hits as your name does.

This can be a humbling process, but the numbers do not lie. I discovered that I am four times less famous than "Hilary Clinton," which is a misspelling. It turns out I am almost exactly as famous as the phrase "popping a pimple."

I believe I have discovered the benchmark phrase for having attained a sort of minor, cheesy fame. You can consider yourself mildly famous if you have more hits than are returned for the phrase "What am I, chopped liver?" I am getting closer, but Tom the Butcher's real name is nowhere near it. Tom is one-15th as famous as I am. His real name has just gone over the number for the phrase "passing gas in public," and, if his fame increases at the slow but steady rate it has been going, in merely one year he should hit "chicken salad sandwich recipes."

Gene Weingarten can be reached at

Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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