I'd like you to think this column is edgy, at least once in a while, but I don't want you to think I'm feeling the least bit edgy about the matter. Doesn't it just send you over the edge when words change their meanings like that, and in mid-sentence?
William J. Collinge of Mount Saint Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Md., thinks the evolution of the word edgy is an important cultural sign, and he's right. In the very recent past, he notes, edgy "meant something like irritable." Now, he says, it "means something like daring."
Edgy is on the minds of other readers, too. Janet Hook of the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau telephoned after she read the word in a column I had written and wanted to know why it was proliferating so -- and what it meant. I scratched my head and realized that although readers probably understood the feeling the word conveyed -- a sense of hip danger -- I wasn't really sure myself what specifically the word meant or how it had come to be so popular.
In my search, the best explanation came from Todd Gitlin, a sociologist at New York University who always tries to stay on the cutting edge. He suggests we think of edgy as a shorthand that combines "cutting edge" with "on the edge" or "over the edge," as in "over the edge of chaos, subversiveness or the avant-garde. It has an aura of danger or transgression."
The popularity of edgy these days "is a function of the marriage between consumerism and the avant-garde," according to Mr. Gitlin. The idea is that "consumers are looking for the new thing, not only the hot thing, but also the thing that's disturbing the equilibrium." You'll know edgy has been truly domesticated -- and is no longer edgy -- when you see it used in ads for microwave ovens or detergent.
It hasn't reached detergents, but I confess to being surprised that in a two-week period in The Washington Post last month, it appeared in seven separate articles. Style writer Lonnae O'Neal Parker made especially striking use of the term when she referred to the UPN network's show "Grown Ups" as "racially diverse, sexually edgy." So I consulted her.
Edgy, she says, means "a sharply defined, pointed, not-safe outlook or perspective. You're stepping out on the ledge, you're leaving safe waters for choppy waters." Although a fan of the word, Ms. O'Neal Parker tells a story that suggests it just might be on the edge of becoming a tiresome verbal crutch on the order of "hip" or "cool."
During an interview she had with Aaron McGruder, the 25-year-old cartoonist who created the "Boondocks" strip, Mr. McGruder told Ms. O'Neal Parker he had one complaint about all the publicity he and
his controversial strip have received. "Everybody calls me edgy," he said after answering yet another journalist's phone call. "I wonder if that reporter will be able to come up with something besides edge and attitude to describe the strip."
In fact, the truly avant-garde may be moving away from the edge and all that is edgy. The very hip, post-everything magazine the Baffler used to advertise itself as "The Journal That Blunts the Cutting Edge."
Tom Frank, the Baffler's editor, says that he is tired of everyone in business and advertising trying to be "the edgiest of the edgy.
"The idea was to declare ourselves against the domestication of rebellion and revolution that pervades corporate culture," he says. "This blaring avant-gardism that inundates our culture is not adversarial." So perhaps the most rebellious and revolutionary thing to believe these days is that it's hip to be square, not edgy.
As Mr. Collinge suggests, the problem with anything having to do with edge is that the word is used to convey all sorts of sharp sensations -- not just irritability, for example, but also talent. When a baseball player is described as having "lost his edge," he's probably on his way to Palookaville. The prospect, no doubt, would make that player feel on edge.
And then there is the journalistic use of the word, the search for "edge" in news stories. Edge is a big deal in news these days, especially on television. But critics of the quest for edge say that it is endangering the traditional function of journalism, which is conveying information. "There's an attitude to it," says Tom Patterson, a professor at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Edge, he says, is often "advocacy that's largely negative or in the category of exposing something."
Prof. Patterson, for one, thinks edge is just fine in talk shows or in other forums of opinion. But when edge overwhelms a plain old news story, he says, "opinion gets masked as fact." There's nothing at all edgy, but much that is honorable, about just-the-facts-ma'am reporting.
After talking to Prof. Patterson, I felt much better. So what if this column isn't edgy? In any event, if edgy is about to become passe from overuse, you can say you read it here first. That will put you -- and me -- right out there on the cutting edge. Won't it?.
What's the word? If you have suggestions or other ideas, write to Chatter, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, address and telephone number. E.J. Dionne will credit contributions he uses.