I’m a sucker for a good turn of phrase. The best are aphorisms, blending brevity and cogency with the captivating mysticism of future seers. A good line is deliciously catchy, sticking because of the way it sounds and the way it feels — both seductive. These lines are also rare and not often invented, given the limitations of our relatively overwrought language. Once a good phrase is turned, it’s used into oblivion. Hence our obsession with quotation books and our writing professors’ disdain for clichés. We’re but sheep when it comes to good bits of word and thought. We steal them and run with them.
Such was the case with a phrase that met my glance on the movie screen at a midnight showing recently. As I recall it, a napkin sourced from the 1980’s floated across the screen, barely visible in the snazzy milieu of a penthouse bar scene. The napkin asked in a whimsical serif font: “Why not live a big life?” I stared quizzically at the interrogative napkin as it faded from view. Why not live a big life? Six of the English language’s most popular words of four or fewer letters combined to disarm.
Determined not to let the phrase escape, I mouthed it silently and tucked it into a crevice of my cranium, hiding it safely so I would investigate its source, origins, and usage in popular culture as soon as I returned home. I was sure it was a popular turn of phrase from literature, some gangster movie I hadn’t seen like the Godfather, or even just traditional New Year’s eve motto fodder (hence the napkin) to which I had somehow never been exposed. Once home in the silence of night, I plied Google for meaning:
“Why not live a big life?”
The browser spun for a moment, racking its googolplex brain. Resounding emptiness greeted me much like a great big shrug from the Information Age. Literally, the query returned nothing, save for a rogue product listing from a site that looked manufactured for search spam. No answer to my question! In disbelief, I typed the phrase again, this time sans question mark. And a third time, in disbelief. Again, hollowness from the great big Google machine, the enormous neural network, which indexes billions of disparate texts, thoughts, and communications that originate from millions of sources. Since Google’s founding in the late 1990’s, nearly everything that’s been thought or said since then exists on Google’s servers. Even most academic and cultural utterances from before Google’s founding are known entities to the search machine — it scans everything we upload or reference via text or multimedia from any point in our human history. Google itself is spearheading projects like Book Search and Library Project to incorporate the entire corpus of human knowledge into its index. It is likely, then, that Google should have a match for nearly every permutation and combination of words out there. And indeed, it’s true. Google’s omnipotence has become something of a game to challenge with googlewhacking, a search fetishist’s sport for identifying 2-word search queries for which Google presents only a single result. The pile of these — ‘squirreling dervishes’ ‘inculcating skullduggery’ ‘fibbertigibbet boogers’ are delightful for their absurdity and their confirmation that save for the deliberately fictional, Google knows everything. It is the Bureau of Information for the great state of Humanity.
So, why would it be that such a simple turn of phrase — an everyman’s interrogative synonym for carpe diem — returns no listings, especially if seems to have already proven its worth strongly enough to be published on a napkin? If it merited material manufacture, it ought to merit digital age usage, right? For that, all I can give you is another great big helpless shrug. Some have suggested that its grammatical impropriety may be to blame. My response is that syntax hasn’t silenced human language ever before, particularly not in today’s unguarded digital parlance. And besides Google counts tens of thousands who are already “living a big life.” The throwing-caution-to-the-wind expressionism is what’s new. We have a gleaming discovery on our hands and I’m unable to explain why.
Now by offering the wisdom to you and Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook and therefore Google’s hungry bowels, I am destroying our axiom’s rarity. I thought of encoding the magical phrase as a jpg so as not to unleash the text into the search engine, but it seemed like an attempt to control something which won’t be controlled — expression. Because this is one of the simplest and most beautiful instances of expression I’ve felt in awhile, I’d like to share it.
So, enjoy the aphorism while its usage is still nil. It may be the last simple wisdom that is yet unspoken in our digital age.