Fellow swimmer Aaron Piersol has been credited with coining the term "Phelpsian" after the Americans won the 400 medley relay at the Beijing Olympics and Michael Phelps became the first person ever to win eight gold medals in a single Games. However, it is really the comparison-happy crew of NBC announcers that should be commended for elevating the term into our popular lexicon. Indeed, for the second half of the games, it seemed that anyone who could be compared to Phelps was compared to Phelps, with the word Phelpsian used to analyze their accomplishments. And while we're on the subject of commending NBC, they should also receive some sort of award for their DVD, Michael Phelps: Greatest Olympic Champion…The Inside Story.
The DVD certainly set a new record for the time it took to take an historic event and turn it into a moneymaking scheme- the commercial for it was literally the first thing you saw when they went to break about two minutes after the relay was over. At the time, it definitely ruined the moment for me, but I don't think NBC really cares about that. I'm sure they made plenty off the sales in those first few minutes. Seeing the commercial air over and over for the next week wasn't so bad though- when the guy doing the voiceover says "What he has done has never before," it sounded like he was announcing a monster truck rally.
Talk about bringing swimming to a new level. Monster truck rallies are one thing, but the man has had his name turned into an adjective. And although it's not like he's the first person to attain that status, the age we live in today has changed the speed at which our culture moves. Spitzian, a term which embodies the man whose single Games gold medal tally Phelps bested, has apparently been used for years, if not decades, even though it only returns slightly more than one tenth of the 17,000 search results Google reports for a word that was coined just last month.
In the grand scheme of things though, Phelps still has a long way to go before catching some of the bigger people-turned-adjectives. In fact, it would take a rather Phelpsian feat just to crack the top 10 with Newton sitting at 3.3 million search results, let alone take down Queen Victoria, who is in a league of her own with 61.8. Though to be fair, four of the top five should probably be disqualified for not really doing anything to deserve their adjectives, making the new leader Karl Marx. Either way, here are the top 20 (in millions). A few that didn't make the list: Galilean (945,000), Jeffersonian (857,000) and Kafkaesque (324,000).
At the other end of the spectrum, Mickey-Mousian returned five results, Bugs-Bunnian eight, and Scooby-Doobian nine, so Phelps need not worry about competition from cartoon characters, but he does have other obstacles in his way. In a world of massive media overload, Americans have an ever-shortening attention span, and now that he's out of the spotlight he'll get less and less mileage out of the word. That, and people will hopefully start using it less gratuitously (I'm looking at you, NBC).
What's more, Michael Phelps doesn't even have exclusive claim to the word Phelpsian. Before it was used to describe a feat that seemed nearly impossible, it referred to fiery evangelical-Christian anti-homosexual hate-mongering a la Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS. An unfortunate coincidence that Michael shares his name with that kind of crazy, but it's certainly not helping his cause any. In fact, the Fred inspired Phelpsian accounts for more than 10% of those 17,000 search results.
Clearly, Michael has to look at this from a long-term perspective if he wants to come out on top. Sure, he'll get a major bump from the London Olympics, but he's publicly stated he doesn't plan on competing after 2012, so in order to challenge Queen V and the others, he's going to need to do something equally Phelpsian in an arena besides swimming, and preferably sports altogether- like becoming the youngest President of the United States or winning five Nobel Prizes. Or better yet, lead the first manned mission to Mars.
Alternatively, to give himself a better chance of getting into the OED, Phelps could train to become multiple parts of speech, joining the likes of Sophocles, Plato, Stalin and Marx. For one thing, the competition for nouns and verbs is less fierce; Plato's noun form only garnered 593,000 hits, compared to 4.8 million for his adjective. Marx faired similarly, with 2.2 million less hits for his noun. But before Phelps takes on Plato and Marx, he'll first have to tackle another philosopher of noteworthy noun status: John Madden.
Maddenism, the term for a blindingly obvious and often reflexive observation such as "To win the game you have to score more points than the other team," or "And now Tom Brady looks like Tom Brady," (yes, he actually said those things on national television) returned 1,790 results.
And the verb field appears to be even more wide open. Jill Rosen of the Baltimore Sun recently turned Dara Torres and Bob Costas into verbs while discussing Michael's grammatical debut. Costas, meaning to overdramatize a situation, usually in a grave tone of voice, is particularly amusing- but as of yet neither verb has caught on.
Other people that Phelps might have to watch out for in verb form: Susan Lucci, Dick Butkus, Terry Tate and Wilt Chamberlain. Susan Lucci's verb means to come painfully close to attaining something no less than 18 times, and less importantly to actually win that Daytime Emmy on the 19th nomination. Butkus's verb, to hit someone so hard their head flies off, is nearly the same as Tate's, which doesn't necessarily involve decapitation, but does catch the victim completely off guard, and has eclipsed Butkus in popularity in recent years even though "You just got Dick Butkused" is much more fun to say.
As far as Wilt Chamberlain is concerned, Michael Phelps is already half way to usurping his definition, just as he did to Spitz. He already dominates his sport; all he has to do now is surpass Chamberlain's legendary prowess in the bedroom. Should he choose to challenge Chamberlain, I can only offer two pieces of advice: first, keep it safe. You don't want to Fela Kuti anyone (the term for marrying 27 women and sleeping with thousands while denying you have AIDS). And second, bring back the moustache. You're going to need it to pull off such a Phelpsian achievement.