Has “Jumped the Shark” Jumped the Shark?

A specific (mis-)use of language smacked me upside the head (…figuratively…) recently and it deserves coverage here.

Do you know the phrase “jumped the shark?” Many of us do. But someone apparently doesn’t, because he used it to mean something entirely opposite its accepted meaning.

It means, roughly, that someone or something overdid it to the point of absurdity. In common use, it tends to have the sense of going out of vogue or falling out of fashion, perhaps with a whiff of being self-inflicted by trying too hard.

Although the phrase is only known to have been in use since the late ’90s, its origin is with
an infamous episode of the TV show “Happy Days,” in which the character
Fonzie literally jumped a shark while waterskiing.

It’s a great metaphor: the visual image of someone doing something that is superficially
astounding but nonetheless is simply…idiotic. In the moment, most people might think “hey, that was cool!” But after brief reconsideration, many will say to themselves “that was stupid,” and many will continue on with “why am I still watching this garbage?” then end their relationship with the shark-jumping offender.

Although “Happy Days” and its ratings were already in decline when that episode aired, that was the moment people have come to mark as the beginning of the end for the show. This was probably not literally true for “Happy Days,” but it makes such a good story that the moment when a show or a performer or celebrity (or any cultural icon) jumps the shark is when they go too far, pushing past the invisible line of good taste or repetition or plausibility that causes fans to decide that entity is no longer cool.

Not every fading light jumps the shark. Many, possibly most, simply fade away, with no drama. Some lucky few never lose their luster.

Anyway, to cut to the chase: in a radio interview on the BBC on May 30th, an Australian
Senator used “jumped the shark” in a totally different (I would say wrong) way. Not only did he use it to describe something in a complimentary way, but he used it to describe his own actions. He used the phrase to explain how he had at last accomplished a difficult goal, and to emphasize that he had made a difficult choice and crossed over from one group to another. He used it twice in the interview, and in both cases jumping the shark was not meant to mark a ludicrous exhibition and the beginning of a popularity death spiral, but was put forth as a proud achievement. The use was similar to the phrases “bit the bullet” or “crossed the Rubicon” or others that have the same sense of doing something unpleasant that has been long put off, or of doing something that was a significant and difficult step (possibly with no turning back).

“It’s only a few months since I jumped the shark and went from being a journalist to a
politician and I’m thrilled by the result now.” So says Australian Senator Derryn Hinch in
this BBC interview. Later, he reemphasizes his sharky jumpiness: “This is why I jumped the shark. This is why I got into politics. I spent decades attacking politicians. I never dreamed in my life I’d be one.”

(The audio had been available here. The segment with Hinch begins around 48:09, with the shark jumping at 48:35 and 51:58. My apologies if this is no longer available–the BBC seems to hide broadcast audio after about a month.)

Hinch clearly uses the phrase in a way that doesn’t gibe with accepted contemporary usage. Although I’ve got to say: now that I’ve looked into the career of Senator Hinch, there’s a chance I’m wrong on this. After the colorful events of his life, perhaps it’s appropriate to consider his election to public office as jumping the shark, a let-down from which his fans will never recover.

If anyone can shed further light on this, please post in the comments or drop me a line. Was this speaker out on the fringe, as I believe? Or is this usage of jump the shark, with a positive sense, common or accepted in Australia?


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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2 Responses to Has “Jumped the Shark” Jumped the Shark?

  1. Gabrielle says:

    If you want further examples of the abuse of the English language, look no further than gaffes made by members of the Australian parliament. One memorable example is former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s “no one can be a suppository of all wisdom” comment.
    Is it possible to ‘jump the shark’ more than once? If so, Derryn Hinch has done it a number of times throughout his career.

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