September 2, 1996: While ascending Mount Kilimanjaro, Fred Martine drops his backpack. His companion picks it up but loses his footing, managing to say only, “I’ve got your back … ,” before tumbling to his death. At the memorial service, Martine wipes away a tear and says, “His last words were ‘I’ve got your back.’” Peter Beard attends the service and spreads the expression to the Hamptons.
July 20, 1998: Reading her toast at her sister’s wedding in Santa Monica, Ursula Breckmeyer drops a page midsentence: “My sister was always … ” A waiter looks for it. “There,” she points. He holds it up. “For me.” She grabs the page and repeats: “My sister was always there for me.” The line, hinting at unspeakably vague troubles in her own past, strikes a chord. The audience is suitably moved. The phrase spreads to weddings and funerals down Sunset Boulevard and throughout the L.A. freeways onto the national highway system.
June 6, 1999: A part-time CNN commentator, Suzanne Collins, sleeps through a call from her answering service and arrives late at the studio for the discussion “Is Climate Change a Hoax?” Still groggy, she nods off as Wolf Blitzer asks her to comment on hotter summers. “Why don’t we see the problem? Why are we so late?” Wolf elbows her. Her eyes pop open. “Problem? Problem? I think … it’s a wake-up call.” Fellow panelists shoot her envious glances. She’s made a full-time commentator.
November 6, 2000: En route to her new job as an editor in New York, Helena Brigmore undergoes a horrendous 26-hour flight. She loses her luggage, and she’s accidentally Tased by a flight attendant. Her boss asks about her trip. Brigmore replies, “That was no trip. That was a journey.” She’s working on a manuscript titled Gather Ye Toadstools While You May. With a swipe of her pen, she changes it to My “Journey” Among the Toadstools. The book becomes a best-seller, along with subsequent releases: My “Journey” from Dishwasher to Dietitian (by a pastry chef), My “Journey” Through the Rickety World of Pick-up Sticks (by a grand master), A “Journey” Through the Fast Checkout Line (by a Safeway vice president), and My “Journey” from Journey to Journey (by the editor).
May 1, 2010: An exhausted Amazon worker at the Seattle fulfillment center seeks refuge inside a large carton. Supervisor Hank Beheart demands to know what he’s doing. “Thinking,” the worker replies. He’s fired and sues. The court finds against the worker, swayed by Beheart’s testimony that “he was told to think outside the box.” The expression leaps from the Washington judicial establishment to Silicon Valley.
February 12, 2015: A renowned C.E.O. tells his shrink about a childhood trauma in which he struggled to complete his bicycle delivery of True Confession magazines. His bag was so stuffed he could barely lift it. His bike fell off a hill, landing him in a pile of pig manure. “I had too many issues,” he sobs. The shrink raises an eyebrow. Two weeks later he writes a seminal article, “Disassociated Personality in a Patient with Issues.”
A “Journey” Through the Fast Checkout Line (by a Safeway vice president) and My “Journey” from Journey to Journey (by the editor).
March 2, 2010: A rancher on his way to the Fort Worth office of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association enters a Starbucks and sits next to Suzanne Smiley. Making small talk, he says he’s doubled the size of his ranch and is on his way to changing his brand from “X” to “XX.” Smiley, a marketing executive with Dewey, Milkem, and Howe, makes a note on a napkin. Her career skyrockets. Due to her efforts, C.E.O.’s across America realize they’ve been creating something ineffable, beyond mere products—they’ve been creating brands.
November 20, 2019: An elderly customer at Zabar’s moves slowly down the crowded counter, pointing to each delicacy and demanding to know its name. “What is it?” “What is it?” When she reaches sockeye salmon she points again, but Moshe Liebowitz, behind the counter, blurts out, “Lady, it is what it is.” A professor lifts the sentence for a paper in The Journal of Philosophy: “It Is What It Is, the Dilemma of Human Existence in the Post-post-post-Modern World.” Then it’s used by a teenage girl in New Jersey defending her right to buy a crop top. Then by President Trump describing the invincibility of the coronavirus.
September 15, 2021: Helena Brigmore, the editor mentioned above, is made head of her imprint. She calls her staff to a meeting to announce a consolidation because of a merger.
“I’ve got this,” she says, shuffling personnel papers. “This is in my wheelhouse.”
“Will we get fired?” asks an assistant.
“Before I do a deep dive, you should know positions will be eliminated, beginning with the low-hanging fruit. It’s a zero-sum game.”
“Who gets axed first?”
“I don’t have the bandwidth for that right now. But I can tell you it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
As they leave, one turns to another and asks, “What’s the takeaway?”
John Darnton is a former New York Times journalist, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and the author of five novels