By JEFFREY ZASLOW, WSJ
We're a nation of wimps. Of sissies. Of wusses. They're the words trotted out when talking about our country's leaders, our children's generation, or the whiniest, most-fearful, most-paranoid aspects of our culture today.
Just last week, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell belittled the NFL for postponing an Eagles-Vikings football game because of a snowstorm. "We've become a nation of wusses," he said. And in a YouTube video, the grandmother of actor James Franco mocked the manliness of anyone who couldn't watch Mr. Franco's grisly amputation scene in the film "127 Hours."
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Daniel Boone (played on TV by Fess Parker) was a fearless frontiersman who wore a dead raccoon on his head.
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Meanwhile, President Obama was lambasted for killing a housefly with his hands.
Why are these such potent accusations in America?
It's because the charge touches on our national identity. Gov. Rendell says he was stunned by the interest in his comments, but on reflection, he now understands why his words stung. "Our country was founded by incredible risk-takers," he says. "They were an army of farmers and shopkeepers, and they fought knowing that if they lost, they'd be hung. We seem to have lost our boldness."
The United States defined itself by its pioneer spirit. "We were the brash Paul Bunyan nation with a don't-tread-on-us culture," says John Strausbaugh, author of the 2008 book "Sissy Nation."
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Mr. Strausbaugh argues that World War II traumatized a generation of American men. Looking to shake off all that they had witnessed—horrific battles, Nazi atrocities—many of these former soldiers retreated into the U.S. suburbs, building lives of conformity. They became less adventurous, raising coddled children whose offspring would be even more indulged.
The end result, he says, is a "sissy nation" in which adults talk about their homes or apartments as "cribs," and every activity needs a helmet. As he puts it: "Once we were warriors. Now we're worriers."
Others agree. On New Year's Day, California enacted several hundred new laws—one requires a medical physical before undergoing plastic surgery—that led to a litany of laments in the blogosphere that it has become a nanny state. "We're now a culture focused more on safety than freedom," says Steve Olson, a 41-year-old IT manager in Savage, Minn. He dates the change in America to sometime between 1984, when "baby-on-board" signs were first seen on minivans, and 1988, when the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned lawn darts.
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For his part, Mr. Olson has fond memories of his own childhood in rural Minnesota in the 1970s. His family grew vegetables, which he sold door-to-door. "When my brother was 10, he peddled vegetables on the highway. Allowing a child to do that today would get a parent arrested," he says.
Meanwhile, linguists are noticing that our word choices on these issues are often unwittingly rooted in sexism or homophobia. "Wuss" began to spread as campus slang in the 1970s, and was popularized in the 1982 movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." A character in the film is described as "a wuss: part wimp and part p—."
"Whenever men pick a female body part and apply it to other men, that's the height of insult," says Michael Adams, an English-language historian and researcher at Indiana University, and author of "Slang: The People's Poetry."
When asked, Gov. Rendell admits to being unaware of the roots of the word wuss. But Mr. Adams is willing to give the governor a pass. "There are those who believe a word ought to always mean what it always meant, but that's not how language works. Words like 'wuss' and 'wussy' can end up de-vulgarized after awhile."
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Then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently called members of Congress "wimps" for not standing up to oil companies. The new "No Labels" political organization—with its motto "Not Left. Not Right. Forward."—has been dismissed by pundits as "the Politics of Wuss."
Even some public name-callers are having second thoughts. Hara Estroff Marano now wishes she hadn't named her 2008 book about invasive parenting "A Nation of Wimps." Perhaps "Beyond Fragility" would have been better, she says, now that she sees politicians like Gov. Rendell jousting on TV talk shows using words such as "wussy," "wimpy," and "sissy."
"It's unbecoming for leaders to speak like that," she says. "It's a legitimate topic, but this isn't how we should raise the discussion—by slinging around slurs."
And some Americans are getting tired of being called "wusses." Lisa DeNoia, a 29-year-old proposal-writer for a government contractor in Virginia Beach, Va., says more sporting events should have been canceled during the recent East Coast snowstorm. Her brother and father went to the NHL's New Jersey Devils' game on the evening of Dec. 26, and afterward, their car got stuck overnight in the snow. It was 9 a.m. before they were able to dig out.
Ms. DeNoia was bothered by coverage of Gov. Rendell's remarks. In a letter to him, she wrote: "We're not a nation of wusses. We're a nation of fearless, bumbling morons in pickup trucks who like to drink beer, go shirtless in the freezing cold for football, and drive in blizzards." She argued that true leaders are mature enough to make unpopular decisions to protect the public's safety.
Write to Jeffrey Zaslow at email@example.com
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