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October 23, 2008

Slang of the Week: Joe Sixpack/Six Pack/Six-Pack (noun)
an average working man

Mike’s Brewery alienated its Joe Sixpack customer base when they put a picture of French philosopher Derrida on their label.

Celebrity quote
“You have this Joe Sixpack audience that is about 70 percent of the population and 95 percent of the newscast audience, and they want news you can use and news that hits at a gut level, things that are easy to grasp.”
- Craig Allen, associate professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University

At this time of year, a politician wants to be perceived, as comedian Lily Tomlin used to say, as “an ordinary person like yourself.” This explains the excessive use of Joe Sixpack in this election season, particularly in reference to vice presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, who mention their working class roots whenever possible.

Joe Sixpack dates from the 1970s, but it is a variation on older generic male terms such the academic Joe College, from the 1930s, and military GI Joe, which became popular during World War II. Other “average guy” terms using the name Joe include Joe Doakes (1920s) and Joe Blow/Bloggs (1940s), but calling an otherwise unidentified man Joe goes all the way back to the 1840s.

So why Joe? This US Census data is only available from the 1880s on, but Joe was in the top 40 most popular baby names until the 1940s, and its longer version, Joseph, was in the top 10 during the same time frame.

Although Joe’s rank as a baby name has since dropped to number 403, Joseph is holding steady at 13, and Joe still has a working class sound to it. That’s probably one reason John McCain has made so much use of “Joe the Plumber,” who criticized Barack Obama’s tax proposals as harmful to his plan to start his own business, even after it was revealed that Joe was not a licensed plumber or in a tax bracket that would be affected by Obama’s plan--and his name was actually Sam.

The six pack, by the way, refers to the packaging of beer cans, and Joe Sixpack’s appearance in the 1970s no doubt owes to the introduction of the plastic rings that facilitate that packaging in the 1960s.

As for the candidates’ qualifications to become members of this non-elite group, none of them quite make it, though Biden and Palin are much closer than their running mates. The Obamas earned $4.2 million in 2007, and John McCain $405,409. But lest you think that makes McCain more of an average Joe, that figure does not include his wife Cindy’s wealth. Mrs. McCain, ironically the heiress of a large beer distributorship, earned $6 million in 2006 and the Associated Press believes the McCains may be worth over $100 million. (The Obamas are reported to have assets of $1.1 million or less.)

Biden, the poorest member of the Senate, and his wife Jill claimed an income of around $280,000 last year. But even the Palins, at the lowest income level of the lot ($218,000), outearn the average American family by roughly $168,000.

What’s new at Slang City?
If you’re not sick of hearing about finances yet, stop by the website to take the Money Quiz and test your knowledge of cash slang through the ages.

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick: Cassell's Dictionary of Slang by Jonathan Green. This excellent resource is one of the most comprehensive dictionaries of English Slang from the US, UK and Australia.