Photo: Westend61/Westend61
Photo: Westend61/Westend61

What’s a “Nothing Burger?” An official history of that suddenly popular (and annoying) phrase 

“Nothing Burger.” Some people wince at the oratorical decline it represents while others debate the finer points of punctuation swirling about it (Should it be hyphenated? Capitalized? One word or two?).

But there’s no disputing that the phrase is on everyone’s lips these days, especially in Washington D.C. : White House chief of staff Reince Priebus earlier this week dismissed Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer (supposedly to get dirt on Hillary Clinton) as a "nothing burger. " Back in March, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz described Attorney General Jeff Sessions meetings during the presidential campaign with Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak as a "nothing burger.”

And #NothingBurger is a thing on Twitter, right now with people on the left and the right using it to disparage others’ thoughts, actions and, well, use of the phrase “NothingBurger.”

Indeed, the phrase is so goofy -- especially coming from the lips of grown people in positiions of power -- that it has to be an invention of the LOL-era, no?

That would be a no burger. It turns out “Nothing Burger” has a long and colorful history that stretches back at least to the 1950s and even has a direct connection to the current U.S. Supreme Court.

Here’s a more-than-something look at the life of “Nothing Burger.”

   It may have first entered the mainstream via 1950s Hollywood gossip columns: Back in the 1950s, dueling gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper ruled Tinseltown with iron fists and blind items that could make or break careers. A Wall Street Journal article says that “Parsons was the first to popularize “nothingburger” (sometimes spelled as “nothing burger” or ‘nothing-burger”).” The Journal article reported on a “word researcher” who found an instance of Parsons writing that “if it hadn’t been for (studio head) Sam Goldwyn, (”Strangers on a Train” star) Farley Granger might very well be a ‘nothingburger.’”

Helen Gurley Brown, shown with her husband, David Brown, shook up Cosmopolitan magazine with covers showing voluptuous women in low-cut blouses. She also was one of the early users of the word “nothing burger” starting in the 1960s.
Photo: Librado Romero

   Cosmo founder Helen Gurley Brown sexed the phrase up in the 1960s: Or did she unsex it? Whatever, she made it her thing. Brown, who first turned heads with her 1964  book, “Sex and the Single Girl,” was fond of using two similar sounding phrases to describe her pre-”Having it All” self (and others like her): One was “mouseburger.” The other was “nothing burger.” As in, “Wearing one great pin four days in a row is better than changing to nothing-burger clinkers,” from her 1965 followup book, “Sex and the Office.” 

   In the mid-1980s, a current Supreme Court justice’s mom raised D.C. eyebrows when she dropped the “nothingburger” bomb: Anne M. Gorsuch (later Anne Gorsuch Burford) was the first female Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), serving under President Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1983 when she resigned after what the Washington Post described as “a short, tumultuous tenure.” When Reagan appointed her a year later to head the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and the Atmosphere, the Post recalled in her 2004 obituary, “She told a meeting of Colorado woolgrowers that the panel was a "nothingburger" and a "joke" that met three times a year” (she later withdrew from consideration for the job). In April 2017, her son, Neil Gorsuch, became the newest associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. There’s no evidence that “nothing burger” has ever appeared in any opinion issued by the nation’s highest court. Yet.

A man ahead of his time? Atlanta consumer advocate Clark Howard was using “nothing burger” before “nothing burger” was cool.. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributing Writer

    Consumer expert Clark Howard threw out a “nothing burger” in the AJC way back in 1996: In his “Budget Traveler” column that appeared in the Oct. 27, 1996, edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the famed pennypincher recounted how a great airfare deal he’d written about some 10 days earlier had quickly been raised. That ended up frustrating would-be travelers and “taking what had been one of the year's best specials and turning it into a nothing burger,” the popular host of the syndicated “Clark Howard Show” on WSB radio wrote at the time.

 Related video

President Donald Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., agreed to meet with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 election campaign, after she claimed she could provide potentially damaging information about Hillary Clinton, the New York Times reported on Sunday. A White House official later described the meeting as a “nothing burger.”

   “Nothingburger” showed up in the Urban Dictionary in 2006: It was spelled as one word and with a lower case “b,” which seems tonally in keeping with that first definition: “Something lame, dead-end, a dud . . . especially something with high expectations that turns out to be average, pathetic, or overhyped.” Since then, five more “nothingburger” definitions and contextual uses have been added in the online dictionary: One has to do, in a NSFW way, with a part of the male anatomy. Another that was added just this month suggests “nothingburger” can sometimes be applied to the Fourth Estate. And not, gulp, in a good way: In that case, a nothingburger is “A news story hyped up by the mainstream media for ratings or for political agenda.”

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