Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Meaning: Besides the literal meaning, it is used to mark or describe an awkward pause in a conversation, generally because one of the participants has said something particularly foolish or embarrassing. For example: "I made a joke about eating frogs, but it turned out she was French, so, tumbleweeds..."  Also heard/seen as tumbleweed (singular), or tumbleweed moment.

Usefulness: 1 (Even if people haven't heard this before, they will generally grasp what you mean - it's a clear visual image.)

Logofascination: 1 (The logofascination lies in this sense of the word evolving before our eyes; I first saw it on the internet several years ago, but the Virtual Linguist hadn't heard of it in May 2011. Although it's been a visual symbol for some time - see video below - it has flowered into a symbolic term and conversational marker in the last ten years* or so. One never knows with words, but I suspect this symbolism will last, as the visual symbol has.)

In the wild: at a finance seminar today, during a talk on insurance; as above, I knew it from the internet, but its occurrence in a professional setting (albeit from a younger speaker) indicated to me that some kind of tipping point may have been reached.

Degrees: 2

Connections: tumbleweed - tumble

Which is used in: G&P, First Book (Gargantua), XXI: The study of Gargantua, according to the discipline of his schoolmasters the Sophisters. Before the sophisters take over, Gargantua has what seems to me to be a rather sensible morning routine:
He disposed therefore of his time in such fashion, that ordinarily he did awake betwixt eight and nine o'clock, whether it was day or not, for so had his ancient governors ordained, alleging that which David saith, Vanum est vobis ante lucem surgere**. Then did he tumble and toss, wag his legs, and wallow in the bed some time, the better to stir up and rouse his vital spirit...

*Update: as Rohan has quite rightly pointed out, the Coen brothers' use of tumbleweeds in The Big Lebowski (1998) is worthy of special mention. The opening scene features a tumbleweed roaming way out of context to the tune of a song about tumbleweeds, and, in the kind of baseless linguistic guesswork which is painful (in others) yet irresistible, a part of me can't help but wonder if this is where the tumbleweed first met the internet.

*"It is vain for you to rise before dawn", Psalm 127:2

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