Saturday, January 17, 2009

It's Déjà Vu All Over Again. And Again. And Again. And Again.

"In the immortal words of Yogi Berra," Joe Nocera wrote this morning as the lede to his front-page column on bank rescues, "it's déjà vu all over again."

Let's see, why are those words immortal? One theory might be that the NYT uses them so often. It has been only four months since Nocera himself inserted the famous phrase into the paper. "It could be déjà vu all over again," Nocera wrote about the Google-Yahoo deal, on September 13, 2008.

Of course, overuse of the brilliant Berra line is nothing new. As of this morning, the phrase yields 514,000 Google hits. It's the title of a John Fogerty album. And desperate newspapers have clung to the cliche for decades, especially when describing financial calamities that tend to repeat themselves.

But the Times has been repeating itself a lot lately.

The phrase first popped up in a Times editorial on a French political scandal in September, 1985. (For the record, the editorial also included the phrase, "What did President Mitterand know, and when did he know it?")

There have been 263 other uses of the line in the last 23 years, or a rate of approximately 11 repeats a year -- that's roughly once a month. Impressive, Yogi!

It most recently surfaced only a week ago, as a headline in the sports section, above a piece about Jason Giambi's move to Oakland.

But obviously the phrase comes in handiest for commentators trying to suggest that we're experiencing a repeat performance of some past transgression.

Consider Maureen Dowd's use of it in a November 15, 2008 column: "There are Obama aides and supporters who are upset that The One who won on change has ushered in déjà vu all over again," she wrote.

Or, for that matter, Dowd's inclusion of the phrase in a column that mentioned George Bush's Iraq policy in the context of his father's" "Sounds like Oedipal déjà vu all over again," she concluded. The phrase often finds itself at the beginning or the end of columns, because of its...well, maybe just because it sounds so good.

But give Dowd credit. Before June she hadn't dropped the phrase into a column since 1998.

Some writers attribute the phrase to Berra. Others don't. Harvey Araton, the sports columnist, used it last year and introduced it by saying, "To quote an esteemed neighbor of mine in Montclair, N.J...."

Does attributing it to Berra make it okay? Sorta, we suppose. But maybe it's time to retire the line and find a new way to reference the idea of historical repetition.

Will it happen? Don't know. It's tough making predictions, especially about the future.

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