Q From Matthew Cutter: A term that I’ve only come across in the past few months is jump the shark or jumped the shark, but now I can’t seem to get away from it. It seems to mean that someone acted hastily with negative results or that a plan of action was doomed from the outset. Could you shed some light on where this came from and the proper usage of it?
A You’re ahead of me, since I’d never encountered it at all, but then I’m not well informed about American slang. Through the wonders of the Internet, the phrase now makes more sense.
It seems to have first appeared around May 1998 in a Web site, also called Jump the Shark. The phrase came from the idea that there was often a point at which a television series hit a peak and then started to go irreversibly downhill. The site’s creator, Jon Hein, says he took it from the episode in Happy Days, an ABC television show in the USA which ran from 1974 to 1984, in which Fonzie, played by Henry Winkler, water-skied over a shark in a bay.
Jon Hein said that other jump the shark moments were caused by a cast member reaching puberty or a new actor starting to play an existing character. The phrase might seem to resonate with the image of network bosses circling in the water waiting to pull a failing show, though the real problem is that the bosses let long-running and once-successful shows continue well past their sell-by date in order to milk a little more revenue from them, or to reach the magic episode count at which syndication becomes practicable.
The site proved very successful and there are now spin-off books, audio books and calendars featuring the name and the ideas. The phrase is commonly used by television critics: for example, Caryn James said in the New York Times on 23 October 2002 that The West Wing had jumped the shark after September 11.
From what you say, it seems that the phrase has already become modified in the spoken language to refer to any serious error, not specifically a TV downturn. After this piece appeared in the newsletter, several subscribers said they had encountered it in the political arena in reference to a politician whose policies (to borrow another allusion) were past their sell-by date, or to an event in a candidate’s campaign that marked the effective end of their hopes of election. Ethan de Seife e-mailed thus: “Here in the midwestern US, at least, the phrase ‘jump the shark’ surely does refer to the point at which anything — not just a TV show — goes irrevocably downhill. Moreover, there seems to be a consensus that ‘jump the shark’ itself has jumped the shark.”