The dictionary app on my phone has a word of the day. Today, it’s “also-ran.” What a way to start the day. The app might as well have offered up “existential crisis” or “loser” instead of playing cute with the sports vernacular. Ever since HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” there’s been a pervasive notion that technology has to be somehow patronizing, you know, before it kills you.
Also-ran. Is that even a real word? It’s more like two words in traction, a couple of old, broken bones hoping to knit. It isn’t even a portmanteau, just some hyphenated-hokum a sportswriter ginned up to plug a news hole. After the top three places, a list of also-rans kills a few column inches if one runs the roster. One of the many editorial innovations of the late 19th century. Yes, “also-ran” is over a century old, which is interesting given how contemporary, or more pointedly, facile it sounds. What other words will the app shoehorn back into our contemporary argot? Rumbumptious? Eugenics?
Also-ran also has more than one definition in the running. Besides the sports references, its third, “informal” definition has me quite convinced the app isn’t necessarily on my side. “A person who attains little or no success: For every great artist there are a thousand also-rans.”What a dreadful example. Who wrote that? A goddamn artist asking themselves, “What am I doing squandering my talent on a dictionary app?” Don’t sell out our people, mate. Keep the aspidistra flying. Or, really, any potted plant, even if it doesn’t serve as an Orwellian literary allusion (and by Orwellian, I don’t mean the bits with authoritarianism or livestock in them, I mean Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which is about an advertising executive who drops out to become a poet and the consequences that ensue – namely poverty, starvation and bad sex).
For some reason, I took “also-ran” personally today, not least of which because it came chirping from my pocket on the face of my iPhone. Apparently, certain words have their own alert setting and demand to be regarded, no matter how inconvenient. It preys upon our Pavlovian habit to answer any ring, ping, buzz or vibration to emanate from a pocket as if to say, “Excuse me, but did you know? You’re a loser. And Siri thinks so too.” I once told Siri that I loved her. After a long and lonely pause, she replied, “Oh, stop.”
When you’re in the arts and media game, or any game where you have to sign your work, it’s not difficult to think of yourself as a clone (or a clone of a clone) given the amount of players and rules that never cease changing. This is how I make my living and I live indoors, so you’d think I’d have a little more fortitude and yet … I dread being also-ran. Who doesn’t?
I have to remind myself that the gig is not a race. It’s a war. Some of us are infantry and others are officers. And we’re all being shot at and we’re all going to die. And a hero can be minted at any moment. So, yeah, screw you, app.
OK. That was testosterone talking.
In protest, I’m going to start misreading “also-ran” as “Also-Ran,” as in the title of the Kurosawa film, even though it’s pronounced differently and it’s Japanese for – wait for it – “rebellion” or “revolt” or “orchid” or “water lily” or … or …
Obviously, I’m being overly sensitive and paranoid and I should probably stop drinking in the afternoon. But still. This is true: There was never born an artist who was an also-ran but plenty who never chanced a run.