how 'lynchian' became the most overused phrase on the planet

Last month, the term’s status was legitimised when it was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary​. How did it become the representative adjective of our times?

by Emma Madden
12 November 2018, 12:01pm

The other night, as I stood at the bus stop, some traffic lights spilled into the leftover rain on the pavement, causing a rainbow like gleam across the street. “Doesn’t that look Lynchian?” I heard a man ask his friend at the bus stop.

His comment reminded me of Kafka. Or rather, of ‘Kafkaesque’. "What I'm against is someone going to catch a bus and finding that all the buses have stopped running and saying that's Kafkaesque," Kafka biographer Frederick R. Karl told The New York Times in 1991.

There have, throughout time, been certain eponymous adjectives whose meanings have been overextended. As Karl describes, in the 90s, anything remotely inconvenient was often referred to as ‘Kafkaesque’. It was the “representative adjective of our times”, as he put it. So too have I have called a few hostels ‘Dickensian’ or the first Orangeage sip of the summer ‘Proustian’. I may even have confidently called Scooby Doo: The Movie ‘Lynchian’.

Writing today, the word ‘Lynchian’ -- referring to the director and visual artist David Lynch -- is comparably pervasive. It’s draped across music press releases today with such frequency that it’s practically become shorthand for “this band is trendy, trust me.” Currently at the top of my inbox is a band described as invoking a “Lynchian fable”. Additionally, typing ‘Lynchian’ into the Twitter search bar on any given day will reveal a multitude of results and questionable associations. Several users have referred to the recent US midterms as ‘Lynchian’, for instance.

According to the National University Smart Search, in 2018 alone, ‘Lynchian’ has been used to describe Netflix show Maniac, as well as films Mommie Dearest and Hereditary. Meanwhile, Crack Magazine described a Spice Girls video as ‘Lynchian’, and Nylon instructed its readers on how to decorate your apartment in a “Lynchian” style.

So, might it be fair to call ‘Lynchian’ the representative adjective of our time? And if so, what about our time would necessitate such a descriptor?

In order to answer the above, it’s useful to first understand what’s meant by the term. David Foster Wallace attempted the first academic definition of it back in 1996, with his essay David Lynch Keeps His Head. He wrote that ‘Lynchian’ "refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment within the latter."

That definition has remained largely unchanged. The top entry for ‘Lynchian’ on Urban Dictionary pulls the idea of juxtaposition from Wallace’s definition, with the top user describing it as “having the same balance between the macabre and the mundane found in the works of filmmaker David Lynch.”

Last month, the term’s status as a representative adjective was legitimized when it was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary. 19 other film related eponymous adjectives were added, including Tarantinoesque, Kubrickian, Bergmanesque, but as Craig Leyland, Senior Editor of New Words at the OED tells me, “our addition of Lynchian has generated more interest than just about any other single item in the update.”

The earliest quotation Leyland could find for ‘Lynchian’ dates back to 1984, the year Lynch’s third feature film Dune was released. Published in Cinefantastique, it reads: “Eraserhead is most likely to remain his most distinctive, purely Lynchian film.” But being turned into an adjective so early in one’s career is uncommon, Leyland notes, as he explains that, “with most other directors on our list, a few more films had appeared by the time we find the first evidence of their name being used in this way.”

But Lynchian is not only a marketable term to draw audiences towards new bands or new fashions. Its definition parallels the time we’re living in -- this uncannily cosmetic valley with all the sinister, superficial juxtaposition it implies.

Since then, ‘Lynchian’ has experienced an increased usage overtime, and it seems like it may now be at its apex. For one, it’s connotations -- a contrast of “surreal or sinister elements with mundane, everyday environments” as the OED put it -- have had an undeniable influence on high fashion: from Creatures of the Wind’, whose spring/summer 17 show displayed an contrast of soft and sharp (with Lynch’s own Julee Cruise soundtracking the display); to Raf Simons’ first collection for Dior, Nightmares And Dreams, in 2012. “I always like making beautiful things,” Simons has said. “But it’s also interesting when something goes wrong, something’s weird, something’s dark… There’s very much this contrast.”

But Lynchian is not only a marketable term to draw audiences towards new bands or new fashions. Its definition parallels the time we’re living in -- this uncannily cosmetic valley with all the sinister, superficial juxtaposition it implies. The POTUS, for one, takes great care to live up to his vision of beauty -- fake tan, golden retriever locks -- all while detaining children in detention centers. Your Instagram feed, too, is full of carefully Facetuned selfies and curated memories, all while fueling the worst mental health epidemic in decades.

Yet there are many directors who imbue this juxtaposition in their films -- Sofia Coppola, for instance, whose film The Bling Ring is a particularly timely balance of beauty and horror, would fit the bill. So, why ‘Lynchian’ and not ‘Coppolaesque’? First off, it should be said that male directors are more likely to benefit from having their name adjectivized for their auteurship (being valued for having their own specific style and discernible personality across their works) -- and Paper Magazine have already written comprehensively about this subject. But Lynch, more than most directors, has had his personality imposed onto his films and their press.

Lynch’s legend is built upon the juxtaposition exhibited in his films. An article in Newsweek from 1986 suggested that Lynch had become famous for his “Jimmy Stewart style”. “He loves vanilla milkshake and says things like ‘golly gee’, which makes the darker side of his imagination all the more startling,” it reads. Lynchian has even superseded the work of others. Working alongside Mark Frost, Twin Peaks is by far the most collaborative of Lynch’s works, but as Frost lamented in 2002, “everybody wants to believe the auteur theory, that it all somehow springs from one person, and David has the much higher profile.” So we all by into it.

“Why the fuck does everything have to be ‘Lynchian’?” I heard the friend reply, as I stood by the bus stop the other night. “That’s just some oil on the road, Dave.”

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.