Most of us like to think of ourselves as originals. But when it comes to communicating with other human beings, we’re not quite as original as we think.
When we talk, and write, we not only use words; we use a wide assortment of stock phrases that we’ve picked up along the way. Some of these phrases are basic building blocks of language, more or less essential to communication; others are, as the expression goes, worn-out clichés. Some of these clichés are so burned into our brains that we almost can’t help using them — though we sometimes apologize for it afterwards (or even before).
Last week, a Manhattan woman named Jessica Leeds told the New York Times of a strange encounter with a much younger Donald Trump on an airplane in the early 80s. Seated besides him in first class, she says, she chatted with him briefly, then — following the MO he laid out in that now infamous conversation with Billy Bush — he started kissing and groping her.
“He was like an octopus,” she told the NYT. “His hands were everywhere.”
Now some Trump fans are saying that the “octopus” line is clear evidence that her claims about Trump are a “hoax.”
Why? Because people other than Leeds have, over the course of human history, used the phrase “he was like an octopus” to describe (allegedly) gropey men.
No, really, that’s their argument.
Take it away, Mike Cernovich:
Whoa. "Like an octopus" line is from a song and previous famous news story. New blog from NYT is a hoax! pic.twitter.com/tjwn0fD2r9
— Mike Cernovich (@Cernovich) October 13, 2016
So … if someone uses a phrase that was once used in a Velvet Underground song, they are automatically lying?
This is the sort of “logic” that only Trump fans could love. And they do: Cernovich’s tweet was retweeted thousands of times, and picked up by other credibility deficient media outlets on the fringe right, including Political Insider and Gateway Pundit.
Snopes, meanwhile, has classified this argument as “just silly,” which it is.
Indeed, Cernovich’s “logic” here is so completely ridiculous that it’s hard to even figure out what he and his fellow Octopus Hand Truthers think happened.
In their imagined scenario, I guess, Leeds is some kind of sleeper agent for the forces of Big Hillary, tasked with the job of making false groping accusations against Trump. After being triggered, Manchurian Candidate style, by Trump’s denials of groping accusations from other women, Leeds sprang into action and began fabricating her own story of being sexually assaulted by Trump.
But alas, her grope-fabrication skills were a bit rusty. Unable to come up with a convincing scenario, she poured herself a drink and put on the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat album, which she has on the original vinyl. While listening to the exceedingly strange story-song The Gift, about a lovelorn weirdo named Waldo who literally mails himself in a big box to his sort-of-cheating sort-of girlfriend, she hears the phrase “My God, he was like an octopus. Hands all over the place.”
Bingo! Those phrases tie the whole fake sexual assault accusation together.
A slightly more plausible scenario is that people have been using the phrase “hands like an octopus” and variations thereof for decades. That it’s just part of the language, not some weird clue in The Hardy Boys and the Secret of The Phrase That Was Used Before in a Velvet Underground Song CHECKMATE, FEMINISTS.
And there’s certainly evidence for that. A few minutes with Google reveals that there’s an entry for “Octopus Hands” in Urban Dictionary (which was posted six years before the Year of Trump); it’s in romance novels; someone even uses it to describe a cute piece of handmade jewelry for sale on an Etsy store. This dude made a joke about it on Twitter in 2012.
Her hands were everywhere, like an octopus, except drier and only two. #50ShadesofGraham
— grahamclark (@grahamclark) June 27, 2012
It was certainly a familiar phrase to me when I read it in the New York Times story, though admittedly I’m a Velvet Underground fan.
There’s another piece of evidence that suggests “octopus hands” is simply an expression that people have been using for decades — that it’s even a bit of a cliché. And it comes from the Leeds interview itself.
If you watch the video of Leeds’ interview with the New York Times, you will see that she sort of apologizes for using the phrase even before she uses it, presumably a little embarrassed to be resorting to such a hokey cliche.
“[I]t was a real shock when all of a sudden his hands were all over me,” she told the NYT.
He started encroaching on my space. And I hesitate to use this expression but I’m going to, and that is, he was like an octopus. It was like he had six arms. He was all over the place.
You can find the relevant portion of the interview about a minute into the NYT video.
The real question for me at this point has nothing to do with octopus hands. It’s a lot more basic.