A month or two ago, I was at a gathering with some co-workers, and the term “gong show” came up. There followed a discussion about this term being a western regionalism within Canada, which I had never thought of. Aside from the claim that someone from Ontario should have no idea what this term meant, what shocked me even more was that the one American in our midst that night had no idea what the term meant at all, aside from the pop culture allusion.
The Gong Show was of course a television show from the late 70s that I have no memory of, but can clearly remember my family talking about how much they liked it at the time, and is the sort of thing that I can remember popping up on clip shows over the years. In premise, it’s basically a televised talent show that was known for outlandish performances and general chaos more than anything else. And it is this extended sense of disorganization and chaos that I always understood the phrase “a gong show” to denote. Not long after that discussion, I noticed this article come across my twitter feed, advocating for the organization of more gong shows, in a sense to me roughly along the lines of a chaotic and uncontrolled event, rather than anything resembling a talent show. And, with the author being a Maritimer, the Western Canadianism theory is blown out of the water.
Still, I couldn’t believe that this expression which I had always assumed to be an indirect reference to an American show was a Canadianism. However, a quick check of twitter for people who used the expression “a gong show” yielded mostly Canadian tweeters, so clearly there was something here. A quick google search finds only the urban dictionary definition, which relates the term to Canadian junior hockey culture. This is borne out by the fact the same search yields a sponsored link to a “lifestyle hockey apparel” company, using the term “gitch” as underwear, which is about as Canadian as you can get. No mention of the TV show though.
What’s even more shocking though is that no slang dictionary that I could find in the campus library even mentions “gong show” as a term. There are various entries for “gong”, with different regional definitions, but nothing at all connected to hockey, or the TV show. The nearest relevant sense is one cited repeatedly for the US in which “gong” had at one time referred to opium, and then spread to refer to drug culture in general. The origins of this usage apparently connect to an association of the term “gong” with Asia, the historical source of opium in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. I have no idea whether this connection was made when Chuck Barris concocted his show that involved a very literal gong.
A Google ngram search pretty clearly connects the use of the expression “a gong show” with the television program though. As one would expect, usage of “the gong show” takes off in the mid 1970’s, spiking in 1980, the year the first-run series was cancelled. The indefinite “a gong show” emerges in 1976, the same year the show comes on the air, and slowly rises to a stable use by about 2000. The Google data on the usage of “a gong show” is surprising (to me) in that it does not have the sense of chaos or disorganization. The first use indexed is a Farm and Home News leaflet listing “a gong show” among the events surrounding 4-H Club Olympics, alongside a dance, a sweet corn roast, and a watermelon eating contest. Clearly, this is a literal usage in the sense of a comedic talent show. The same usage appears in most of these early sources; “a gong show” refers to an amateur talent competition being run as part of some community event.
So, on from Google to something more systematic: the Corpus of Contemporary American English. Not surprisingly, this source backs up the idea that the expression is a Canadianism, with only three instances recorded in the USA from 1980-2010; relatively sparse results. Interestingly, all three are from the realm of political journalism (one in print, two from CNN transcripts), and still retain this sense of a talent competition, as all sources lament electioneering turing into a “gong show” with candidates performing for a crowd with dire consequences. A parallel search of a corpus of Canadian English only finds one hit, Ralph Goodale expressing his concern in 2007 that an inquiry into the Mulroney/Schreiber affair be conducted competently, and not descend into “a gong show”. Here, we find what is apparently a distinctly Canadian use of the term to denote disorganized incompetent chaos rather than a literal performance.
At the same time, I took a quick look into the corpus of Global Web-Based English, and found 23 hits for the term, 15 of which are tagged as Canadian. What stands out among these cases is that most of these show up in sports writing, though the political arena is also represented. In all these Canadian cases though, the sense is of chaos and incompetence. The same applies to the lone UK and NZ examples: incompetence or chaos in an athletic domain. The three examples tagged for Asian countries are suspicious, as these could be ex-pat North Americans writing from Asia. For the record, one of the Asian sources talks about four-player Super Mario Wii being a gong show, which sounds like a totally natural usage to me, and the other two use the term to describe award shows with questionable results, perhaps getting back to the original performance sense. The last three uses here are tagged as from US blogs, but it’s noteworthy that all are from the comments sections of said blogs, meaning that while the sites are US-based, these tokens could be from anywhere, and I would argue that two are likely Canadian. One of them appears under a Wall Street Journal article about flight delays, containing a long lament about trying to get home on an Air Canada flight from LAX to YVR, while another one on a finance website is completely American in terms of content, but the spellings of “neighbour” and “labour” betray a Commonwealth education.
At this point there’s a fairly clear picture emerging: “a gong show” definitely seems to be a Canadianism, and its meaning appears to have drifted from anything to do with a talent show to just a general sense of disorganization, incompetence, and chaos. To test whether this is accurate, I very unscientifically grabbed a collection of uses of the phrase from twitter, and looked carefully at the 50 most recent ones that came up. So, this will be a snapshot of how the phrase was being used in late April 2014 (roughly April 26 and 27). The results are not too shocking: of those 50, 42 are identifiably Canadian, spread from BC to NS, though over half come from the western provinces. The initial instinct that this is a western thing does apparently have some backing. Perhaps the most emblematic of these is one from Winnipeg: “Canadian Tire is a gong show today.” Nothing at all to do with a performance, or sports, just a general sense of a horribly chaotic day at the quintessentially Canadian retailer. Many examples follow this theme of people complaining that their work is a gong show, but also other places or events, such as “my school”, “last night” or the personals section of Craigslist.
The political theme also appears here, with both the Federal conservatives and the Ontario Liberals being described as gong shows (one of the web English tokens was similar, making the same claim about the BC Conservative party). What’s most interesting though is the eight instances from the USA. One of them is a meta-use, mocking someone who used the expression, which adds to the notion that this is not a phrase in common use south of the border. Six of the remaining seven use the term to describe either a sports team, league, or venue as a gong show. Geography does not seem to be a common factor here, as instances emerge from California, Texas, and Connecticut. However, most of these accounts do share a common obsession not just with sports in general, but hockey in particular. Indeed, the one tweet from the USA that uses “a gong show” in a political context comes from an account that opens up with an image of the Anaheim Ducks home ice as the banner, so the hockey connection is still there.
In the end, it actually looks like Urban Dictionary is at least half right. The ngram timeline backs up my original intuition that this expression has something to do with the TV show, but the twitter findings make the connection to hockey pretty undeniable. What’s missing among all the corpus data is how this all took place. The source data for the ngrams all generally maintain the talent show sense of the expression, even into the 90’s, mirroring what was found in the Contemporary American English Corpus data. The drift from this sense of performance into politics in the American context is somewhat clear, as the ballot box becomes the ultimate gong. Understanding a hockey game as a gong show also makes some sense I suppose, as there is still a sense of winning or losing. What seems to have happened though is that in seizing upon this aspect of the meaning, “a gong show” became a measure of control, discipline, and competence, moving beyond the realm of a political or an athletic performance, and into a general expression of chaos and disarray, which seems to be how it is largely used in Canada. Interestingly, there might be an unintentional homage to the old usage of “gong” to connect to opium though, as many uses of “a gong show” tend to imply a degree of intoxication underlying the events or people described. While totally absent from the American uses, this shows up repeatedly in the Canadian ones.
Within the Canadian context there does not seem to be any one group that “owns” this expression. While it is centred in the west to be sure, it shows up in Ontario and the Maritimes as well. There’s definitely no sense that this is a term of the left or the right in its political uses, nor is there any noticeable gender split. Age also does not appear to be a factor, as we see the term being used in the same sense by high school students in 2014 as it was used by Ralph Goodale who was already a former cabinet minister by 2007. While the Canadian users are mostly caucasian, even this is not exclusive, based both on the twitter evidence and my own experience. Stereotype though it may be, perhaps the only unifying factor here is that odds are most people are only one or two degrees of separation away from minor/junior hockey folks in this country, even if they never played it themselves. So, urban dictionary comes out ahead of every published slang dictionary I could get my hands on; what a gong show.