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Mind your language

The rise and rise of the brain fade

It’s part of a fairly long tradition (although the OED still doesn’t have ‘brain fart’)

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

‘Aa-aah,’ groaned my husband, ‘we fade to grey.’ He had never been much of a Young Romantic, even when Visage was vigorous. I had merely told him that Oxford Dictionaries have added to their online collection the phrase brain fade.

In April, when David Cameron said that he supported West Ham, having previously assured the world he followed Aston Villa, he excused himself by saying: ‘I had what Natalie Bennett described as a brain fade.’ What Ms Bennett had said, after a grim radio interview in which she could not explain Green party policies, was: ‘One can have a mental brain fade on these things.’ I suppose it may be possible to have a brain fade that is not ‘mental’ — if the grey matter becomes a physically lighter shade — but the mental aspect is generally the focus.


I suspect that brain fade has been more commonly used in Australia, Natalie Bennett’s native home. In 2012 Brock ‘Chooka’ McLean, an Australian rules footballer, tweeted to a critic: ‘Your mum has given me Aids.’ It earned him a $5,000 fine and a place in the Australian newspaper’s Top Ten Brain Fades.

Fade has a misleadingly modern air. Happy in Death of a Salesman says: ‘If I’m going to take a fade the boss can call any number where I’m supposed to be and they’ll swear to him that I just left.’ But 101 years earlier, Thackeray had written in Vanity Fair: ‘Florence Scape, Fanny Scape, and their mother faded away to Boulogne.’

Fading has been auditory too since as early as 1878, when a book, The Speaking Telephone, referred to fading out. But the word derives, via French, from the Latin vapidum, ‘insipid’. It has been applied to colours in English since the 14th century. By 1918 it was being used in film: fading in and fading out. Thus it was possible, in 1968, in America, for brain fade to join a throng of brain afflictions: brain-squirt (1654 — when squirt meant diarrhoea — ‘a feeble attempt at reasoning’, parallel with modern brain fart, which the OED does not record); brain fever (1772); brain fog (1853); brain lock (1934); and brain freeze (1988). Politicians have chosen to take up brain fade. It was literally a no-brainer.


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