SAAS: Pouring Out A Forty For Fallen Homies

Many tributes flowed for Ted Kennedy, homie to journos everywhere. Image: Sweded

Many tributes flowed today for Ted Kennedy, homie to journos everywhere. Image: Sweded

The practice of libation – a ritual pouring-out of a drink to appease gods or ancestors – is millennia old. In Homer’s epics, our heroes would pour wine onto an altar or into a fire when they wanted a fair sailing wind or good fortune in battle. Biblical characters offer libations to God. Even today in some cultural traditions, deliberately spilling a drop or a mouthful is deemed ‘lucky’ and appeases unseen powers.

And of course, in hip-hop culture, people remember the dead by pouring a small amount from a drink before taking a sip. Is it this kind of libation that’s invoked when journalists invariably write that “tributes flow” for a recently deceased individual?

And what a torrent there has been this week.

“Tributes flow for US Senator Ted Kennedy” – ABC News

“Ted Kennedy: tributes flow from Republicans and Democrats alike” – The Guardian

“Tributes flow for Edward Kennedy” –

“In their own words: tributes flow for Kennedy” – SBS World News Australia

But it wasn’t just Ted Kennedy, who died of a brain tumour on Wednesday. Cancer also felled Magic Dirt bassist Dean Turner this week, and the tributes flowed:

“Tributes flow for Magic Dirt founder” – The Australian

“Tributes flow for Magic Dirt bassist” – ABC News

Another musician, contemporary classical pianist Geoffrey Tozer, also died this week:

“Tributes flow after death of pianist Geoffrey Tozer” – The Canberra Times

And the recent Kokoda plane crash caused a fresh torrent of tributes to flow in the media:

“Tributes flow for Kokoda victim” – Bendigo Advertiser

“Tributes flow for Queenslanders killed in PNG crash” – ABC News

“Tributes flow for colleague” – Bendigo Advertiser

And so it goes. The Bendigo Advertiser, in particular, should feel ashamed of itself that it used this sad cliché twice within two weeks. The hackneyed phrase has also recently found its way into headlines about the victims of car crashes, stabbings, war and workplace accidents.

What all these stories have in common is that the friends, families and colleagues of those recently deceased are “paying tribute” to the laudable qualities of the story’s subject. This concept has its own very long history. It was a kind of benign geopolitical extortion. Militarily or economically less powerful states or regions (“tributary states”) actually offered some of their wealth to more powerful ones (“suzerain states”) as a sign of allegiance – but more often, submission.

This is the same sense in which a lesser branch of a river is known as a ‘tributary’, feeding its waters into the main river. And perhaps this is why media tributes always seem to “flow”.

With this in mind, paying tribute would have had the same sense of honouring a culturally dominant and influential person with a gift. That’s certainly the deferential way that many journalists apply the cliché, and it still has a political resonance when you consider that foreign leaders are almost always approached for quotes about the death of a well-known world leader.

But in vernacular culture, paying tribute has come to take on a similar meaning to a eulogy – a catalogue of a person’s most honourable qualities, given by those who know them best. Tributes also flow in comedy roasts and the accolades that accompany a significant milestone for a living person. For instance, golfing great Peter Thomson has just turned 80 and so presumably is able to read the story on the European PGA Tour website that claims his tributes “flow thick and fast”.

In July, Nelson Mandela turned 91 and witnessed an especially viscous and swift-moving set of tributes. And when WA agriculture bureaucrat Ian Longson retired in June, his tributes included a specially produced book of tribute emails from his staff and business contacts.

Even poor old Brendan Nelson, who’s just quit federal politics, managed a trickle of tributes. NSW state opposition leader Barry Farrell could not contribute to the trickle, however, as he was in a meeting at the time the Hornsby Advocate went to press. Now that’s a fitting tribute to Nelson.

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  1. Great article, Mel. I want more of these cliche exposes!

    (PS. Imagine that there are dashes above the latter ‘e’s in both of those last words)

  2. Meg says:

    Hehe, totally agree on overuse — was thinking same thing last night listening to radio reports. Why don’t the tributes squirt? Or ooze, or canter, or something else occasionally?

  3. Kim says:

    Also up there: “fears held for missing child” (you can’t hold an emotion); and my pet hate, “seemingly endless”.

  4. Davey W says:

    Love this piece, Mel.

    The correlative is ‘outpouring of grief’, when people gather in public to mourn a dead celebrity. Sometimes ‘massive’. Diana precipitated the first of these, making her the OG of OG.

    When there’s an outpouring of grief, you can bet tributes flow. An ‘ocean of emotion’ can’t be far away.

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