28th November 11
Based on the limited figures I have at my disposal, I’d guess that this here blog has only around sixty regular, dedicated, engaged readers. Which perhaps isn’t many compared to some other blogs, but you all are the right sixty readers. Whenever I pose a question here, I am always amazed at the range of thoughtful answers I recieve.
In reference to l’affaire fiducie de fonds kids of several weeks ago (that is French for “the affair of the kids with the funds of trust,” according to Google Translate), I got a few interesting comments and emails. The first, from my old friend Brady Bergeson, a writer in Fargo-Moorhead and my favorite activity partner for a lively round of that classic hotel bar game, Can You Draw a Fairly Accurate Sketch of Vice President Henry A. Wallace From Memory? Brady says:
I was going to suggest you start a band called Trust Fund Kids. But then there’s this:
Brett, a friend from Minneapolis that’s roughly the same age as me (and an MCAD alumnus), adds some insight into the mindset of the typical college student in those post-Pets.com years:
I hypothesize that the dot-com bubble of the late ’90s may have been crucial to propagating the nationwide scare that trust-funded kids were lurking in and around every coffee shop and campus corner. Between ‘99 and ‘03, there were three different instances where I learned that a friend who had a decent apartment was seemingly supporting themselves via an online entrepreneurial venture or freelance web work. Eventually in conversation it would slip out that the freelancing work or web site was actually unsuccessful. And in fact, that person’s family owned eight apartment buildings in Boston, or a chain of grocery stores in Colorado. Once a juicy nugget like that hits a college town’s gossip chain, it spreads like wild fire, causing everyone to wonder who else may in fact be a secretly funded via a trust.
But here’s the real bombshell, from an anonymous reader named “Murk.” Murk proves him- or herself to be the Deep Throat of this whole “Trust Fund Kid” episode:
Not to muddy the etymological waters here, but, if my murky memory serves at all, I believe the term originated first as “trust fund babies,” before aging up a bit to the “kid” level. I seem to vaguely recall hearing the former term some time in the mid-80s. I place it there because my best friend from high school was literally one (receiving a trust from his grandparents at age 18), and I recall a light bulb going on about said friend once I’d heard the term (he eventually blew the entire fund on LPs top-end stereo equipment, and a generally profligate lifestyle while in college in Cambridge). Maybe your search should include tracking down this earlier term and theorizing why it may have aged through the years?
Of course! “Trust fund babies”! Using the same questionable research methods (Google Books and nGram), I explored the origins of that particular phrase.
Surprisingly, “trust fund baby” first turns up about the same time, maybe a little bit earlier, during the ‘84-‘86 period. “Places like Woodstock, NY, Taos, NM, and the Hotel Chelsea were filled with these Trust-Fund Babies,” reports New York City novelist Carole Berge’s 1984 Secrets, Gossip and Slander.
However, between 1984 and 1987, there’s almost double the references in print compared to “trust fund kid.” It seems to be in more mainstream use in the early to mid-1980s, turning up in everything from nonfiction sociology books to Mademoiselle articles, and even in a work entitled Fringe Benefits: The Fifty Best Career Opportunities for Meeting Men. (Unfortunately, the entire text of this landmark volume was not available online, so I can’t tell you what the results are, other than, in many respects, aren’t you glad it’s not the 1980s anymore?)
All of this would lead me to believe that “trust fund baby” is the older of the two phrases, and the one from which the now more common “trust fund kid” is derived.
As mentioned in my previous post on the subject, I am still giving credit to photographer Abby Robinson for coining the actual phrase “trust fund kid” in her semi-autobiographical 1985 Künstlerroman The Dick and Jane. Again, I can’t really prove this in any real, academic way, other than to say two things: 1.) there is no earlier instance on Google Books, and 2.) since I last wrote about this, I’ve purchased The Dick and Jane, and read it, and loved it, and it confirms my suspicions that Robinson may have been the coiner, for one specific reason. The book is a funny, thoughtful combination of the old, mythical world of the seedy, pre-WWII New York City and the then-contemporary world of seedy, pre-Giuliani New York City — a New York City that is now just as mythical as the old hardboiled New York City of Raymond Chandler. So it’s myth doubling back on myth, a fact reflected in the language in the book, a really inventive blend of ’80s downtown artspeak and ’40s hardboiled pulp fiction. One of the hallmarks of this type of writing is taking common phrases and punching them up a little bit; making them a little more colorful. I believe Robinson may have taken the then-current phrase “trust find baby,” and roughed it up, Bogart-style, into “trust fund kid.” Because “kid” is more hard-boiled than “baby,” right?
Again, I cannot totally prove this. I am not an authority on this subject. But Robinson was nice enough to exchange a few emails with me, and though she said she doesn’t think she coined the term, I told her I’m giving her credit anyhow. Someone had to coin it, after all. Why not her?
Many thanks to Brady, Brett and Murk for prompting me to further investigate this topic, and to Abby Robinson for indulging me. This is what South 12th is all about, my dear sixty readers: making crazed, unfounded speculations on things that happened 30 years ago that no one is really worried about. Well, most people aren’t worried about them: maybe me and you and the other fifty-eight are, and that’s why we’re all in this together.
(Post-script: Robinson’s favorite variation, “trustafarian,” seems unsurprisingly to be a pure product of the 1990s.)
(Double post-script: The French term for “trust fund babies” is “fiducie de fonds pour bébés.” According to Google Translate.)
28th October 11
Recently, I’d read Rush Limbaugh invoking on a mass scale the sort of cheap class warfare rhetoric that gets tossed around art schools, rock clubs, and other places where youth come together to take drugs and collectively sort out questions of privilege and authenticity among themselves. That is, referring to Occupy protestors as “trust fund kids.”
This was a phrase I heard a lot by the time I’d got to college, and I knew by the time I was twenty it was essentially meaningless, because none of the artists, musicians or scene people I knew socially had a “trust fund” in the formal sense. It was a term used to refer to “kids” — that is, people younger than twenty-four or so — that may have had well-to-do parents paying for their Orange amplifiers or their private education. But that’s not quite the same as having access to the enormous amount of family money implied by “trust fund.”
I am sure it was different in New York City. But rich people in Louisville were not rich to the degree that people on the East Coast are rich, and if they were on that level, they certainly weren’t sending their dumb kids to college in Louisville, where I’d be hanging out with them. Louisville is a city with only two schools: one incredibly crappy private Catholic college, and one sprawling, commuter basketball camp disguised as a land-grant research institution (I studied at both, running out of money to attend to the former and earning my degree from the latter). Any kid with an actual trust fund was being educated somewhere else. “Trust fund kid” was just a blanket term meaning “mom and dad pay their rent and the costs relating to upkeep of their Jeep.” It’s effective as an insult because it suggests sinister machinations of old money and lawyers, of hidden bank accounts and secrecy. In addition to that, it’s agreeably infantilizing. “Kid.”
The private college in question. Rich kids? Maybe. “Trust funds”? I doubt it.
My suspicion is that this term began gaining currency in the flyover states with the advent of the Internet, and the ability of people to read about “scenes” of various kinds in New York City, and then project the class conflicts of that arena onto their own local class conflicts. Louisville is an intensely class-conscious city — if you meet anyone from Louisville, the first thing they’ll demand to know is where you grew up and what high school you went to, and then mentally assign you to a socioeconomic bracket based on your answer. So any language that can be used to talk about class and privilege, whether it’s accurate or not, is easily co-opted. I imagine a bunch of pretty canny scene kids in Louisville reading whatever NYC-based blogs people read in 1999-2000 (I don’t even remember myself) and coming across some griping about “trust fund kids” fucking up the music or art or lit scenes there, and thinking, “ah ha!” and then sneering in public the next evening that what does so-and-so know anyway, he/she is just a trust fund kid.
Very unlikely that any “trust funds” were involved here, either. Image courtesy here.
Anyway, it’s a ridiculous term that’s been drained of any meaning it may have once had. It was ridiculous when I was twenty-one and used it to describe upper middle-class peers, and it’s even more ridiculous when used to describe the vastly heterogenous mass of people that have committed to the Occupy movement. I’ve known Rush Limbaugh was stupid since I was thirteen years old, but I didn’t realize he was stupid enough to co-opt the language of art school students from the early 2000s. I didn’t think anyone was that stupid. It really makes you consider just how crude this “class warfare” bullshit him and the rest of the Right are peddling.
All of this made me wonder where the term came from. This is going to sound like one those made-up things I post here sometimes, but this is all completely true. I am not really much of a journalist or a researcher except in the most amateurish, dilettante sense, so I really couldn’t think of any way to proceed except by doing a Google Books search for the phrase. That would, at least, pinpoint it somewhere in time.
There’s a smattering of references from the late 1980s, and quite a few from the 1990s, mostly in reference to rock bands and in articles in New York.
However, the very earliest reference to the exact phrase “trust fund kid” dates from 1985. It’s used few times in a novel by Abby Robinson called The Dick and Jane, published in February 1985 by Doubleday. Robinson is a photographer, and writes that the book was “loosely based on my experiences working for a private detective.” From page 26 of the novel:
Parker was a tall, skinny, horsefaced trust fund kid. He had so much dough, he was a retiree from birth.
There is a trust fund in this novel, though!
Abby Robinson has worked on a lot of really fascinating projects; she has the sort of polymath career I dream of having. As I noted, her work is primarily as a photographer, though she write this semi-autobiographical novel in the mid-1980s, and has also written extensively on photography in Southeast Asia, and has contributed to The New York Times and Ms. Currently, she’s in the graphic design program at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and is working on a photographic residency in China.
All of this is on her website, as is her email. So I emailed her, asking as delicately as I could where she might have heard the term or, if, you know, she invented it. (There’s no not-dumb way to ask that kind of question, but I did my best.) She was kind of enough to send a nice response, saying in part:
Alas, I don’t think that the term’s earliest use was in The Dick and Jane, though it’s fun to think that it was. I think it was already common parlance by then.
The term I like even better is “trustafarians.”
So there you go. It was already out there in the mid-1980s. If you have any ideas for how one might investigate the phrase’s exact origins further, I am open to hear them. But it’s unsurprising to me that the earliest usage comes out of the New York City of that time period.
"Many of these protestors are bored trust fund kids, obsessed with being something, being somebody, meaningless lives, they want to matter."
13th October 11
Rush Limbaugh on the Occupy Wall Street protestors.
So it’s come to this: the Right is finally stealing talking points from art school kids. Substitute the phrase “those guys in that one noise-rock band that moved to Brooklyn” for “these protestors,” and I remember hearing that exact same argument from some stoned sculptor in a Pretty Girls Make Graves t-shirt drinking a Miller High Life and sitting next to me on a rotting brown couch on the porch of a collapsing Victorian house where twelve people lived sometime in the spring of 2002. I mean, the exact argument, expressed in precisely the same language. “Trust fund kids”! Those eternal bogeymen and bogey-women of pure, noble self-expression!
The damned trust fund kids are everywhere!