American daily newspapers such as Washington Post and New York Times provide a treasure trove of interesting words and idioms to foreign learners of English language like me. For example, an article of January 29 the New York Times titled We Never Got Down to Blue begins with the following copy. It provides me with a set of interesting phrases in only the following few lines, such as Erode into a macabre laugh line, stand beltless in one’s socks and survival biscuits.

Among these phrases new to me, I’m particularly interested in the expression erode into a macabre laugh line. Why can macabre, which I understand meaning chilling, dreadful, can marry with the word laugh line that does not seem to necessarily fit gruesome connotation of macabre? So, What does erode into a macabre laugh line. mean? Can anybody tell me?

Well before the end, the government’s color-coded alert system was eroding into a macabre laugh line for the modern age of terrorism. Were people standing beltless in their socks actually hearing the airport announcements when the risk estimate mostly shuttled between yellow (Elevated) and orange (High)? The five-color code is going the way of cold war survival biscuits. Homeland Security officials decided that it ultimately lacked credibility and clarity to the point of sapping rather than bolstering public confidence.


Oishi-san, the line is taken from the idea of black comedy, which is

a kind of drama (or, by extension, a non‐dramatic work) in which disturbing or sinister subjects like death, disease, or warfare, are treated with bitter amusement, usually in a manner calculated to offend and shock.

and black humor (same link), which is

grotesque or morbid humor used to express the absurdity, insensitivity, paradox, and cruelty of the modern world.

There you can clearly see the line's relation to the macabre. The whole terrorist threat-alert system was nothing but a grim, black joke.

  • Robusto-san. 'Macabre lough line' is close to 'black humor.' That's easy to understand. ARIGATOU-GOZAIMASU for your offering me helpful input. – Yoichi Oishi Feb 1 '11 at 23:28

The article is basically say that the alert system was so useless at providing any real information regarding a potential threat that people found it to be a source of dark humor rather than a valuable warning. So, watching the threat level indicator change could provide you with a cheap laugh about a very serious, potentially life-threatening situation. It's similar to gallows humor, but in an even more downbeat fashion, if that's possible.

I don't believe that the author necessarily meant to refer to the "laugh lines" that ElendilTheTall defines; I think it's more likely referring to the TV production usage of a "laugh line" or "laugh track" or "canned laughter" to provide a pre-recorded sound of laughter at supposedly hilarious moments in various shows, especially if the live audience wasn't appreciative enough of something. So, related to that sense, the alert system is ultimately doing nothing but providing a constant stream of cheap laughs about how useless and ineffective it is.

"Standing beltless in one's socks" is meant to be taken literally, as the TSA's procedure for passing through airport security checkpoints requires both the removal of all metal objects, including belt buckles, and the removal of shoes. So as you prepare yourself to go through the scanner, you are indeed standing beltless in your socks.

  • I didn't realise that 'laugh line' could refer to 'canned laughter'. Must be a US thing; equally valid and more likely! – user3444 Feb 1 '11 at 22:01
  • To me it appears that 'laugh line' in this contex is better fitted to a gag line such as used by commedians than physical notion of 'wrinkles caused by laughing,' though I'm not so sure. – Yoichi Oishi Feb 1 '11 at 23:51

Laugh Lines

A laugh line is a wrinkle around the eyes, also often called 'crows feet'. When you laugh you squint your eyes and this causes the skin around them to wrinkle. 'Laugh (or laughter) lines' are a polite way of referring to these wrinkles.

'Macabre' means grim or gruesome.

In this case the writer is saying that the colour-coded alert system has become something of a joke because no one really pays attention to it; it is something that has been 'laughed off' so many times that the only reminders of it are the wrinkles left around the collective eyes of the nation. It is 'macabre' because of the potential gravity (seriousness) of a terrorist threat.

EDIT: See Hellion's answer for an alternative (and more likely) theory.

Cold War survival biscuits

Cold War survival biscuits were hard cookies, designed to last a long time in storage, i.e. in a bomb-shelter. Nowadays, few people have such bomb-shelters, let alone stock them with provisions like survival biscuits. In other words, the writer is saying the alert system is as out of date as these biscuits. He is drawing an analogy between the paranoia in the Fifties regarding nuclear war and the modern paranoia regarding terrorism.

Standing beltless in their socks

This refers to the security measures taken at modern airports nowadays: you are asked to remove your shoes and belt in order to pass through the metal detectors. The writer is saying 'did anyone being inconvenienced by modern security measures actually care what the threat-level colour was?'

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