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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 35 years

Usually in this space I explore an expression that has come into being or undergone a significant change in the last forty years or so. This week I’d like to do something similar, but with malice aforethought. I have strong feelings about four fine old idioms that have been hijacked in recent decades, from a minor alteration that happens to get on my nerves to a significant and entirely unnecessary change in definition wrought by rank illiteracy. (All you antiquarians out there, what is “wrought” the past tense of? Hint: It’s not “wright.”) Of all my numerous pet peeves, these are some of the pettiest, although one phrase (the last) constitutes a real loss.

hark back

More and more I see this rendered as “harken back” or even “hearken back.” I don’t quibble with the spelling, but the superfluous syllable. It’s a natural confusion; “hark” and “harken” mean the same thing (“listen up”), even if we use them a little differently. “Hark back to” doesn’t pertain directly to listening, though — more like “bring to mind something that happened in the past.” So if the alteration is insignificant and inevitable, why does it stick in my craw? Because it’s a small but telling symptom of cultural decline. Why do I know, with obnoxious certainty, that there is a correct form of the phrase? Because I’ve read a lot, and therefore both my eye and ear told me right away the first time I saw the phrase misrendered, and they continue to curl my lip at each recurrence.

out of kilter

Which has mutated into “off-kilter,” probably influenced by “off-center” and possibly “off-color.” I’m not sure if this is a failure of literacy or not. It certainly looks like it, but the fact is, “out of kilter” had pretty well disappeared before “off-kilter” started getting tossed around. “Out of kilter” is old, and at bottom it meant something like “not working right,” comparable to the later “out of whack.” Used of tools or engines, not people. “Off-kilter” is similar but distinct; it implies something out of alignment, eccentric, or perhaps just unexpected. A rock band’s characteristic sound might be described as off-kilter, or a fictional world, but a person might be, too. Brits and Americans alike use it. There must be other examples of dead phrases returning in new guises. “Ramp up” comes to mind.

under duress

As this expression has become more common its meaning has begun to shift. What did “under duress” always and everywhere mean? Under compulsion or threat of force. You were acting under duress if you were forced to do something against your will; grievous harm would follow if you didn’t obey. It was primarily a legal term and is still used the same way in the law. Now there is a growing tendency to confuse “duress” with “stress” or “pressure” (but think hard day at the office, not Guantanamo). Here’s a recent example: “In addition, distributed critical infrastructure is often located in places that are physically inaccessible, lack connectivity, subject to intemperate climate or otherwise constrained by limited space. As a result, traditional security solutions intended for indoor environments are often ill-equipped to operate under duress or in harsh conditions.” In the old days, there was no such thing as an inanimate object under duress. If we could get computers to behave by threatening them with violence, I would have the best-behaved computer in the world. Here’s another: “[The coaches] don’t trust [Jets’ quarterback Geno Smith] to make the right decisions under duress.” Now this sounds like it means simply “under stress,” but quarterbacks do have to act under immediate physical menace, so it could also partake of the old definition. It’s a transitional form, but it shows a definite trend toward equating “duress” with “stress,” an unnecessary simplification. The old meaning is still predominant. In twenty or thirty years? I’ll bet it will have largely disappeared from general use.

beg the question

“Beg the question” does not does not DOES NOT mean “raise the question.” O.k., I’m done hyperventilating now; here’s a more measured view. It is a time-honored logical term that means “make a circular argument,” which in turn means one of your premises is the same as your conclusion (it’s customary to disguise that fact). So you’re not proving anything, merely restating a position you assumed without any proof. It is a common informal logical fallacy, with a nice Latin name, “petitio principii.”

You will smile indulgently at my outrage and remind me that it’s no use railing against linguistic change. But why this venerable and useful expression? It had a very specific meaning that cannot be stated so elegantly otherwise, and while perhaps not often needed, it’s most definitely useful. What we didn’t need was another way to say “raise the question.” Yet another distressing example of our fellow citizens misusing expressions they don’t understand, or half-understand, wiping away specific, well-defined meanings or shades of meaning like a Muslim fanatic destroying a centuries-old sculpture, but without the passion or even any particular awareness of the destruction. “Duress” reminds people of “stress,” or “beg the question” kinda sounds like a fancy way to say “raise the question,” so that’s good enough, right? When one word reminds you of another, they ought to mean the same thing, and what do complexity and precision matter, anyway?

These crippled expressions all result from a certain kind of illiteracy. The decline in our ear for language isn’t caused by a flat-out inability to read, but by insufficient reading. The more you read, the firmer a grasp you develop of how others use the language, and used to use it. If you don’t have that accumulation of absorbed text, well, a little learning is a dangerous thing, said Pope, and these expressions illustrate part of the reason why. You get overconfident. You develop too much faith in your intuition, your vocabulary, and your ability to deduce meaning from context, and when enough people do that, the language suffers, and our communication suffers with it. I don’t want to sound like a mandarin, but when it comes to language, I have strong tendencies that way. Sure, I’m abnormally sensitive because I’ve spent my life reading and burrowing into dictionaries. I can’t really make the case that we’re going to hell in a handbasket because everyone started misusing “beg the question.” But we do seem to have a harder time talking to each other as we huddle in our like-minded enclaves and wall ourselves off from those who disagree with us, and everyday language does seem to get more meager, constrained, and sloppy every decade. Maybe there’s a connection.

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in the loop, out of the loop

in the loop (1980’s | journalese (politics) | “part of the inner circle,” “in the know,” “on the inside”)

out of the loop (1980’s | journalese (politics) | “unaware,” “(kept) in the dark,” “out of the picture”)

Either way, it’s a political expression. When you try to think of pre-1975 equivalents for “in the loop” and “out of the loop” (listed above) you see that the concept was not so neatly binary back then. It is, I concede, handy to have complementary expressions to talk about one of the most important distinctions in politics: that between who’s in and who’s out, who has clout and who doesn’t, who understands what’s happening and who doesn’t. The “of” imposed by standard English does spoil the symmetry somewhat, but not enough to matter. This pair of expressions thrives in politics because they are both used to talk about deliberate human decisions that try to pass themselves off as acts of God. One does not retire voluntarily from the loop, or rather when one does, we use different words. One may be left, or cut, out of the loop against one’s will, but someone somewhere is exercising conscious intent in so doing. As I’ve noted before, politicians gravitate toward phrases that help them disguise their intentions.

The Carter administration favored “in the loop,” and the Reagan administration preferred “out of the loop,” which suggests that Republicans are more concerned with putting people in their place than Democrats are. The locus classicus of the political use of this phrase remains George H.W. Bush’s defense during his presidential campaign in 1988: that he was “out of the loop” on the Iran-Contra scandal that dogged the last years of Reagan’s presidency. He meant that he was ignorant: no one had ever mentioned in his presence the illegal funneling of ill-gotten money to the Contras, which explicitly violated the law and, worse, gave us Oliver North. He was somewhere else when it all happened. Bush had a history with this expression; in the early eighties it had been used to suggest he was disengaged and ineffectual. During the campaign, he succeeded in bending the term into a badge of innocence, and the strategy worked. Bush won the election partly by wearing the now time-honored mantle of the popular but clueless executive.

Someone out there must have a good explanation of the origin of these expressions, but I don’t. “In the loop” was first associated with Walter Mondale and other members of the Carter administration, or at least that was where I found the first instances in LexisNexis or Google Books. Before that, the main place these paired expressions turned up was in electronics or computers. In programming, a “loop” was defined as “any part of a program, long or short, that is repeated over out and over again” (Murphy, Basics of Digital Programming, 1972). Instead of a linear sequence, we envision a circle, where it is only one step from the last link in a chain back to the first. So you would see references to “getting out of the loop,” which meant telling the processor to stop and go onto the next step or sequence. It was pragmatic and literal, a term born of the empiric. Most uses of “in the loop” or “out of the loop” were likewise technical, found in biology textbooks or engineering reports, even aviation. But getting out of the loop in computerese means avoiding getting stuck in a backwater somewhere; in other words, it’s closer to how we use “in the loop.” Even allowing for the way phrases mutate when they move into new spheres, I don’t see any particular connection. So how, or where, did Mondale come up with “in the loop”? Engineers consort with military men, from whom politicians love to steal vocabulary, because whatever the colonels are saying must be strong and manly, right? It’s the best explanation I can think of, and it’s not very convincing.

In the eighties and before, “out of the loop” might have a technocratic shading, as in this example from Infoworld (1986): “first, is it possible for someone to gain unauthorized access to the worldwide network of computers and sensors that make up the military’s early warning systems, which is designed to protect the U.S. from nuclear attack; and second, will the Pentagon take the “man out of the loop”?’” In other words: Will the process be entirely automated, with no human intervention at any point? This is slightly different from the idea of being deliberately excluded from sharing information, but only slightly; the technocratic usage is a bit less personal, but it denotes the same operation. “Out of the loop” nowadays sometimes come close to “shunned”: it’s malicious and requires a conspiracy of some kind. Keeping someone out of the loop might be a beneficent gesture in politics, allowing a politician to skate free because he just didn’t understand what was going on. But in social situations it can be as harsh as being cut dead was in olden days. More than “in the loop,” it has gone beyond its political origins to cast a much wider social net.

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same old same old

(1980’s | “business as usual,” “more of the same,” “same old stuff, etc.”)

Is this expression so uninteresting that there’s really nothing to say about it? Didn’t Safire already say it, anyway? Is this expression as dreary as it appears? As tawdrily chic as “back atcha” or as tiresomely hip as “don’t go there“? Is it extracted from the “same mold same mold”? It certainly doesn’t express anything new, and, given its definition, it would be jarring if it did. New expressions normally show at least a hint of novelty or cleverness, but this one survives on brute repetition. Its sheer stultifaction dramatizes its denotation perfectly. Repetitive? Check. Tedious? Ditto. It is what it has to say for itself.

This phrase often modifies a noun (e.g., people, attitudes), in which case it serves as an intensified version of “same old,” that is, an ordinary, if rather cluttered, attributive adjective. I think it’s more effective when used on its own, usually as a reply to “What’s up?” or as a description of the rut one is stuck in. It carries a whiff of grammatical mystery, partly generated by punctuation, which is surprisingly variable. You see anywhere from zero to three hyphens when this expression appears and sometimes quotation marks sneak in, but you really have to keep your eye on the commas. If there’s no comma, it’s noun-adjective. Is it the new “same old”? No, it’s the same old . . . But if there is a comma, then you have a compound noun that sets new standards for redundancy. Not just the same thing again but the same thing that means “the same thing” and even has the word “same” in it. It’s too tiring to explain . . . (Here the blogger waves a limp hand from a recumbent position on the sofa.)

The first instance I uncovered was a song title for Montego Joe, a cut on a 1965 album called “Warm and Wild.” For the next ten years, Google Books found scattered references, mostly in sources by or about African-Americans. It first turned up in LexisNexis in 1979, in a political context. Ten years later it was clearly out there, if not entirely ordinary, but by the mid-nineties, it was fully established. “Same old same old” never connotes anything nice or pleasant. It never means “comfortingly familiar” or “old reliable.” The phrase generally carries more than a hint of resignation; indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone using it militantly.

And let me count the ways we already had to get the point across. “The usual.” “Just like always.” “Just what you’d expect.” “Old familiar places.” When a voter uses it about a politician, it means “Promises, promises.” My all-time favorite is “same shit, different day,” but that may be newer. These expressions are not always perfectly interchangeable, but they are all pretty close together on the ol’ cladogram. By now “same old same old” has doubtless lost its aura of hipness, but it maintains a healthy presence in everyday language.

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not in a good way

(1990’s | “sounds good, but isn’t,” “it doesn’t work,” “not what you might expect,” “ineffectively”)

The interesting thing about this expression is what it doesn’t mean. “Way” is a very common word in English, one we use in all sorts of ways (there I go again). So let’s pause over a few. “In the worst way.” On the surface, it sounds like they ought to be directly related, but they are not. “In the worst way” means, or meant, “acutely” or “intensely.” “He wants to go to Paris in the worst way” is to say he wants to go very, very badly. But “He wants to go to Paris, but not in a good way” would mean something else — his motives or interests are disagreeable somehow and better not dwelt on. It might be mistaken for the older “in a bad way,” which refers specifically to one’s health or condition. It is used in that way now and then, particularly in British English (the emphasis falls on “not” rather than “good way”), but in American it follows a description of some kind and alerts the listener that something is amiss. It might even sound to the unwary like “badly” or “poorly,” taking “in a . . . way” as an adverb equivalent: “not in a good way” = “not well” = “badly.” The reason it doesn’t mean that is that we don’t process “well” as we would an “-ly” adverb like “glibly” = “in a glib way.” Not that all “-ly” adverbs work the same way by any means. It is not unusual for the phrase to follow a conjunction: “and,” but,” or “though.”

It is generally used with at least a faintly ironic or mocking tone, but it doesn’t have to be. Occasionally “not in a good way” intensifies a clearly negative trait, as in this example from Ron Rosenbaum of the New York Observer (1999): “‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is an incoherent work of art. And not in a good way.” Most of the time, though, the phrase imparts a deliberate twist. The writer edges up to the punch line by preparing the reader for a compliment or favorable result, then yanks it away. Here are two examples from the early 1990’s:

“The earnings gap between men and women did narrow a bit between 1989 and 1990 — but not in a good way” (American Demographics, December 1991). Not that women earned more; men earned less.

“‘That was breathtaking, and not in a good way,’ said Jim Mizell, a former assistant launch director for NASA” (on an aborted launch of the space shuttle Endeavour in 1994). A terrifyingly close call.

Classic instances. It is vaguely analogous to the more abrupt “Not!” made famous by “Wayne’s World,” but it isn’t used the same way — it’s at least as much elaboration as retraction. “Not!” is invariably snide or mean; “not in a good way” need not be. But it generally pulls the rug out from under something that pretends to be sitting pretty. A few adjectives culled from the press that fit the expression well: famous, eccentric, tiring, fearless, speechless. Note that each of these, when followed by “not in a good way,” has a much pithier equivalent: notorious (or infamous), crazy (or willful), tedious (or draining), reckless (or foolhardy), aghast (or mortified). More than one, in fact. I suspect this small sample points up a larger truth, namely that “not in a good way,” while it might draw a quick laugh, makes our language flabbier and weaker over the long haul.

This phrase is a displaced echo of one current in my youth that may or may not still be part of the vocabulary, “funny ha-ha or funny strange?” The question acknowledges the two-edged nature of calling something “funny” and demands a resolution. Does he make you laugh, or cross the street? “Not in a good way” obviates the question. Let the auditor, or reader, beware.

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back atcha

(1990’s | “the same to you,” “likewise, I’m sure,” “it’s mutual”)

As I look into the origins of this phrase, I keep having the feeling that I’m missing something. It doesn’t show up in LexisNexis until the early 1990’s, and then it had more to do with getting back at someone — vengeance or returning fire — than with returning a compliment, which is how we’re more likely to use it today. Perhaps LexisNexis does not have the best data to mine for this rather slangy expression, which has not shed its hipness entirely as it has spread. I had an insurmountable feeling that I had seen it in Doonesbury during my childhood but despaired of digging through my old books to try to find it. Then Google worked one of its little miracles (miroogles?), and within five minutes, I was looking at a comics page from December 4, 1974. Joanie Caucus is greeted by her roommate’s boyfriend, and she replies, “Mornin’ back atcha, Clyde!” I would have guessed Zonker or Mark would have been the one to use it. Nearly forty years later, Garfield supplies an example of how we do it today.

Joanie’s utterance exemplifies syntax that is still pretty common: “back atcha” preceded by a greeting or certain nouns (e.g., love, hugs). “Right back atcha” is a common variant. But “back atcha” can stand on its own, as a friendly reply, or still occasionally hostile, even today. That shading didn’t start to fade until after 2000, and you still hear it sometimes.

Widely scattered sightings in Google Books go back to the 1970’s. I didn’t pick up a clear trail to an origin. African-Americans? Teenagers? Hippies? but there seems to have been some pop music push down through the years. A disco duo called Two Tons o’ Fun (later known as the Weather Girls) released an album entitled “Back Atcha” in 1980. (I didn’t remember the album, but I did remember “I’m So Excited,” one of their hits.) In the 1990’s, hip-hop artist Freq Nasty released “Booming Back Atcha” (1997), and probably more decisively for its general spread, the Spice Girls had a song called “Right Back Atcha” in 2000. It wasn’t a big hit, though, and it didn’t provoke a stunning spike in the use of the phrase.

As I noted recently, some new expressions really just don’t seem necessary, inasmuch as we had so many ways to say the same thing before. “Back atcha” falls into that category. (Since I quoted some comic strips already, I’ll throw in my favorite mid-century pre-back-atcha objurgation, from Pogo: “The same to you with sour apples on it!”) Aside from the examples above, you could return the favor, or concur, or append “yourself” to a recently expressed greeting (that one could also be pleasant or menacing), or in those fraught childhood moments, “I’m rubber and you’re glue!” “Back atcha” has an undeniable appeal. Quick and sassy, cheerful and brisk, lean and menacing, it can be cutting or welcoming. It’s the kind of phrase that could get annoying if you heard it all the time, but it hasn’t taken over yet — because there are so many other ways to say it. It hasn’t filled a void so much as jumped into a crowded pool.

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(2000’s | bureaucratese | “native land,” “fatherland,” “realm”)

Thanks to my old buddy Charles for proposing this week’s expression. A winner, as always.

Your homeland is where you’re from. It isn’t so much the meaning that has changed over time as the way we use the term. Probably the most decisive impact of 9/11 (see also “wake-up call”) on the language has been the ascent of this word concurrent with striking changes in how it is used. Safire gave a good account of its pre-1980 history, explicating the word’s disparate roots in Zionist aspiration and Nazi barbarism.

When I was young, your homeland was where you were from, but usually with a twist: you didn’t actually live there. It wasn’t your homeland until you left it, generally against your will. This connotation was not invariable; occasionally one’s homeland coincided with one’s residence. But far more often, the word evoked exile. Maybe you wanted to go back; maybe you didn’t — but the quickest way to acquire a homeland was to leave it. The term was used on a large scale, as in the case of Palestinians dispossessed in 1948, or just as readily to talk about a single person. One variant use came from South Africa, where “homeland” meant a place white people created to send black people, roughly analogous to an Indian reservation in the U.S. Not a place you are forced out of but a place you are forced into. Here the choice of words seems to have been straightforwardly Orwellian, describing a remote, alien place as “home,” and hoping no one would notice. Homelands double-plus good!

After 9/11, “homeland” stopped denoting the place we wanted to send immigrants back to and started being the place we wanted to keep them out of. At least in official circles, it swiftly became customary to use the word to refer to the U.S.A., specifically as a place to fortify and defend. A couple other significant linguistic changes went along with that. One was the change from possessive pronoun to definite article; now you hear “the homeland” a lot, whereas the exile was much more likely to talk about “my” or “our” homeland. Wikipedia, of all places, alerts us to the sinister implications of this change. Another, even more decisive aftereffect of the terrorist attacks was the apparently permanent yoking of “security” and “homeland,” whether combined simply into a common compound noun or more pervasively as the name of a very large federal agency, which may in time replace the Defense Department as the largest federal program designed to create more danger and risk all over the world, including right here on our shores, in order to make sure we continue to need very large federal agencies to protect us against danger and risk. I don’t mean to single out DOD; many federal agencies share this responsibility, some of which, like the CIA, have awe-inspiring records of failure.

“Homeland” has become more common mostly due to the aforementioned federal agency, though it wasn’t rare before. Now it’s the title of a popular television series, so it has reached a lofty plateau for a new entrant in our language. “Homeland security” draws heavily on the success of the phrase “national security,” which became ubiquitous before I was born. The two phrases should mean something different, after all. “Homeland security” ought to be more tightly focused on preventing invasion or hostile action on U.S. soil, whereas “national security” casts a wider net; incidents all over the world are easily understood to affect national security, which is affected not just by military maneuvers but by the economy, contagious disease, etc., etc. But I can’t see much difference in practice. The security-mongers forever remind us that Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq and Syria are at least a potential threat to American cities, and that stopping them over here is a matter of stopping them over there. In the case of Ebola, to take a recent non-combat example, commentators show no reticence discussing it in terms of “national security” or “homeland security.” It’s all the same conspiracy.

“Homeland” has filled a niche of sorts, because “fatherland” is too German, “motherland” too Russian, and “native land” too archaic. (Why is it you can say “mother country” but not “father country”?) I can’t imagine its rise has made anyone feel more secure.

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don’t go there

(2000’s | “don’t you dare,” “don’t start (that again),” “don’t bring that up,” “don’t open that can of worms,” “let’s not talk about that”)

It’s emphatic. Throw in an “even” and it’s even more emphatic. Always pre-emptive, like “don’t even think about it,” but less literal. “Don’t go there” once would invariably have conjured a physical place, but now it forestalls a particular subject, or means to an end, that the speaker considers a sore spot. It’s a way of putting the other person on notice: Just stop now, before we both regret it. Maybe because you feel strongly about it; maybe because you’re tired of hearing about it. Sometimes it’s playful, but that’s not its ground state. It means “don’t say it” more often than “don’t do it,” but both are common.

The expression seems to have come along in the mid-nineties, and its origins are murky, at least to me. I found early examples recorded by a television reviewer, an athlete, a teenager, and “Dating for Dummies” (published in 1997). All hip sources often in the vanguard of linguistic innovation. In 1999, Mike Myers used it in “Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me,” and that seems to have made the phrase more popular. He counted as hip, too, I guess, although it makes me shudder. (I never understood why the Austin Powers movies were so popular, I must admit. Or Wayne’s World, for that matter. But then, I don’t care about espionage movies very much, and I have my own preferred forms of sophomoric humor.) My memories are vague but lean toward the conclusion that this phrase did not engulf the culture until after 2000. It has become less hip over time, but not as quickly as some other expressions I could name. Now that advice columnists have gotten hold of it, its day is done. Everybody’s going there.

I haven’t exerted much taxonomic effort in this blog, but I’m prepared to state that “don’t go there” fits readily into not one, but two different categories. One you might call the “didn’t we have already have enough ways to say that” category. (Examples: “unpack,” “prior,” “phone it in,” “wiggle room.”) The other category is harder to define, but it contains the notion of hipness that I appealed to rather carelessly above. Expressions that originate in a distinct subgroup of the population (kids, African-Americans, sports stars, Hollywood) that we pay attention to because they are rich, dangerous, exciting, or all three — and enter the language with some zing. Such expressions come with a touch of the transgressive at first, before they settle in. “Don’t go there” had that exotic cast when it started to show up, even if it’s not quite as archetypal an example as “shoutout” or “twerk” in recent years, or “get a life” and “take a chill pill” in an earlier generation. In the U.S., a disproportionate number of new expressions seem to come from money — business and banking, or their eternal allies, the government and the military — or this or that trendy underclass. Hipness is one of the ways wealth hedges its bets.

Last week I discoursed on the strengths and weaknesses of LexisNexis, but there’s one point I left out. It doesn’t bear on accuracy, but on the limitations of its search capabilities. For some reason, LexisNexis ignores “there” when part of a search term. That left me with a forbidding mass of false positive results from this week’s expression — which I had to amend to “don’t even go there” to produce manageable search results to begin with. Any phrase containing “don’t even go” was swept up in the search, and that calls into question the reliability of my chronological conclusions, although Google Books also indicates that “don’t go there” in the figurative way we use it today didn’t exist before 1995. I’ll put my money on the nineties, anyway.

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