(1980′s | journalese | fanatic, admirer, follower; would-be, aspiring, obsessive)
To the best of my recollection, 1986 was kind of a crummy year. Nonetheless, it is the year “wannabe” stormed into the language. Before that, there were very few references in LexisNexis or Google Books. Merriam Webster Online gives the first citation as 1981, but the first example I found came from New York Magazine (July 26, 1976): A story about fledgling gangsters described one as a “Jimmy Cagney wannabe.” The first occurrence in LexisNexis dates from 1981, an article in Newsweek, which yielded a lovely example from surfer culture. All hell broke loose in 1986, due to Madonna’s teen fans and Spike Lee’s movie School Daze, in which African-American assimilationists (the Wannabees) were pitted against African-American traditionalists (the Jigaboos). After 1986, it caught on quickly and never looked back. In the eighties, the spelling “wannabee” was roughly as common as “wannabe”; by now the simpler spelling has prevailed. It was still possible then to use the word as a slangy verb phrase, and an adjective form was already available (but see below). The verb phrase has disappeared definitively.
There seem to be two subcultures in which this word bubbled up first. One was surfers, the other Native Americans. Both used it scornfully to name people who yearned to be part of the group but were incapable for some reason (it even sounded vaguely like the name of a tribe, so “Wannabe Indians” was a natural). There may be some cross-pollination between those two groups; I don’t know. Maybe neither was the original source, that is, maybe it first arose somewhere else or maybe it’s impossible to establish that it came into regular use first here or there. But what pre-1986 history there was seems to have centered in those two camps. My money is on the surfers.
And along came 1986, the watershed year. Not only did “wannabe” start to pop up everywhere, it acquired another meaning — there was always an instability built into the Madonna/Spike Lee dichotomy. “Madonna wannabe” simply denoted a person who went to a lot of trouble to pretend to be her. Dressing like Madonna, wearing the same makeup and accessories, and massing at her public appearances and screaming (later the term was applied to pop artists who modeled their act or career on Madonna’s, says Wikipedia). There was some question about whether they wanted to be Madonna or merely wanted to be like Madonna, but either way, they wanted to be someone different. Teenage girls screamed over the Beatles, too, but they didn’t want to be Paul or Ringo. They weren’t wannabes — more like worshipers. But in the eighties, worship took on the added dimension of copying — in effect, going out over and over again in the same Hallowe’en costume. The wannabe, like the stalker, expresses an obsession with an unattainable person, and it’s no accident the two concepts burst into the national consciousness within a few years of each other.
In Spike Lee’s terms, the word was about wanting to be someTHING other than you were. Wannabes aspired to be white, to join the ruling race on its own terms and give up at least part of their black identity. You still have to look the part, but it’s not a matter of focusing on a particular person. It’s about gaining acceptance within a group, as in the cases of surfers and Native Americans noted above. In this sense, it reminds me of the older African-American word, “striver,” although that word carried more respect than “wannabe.” This sense persists, used either on its own or appended to a job, status, or some other category of felicitous human existence. Both senses share the implication of falling short, failing to measure up. The word always had a tinge of contempt; a wannabe was in some measure pathetic, unable to do what it takes to become an initiate but unable to give up. No matter how ardent your devotion, you were never going to become Madonna; no matter how hard you ached to ride the waves, you just weren’t going to fit in. Now and then you will see the word used neutrally or even as a compliment, but a contemptuous tone usually is in there somewhere.
Grammar question: is “wannabe” ever really an adjective? It comes just as easily before a noun as after, at least nowadays, but is a wannabe Madonna the same as a Madonna wannabe? Maybe it’s always a noun, but sometimes it comes before the adjective. Maybe the substantive thing in the phrase is always “wannabe” (because the person doing the wanting should properly be regarded as the subject), never Madonna, or whoever (the object). My best guess is it’s a compound noun.
(late 1990′s | journalese | “handcrafted,” “small-scale,” “designer”)
In terms of straight denotation, this word means pretty much what it always has, not that it’s been around very long. The OED dates “artisan” to the sixteenth century, but the first citation of “artisanal” comes from 1939. (The first citation for “artisanal” as we use it today doesn’t appear until 1983.) The main change lies not in the meaning so much as what the term is applied to. The older meaning (again quoting the OED): “Of, relating to, or characteristic of an artisan or skilled craftsperson; involving or utilizing traditional, small-scale, or non-mechanized methods or techniques.” Essentially the adjective form of “artisan.” The key difference now is that it applies mostly to products. Actually, that’s very nineties; now the word may apply to the place where the product is made (artisanal bakery vs. artisanal bread) or even raw material, such as artisanal wheat. By and large, though, we expect to see the word modifying a variety of food or drink that requires some processing and preparation. That was not particularly true in 1980. To illustrate the shift, we turn to the trusty New York Times. An article on handmade chocolates (December 17, 1980) did not refer to “artisanal chocolate” but a “painstaking, artisanal tradition.” By 2000 “artisanal” was commonly applied to chocolate, cheese, bread, and wine. Here’s a partial list of what LexisNexis fished up between December 1, 2013 and February 1, 2014: pizza, toast, jeans, ice cream, jewelry, bacon, popsicles, doughnuts, porridge, pasta chips, cigars. (Artisanal toast comes with “smallbatch” almond butter. How common will that word be in ten years?) The Economist headed an ecstatic article about Etsy “Artisanal capitalism.”
Naturally, now that the word has become risibly common and artisanalism has become “our national consumer religion,” as Details magazine put it in 2010, a backlash has begun. Writers regularly bewail the fact that its meaning has stretched beyond any reasonable bound — citing ad campaigns for Dunkin’ Donuts, Tostitos, or Progresso — or that it is grossly overused. Come to think of it, those two phenomena go together. A word formerly used only by the starry-eyed has become an easier and easier target of scorn. But the carpers are not going to get their way. Like it or not, “artisanal” has carved out its own niche, in the same wall as “organic,” “sustainable,” or “fair-trade.” Its surge of popularity coincides with the mania for the pursuit of exotic, unheralded, or ethically gratifying food sources, partly as a matter of responsibility to one’s fellow human beings and partly as a matter of proving that one is better than everyone else.
“Artisanal” has always promised small-scale production of handmade or partly handmade items, distinctive (even exquisite) and exclusive. It has always the opposite of “industrial” or “mass-produced,” even in a term like “artisanal mining,” which has nothing to do with technique, only with the scale of the operation. As the term has developed since 1980, two things have happened. One is the shift, noted above, toward using “artisanal” to modify comestibles. The association is not exclusive, but it remains strong, even as current trends suggest that the term will glom onto more and more different kinds of nouns as time goes on. The other change has more to do with politics and society: the yoking of artisanal production with various left-wing watchwords born, or promoted, as a reaction to industrial farming and food preparation. The shift has changed the connotation of the word to some extent by mitigating the taint of luxury and elitism. Consuming artisanal products now is no longer decadent but virtuous, a way to help save the planet. (There is a fly built into this ointment: When too many consumers revel in the self-satisfaction wrought by the same artisanal product, it cannot remain artisanal.) As our economy evolved through mercantilism and industrialism, two complementary trends emerged and fed off each other like yin and yang: first you turn luxuries into necessities (sugar, coffee, tobacco, television sets), then once everyone can afford them, you turn them back into luxuries. Artisanal — that is, unique and expensive — goods help keep that cycle going by attracting both wealthy left-wingers, who used to disapprove of luxury, and wealthy right-wingers, happy to have more ways to flaunt their money. (I owe most of the foregoing analysis, as well as the nomination of “artisanal” itself, to lovely Liz from Queens.)
The artisan is a craftsman, of course. Nowadays we think of “art” as creativity and inspiration and craftsmanship as the technical skill to carry it out. “Art” hasn’t always been used that way — anybody take industrial arts in high school? — as its survival in words like “artisan” reminds us.
how I roll
(2000′s | journalese? | “my way or thing,” “what I like,” “how I do things”)
I learned this expression from my girlfriend’s daughter. It had its day in our household last year and has since receded, although it will undoubtedly rear its head again. The kids didn’t invent it, though. The earliest large-scale media event I found that employed the phrase was a Pepsi commercial during the 2005 Super Bowl. I came across some older examples, but it seems safe to say that the expression gained a lot of ground after that. By the end of 2009, a writer on slate.com dismissed the phrase as out of date, but that was probably true only among the avant-garde; most of us were just getting started. The pronoun varies; any combination of persons and numbers is possible, but I, we, and they seem to predominate. Oddly, one finds relatively few examples of the the third-person singular, but the others all make their presences felt. It can also be used in the negative to decry an action that one does not condone.
“How I roll” or “the way I roll” has an invariable meaning. It follows the statement of a habit, preference, or wish that the speaker thinks might raise eyebrows, and pre-empts any doubts or objections. The phrase is not defensive; in fact, it implies pride in the behavior or belief, underlain by a healthy dose of “whether you like it or not.” Raise all the eyebrows you want; I don’t care. It’s supposed to feel insouciant or devil-may-care rather than emphatic or truculent, and as far as I can tell it usually does.
I don’t know which of the many meanings of “roll” deserves to be honored as the true ancestor of this expression. Dice? Dough? Drums? Cigarettes? Eyes? Tape? Bandages? Along? Over? Out? Up? On the river? With the punches? Rock and? Does it go back to driving somehow? I like the idea of a defiant French student defending her pronunciation of the letter r with a swift “That’s how I roll!” Or maybe a mugger explaining his technique for relieving drunken sailors of their money. Some of these possibilities are sillier than others, but none of them seems absurd on its face.
roll with it
(1990′s | athletese? | “take it as it comes,” “go with the flow,” “make the best of it”)
A phrase betokening resignation but not despair, suggesting the will to carry on amid adversity. It indicates relaxation rather than passivity. The origin of the expression is not as clear-cut as I thought. It seems most likely to descend from the old boxing exhortation, “roll with the punches”; another possible parent is martial arts, rather than the sweet science. But it could also come from sailing (as in rolling with the waves, but that’s not as idiomatic), or even something more cosmic (as the earth rolls around the sun, we have no choice but to roll with it). I still think the first is most likely, mostly because the phrase goes invariably with unpleasant or frustrating circumstances. Nobody ever rolls with winning the lottery; it has to be something that makes your life more difficult. And it usually is a change in conditions imposed from the outside, like bad weather, a legal verdict, or other people’s mistakes. The phrase may be used in response to a change in oneself, as in the diagnosis of an incurable disease, but only when the obstacle is presumed to be beyond our control. If you can’t make it better, you roll with it; if you can improve by applying yourself, it is assumed in our self-help culture that you will.
The expression is popular among athletes and has been for a long time, but I found examples from therapy, education, music, and popular culture as far back as 1970. That’s why I’m skeptical of a tidy origin myth for this term. “Roll with it” can be read as a distillation of the first part of the Serenity Prayer, which is closely associated with Alcoholics Anonymous: “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Rolling with it means not getting wrought up about things you can’t do anything about. Just deal with it and keep moving, because resistance makes it worse. We need the stock phrase, because it’s something we have to remind ourselves to do — it feels counterintuitive, like steering into a skid. And yet it’s certainly a handy rule for a species as adaptable as ours.
race to the bottom
(1990′s | activese? bureaucratese? | “beggar thy neighbor,” “downward spiral,” “how low will you go?”)
According to LexisNexis, the expression originated in a very specific context: banking and financial regulation. The idea was that if banks were not regulated properly, they would engage in progressively riskier practices in pursuit of short-term profits, destroy some banks entirely, and weaken the entire system. That was the early eighties. Only a few years later along came the S&L scandals. Such swift and decisive confirmation of such a straightforward principle is unusual and worthy of note. “Race to the bottom” is commonly still used in political and bureaucratic contexts. President Clinton seems to have helped make it prominent, but it is not as closely associated with him as “shovel-ready” is with Obama, who in 2009 gave us “Race to the Top,” a federal education initiative. (You can tell a new expression has arrived is when it becomes fodder for adaptation and parody.) It was not just a phrase Clinton used regularly; it became a rallying cry for opponents of his trade agreements. Activists bewailed the tendency of nations to gut labor and environmental standards in order to attract short-term investment.
There does seem to be some truth to the proposition that we need governments to rein in our worst instincts where profit is concerned. Some bankers seem to revel in their failure to grasp the consequences of reckless speculation, or at least they convince themselves that they won’t suffer. Some other sap will get stuck with the bill (often as not, the sap is us). Even Bernie Madoff got caught eventually, and it would be nice to think that our financiers would have the brains to avoid hazardous gambles and sharp practice, if only in order to protect the gravy train. But there always seem to be a few.
Of course the use of the term spread, and by 2000 it was readily applied to other targets. Displays of sex, violence, and crassness in popular entertainment, especially television, were taken as evidence of a “race to the bottom” of standards of decency. A related target was tabloid-style journalism. And sometimes the phrase was used to talk about price wars and other familiar forms of economic competition. For the phrase always denotes competitive lowering of standards, each party intending to undercut the other(s). (It is generally understood to be deliberate — meaning that the perpetrator should be held responsible — and not merely an inevitable consequence of the widely acknowledged economic principle that greed causes people to do demonstrably stupid things.)
The race to the bottom is kind of like the slippery slope. They’re both foreboding phrases that describe what will happen, not what has already happened. Both bear relation to an older cliché, “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” because they envision a single event leading inevitably to a point of no return, followed swiftly by irrevocable and ruinous loss. Matters don’t always turn out as badly as advertised, of course. Yet over time decline is real, and its criers are bound to be right a goodly percentage of the time.
(2000′s | bureaucratese | “fast-track”)
New administrations bring new vocabulary with them, in the form of catch-phrases and more fundamental concepts. We got many new expressions from Reagan; Clinton had a few, Kennedy, Nixon . . . FDR was probably the champ. One way to judge a president is to measure the volume of enduring vocabulary he leaves behind. Obama gave us “shovel-ready,” which swung into the spotlight right after he took office. It has always been a word beloved of politicians and bureaucrats. The first usage in LexisNexis (1999) came from the fevered brain of a New Jersey state official. Governor Pataki of New York was an early adopter; indeed, the phrase seems to have had a definite Northeast origin. Most of the early uses I found (before 2005) came from New York, New Jersey, or New England. Obama certainly did not invent the term, as one writer speculated. At any rate, we all have to know what it means now, even though most of don’t use it much in everyday conversation. (Say, is that plot of land where the new bank’s gonna go shovel-ready yet?)
What it means: free of obstacles to construction or repair. The only thing left to do is start building that bank, a road, a senior center, a power plant. All regulations — zoning, environmental, etc. — have been satisfied, reports issued, utilities hooked up; all we need is some money and off we go. As Obama and many others have pointed out, it’s rarely that simple, and the scenario of money today, digging tomorrow doesn’t happen very often in real life. But it’s also true that some things are more nearly shovel-ready than others, and being able to tell them apart is very helpful when you want to put people to work in a hurry.
The word has not changed meaning in its short life, but it has seen a shift in emphasis. In the beginning, “shovel-ready” almost always referred to land. One pictured a piece of property just waiting for the right builder to come along. That’s still common, but now you’re more likely to hear about a “shovel-ready project,” and the first word that pops into your head is “infrastructure.” (It’s almost Pavlovian.) I think this shift is due to Obama, even if he didn’t create it personally. Roads, bridges, sewers, rail lines, etc. don’t go with specific parcels of land, and Obama tried to focus on them as a target of economic stimulus, not an illogical plan given the state of U.S. infrastructure and the number of people looking for jobs early in 2009. More recently, Republicans have seized on the term to champion the Keystone pipeline.
It is pointed out ad nauseam in the press that businesses looking to invest want to have everything laid out for them. Our governments’ preference for catering to commercial interests has not wavered over the centuries, and “shovel-ready” is but its latest manifestation. Let’s make it as easy as possible for companies who want to open up a plant or store here. Why all the solicitude? Why, businesses create jobs, of course! They do, but often not as many as trumpeted, and the jobs may or may not hang around. They are only part of the story, of course. Tax breaks come into being ex nihilo whenever a large company drops coquettish hints about moving to the area, and all kinds of other rules get bent as well. As a result, the company never has a stake in the community. Its only responsibility is accumulating as much profit as possible without any obligation to the locals beyond employing some of them, and even that part won’t get checked too closely. No respect for local rules or customs required, or even expected. You’d think the role of supplicant would be distasteful to our towns and counties, but hardly anyone seems to mind. It’s one more version of the race to the bottom. The local government that imposes the fewest conditions and shows the least regard for the public good wins.
(1990′s | corporatese)
A pure corporate invention. “Jumbotron” was trademarked in the U.S. by Sony in 1989. The first Jumbotron, measuring a cool 80 x 130 ft., appeared at Expo ’85 in Tsukuba, Japan. Much smaller, but still impressive, screens soon showed up at finer stadiums and arenas everywhere. A Jumbotron (42 x 23 ft.) was erected in Times Square in 1990, taken down in 1996. The original giant television screen was actually an array of hundreds of smaller screens, and the technology was quickly superseded. The word itself has passed into the popular lexicon to denote any large video display or scoreboard, closely associated to this day with sporting events. MetLife Stadium, home of this year’s Super Bowl, boasts “four 18’ x 130’ high-definition LED video boards,” which I suppose would be the contemporary term for gigantic video display. Easy to see why most of us say “Jumbotron.”
The name “Jumbotron” is not intuitive. “-tron” goes back to ancient Greek, where it meant “instrument.” I suppose you could say that “Jumbotron” means “instrument of enlarging,” which is what the giant television screens effectively are, but the formation lacks elegance and precision. Even in ancient Greek, “-tron” was added to verbs to create nouns associated with the root verb. (Thus, Woody Allen’s “orgasmatron” from Sleeper, meaning something like “instrument of orgasm,” passed etymological muster, and he gets extra points for avoiding mixing Latin and Greek roots, a common pitfall.) The ready use of the suffix in science fiction may have been influenced by “neutron” and “electron” (cf. “holic“), although “tron” here is not a suffix since in both cases, the “tr” is part of the root (it’s “proton,” not “protron”). But words like “cyclotron” and “magnetron” demonstrate that the old Greek form was alive and well in its original sense in the twentieth century. In the popular culture division, Roxy Music’s song “Ladytron” (1972) preceded Allen’s coinage by one year, and “Tron” came gloriously into its own as the title of a 1982 hacker-fantasy film. Nowadays critics of science fiction may regard the suffix as overused.
The computer age has not put paid to the conversion of brand names to common nouns. (I believe that this practice goes back to the nineteenth century, with “antimacassar” being my candidate for the first instance of a trade name incorporated into a noun.) We all know the list: Hoover, Q-tip, Kleenex, Formica, Velcro, Post-It, etc. “Jumbotron” has become one of the most recent entries. There may not be any actual Jumbotrons any more, now that Sony has stopped making them. But the word has won what looks like a permanent place in the language.
Speaking of appropriation of brand names into everyday language, you don’t hear as much about trade names that turn into verbs. “Hoover” was once used as a verb, but two recent, strictly computer-age, examples have vaulted into constant use: “Photoshop” — which has pretty much replaced “airbrush” and “retouch” — and “Google,” which has replaced “go to the library.”
A few years ago, I took my nephews to a Mets’ game at CitiField. We had ridiculously good seats, right in front of the press box — just got lucky on StubHub (it helped that the Mets were having a lousy year). And what do you know? In the eighth inning a cameraman came to our section, and next thing you know, there we were up on the center field scoreboard. High fives all around!
(1980′s | journalese? advertese? | “manufactured excitement,” “hyperbole,” “puffery”; “tout,” “boost,” “oversell”)
Not eligible for the blog, strictly speaking, this word was pretty well established before 1980, but my girlfriend suggested it and being a sensible feller, I tend to do what she tells me. (It’s not the first time I’ve bent the rules; “community service” and “unintended consequences” are both terms I’ve covered even though they came along before 1980.) “Hype” was used without gloss several times even before 1960 in Billboard magazine: “What constitutes a hype? It is the launching of tunes and records with great fanfare and thousands of free promotional records to disk jockeys and juke box operators . . .” (October 29, 1955). Note that “hype” could take an indefinite article then, which is no longer possible; our ancestors used hype to mean act or instance of promoting, rather than to refer to aggregated examples of any old promotional efforts as we do today. Grammatical distinctions aside, hype involves ginning up interest by means of exaggeration; it doesn’t have to rise to the level of conscious dishonesty, but that implication is there the majority of the time (see below). The ubiquity of the catchphrase “Don’t believe the hype,” which owes its cachet to Public Enemy, indicates as much. Here are a couple of examples from the early days:
“You can’t hype kids into buying things” (attributed to John Roberts, an organizer of Woodstock, 1969)
“He was also known to be a hype artist by nature. He never just liked something. He loved it. And when he loved, everybody knew it.” (Arnold Shaw, 1974).
The proportions vary, but in both quotations the combination of creating a false impression and overstating the worth of a product or an idea is present.
“Hype” actually became less disreputable with this new meaning. Before 1970, it generally meant “junkie” or “needle” (as in “hypodermic”), or denoted a certain trick for swindling checkout clerks in underworld slang. Both of these meanings go back to the 1920′s, according to Lighter’s slang dictionary, so the word has had a distinct air of dishonesty, not to say sleaze, for a long time now. Both senses were pretty well gone by my boyhood and by now have been terminally supplanted. It seems unlikely that they are direct ancestors, anyway; “hype” presumably is short for “hyperbole,” unless someone has a better explanation.
I noted above that “hype” generally involves lightweight deception, or at least a tinge of dishonesty. To my ear, this seems especially true when it is used as a noun. Used as a verb, “hype” refers as readily to the efforts of professional ad men and flacks, kept more or less within ethical bounds, as to those of hucksters and mountebanks. Not that the verb never suggests lying, but it’s less inevitable. The past participle may also mean “excited and alert” (as in “psyched” or “pumped”): picture an athlete exclaiming, “We were hyped up!” after a close game. In that sense it may simply be short for “hyper,” although it means something a little different. (Mercifully, “hyper” has avoided the sense of “one who hypes.”)
What is the relation between “hype” and “buzz”? Sometimes they are treated as synonyms, but they aren’t. Hype, executed properly, creates buzz. Hyping isn’t merely exaggerating, innocently or otherwise; it’s about generating publicity. Get the town, or the blogosphere, buzzing about your product. If your hype doesn’t create buzz, you’re pretty hypeless.