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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 35 years

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 got 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’ 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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don’t even think about it

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “let’s nip this in the bud,” “don’t be a fool,” “forget it,” “watch it!”)

I’m often left wondering how reliable LexisNexis really is, and the question is particularly pertinent to this week’s inquiry. It appears to be remarkably reliable about transcribing text. Now and then you run across an OCR error, but they are pretty minor and pretty infrequent. The dating is also reliable (unlike, say, Google Books, my other on-line primary source). The chief limitation probably arises from the selection — the publications indexed and how representative they prove to be. Most major newspapers and a sprinkling of minor ones, a bias toward print and the establishment business press despite a pretty fair number of blogs and other odds and ends. On the other hand, that sort of publication still has the most reach and influence, so the bias toward wealth and power may be just what is needed to understand the diffusion, or transformation, of English expressions.

Take the exact phrase “don’t even think about it.” It comes in two moods, the indicative and the imperative. In 1980, and even 1990, the indicative was much more common, saith LexisNexis. Most frequently spotted in athletese, generally preceded by “I.” It doesn’t matter to me, because . . . it’s no big deal, or it’s ancient history, or I’ve gotten used to it, or I have more important things to worry about; the phrase conveys resilience or bravado, perhaps defiance. Athletes and others still use the phrase this way, but — again, according to LexisNexis — it has fallen in comparison to the imperative use, which has increased dramatically since 1980, so that now it occurs much more often than the indicative. In the process, it has become a fixed phrase and probably achieved concurrently the coveted status of cliché.

So how reliable is LexisNexis? How far can we trust them to deliver a fair snapshot of usage patterns over the entire population? I do sense that the imperative is used much more often than it was, which doesn’t mean that the indicative is used less — it’s not a zero-sum game. It may be a rising line crossing a steady one, but there’s no doubt the imperative is getting more imperative. The first hit in LexisNexis dates from 1980; almost always in political contexts for the first few years. The New York Times noted in 1987 that “Don’t even think about it” was popular on signs drivers put in their cars to deter thieves, an elaboration on “no radio.” It sounds like an urban legend, but I pass it along anyway.

“Don’t even think about it”: Anything from finger-wagging to a blunt threat, in the imperative it’s always a warning, a reminder that what you are about to do is a mistake. There are plenty of possible reasons, just like there are plenty of reasons you might have dismissed something from your mind. Because . . . it’s illegal, it won’t give you what you want, it will lead you into temptation, it ain’t happening . . . whatever. In this sense, it’s pretty close to another newish expression, “don’t go there.” (I’m surprised I haven’t done this one yet. Oops, now I have).

When I was a kid we said, “Don’t EVEN . . .” Here’s an example: At a baseball game, a fan yells to the batter, “Don’t EVEN strike out, Bob!” It meant “you of all people must not screw this up,” or, more simply, “This would be a particularly bad time to screw up.” “Don’t even think about it” doesn’t have the same scansion, of course, and there’s probably no connection. But I’d like to think my generation influenced the language even in our collective childhood. Children of the seventies rule!

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brick and mortar

(2000’s | businese? computerese? | “with a fixed address”)

I was surprised to learn that “bricks and mortar” is, or at least was, heard as often as “brick and mortar.” The former may come from England, and my ear tells me loud and clear that “brick and mortar” is much more common. But both forms come up often enough to be taken seriously. American Heritage rules it a hyphenated adjective, but it doesn’t seem to be hyphenated very often in the corpora, and it can also be used as a noun. There’s no doubt it is predominantly an attributive adjective. I can imagine someone using it as the complement of a copula (“The store is brick and mortar”), but I’d notice if I actually heard it. A related expression, which I never encountered until I got to wondering about “brick and mortar,” is “click(s) and mortar.” That describes a business that operates both on-line and in physical locations (“bricks and clicks” is another variation). Anyway, the opposite of “brick and mortar” doesn’t have to be “on-line,” however likely most of us are to think of that first. It could be through a mail-order catalogue or even the old stand-by, door-to-door sales, which were antiquated by my childhood and which require a building somewhere, anyway, even if it’s not used for direct customer service. But so do on-line businesses. You can’t leave all those high-powered servers out in the rain.

Indulge me as I drag in one other related term, “showrooming,” which they say is mushrooming. (But one writer says “reverse showrooming” is more common.) It denotes the practice of examining a product in a store, then buying it on-line. I encountered this word only a few years ago, but it has surely leaped the gap between specialized vocabulary and everyday language. It’s almost always used as a gerund. Showrooming a form of freeloading — you’re using the retailer’s facilities without paying for them. And if all there is to shopping is convenience and saving money, most of the time you can do better on-line, although the Internet ain’t perfect, either.

“Brick and mortar” is older than I thought, and I was probably wrong about its lineage, too. I had assumed it came out of computerese, but it turns up earlier in marketing lingo and earlier still in that surprisingly fecund source of new expressions, American Banker (cf. “firewall,” “takeaway,” “best practices“). The first examples in LexisNexis date from the early eighties, and they’re in articles about changes in banking that make ATM’s and telephone banking more profitable than maintaining branches with parking lots and bullet-proof glass. I can’t rule out the possibility that the bankers got the term from primal computer geeks, but I don’t want to give the geeks too much credit. The New York Times soon provided a sterling example from the wide world of shopping (or “teleshopping” — there’s a neologism that didn’t catch on) in April 1984, and the expression slipped into consumer lingo. It was possible to buy on-line even then, but mail-order catalogues were more the rule. The computer industry was nascent, and very few people had figured out how to make it pay reliably (which, come to think of it, is still true).

Before remote shopping was dreamed of, “brick(s) and mortar” referred to housing; it could also refer to the value of a house (as in: don’t tie up all your capital in bricks and mortar). offers the following: “Originally, a firm’s investment buildings housing its offices, warehouses, and other facilities.” “The brick and mortar business” was occasionally used in the American press as a set phrase to refer to the building industry.

One impetus for this post was the announcement that Amazon, scourge of brick-and-mortar stores, is about to open one on W. 34 Street in Manhattan. Surely the second coming is at hand! Is this a case of “it takes one to know one” or “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”? Actually, it will be more of a take-out joint than a three-star shopping experience; the Wall Street Journal reports that it is designed to give impatient New Yorkers a way to go pick up their Amazon orders rather than waiting for the poky old Postal Service to shlep it to their door. It will be what they call a “fulfillment center” — doesn’t that sound like a health resort for new agers? One more temple to the gods of consumerism. Apparently Amazon is lowering expectations by calling it an experiment rather than a shift in policy. Wouldn’t it be funny if Amazon became a card-carrying hod carrier?

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(2000’s | journalese (politics))

The thing denoted by the word “robocall” is considerably older than the word itself. The pre-recorded, automated telephone call, almost as widely reviled as it is exploited, has benign and malevolent uses. Professor Frink, in The Simpsons, envisioned using the technology to tell children about school cancellations, which seems harmless enough. But in the same episode, Homer demonstrates a range of abuses. An appointment reminder from your auto dealer or the doctor’s office may not be so bad. But no one likes non-human solicitations, or repeated entreaties to vote for this candidate or the next. And that points up two more general, though not universal, characteristics of the robocall: they are unsolicited and widely disseminated.

“Robocall” first arose as a political term, meaning an automated, pre-recorded call in support of a candidate. The first published reference I found dates from 1999, which mentioned a large increase in the number of “robo-calls” (charmingly hyphenated) during the 1998 campaign. The recorded message might feature the candidate, or perhaps a celebrity delivering a message of support. First hit in LexisNexis: 2001. The database tells an interesting story. The term jumped in frequency every election year, just a few in 2002, several more in 2004, no end of hits in 2006. Then the word was on everyone’s lips.

Almost as soon as the expression burrowed its way into the lexicon, it lost its political coloring. Now the FCC defines “robocalls” as “unsolicited prerecorded telemarketing calls.” “Telemarketing” is key, because speech that sells you a candidate is more protected than speech that sells you a product or service. The do-not-call registry (aren’t the names of government programs supposed to be more creative than that? How about a nice acronym, guys?) will keep the sales force at bay, but not the politicos. It makes sense if you care about the survival of democracy, or even republicanism, but it can be mighty annoying that last month or two before a close election.

In my youth, we expected recorded messages to say, “This is a recording.” We weren’t used to hearing them and expected to be warned. They were pretty uncommon back then, at least in my memory. The expectation of inconvenient telephone calls was well established throughout the culture; the pollster or sweepstakes representative calling just as the family sat down to dinner was a joke everyone laughed and grumbled over. We didn’t like them then, when there weren’t nearly as many. As the number of landline users shrinks, and more people subscribe to the do-not-call list, do those of us who are left get even more robocalls than we used to?

The fact that the word spread so widely within a few years suggests that there was no reasonable equivalent term before that. So far I haven’t been able to think of one. They’ve been around a long time; autodialers have existed for decades, and the unholy matrimony of the autodialer and the recorded message was solemnized at least forty years ago. Why did it take so long for someone to think of it, or at least something punchier than “This is a recording”? The movie “Robocop” was released in 1987, so that’s a fifteen-year gap; it doesn’t seem likely there was a decisive influence. Then again, “robo” is not that common a prefix; Wiktionary can scare up only ten examples, all of them — except “robocall” — pretty obscure, if you ask me. “Robosigning” came up frequently in reports on illegal bank foreclosure practices a few years ago, but it doesn’t seem to have entered everyday language. I nominate two more: robocock, which simply must be the title of a porno movie, and robokiller, which could be literal or figurative. “Robokill” sounds better, but it doesn’t sit as well as a verb.

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