(1990′s | doctorese? therapese? | “impotence”)
In 1998, Viagra was introduced. Around the same time, pharmaceutical companies sharply increased direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs following changes in guidelines issued by the FDA. Anyone else think the fix was in? That was, to say the least, a windfall for Pfizer. Many different medications could expect to do well by attracting the attention of the actual users (not the prescribers, as in the good old days), but those commercials featuring Bob Dole as pitchman sent American men dashing to the doctor to ask about treatment for erectile dysfunction, which had not been a favorite topic among American men before. (The implied commentary on Dole’s performance as a presidential candidate went charitably unreported.) Viagra made impotence respectable.
“Erectile dysfunction” is another euphemism, intended to palliate the misery of the older word, to make us less ashamed, less trapped in a debilitating medical condition. That’s the promise of Viagra: it’s not in your mind, it’s just a little problem with the blood vessels. Pop a pill, wait an hour, and your troubles will be over. Researchers started to find in the 1980′s that impotence is most often caused by an underlying physical condition, not some deep, dark psychological problem or even old age; the success of Viagra and its cronies seems to bear that out. How has it changed us? Too early to tell, I guess. The prospect of eighty-year-old geezers bragging about their prowess does not appeal, and we won’t know until 2026, when the first baby boomers hit eighty. Previous generations had a certain delicacy about such things, but those days are long gone; even as euphemisms proliferate, the talk gets more frank.
There may have been published uses of the term “erectile dysfunction” before 1970, but it seems to have emerged during the following twenty-five years. It remained the property of doctors and therapists well into the 1990′s; most of us continued to struggle along in our benighted way with “impotence” or “can’t get it up.” One urologist, Dr. Fernando Borges, preferred the term because “impotence suggests powerlessness, weakness” (St. Petersburg Times, 1987). The phrase seems to be a short step from “sexual dysfunction,” a general term already in wide use in the 1970′s, and is almost certainly a descendant. I’m not sure whether a doctor or a therapist used it first (New York Magazine cited it as psychologists’ jargon in 1979), but they were the only ones who used it for a long time. In the last half of the 1990′s, the phrase became legion, and you heard it everywhere. Which still seems to be true. Especially on all those blankety-blank commercials.
“Erectile dysfunction” is commonly abbreviated “ED,” another innovation we probably owe to widespread advertising. Oddly, “ED” also stands for “eating disorder,” which also entered therapese in the 1970′s (the Clinic for Eating Disorders at the University of Cincinnati opened in 1974), although it went mainstream by the mid-1980′s — much quicker than “erectile dysfunction” — perhaps because there really was no earlier word for it. There is little danger of confusing the two meanings, since the number of people who suffer from both conditions must be the null set, or pretty darn close.
(1990′s | athletese? advertese? | “employees,” “staff,” “group”)
Grouping your employees into “teams” and calling them “team members” may not have originated with Whole Foods, but I give the company credit for popularizing it and giving so many other retail establishments incentive to follow suit. Many large stores now throw around talk of “team members” freely. (Walmart uses “associate,” which also has its followers.) I don’t have any hard evidence that Whole Foods was primarily responsible, but when they became a national success story in the 1990′s, there was much breathless talk of their management structure, which depended heavily on teams and was so reported. Whole Foods management and journalists alike spoke as if there was something entirely new going on, but I haven’t seen anyone attribute the notion to Whole Foods or its management, nor have I seen anyone from Whole Foods take credit for the origin or spread of the idea. Someone else may have done it first, but Whole Foods seems to have given the concept momentum.
To most Americans encountering such a usage for the first time, the sports team was probably the quickest and strongest association, but any group engaged in a common pursuit could bear the name. From my youth I remember news accounts of “teams of scientists” working on complicated projects. The word had a fairly specific connotation: a relatively small, close-knit group in which each participant plays an important role in pursuing a common goal. That is the idea Whole Foods is appealing to, although there is some on-line dispute about how well they succeed. The association with a pair of draft animals, which probably still would have occurred to many Americans as late as 1950, has disappeared definitively, I think. How old do you have to be to make head or tail of the brand name “Mule Team Borax”?
It seems obvious that both “team member” and “associate” attempt to make ordinary employees (none dare call them underlings) believe they have some sort of genuine status. The rhetorical emphasis directs attention away from the authority of the employer and toward autonomy of the employee. It’s not hard to see why executives (that is, the management team) might propagate the change in vocabulary.
“On our team” has taken some of the space formerly used by “on our side” — my guess is that the increased use of “team” in this context did not happen before the rise of Whole Foods. The other newly common usage of the word is names in the form “Team X.” My first thought was that we’re indebted to another large corporation for this one, namely Xerox. The earliest example of their “Team Xerox” campaign I’ve found dates to 1984; it was a hit for them in the eighties. And the school slang term followed very soon — engineering students at Vanderbilt (who shall remain nameless) were using it in 1986, to my certain memory. But as my beautiful, brilliant girlfriend reminded me, before there was Team Xerox there was Team USA. That’s correct, but it seems to predate Xerox’s appropriation by only a few years. At first, it seems to have been used mainly to talk about hockey teams assembled for international tournaments like the Canada Cup (this was a little like barnstorming in the early days of baseball, when major league players toured and played exhibition games in the off-season). The miraculous 1980 U.S. hockey team was not generally known as “Team USA” at the time, any more than the 1992 men’s basketball squad was known as Team Dream. I still say Xerox should be credited with an assist for pushing this use of “team” into everyday use — a way of adding a little drama to a walk for cancer research, or a bunch of high school kids working on a class project.
I’m not really sure where the “name-after-Team” construction comes from (the capital “t” is necessary — such phrases are always proper names, unlike “team of scientists” or “management team”). I noticed something funny in looking at old Olympic records that made me wonder. Some events, like swimming, have individual and team competitions. When medal lists were compiled, at least in the seventies, the name of the medalist would occur after the category “individual” and “team,” so an entry under archery might read “Team USA.” There was usually a large space between the word “team” and the country, but maybe that’s where sports insiders got the idea. I concede that this insight probably would not have occurred to me without Google Books’ idiosyncratic search capabilities, and the rational part of my mind thinks it unlikely, but who knows?
p.s. For lovers of obscure words, I give you “toxophily,” a synonym of a word used in the last paragraph. First one to send it in to firstname.lastname@example.org wins a free subscription!
been there, done that
(1990′s | “(I’ve) been there before,” “that’s old hat,” “seen the elephant”)
Definitely a nineties expression. I heard it first early in the decade, and boy, did it have legs. It took over our aural landscape for a few years, then became slightly less omnipresent, although it has definitively entered the language and may leap from almost anyone’s lips. The ease with which it is alluded to, adapted, and parodied reflects its status as a more or less instant cliché — a phrase already slightly painful to hear and repeat after only a few years’ hard use, but so much a part of our vocabulary that we have no choice. (Here is a definition of “instant cliché.” Another one here. I wish the expression were original with me.)
There are a few cites before 1990, and an emerging on-line consensus holds that the idiom originated in Australia. Mountain Dew used the phrase in an ad campaign in 1994, which helped it take off, but it was around at least a few years before then. It has been used in several song titles — the earliest, as far as I know, in 1990 (John Cale and Brian Eno). It may come with numerous elaborations, the most common of which is probably the addition of “got the t-shirt.” A number of web sites and blogs now have variations on the phrase as part of a title or URL, notably a video game site for combat veterans and an organization devoted to helping prostitutes and victims of sex trafficking (we used to call them “white slaves,” although “white slavery” was the more common phrase). “BTDT” has settled into its inevitable role as texting shorthand.
The meaning is simple and hasn’t changed much: I’ve been through this and don’t want to do it again. Whether the tone is world-weary, disdainful, dismissive, or matter-of-fact, the ground meaning has stayed pretty stable. There are several more than reasonable treatments of this phrase on-line already. Safire gave it its very own column in 1996; Phrase Finder, wordorigins.org, and Wisegeek also cover it very well.
Why did it catch on and take root so fast? We could talk about the compactness or simplicity of the phrase, or how it breezily blends sarcasm and dismissal, how flatly it puts you in your place. All those factors contribute, but the greatest driving force is our restless hankering after the new. Just as many people must have the latest gadgets, many people like to latch onto new expressions. You hear it on television, in a movie, from your neighbor: hey, there’s a new one! I like it! “Been there, done that” has the benefit of expressing a sentiment most of us feel from time to time. New AND useful is hard to beat, and such a phrase may spread incontinently. Even if its ear-numbing frequency tails off after a few years, it has bored into the language. New words and phrases catch on because enough people want them to, for better and worse: it’s a democratic process.
didn’t get the memo
(2000′s | journalese? | “didn’t find out,” “didn’t hear about it,” “didn’t get word”)
This expression, as a rueful or jocular metaphor, seems to have come from television journalism. I will go further: LexisNexis suggests that a particular program, CBS This Morning (Paula Zahn, Mark McEwen, if that helps), spawned the phrase. All of the earliest uses I found dated from the early 1990′s on this show, almost invariably in the context of what the newscasters were wearing. If the anchors wore similar clothes, and the weatherman didn’t, one or the other would make a joke about not having gotten the memo. As the term spread into sports and entertainment reporting, it retained the association with clothing for a little while, although that has not persisted. The first time I recall using the expression, in the late 1990′s, I was remarking on the fact that damn near every scarf, umbrella, handbag, skirt (but never kilt!) in Manhattan bore the Burberry plaid pattern, and I said I felt like I didn’t get the memo.
Most of the time, the one who doesn’t get the memo is considered clueless; it’s your own fault. Maybe to be pitied, maybe censured, but the bottom line is: everyone else knew about this, why not you? The phrase marks its target as the odd one out. The expression rarely, if ever, connotes that someone concealed an important policy or piece of information from you. But once in a while it is used to suggest a brave or stubborn refusal to conform, even a deliberate refusal to respect a foolish or illegal order. I know perfectly well what they expect me to do, and I’m damned if I’ll do it. But the norm remains: if you don’t get the memo, it means you look like a fool, and ridicule, whether ritual or real, must follow. Maybe you’ll even get a “hello?!”
If it’s necessary to specify exactly which memo was missed, you can add “that” or “about” to the end of the phrase and follow it up with a more precise statement. And the words are not invariable; it is quite possible to substitute “that” for “the,” which raises the possibility of multiple instances of ignorance, but seems more often to endow the phrase with a certain defiance. I didn’t get THAT memo may mean I’m not following your stupid rules. The use of “that” seems more common than it did; let’s see if it develops its own set of implications.
The phrase itself may not be not invariable, but the tense is. Here is something everyone else already knew that you weren’t told. While it is possible to imagine circumstances in which you could adopt the future tense, neither the present nor the imperfect could possibly sound plausible. It’s a single instance — you failed to learn about a particular thing — so the imperfect (“wasn’t getting the memo”) sounds wrong. And when you walk into the office and realize you’re the only one in casual dress, you can’t say “I’m not getting the memo here,” because it’s too late; you’ve already embarrassed yourself. The words may change slightly, but the tense must be mired in the past.
(2000′s? | businese | “sell,” “unload more product”)
Confession: As far as I can remember, I never heard this word before last Sunday morning, on the radio, in a talk given by Angie Hicks of Angie’s List, warning of businesspeople (landscapers, in this case) trying to sell you more services than you want. This points to the crucial question about upselling: Is it a favor to customers, offering what they want, only more and better, or is it second cousin to a scam — a way to boost profits on the backs of unwary or overly obliging consumers? Depends on whom you ask. The word was and still is most commonly used among salesmen and marketers, and they take pains to treat upselling as a great boon to the consumer, merely an unselfish attempt to alert us to the advantages of buying more (and, coincidentally, spending more). A word to the wise, etc. Consumer advocates take a much dimmer view of upselling, regarding it as a pushy or sneaky way to extract more money; many consumers consider it a turn-off.
The term means two different things in common use. One is getting a client to buy a more expensive kind of whatever he’s buying, like a fancier bottle of wine (or, failing that, a case of the cheap stuff) or the next car model up the scale. The other thing it means is convincing the customer to buy things that go with whatever he happens to be buying, like French fries with a hamburger or extra batteries with a watch. The latter is also called “cross-selling,” and while some people insist on the difference, most regard “Do you want fries with that?” as a fundamental example of upselling. It is close to “upgrade” but not quite the same; as a noun, it grazes in the same paddock as “pitch.”
The word has never been all that precise grammatically. Used indiscriminately as a noun or verb; as a verb, it may be transitive or intransitive. When it takes an object, the object may be a product or a person. And it can take on prepositions: “Upsell to” means basically the same thing as “upsell,” but it has a different significance from “sell to,” because when you “upsell to,” the object of the preposition will be not the customer, but the higher-end product. Like a lot of modern words, those who use it prefer to elide, nay, jettison, tiresome grammatical distinctions. For the legal eagles among you, the Code of Federal Regulations defines the term in the context of telephone sales (2004 revision): “soliciting the purchase of goods or services following an initial transaction during a single telephone call. The upsell is a separate telemarketing transaction, not a continuation of the initial transaction.” And it can even do spot duty as an adjective, as in “upsell items” (items you can pitch to the customer as an upgrade).
How modern is it? LexisNexis shows that it wasn’t used in the mainstream press before 1990, although it did turn up in magazines with “marketing” or “advertising” in the title. Sales lingo it was and ever shall be, but it seems to be growing more common every decade, and I found cites in major U.S. newspapers (with explanations) by the mid-1990′s. Oddly enough, the first uses on LexisNexis date from the late 1970′s, in the Canadian press.
I’m not sure what the old word for this was, maybe because “upselling” is what we used to call “selling.” Salesmen have always tried to get you to buy more or better, or to unload items with a higher profit margin. It was what salesmen did, and we didn’t need a special word for it. But the science (ulp!) of marketing demands its own vocabulary, its own fine (or blurred) distinctions, and it shall have them.
(1990′s | computerese | “dry run,” “preliminary version,” “demo”)
Ineligible for the blog on both historical and semantic grounds, but it seems to be creeping into contexts other than testing computer software. Even now, the association with computers remains strong if not quite inevitable: a stage of software development in which the product is not ready for sale but is ready to be tested on a large scale by real live users, not just the developer’s own engineers. (The latter stage is known as “alpha testing” when it is referred to at all.) The cynical way to look at this is that the developer gets lots of work done for nothing, although most will offer discounts to beta testers on the finished product. The phrase required some explaining at first, but now everyone knows what it means: On April Fool’s Day, Google invited users to test the beta version of Google Nose, which enables users to search by odor (Google, of course, is famous for keeping some of its products in the beta stage for years).
According to Wikipedia and at least one other source, “alpha” and “beta” in this sense were broken in by IBM computer jocks long ago, well before the personal computer was thought of. It was widely used in talking about both hardware and software certainly by the late eighties, if not before, but it didn’t turn up much in the mainstream until some time in the nineties. (I believe that’s when I became familiar with the concept.) Beta versions are for the expert or adventurous, or for employees of large corporations who act as guinea pigs. Ordinary shlubs like me avoid beta versions; let somebody else step on all the landmines. (Hey, it’s not like most software doesn’t have plenty of bugs and glitches even after rollout.)
One descendant, “beta reader,” has cropped up recently in the realm of fan fiction, where it means something like “editor.” Here again, it refers to a reader at a certain stage of the development of the text, not in its roughest form but not finished, either; the idea is that the beta reader will help the author improve the story and get it ready for publication, posting, or whatever comes next. In this sense it obviously derives from the old computer-industry use but may point the way to a new set of meanings. Watch this space.
(1990′s | academese? advertese? | “pioneer,” “early bird” )
The interesting thing about “early adopter” is that its meaning has never varied in the slightest, and while its range of use has broadened a bit, neither its denotation nor connotation has changed to speak of. Someone who snaps up a new practice or product as it becomes available — someone interested in the latest technologies, brands, or services. From the beginning, the expression has had a strong connection with technological advance, and it still does, although nowadays it may freely be used in talking about customs, rules, or attitudes. That was not true in the 1980′s.
The earliest uses recorded in LexisNexis date from the early 1980′s, concentrated in the banking press. It was not long before “early adopter” was taken up in computer circles, and the term quickly became common in talking about (i.e., promoting) new personal computers, network technology, operating systems, etc. The term likely was coined by the economist Everett Rogers, who invented a field by publishing a book called “Diffusion of Innovation” in 1962, in which he classifies people according to how quickly they adopt new things; one of the classes was “early adopter,” who weren’t the very first to pick up the latest thing (those are the “innovators”) but who come right after and presage wide consumption or use. Most of us are content to follow our own English Pope:
Be not the first by whom the new is tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
Marketers were probably the first to use the term regularly, and it was rarely seen outside the business or computer press until at least the mid-1990′s; it was rendered in quotation marks as late as 1999 in US News and World Report. But that wasn’t really typical. Mostly the phrase is used without any particular notice or explanation, and that has been true for a long time. (Rogers dubbed the last to lay the old aside “laggards” — those who take up innovations slowly (not until they are already obsolete) or not at all. I’m a laggard.)
The phrase has long had a strong correlation with favorable terms like “forward-thinking” or “progressive.” An early adopter typically is not seen as an uncritical, superficial customer who will walk out with anything that is sold as the dernier cri, but as a discerning shopper who is quick to see the advantages of the latest technology. Early adopters are usually thought to be knowledgeable and well-off — people you want to know and emulate. There’s no reason for this that I can see except that the people who use the phrase are also the people who have a strong interest in inducing early adopters to buy whatever it is they happen to be selling. So they need to flatter the adventurous ones willing to endure bugs and kinks, because success with that group portends general success. You don’t go describing your client base as gullible, hysterical, or lacking wisdom. With that goes a tendency to denigrate the laggards as stuck in the mud, out of the loop, and selfishly standing in the way of progress. So all those of us who didn’t spend money on Beta videocassettes, New Coke, the DeLorean, or WebTV, are losers. Time to repent. Go thou forth and bankrupt thyself on every crummy two-bit novelty that comes down the pike.
(1990′s | bureaucratese | “leeway,” “room to maneuver” “margin for error,” “slack,” “discretion”)
Until the mid-sixties, this phrase, used mainly in shoe advertisements or sewing manuals, had to do with trying on clothes or footwear. A secondary meaning was used more in the context of a different kind of fit, as a car or airplane seat. How much freedom does your body have; how much restraint and discomfort are you subject to? For toes or torso, some wiggle room is a good thing, recommended by mothers and fashion consultants alike.
Politicians and diplomats were the first to use the expression in a more fanciful way. I found several uses in the Congressional Record, including one from 1967 that attributed it to Secretary of State Dean Rusk. (Even in my boyhood “Dean Rusk” sounded like a name from the distant past — one got him mixed up with Dean Acheson — and I doubt most people under thirty have ever heard of him. While I’m digressing, am I the only one who gets pissed off because Google Books shows the Congressional Record in “snippet view”? I couldn’t identify the blankety-blank member of Congress who credited Rusk with popularizing the metaphorical use of “wiggle room” because of this policy, which makes absolutely no sense. The Record is a government publication and not copyrighted, and it is a fundamental text for citizens trying to learn about our government and its history (I abjure the temptation to launch into a third digression on the fact that we are all consumers rather than citizens now). The Library of Congress has scanned the Record only as far back as 1989 but will let you look at all of it; Google has all of it scanned and won’t let you see so much as a single complete page. Why, Google, why? In your not-so-infinite wisdom.)
In fact, Life magazine quoted Rusk using “wiggle room” in an interview given as his tenure ended (January 1969), so he may indeed have imparted momentum to this expression. It was a down-home kind of phrase, and he was a down-home kind of guy. Based on what I found on LexisNexis and Google Books, it seems to have remained the property of government officials through the eighties, though it may have turned up occasionally in other contexts. William Safire, a particularly keen observer of officialese, devoted half a column to it in 1984; in those pre-database days, the earliest citation he found was in a 1978 Business Week (you’d think Safire would remember Dean Rusk’s verbal quiddities, but apparently not — or maybe Rusk really wasn’t known for using the phrase, the Congressional Record in snippy view notwithstanding).
By 2000 it was widely used, both in terms of sheer number of citations and variety of fields and contexts. It’s one of those expressions whose definition hasn’t broadened, and even in the early days it was usually presented without a gloss. Much as I would like “wiggle room” to mean “discotheque,” it denotes a way of acknowledging contingency and change. Wiggle room lets you massage the numbers. Wiggle room lets you get away with this and that, temporize, make exceptions, or evade limits. That also makes it a lawyer’s dream; wiggle room opens up vistas of interpretation that must be argued and ruled upon. It’s sort of the opposite of zero tolerance or mandatory sentencing, procrustean devices enacted to make the legal system more fair which inevitably make it less so. “Wiggle room” gets less commendable when it becomes a way to avoid committing yourself to anything, and it can have a downright unsavory connotation in the mouth of a purist. A classic example was Ronald Reagan’s spokesman, Larry Speakes, equating wiggle room with “weasel room” in 1984. Men of principle have no use for loose language or slippery logic that gives them an easy out. Here “wiggle room” means no more than a pre-planned means of going back on your word.