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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 35 years

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).

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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big box store

(1990’s | journalese?, businese?)

“Big box store” succeeded “superstore” (late seventies) and “megastore” (mid-eighties). The superstore was copied from the French hypermarché, where you could pick up a box of cereal, a television set, a new blender, some nice flowers for the wife, AND pay your electric bill, all in one trip to the grocery store. “Supermarket” already meant something else, and while “hypermarket” has gained some currency in the business press it has never caught on elsewhere. A megastore — the term was popularized by Virgin Records, most likely — didn’t boast the same variety of goods, but it still promised a wide selection within a narrow range. As early as 2001, a Maryland Department of Planning document listed “superstore,” “megastore,” and “big box store” as expressions that meant the same thing.

A big-box store — it seems to appear hyphenated or as two separate words about equally often — could be either a superstore or a megastore. It has to do with the size of the emporium (big) and shape (boxy). If you find that explanation too boring, maybe it referred originally to the crates from which one pulled items to place in one’s outsize, unmaneuverable shopping cart. In the classic suburban incarnation, it’s a mammoth one-story building with little in the way of decor or ambience but rich in utilitarian charm. (It pains me to report that Home Depot on W. 23rd Street in Manhattan has two stories. In the city, those boxes have to be stackable.) When the term came into vogue in the nineties, it referred at first to warehouse-type stores where one buys in bulk (Sam’s Club, Costco), and the fact that they looked like warehouses was part of the point. Home Depot took advantage of the same esthetic standards — the concrete floors and pallets sagging under bricks inspired trust in the home handyman. Best Buy or Bed Bath and Beyond had to work a little harder for their customers. Wal-Mart lies somewhere in between. Big box stores back in those days were often part of a “power center,” which could be either a mall or shopping center, only on steroids. (“Shopping center” was what we called a “strip mall” in suburban Baltimore, ca. 1975.) Today, the big box store embraces a wider field, including things like Target (which is basically a cheap department store), Pier 1, T.J. Maxx, Sports Authority (any of which might have been considered megastores in 1990). There is a move afoot to conflate the term “big box store” with “anchor tenant.” Any big, popular chain store rates the term, except perhaps a traditional department store like Macy’s or J.C. Penney. In 2006, a Chicago law defined big box stores as those “that occupy more than 90,000 square feet and are part of companies grossing more than $1 billion annually.” Merchandise and ambience no longer matter — only sheer size.

Like all forms of overgrown retail, big box stores have always had vociferous opponents, and a backlash soon formed, with the job savers lining up against the bargain hunters. The urge to find a bargain has driven American shoppers for a long time, and big box stores can certainly undersell their competition. But in modern times, there’s more to it than just finding a soul-satisfying discount. Shopping has become in itself an act of worship. I remember the first time I walked into a Bed Bath and Beyond and realized that such emporia are our cathedrals. Huge, high-ceilinged buildings filled with row upon row and shelf upon shelf of gleaming goods. The opulence, the vastness, the hush, the concentrations of shoppers comparing similar bedsheets, say, each creating a catechism out of cotton and microfiber, queen-size and king-size, 300 and 600 thread count. Mammon was the first American idol.

Not to get all nostalgic, but when I was a boy, you could still go to the dime store, which had similar stock to that of dollar stores nowadays (or the fussily named ninety-nine cent stores). Yes, we had big supermarkets, but they didn’t try to multitask. We didn’t have as many discount stores then, except in the form of outlet stores — factory seconds! We didn’t need them. Enough places stocked enough cheap merchandise that there was no need for special stores set aside for non-millionaires. Everything about retail has skewed higher since the seventies, even at the low end.

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you’re history

(1990’s | athletese | “you’re finished,” “you’re out or gone,” “your time is past,” “it’s over”)

It bubbled up first in sports and showbiz, says LexisNexis. Google Books shows a couple of hits from auto racing even before 1980, then it spent the first part of the decade diffusing through sports and entertainment writing. David Letterman used it in early in 1987, and George Bush gave it a boost when he accepted the Republican nomination in 1988: “‘Zero tolerance’ isn’t just a policy, it’s an attitude. . . . my administration will be telling the [drug] dealers: whatever we have to do we’ll do, but your day is over; you’re history.” It definitely started trickling into the mainstream after that. By the mid-nineties, old-timers and kids were both using it. I wonder if it might have southern roots. I learned it in college in 1983 from southern kids, and the early association with auto racing is also suggestive. One apparent misattribution: In 1988, the august Times of London attributed the line to “Dirty Harry,” but if that’s correct, no one else has noticed.

If you are part of the past, no longer significant in our everyday world, then you must perforce be history. The doggedly literal-minded might understand history to encompass only the dead, but imagine a one-shot wonder from the old days, still alive, whose name turns up occasionally but whom no one interviews or quotes any more. You talk about such a person only with reference to the past — no longer significant, but faded and distant. Leonardo DiCaprio is current; Jim Nabors is not. The expression puts you in your place (or time), yet it hangs onto a certain academic, even high-toned, quality.

It can be a very literal death threat, of course, as in a prison guard talking to an inmate, or a gang member to an informer. But usually it means something a little less drastic. The range of meaning is not wide: anything from “dead” or “done for” to “your time is up” or “get the hell out of here.” It puts an end to things, sometimes tinged with rue, sometimes with violence; it can also be used in humorous ways. As I noted last week, it sounds most comfortable in the second person, but third person (especially singular) and first person (especially plural) are also quite possible. We used to say “that’s ancient history,” but not to refer to persons — the new formulation insists on a particular person or group, not a concept or event.

you’re toast

(1990’s | athletese? | “you’re done for”)

The little variation or flexibility possessed by “you’re history” is denied to “you’re toast,” which has an even more restricted and invariable meaning. A quick and violent cessation of life, literal or metaphorical, is almost always present. One pictures not a big fork or a small oven but a flamethrower. One columnist (1996) traced the line to “Ghostbusters” in the form “this chick is toast” — the on-line script doesn’t show it, but my sister-in-law, who oughta know, says the line does appear in the movie. (In a different scene, the script instructs Venkman (Bill Murray) to say “turn him into toast.” Maybe it was an ad-lib.) The first hit on LexisNexis dates from 1987 — three years after the film’s release — attributed to a luger on New Zealand’s Olympic team, describing the effects of moving your head during a run. A swift, gruesome end. Like “you’re history,” it can occur with any pronoun, although the second person and third-person singular occur most commonly. (The second person is generally used a substitute for the third-person indefinite “one,” anyway, so maybe the third-person actually predominates. I’ve never heard or read “one is toast,” and the only way it might sound remotely idiomatic is in a British accent.)

“You’re toast” came along a little later than “you’re history” and has never been quite as popular or widespread, but it compensates by being more edgy and hip. Because it has a stronger connotation, it is reserved for fewer situations, or maybe it’s the other way around. “You’re toast” also became popular first among athletes. Here’s a nice variation from a football player who hoped to catch on in the NFL (1991): “I know that one minute you’re white bread and the next you’re toast.” Ted Turner attracted a lot of attention in 1995 when he told his son, “You’re toast,” after the young man made the mistake of asking if his job would survive the latest reorganization. William Safire wrote about both expressions back in 1997 with his usual acuity.

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stick a fork in him, he’s done

(2000’s | journalese | “he’s dead in the water,” “his goose is cooked,” “(you can) forget about him” “it’s (all) over”)

One of those top-down terms, like “smartest guy in the room.” It owes its celebrity to the fact that it is used by prominent people about prominent people, so we all have to know what it means even if we seldom use it in our humdrum everyday lives.

From the earliest sightings in the late eighties until now, this phrase has most readily been directed at politicians or athletes. Ann Richards, then governor of Texas, seems to have been responsible for the first widely-noticed use of “stick a fork in him, he’s done” in her dismissal of George Bush’s candidacy in October 1992, a few weeks before the election. (The earliest I found in LexisNexis dated from 1987 in Spin magazine, and it had nothing to do with politics.) Other political figures who felt the lash: Fidel Castro, Bob Dole (1996), Hillary Clinton (2008), and a bunch of people you’ve never heard of. The phrase seemed poised to take off in 1996, the second election in a row for which the Republicans put up a lackluster candidate. Like “soccer mom,” it looked ready to jump into the mainstream. Yet LexisNexis coughs up one solitary example between the end of 1996 and 2000. As you might expect, the phrase turns up more often in election years, and sportswriters have grown more fond of it over time, but it has not become as frequently used as many other expressions I have considered.

By definition, the phrase applies to losers. It’s a way to call someone a loser without using the word, one reason politicians like it (see also “humbled,” “unintended consequences” and “Joe Sixpack“). It is used only when it is clear that not only is the target hopelessly behind in the contest, he can’t possibly catch up. Dewey would not have used it against Truman in 1948 because the race never got lopsided enough. Not only does the phrase carry an unmistakable stamp of finality, it crows and gloats as well. It is not at all unusual for the phrase to carry a healthy dose of contempt.

Chronologically, “stick a fork in him” follows two other pithy dismissals (say that five times fast), “he’s history” and “he’s toast.” Actually, both of those expressions feel most comfortable in the second person, but they work in the third (very unusual in the first person, however). “You’re history” came along first; I remember learning it during my freshman year in college from my more sophisticated classmates. “You’re toast” came in a few years later. Like “stick a fork in him,” (and “goose is cooked”), it relies on a culinary vehicle. Because if it’s not dead when you start cooking it, it is by the time you’re done. Both of these vigorous expressions share the note of finality, and the note of extreme prejudice, that we noted above in “stick a fork in him.” Notably, the latter expression cannot be used in the second person, but it can be used in the first and is most commonly used in third person. So in pronominal terms, it complements “you’re history” rather neatly.

The reason you put a fork in a roast is to determine whether it is sufficiently cooked. But a canny politician uses the expression only when he knows his opponent is completely done. You don’t do it to find something out, you do it for spite — not unlike “twist the knife.” Utensils make for treacherous figures of speech.

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no pain, no gain

(1980’s | athletese | “can’t get something for nothing,” “there are no shortcuts,” “suffering ennobles”)

This word blossomed in the eighties, along with various fitness crazes, notably weightlifting and aerobics. Its popularity — not its origin, for there are several earlier sightings — is frequently attributed to Jane Fonda’s first workout video (1982), which for all practical purposes created the aerobics fad. I’m pretty sure Fonda did not use the expression, at least not in the first video of what proved to be a long series; if she played a role in adding “no pain, no gain” to our vocabulary, it must have come later. But it couldn’t have come much later, because the phrase was tiresomely established within a few years.

It’s one of those expressions, like “pick your battles,” that sounds proverbial but isn’t. It was rare at best in English before 1970. (I have a compendium of proverbs and maxims published in 1888, which includes two that take advantage of the rhyme, but neither is as pithy as our latter-day proverb.) That doesn’t mean it wasn’t proverbial somewhere else, however. Google Books found three references before 1975 from Hindu texts — in the form of commentary on scripture or advice from swamis. The first hit in LexisNexis falls in an article about a guru based in Washington, D.C. (1979), though it’s not clear he uttered it. In such a context, the phrase has nothing to do with exercise or building muscle. It’s a matter of spiritual enlightenment, engaging in meditation to overcome desire and distraction. The pain is mental and emotional, but the gain is transcendent.

Well then us durn Americans got hold of the phrase and, not being noted for devotion to the finer things, we dumbed it down into gym fodder. (Many of us became familiar with the phrase from Soloflex ads in the early 1980’s.) The switch from mind to muscle remains our contribution to this expression. That and using it constantly, as we have since 1985 or so. The meaning seems blessedly straightforward and has from the beginning. In order for new things to grow, old things must pass away, and that hurts. Old muscle fibers must be torn in order to produce new, denser tissue. Mental deformations and emotional reflexes that hold us back must be confronted, dealt with, and overcome — and it will be a struggle. Self-improvement requires sacrifice. It’s cognate to the old prejudice that medicine can’t be effective if it doesn’t taste bad. If exercise doesn’t make you sore, it can’t be doing any good.

The rapid rise of the expression soon inspired a backlash, and most trainers would probably agree that “no pain, no gain” is not at all the same as “more pain, more gain,” as some might be prone to interpret it. Pain is a warning signal, and if too severe it will do more harm than good, in the gym as in the ashram. In this respect, “no pain, no gain” resembles “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” It may be true in small or even moderate doses, but some diseases or experiences leave us permanently weakened, or in a coma. (Isn’t severe depression a sort of emotional or spiritual coma?)

The phrase may have an Eastern origin, but in the west it sounds puritanical or masochistic, preferred by those who love punishment. But that may be a consequence of simple-minded Americans trying to make a limited principle cover every situation. Some rules were never intended to be guiding stars. Use in moderation. Proceed with caution.

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