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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 35 years


(1980’s | journalese | “gourmet,” “epicure”)

A British import, like “over the top” or “at the end of the day,” this word flared up when a bestseller used it in the title in 1984: “The Official Foodie’s Handbook.” (Only a couple of instances have been found in print before then, at least one of those attributable to one of the authors.) And it meant then what it means now, someone obsessed with cuisine — ingredients, preparation, or both — to the point that it is easy to make fun of them. Although some use the word with pride, non-foodies generally use it with at least a hint of condescension or exasperation. Food is important, and it’s a fine idea to take pleasure in eating it, as anyone who has spent time around an anorexic can tell you. But foodies may do so to such an exaggerated degree that non-initiates can’t really take them seriously. Their raptures often come across as forced and stagey, more a matter of competing with each other than expressing a genuine appreciation for the gust and lore of their aliment. Nearly all of us delight in taking pretentious know-it-alls down a peg, so we are prone to suspect that most of these people haven’t the least idea what they are talking about. And we are bound to be right a high percentage of the time. (Urban Dictionary offers some sulfurous definitions of the term along those lines.) The most likely antecedents were “preppie” and “yuppie,” words that had taken hold only a few years earlier (“Foodie” authors Ann Barr and Paul Levy alluded directly to “The Official Preppie Handbook” in their title). My first thought was that “Trekkie” lurks in the background. It conveys the same sense of fervid, fanatical devotion that “foodie” does — far better than “preppie” or “yuppie.” I don’t know how common “Trekkie” was in England, though.

Another reason this word is so annoying, aside from the people it applies to, is that it partakes of the irritating British habit of taking perfectly useful words and adding diminutive or cutesy suffixes, hacking off syllables as needed. (The British have a long tradition of swallowing syllables, but tell me, is “Featherstonehaugh” really pronounced “Fanshaw”? I suspect that was Wodehouse’s idea of a joke, but I’ve never been quite sure, what with Cholmondeley and Marjoribanks.) I ask you: “Chocky” (a piece of chocolate), “preggers” (pregnant), “botty burp” (fart), “brolly” (umbrella), champers (champagne), sarnie (sandwich). There are dozens of them. Then there’s things like “billy-o,” “tickety-boo,” or “moggie” (cat), where the word sounds like it was invented on a particularly obnoxious kids’ television program, even though no orthographic surgery is involved. Are these not the effluvia of a decaying culture? This from the once-proud nation that gave us rhyming slang, which is both amusing and intellectually stimulating, when not downright mystifying. Why does “me old china” mean “old friend”? Well, it’s really “me old china plate,” which rhymes with “mate,” which means “friend.” Then you get rid of the actual rhyming part because that would make it too easy. That’s three steps you have to go through — not for dummies. Rhyming slang is still around, and new terms continue to come forth (as in “britney [spears]” for “beers”), so it hasn’t been supplanted. But it’s a shame that the Brits insist on obscuring a powerful slang tradition with a glut of cloying, infantilized, and frankly unnecessary expressions. Yes, I am a blogger who loves words, but if you call me a “wordie,” I will find you and wreak dire vengeance.

Thanks to my sister for proposing this week’s expression! I was surprised that I hadn’t made a note of “foodie” on any of my rather disorganized lists, but surprises like that keep this blog entertaining, for me, at least.

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(1990’s | therapese?, academese (education)? | “serve as a model of or for,” “exemplify”)

Here is a verb that has turned right around in the last thirty years. Back then, when applied to conduct, “to model” meant “follow another’s example.” It was normally used with “on,” or maybe “after,” as in children modeling themselves on a popular athlete, a rock star, who knows? maybe even a parent or teacher. And now? Now it means “set an example for another.” Those responsible for raising or schooling children must do things like “model appropriate behavior,” so their charges will see their way clear to becoming civilized. When did the change occur, and why? The first example I found on LexisNexis lurked in a review of several children’s books at the beginning of 1988, but it doesn’t seem to have become commonplace for at least another decade. My recollection, which I have learned not to trust very much, is that I started to hear it certainly by the late nineties, but I’d be hard-pressed to say when it became customary. Neither is it clear to me where the word arose, although therapese seems the most likely answer. But the verb was also used in its new sense early and often in the ed biz (as the immortal (so far) Tom Lehrer called it), so the educators may have a claim to ownership as well.

The shift in meaning looks larger than it is. “Model” has been used for centuries as a noun or adjective, generally denoting a pattern or example worthy of emulation or copying, in general or in particular. The model citizen or the model of bravery or generosity, to say nothing of the artist’s model, have an ample pedigree. But Noah Webster’s dictionary gives only one definition of “model” as a verb, which encompasses the notion of following a pattern described in the first paragraph. (Artist’s or fashion models of the day “posed,” one supposes.) Scientists and economists have long used the term in a way that seems analogous to today’s meaning: “create a model of.” The phrase “role model” came along in the fifties, according to Random House, and that phrase led to a veritable gamut of post-Freudian psychological usages of “model.” Role models do not generally embody one specific quality but are thought to be worth studying across the board. Instead of emulating Washington for this or Socrates for that, we started concentrating on finding just one all-around good person to emulate. It’s hard enough just finding one pair of coattails to ride.

And why did the word change meanings? When we think of “modeling” good behavior, we think primarily of adults doing it for children. When we thought of “modeling” one’s acts after others’ examples, we thought primarily of children doing it with reference to adults. The subject-object switcheroo goes along with a cultural shift in demands on parents. In the old days, kids had to buckle down and learn to do what was expected of them in public. Responsible adults offered guidance and were expected to help, or at least not retard the process, but it was the kid’s responsibility to work out ways to control himself and make an effort to comply with social conventions. As we make ourselves at home in the twenty-first century, parents are expected to do more and more of what used to be regarded as the kids’ work. The older generation must lay everything out so plainly that no child could possibly misunderstand — willfully or otherwise — the rules they are expected to follow. The grown-ups have to come up with a way to train the kids that doesn’t require them to exert any effort or risk failure. Deprived of any stake in their own improvement, the young’uns will infallibly turn into enviable adults, right? Of course, most kids turn out o.k. if their parents do even a middling job raising them, but it seems to me that conventional wisdom — and a parade of parenting manuals — demands more of parents, and less of children, than it did in the old days.

Actually, I was channeling my sister in the previous paragraph, who was ruminating recently on changes in our child-rearing practices, and who is well-qualified in general to discuss these kids today. I may have misrepresented her views, and I alone am responsible for any errors of fact or interpretation.

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(1980’s | businese | “on a deadline,” “urgent,” “pressing,” “critical”)

Of all the words we limped along with before 1980, “urgent” comes closest to capturing the meaning of “time-sensitive,” although it often can’t be substituted directly for the newer term. But in fact the word was occasionally used with “urgent” in its early days, as a complementary term, because it’s not precisely the same thing. “Urgent” means drop everything and deal with this now. “Time-sensitive” means this may not be the highest priority but you can’t let it slide, either. The distinction is clear, even if “time-sensitive” is frequently used simply to mean “urgent” and always has been. The phrase has always been available hyphenated or as two words, and the two-word spelling remains widely seen today.

“Time-sensitive” arose in the press around 1980, says LexisNexis, largely the property of business and finance types, along with their inevitable fellow travelers, the generals. From that day to this, it is frequently used in official government documents. It modified a relatively small group of things: shipments and their contents, issues, targets (of assassination), data, documents, projects. For contrast, here are two recent examples that probably would have sounded peculiar in 1980: “time-sensitive aspects of driving,” which refers to reaction times, and “time-sensitive product,” meaning something that spoils quickly. Though the meaning can get a little slippery, the notion of a deadline is always there. Something must be done quickly, because the crucial object is about to expire (or become obsolete), or someone at the other end really has to have it, or because new conditions are taking effect.

I believe one of the things that made this phrase go was the rise of Federal Express, which was well-established by 1980 and had begun to familiarize us with the concept of overnight delivery of important packages, be they medical supplies, legal papers, or housekeys. By then it was even starting to teach us to find such a thing a matter of course. (Fellow Americans my age will have no trouble remembering the slogan “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”) There had been overnight, intercity, door-to-door deliveries before Federal Express came along, but they were the first ones to get famous doing it. (Anybody out there under fifty ever heard of Purolator?) Their success provided the soil for the growth of “time-sensitive,” even if it didn’t give birth to the expression. The couriers dealt with many different degrees of urgency, and it was handy to have a word that covered them all.

Once I stopped to think about it, I realized that “sensitive” as used in this expression makes for an odd appendage. “Time-sensitive” ought to mean acutely aware of the passage of time, perhaps to the point of neurosis, or maybe merely to the point of making sure you get your work done. And it really ought to apply to a person, dammit, and once in a while it does, as in a time-sensitive customer fuming at a long wait in line, or a historical re-enacter taking pains to look the part (“time” as in “era” rather than “money”). Or maybe it should refer to someone who goes into a tailspin at the thought of hours passing. “Sensitive” was a big word in the seventies, just as this week’s expression was starting to appear in print. As a personality trait, “sensitivity” meant a better-than-average awareness of emotion, especially other people’s emotion, a quality highly prized — because so rare — in men. “Sensitive” was an important word in the booming beauty products industry, and sensitive skin became the latest accessory. The word sometimes was used to talk about allergy sufferers. None of these quite matches the use of the affix in “time-sensitive.” I think it lies closer to the national-security meaning of “sensitive,” meaning kept under wraps, top secret, that sort of thing. This usage is not a precise analogue, either, but it comes closer to capturing that sense of something it would be foolhardy to ignore. Another possible cognate: “sensitive” used to mean “touchy” or “easily set off.” Here again, another usage with the requisite force, even if it isn’t identical.

Thanks to lovely Liz from Queens and her doughty sister for proposing this term this week. Free subscriptions for everybody!

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blessed, humbled

humbled (1990’s | journalese (politics?) | “honored”)
blessed (2000’s | celebritese? | “fortunate”)

Up until 1990 or so, you were humbled when something bad happened to you. “Humbled” meant “chastened” or “brought low,” occasionally “awed”; sportswriters liked to use it to mean “trounced.” Both sides had to be specified then; your boss humbled you or one team humbled another. By 2000, it was commonplace to use the word when something good happened, as an acknowledgment of an award or a new job (especially political office), or just the fact that lots of people wished you well or recognized your contributions. The old uses are still available, but less natural, as “humbled” has become a word powerful people use to convey their satisfaction at their own success. It gives them a perfect way to pretend they are modest and hardworking rather than power-hungry parasites living off the rest of us — without being forced to lie about it. That makes the word a politician’s dream. Being “humbled” is not the same as being “humble,” after all — it’s a temporary state rather than an essential part of one’s character.

It can have other implications: one is the acute awareness of new and taxing responsibilities. When the new president says he is humbled (cf. “your humble servant,” “public servant”), we are to understand that he understands the challenges ahead and aims to get right to work for the voters. But the word need not carry any such implication. In the earliest instance I found on LexisNexis (October 23, 1989) — not an exhaustive search — Ronald Reagan said he was “humbled and deeply honored” upon being inducted into the Grand Cordon of the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum by the Japanese government, an accolade utterly devoid of duties. Reagan, who went far trading on his humble upbringing, understood the power of the word. I’d like to think he originated today’s use of “humbled.” Reagan was adept at using Christian vocabulary, and humility as a fundamental attitude toward God and toward other people is an important Christian virtue.

“Blessing” is another essential Christian concept, meaning a reward from the Lord. “Blessed” (two syllables) is a mainstay of the King James Bible (“Blessed are the meek . . .”) but has not formed part of informal American speech for over a century now except as a substitute for “damned” in curses. “Blest” is archaic and was last used with any frequency in ejaculations like “I’ll be blest!” Every time someone alludes to a sneeze, you are blessed, or you might be blessed (one syllable) by a member of the clergy. A new baby used to be called a “blessed (two syllables) event.” But although the word has not shed its religious origin, the way we use it now has taken it far from old-time Christianity. We use “blessed” (one syllable) simply to mean “lucky.” Maybe because you have loyal friends or family, maybe because you worked hard and were kind to animals, maybe because you won the lottery. Good fortune doesn’t have to come from the creator of the universe, or any specific source.

“Blessed” as it is thrown around today may just be short for “blessed with.” It has long been customary to say one is “blessed with” children, a good job, etc., and it’s really just a polite way to say “lucky,” so it seems the obvious ancestor. The rise of “blessed” may simply be a matter of creating a new expression that takes on a life of its own by eliminating the object, in the tradition of “give back.” In a culture that values fast-paced, short-winded verbiage, briefer is always better. Except on my blog.

One feature “blessed” and “humbled” share, aside from religious roots, is they are both backdoor ways of thanking people who have helped make you what you are. Both “humbled” and “blessed” as we use them now suggest gratitude without directly expressing it. In the old-time religious sense, the gratitude is implicit but definitely real, because the believer offers thanks to God for blessings and humblings alike. As these two words have diffused into secular speech, they retain a vestige of that old force. This is particularly clear in the case of “blessed”; when you say, “I’m so blessed because I have a wonderful family,” it isn’t hard to construe the sentence as expressing thanks to your relatives. When a politician is “humbled” upon winning an election, it’s not as obvious, but it doesn’t much imagination to see that as expressing thanks to the voters. Either way, one avoids openly acknowledging a debt to anyone else. Again, a politician’s dream.

“Humbled” and “blessed” are both significant terms in Christianity, and it may seem a triumph for religious activism when its vocabulary is adopted by the general population. Yet the co-opting of more or less sacred language to mark good fortune without divine origin does religion no favors. Casual, widespread use of such expressions quickly diminishes their power and mystery and drains them of significance, so they cannot help being cheapened even in the eyes of believers. “Blessed” — along with “humble” and its alternate forms, “humbled” and “humbling,” now used to mask deep and abiding arrogance — has suffered this fate. That is part of the reason many devout people have championed strict separation of church and state over the last three centuries. When religious organizations take too active an interest in worldly politics, they may damage the government, but they will infallibly damage themselves.

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soccer mom

(1990’s | journalese (polling))

Cast your minds back to 1995, those of you who go back that far. An unheralded candidate in a race for a seat on the Denver City Council, Susan Casey called herself a “soccer mom” and won the election. A year later, the phrase was heard round the world during the presidential campaign, with both parties wooing soccer moms aggressively. That was when the expression impressed itself on the national lexicon, within the span of a month or two during that singularly undramatic presidential contest. But Casey’s use of “soccer mom” gained her minor national attention; I remember learning the phrase at that time. Before Casey, the phrase, when used at all, connoted no more than boosterism or helping out with kids’ soccer leagues. Despite its political path to prominence and occasional use as a code word (see below), the lowest-common-denominator meaning of the expression — “suburban mother” — emerged quickly and decisively. We form the hackneyed image of a well-off white woman ferrying the kids to various extracurricular activities in the family minivan. The so-called “Soccer Mom Madam” — the suburban mother convicted in 2012 of running a prostitution ring in New York — was so called simply because she had kids and lived outside the city; it didn’t have to do with her party affiliation, employment status, driving habits, or anything else.

The suburbs had formed the object of intense political strategizing for a generation by 1995, but soccer moms energized the bloc and influenced the 1996 election. Early sightings that summer offered definitions: “overburdened, middle income working mothers” (E.J. Dionne quoting Bob Dole’s campaign strategist Alex Castellanos, Washington Post, July 21) or “working mothers, in the suburbs, stressed out and stretched thin” (CBS News, August 29). While only one source mentions the suburbs, both include “working” in the description; I think that is not an essential component of the phrase today. By 2000, “soccer mom” had acquired a left-wing tinge. It was assumed, at least in political discourse, that soccer moms were environmental do-gooders or health nuts or something that made them objects of contempt in right-wing eyes (imagine caring about the health and well-being of your children!). Terms popularized by political consultants are subject to these sorts of shifts, because strategists live by dividing the electorate into ever-narrower slices, defined precisely enough that a certain kind of direct appeal has a good chance of reaping votes, so they try to pile on as many traits as possible to create the narrowest possible definition. Have soccer moms held onto their political clout? Political types no longer use the expression much, or make much effort to reel in their votes, not in any obvious way.

“Soccer mom” (also “hockey mom”) had no precise pre-1990 equivalent, I believe, even though the practice of driving carloads of children to this practice or that class or those lessons was widespread in my childhood. (Back then, we rode in station wagons, kids! Ah, those battleships of the road, some of ‘em twenty feet long, slatternly yet majestic with or without the fake wood paneling.) There just doesn’t seem to have been a word for it, much less a socioeconomic category. Soccer hadn’t entered its boom phase in the U.S. yet, although it was closer than any of us knew. (I don’t recall that we had little-league soccer in my reasonably affluent suburb in the seventies.) “Mom” as a common noun didn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily back then, and that’s part of it, too. Then there’s the possibility that most kids didn’t have as many after-school activities that required being driven somewhere. The point is, we could have had baseball moms or ballet moms, and we didn’t. Suburban mothers were not on anyone’s radar as a political force in the seventies, and it didn’t occur to anyone that they might need a special name. When the time came, the word sprang forth to enfold (or obfuscate) a new set of assumptions about power, gender, and family.

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play one on TV

(1990’s | advertese | “know something about it,” “fake it”)

The “one” in this fixed phrase refers most often to doctors or lawyers, although it has any number of possible antecedents. It is used mainly as a disclaimer by ordinary people, normally in the negative, as in “I’m not a _______ and I don’t play one on TV.” That sentence signals that I lack genuine expertise, however well-informed I might be in general. Sometimes it is used to accuse another person of faking or pretending; in this sense the speaker appeals to the deception inherent in acting, taking a puritanical view. An early example comes from comedian David Steinberg, who described Ronald Reagan as not a president but someone who played a president on television. And sometimes the expression is used, specifically by actors, to claim authority to talk about the topic at hand. In this sense, it emphasizes the preparation and commitment required to play a dramatic role convincingly. The idea follows, in a backhanded way, from the disclaimer cited above; if not even being able to impersonate an M.D. is yet more proof that you are not an expert, then impersonating an M.D. ought to confer some expertise, however evanescent it is in practice. Less often, the phrase is used to describe someone who really looks the part, when used with “could” (a successor of the old expression, “sent from central casting”). The phrase is used quite literally a surprising percentage of the time, of or by television actors, but it has a strong ironic tradition as well. The hipness that came so naturally in its early days has persisted.

LexisNexis and Google Books (and TV Tropes) agree that “play one on TV” didn’t exist before 1984, when a commercial pitched Vicks Adult Formula cough syrup with actor Chris Robinson (Dr. Rick Webber on General Hospital) narrating. A couple of years later, he was replaced by Peter Bergman (Dr. Cliff Warner on All My Children) — the Bergman version can be found here. The noteworthy point about the commercial is that it made explicit use of the premise that you should not trust an actor playing a doctor for medical advice. Like many ad agency products, this one packs a lot of aporia into thirty seconds, so I will take the liberty of summarizing it. The narrator notes that if your child were coughing, you would go to the doctor and get the best medicine, but when the harried mother has a cough, she rummages through the medicine cabinet (“playing doctor at home,” putting your unqualified self in place of the doctor, just like the narrator, get it? and with a bonus reference to titillating children’s games) and grabs the kids’ cough suppressant rather than one specially formulated for harried mothers. It’s a dizzying ride: first the actor suggests that you shouldn’t take his word for it — he just plays a doctor on a soap opera, after all — and that taking the wrong cough medicine is as dumb as listening to an actor spout medical advice. But by the end of the commercial, by gum he’s given you medical advice: you are supposed to rush out and buy Vicks Adult Formula. Don’t listen to me; do listen to me. The disclaimer carefully planted at the beginning softens up your defenses and primes you to trust the fake doctor at the end.

When critics in the eighties talked about this commercial, they tended to miss most of the ambiguities but did latch on to the idea that it takes a lot of chutzpah to trot some guy out there who doesn’t know anything about medicine to tell you which cough syrup to buy. That reaction still erupts when an actor claims special competence derived solely from playing a certain role. We are smart enough to know that we shouldn’t trust advertisers, but most of us are not smart enough to figure out all the different ways we are being manipulated, and sooner or later we succumb.

One oddity courtesy of LexisNexis: This phrase comes up in the search results almost exclusively in U.S. publications, very rarely in Australian, Canadian, or British sources. Such a pattern is very unusual in the kind of expressions I look into. Most new expressions circle the globe quickly and turn up in English-speaking sources in Asia, Europe, and North America, but not this one. I’m not sure why that should be, and it may change over time. It may suggest no more than the truism that American culture is steeped and pickled in television to a degree not seen elsewhere, or it may just have to do with our standards of truth in advertising.

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(1980’s | enginese | “disintegration,” “sudden sharp decline,” “tantrum”)

A term ushered into everyone’s lexicon by a film called The China Syndrome and a nuclear power plant called Three Mile Island in March 1979, the year before this blog’s usual cut-off date (admittedly a highly movable and redefinable affair). The word existed before then, certainly, most likely invented by nuclear engineers. The failure of a nuclear reactor’s cooling system would cause the fuel rods to heat up uncontrollably, so that they would melt through their thick-walled chamber into the ground, with unknown effects — but it wasn’t hard to imagine massive releases of ionizing radiation with dire long-range health consequences, even if catastrophe were avoided in the short run. “Meltdown” in any of its varieties has always been associated with disaster, and just as fundamentally, the inability to control events. The first use I saw on LexisNexis dated from 1976 (Newsweek), and it turned up here and there for the next two or three years, before the deluge. “Core meltdown” was a common elaboration back then, although the modifier was unnecessary even before Three Mile Island. A steady stream of disasters, nuclear and otherwise, has kept the word in the news ever since.

“Meltdown” burst on the scene propelled by an unholy mix of popular culture and what passes for real life around here (it was real enough to those of us who grew up close to Harrisburg, unsure whether we would have to evacuate). It was one of those expressions, like “go postal” or “bobbitt,” or “been there, done that” that roared into the language. And what since? The word moved quickly into other contexts, and by the mid-eighties it was natural, if slightly fast, to use the word to talk about financial collapses, or sports teams blowing a big lead. This use points up a questions about meltdowns: How sudden are they? Screwing up the economy or losing a game takes place over an appreciable period of time, but we also use the word to denote a more or less instantaneous downfall. “Meltdown” was quickly absorbed to talk about glaciers and ice sheets, too — another gradual process — as it is still used today. In this sense, it makes a certain amount of sense to talk about something melting down. Otherwise, “melt down” doesn’t seem comfortable as a verb. Your kid may have a meltdown, but your kid doesn’t melt down, like a sno-cone on a hot day. It’s much more dramatic than that.

Which brings us to the semantic leap wrought in recent years: “meltdown” meaning “tantrum” or “conniption.” I haven’t found a clear trail into the lexicon for this usage, but an informal poll of my sister, who was raising children in the eighties, confirms that like the other metaphorical uses, it was thoroughly established by the end of that decade. Nowadays meltdowns are mainly the property of celebrities and kids, but anyone can have one; it’s basically the same as “losing it.” I’m not sure that was always true. It may have been used originally to describe only children’s tantrums and spread to the rest of us from there. The word does capture the cataclysmic violence of a screaming fit delivered by a child bent on having his or her way, a child who has lost all restraint, like a reactor core which due to an uncontainable chemical reaction is no longer responsible for its actions. When used to describe human behavior, the word might be considered indulgent — a way of excusing or mitigating bad conduct by implying that the offender isn’t really responsible — or it might just be a weary acknowledgment of the inevitable. Thwarted kids can be damnably anti-social, and sometimes you just can’t keep them from going overboard.

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