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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 35 years


alpha male

(1980’s | academese | “leader of the pack,” “take-charge guy,” “macho man,” “dominant male”)

This expression takes advantage of the fact that we are animals and there is something very satisfying about showing direct analogies between human and animal behavior. “Alpha male,” along with “alpha female,” goes back at least to the sixties (the thirties, says William Safire), used first to talk about pack animals, especially wolves and primates. Explanations of social organization generally centered on the the top dog (or whatever), who made all the decisions, got the females he wanted, and scared his inferiors into submission. The typical alpha male had won his place by defeating, perhaps even killing, the previous alpha male; in those days, it was understood purely as a matter of physical domination. The phrase seems to have been applied to humans first in the eighties, generally meaning some combination of “leader,” “the one who gives orders,” and “the one who gets his way.” Sometimes brawn and aggressiveness alone defined the human alpha male, but more often it was a matter of wielding power over others through sexual attractiveness, overweening wealth, political clout. Not infrequently the phrase is used as a straight synonym for man who has a lot of sex with a lot of women. In the nineties, the phrase was used sometimes of Bill Clinton, apparently reflecting both his executive primacy and his prowess. In 1999, Al Gore hired Naomi Wolf as an advisor, whose role was widely reported at the time as teaching Gore to be an “alpha male,” though Wolf denied that’s what she was actually doing. Anyway, use of the phrase went up sharply in 1999, according to LexisNexis, and that increase appears to be permanent.

All these meanings remain in play today. I even found a nice new one, courtesy of a senior editor at Harlequin Romances: “Werewolf and vampire heroes are examples of the alpha male, strong and protective.” I assure you that in the old days, no one ever called an alpha male “protective.” But the term has also acquired a negative tinge, or at least the possibility of one. Two examples from 2009: sportswriter Francis X. Clines of the New York Times referred to obnoxious football fans as “alpha male bellowers.” Professor Robert Sapolsky alluded to “‘totally insane son of a bitch'” types, the sort of alpha males “who respond to stress by lashing out.” These are not just admissions that alpha male behavior might alienate people now and then; they are twists on the term that provide a new field of connotation. The idea that an alpha male exerted anything less than total authority in his field, or had anything to apologize for, was almost unknown as late as 2000 — it was nearly always a term of admiration or envy. Urban Dictionary offers several examples of sardonic or derogatory definitions of the term, though in fairness, most of them have not been treated well by voters. “Alpha male” may be developing the same double life as “type-A personality” (or “control freak“), which might be used as a compliment but generally is not. As beta males conspire to get their slow revenge on the alphas, more such heretical definitions may creep into the language. Among humans as among animals, a group of lesser men acting in concert can bring down the most potent head man. Julius Caesar went from “he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus” to “Then fall, Caesar!” in two short acts.

If the expression continues to take on darker meanings, it will mirror the decline in primatology and other disciplines of the whole notion of alpha males lording it over their enclaves. Frans de Waal and L. David Mech, among others, have moved away from descriptions of social organization dependent on such rigid hierarchies. The very concept of the “alpha male” has little to do with the politics of group behavior among animals and crudely oversimplifies the ways they organize themselves. The idea probably was born more of the predilections of mid-century researchers, and a general urge to find easy explanations of complicated phenomena, than actual observations of wild animals. (In fact, many early studies used captive animals, who behave much differently from their counterparts in the wild.) It may well prove that the alpha male today, like the social Darwinist a century earlier, is no more than a pseudo-natural mandate for the most selfish and sociopathic among us to justify their promiscuous, arrogant, or exploitative desires. For now, “alpha male” still retains much of its old shine, but that may change in the next ten or twenty years.

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designated driver

(1980’s | bureaucratese?)

A new expression that has stayed put, sober and responsible. “Designated driver” first poked its head out in 1982, says LexisNexis, and its sense has never changed. Metaphorical uses are uncommon, and literal uses not much less so. Oh, a race car pilot may be “designated driver” of a particular car for a particular race, though it’s not clear which part of speech “designated” is in such a case. Now and then a paid driver (bus, ambulette, taxi) winds up being referred to as a designated driver. But the set phrase that we grasp as second nature today is pure eighties. It grew slowly but steadily with the rise of the movement against drunk driving.

Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (soon changed to “Drunk Driving”) was founded in 1980 by actual mothers whose children had been killed in accidents caused by drunk drivers. It has been enormously successful, an example of a do-gooder public-service organization that has won respect (or deference, which is more important) across the political spectrum and changed a nation’s behavior. Plenty of people still drink and drive, but they do it much more cautiously than they did two generations ago. Attitudes have changed, and a multidisciplinary structure has been built to make driving under the influence shameful and criminal. Part of that structure is the designated driver, born (in the U.S., at least) near the beginning of the eighties, worming its way into beer commercials by the end of the decade, by which time all us reprobates had learned the expression. Actually, Congress declared “National Drunk and Drugged Driving Awareness Week” as early as December 1982, and the phrase was part of the proclamation. The first use recorded in LexisNexis (October 27, 1982) is due to St. Louis Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter, who had just won the World Series MVP Award and was known at the time as a player who had completed drug rehabilitation successfully (“drugs” included alcohol, as Porter was careful to point out). “‘I didn’t even drink in high school,’ he said with a smile. ‘I was what you’d call the designated driver.'” I myself was in college during those crucial early years when the new expression was struggling to make its way, and I don’t remember hearing it then, but may have. I do remember “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”

Porter’s use of the expression is significant, not just as a matter of historical precedence, but in heralding a radical change in the group behavior of young men. Simply put, non-drinkers became extremely popular when the designated driver took its place in the arsenal of defenses against drunk driving. For decades, centuries, teetotalers were objects of scorn and generally avoided (ironically, the old insult “wet,” meaning something like “lame” as we use it today with an extra touch of wimpiness, fit teetotalers nicely). But when you need a designated driver, that’s exactly the guy you want to bring along — he was gonna drink soda all night anyway. (Wise friends repay the designated driver occasionally, perhaps by providing wingman services.)

“Designated” is a bureaucrat’s word, generally used to refer to something named or assigned by legal authority. It was thus a rather odd choice for the new line-up spot created in 1973 by the American League. (The player was assigned to the Designated Hitter position by the manager, so it wasn’t unreasonable. At first, one heard “Designated Pinch Hitter,” but that disappeared quickly, just as well, since it was confusing.) The designated hitter is the most likely — actually the only — forerunner I can think of. The “designated driver” is not named by authority, generally. Someone within the group has to volunteer, or members of the group take turns. More like a nominated driver, at least if being nominated consists of drawing the short straw.

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hipster

(1990’s | journalese (arts))

It may surprise you to learn that there are some who don’t like hipsters. The concept seems too familiar to require summary, but I encourage everyone to spend an hour Googling “hipster definition” or something similar. Once you see through the fog of animus, you encounter amazingly precise definitions of the term, with detailed and occasionally exquisite catalogues of preferences in fashion, the arts, diet, transportation, grooming, and who knows what all else. Oh, and then there’s the attitude, thoroughly annoying to upstanding citizens everywhere. Pretentious. Hypocritical. Self-righteous. Suckers for fads. Even card-carrying hipsters deny membership in the group; that too is an oft-cited trait of hipsterism, one of the odder ones, it seems to me. There must be some hipster out there who will own up, for Pete’s sake. Diogenes, get busy and start searching for an honest hipster. (In our day, that would be a reality show, and it probably wouldn’t last a season.)

Now “hipster” goes back at least to the 1940’s, when it was a straightforward variation on “hip” or “hip (hep) cat.” Back then, “hipster” was a compliment, used mostly within a particular, and fairly small, subculture. The word was applied to devotees of the latest jazz, or more generally the language, habits, and attitude that went with it. By the mid-1950’s, it was a synonym for “beatnik”; Norman Mailer used it to talk about white people who wanted to be black (which was thought to be the same as being hip). The emphasis fell on expert knowledge and awareness of your cultural surroundings, but anyone considered to be in the know or up to date rated the term. And with that went “cool” and other affectations: avoidance of strong emotion or expression, lack of interest in the world outside the club, etc. Does any of that sound familiar? The connoisseurship, the detachment, the lassitude, the obsessions? “Hipster” was overtaken by “hippie” in the 1960’s, which drove every other derivative of “hip” out of the language for twenty years. (It lives on today as an insult, which is what it was in the first place. “Hippie” is another example of a derogatory term adopted and embraced by its target.) When “hipster” jostled its way back into common speech, it brought quite a bit of its former meaning with it.

At least up until the mid-1980’s, one encountered “hipster” generally in articles about jazz musicians of a previous generation. It’s not clear to me when the changeover happened, but as early as the late 1980’s, I found some citations that made me suspect that today’s meaning was in play by then. But nothing really unambiguous until the early 1990’s. By 1995 the word was used as we use it now, though not universally. It went along with the rise of luxury coffee and Quentin Tarantino. And in those halcyon days the word often had a nostalgic tinge, a sense of rediscovering a hipper past. That shading seems to be gone. Another change: “Hipster” now almost always carries opprobrium, which was not true when it was an in-group term sixty, or even thirty, years ago. Is it just because hipsters are more obnoxious than they were back then? Maybe they’re just more ubiquitous; so much ink has been spilled over the phenomenon that everyone got tired of it (including the hipsters themselves), and ennui became the only possible response. Urban Dictionary affords over 500 definitions, and the web abounds with takedowns of hipsterism. One clever deconstruction from Adbusters (2008) suffers only slightly from the rather feverish suggestion that the hipsters will be the ones to bring down Western civilization once and for all.

One thing generally associated with hipsters all along is youth, or at least the ability to fake it. When do you cross the boundary and get too old to be a hipster? You wake up one morning and the wrinkles are just a little too deep. OMG! We have to move to the suburbs! Briefcases and bow ties for everyone! You probably have to stop wearing tight jeans and cycling when you turn into a hipster emeritus, but let us hope the poor dears can hang onto their obscure bands and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. The sense of superiority will be the last thing to go.

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flyover country

(1990’s | journalese (film) | “the heartland,” “middle America,” “America’s breadbasket”)

While this term ought to be restricted to areas between the east and west coasts of the United States, it can be used for any region that feels marginalized in national politics or popular entertainment. At its largest, flyover country includes everything except the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York. In other words, it’s where the elites don’t live and never go. As you might expect, when people refer to their own town or state as flyover country, they usually direct a healthy dose of resentment at the powers that be. It is generally attributed to such arrogant, out-of-touch snobs by residents of the Midwest or where have you, and has been from the beginning.

The phrase begins to appear in LexisNexis after 1985 — generally attributed at the time to Hollywood jet-setters — and seems to have become firmly established in the nineties. The McVeigh bombing in 1995 may have helped push it into prominence; terrorism wasn’t supposed to happen so far from the power centers, and the term got more of a workout than usual. By 2000, it shed quotation marks and explanations and became easily understood shorthand for average Americans unrepresented in political and media centers. The distinction between a small cadre of officials in the capital who make the laws and the great majority of the population intentionally excluded from such deliberations is very old; it has underlain our entire political history as a nation and has animated both left-wing and right-wing activism. Without flyover country there would be no populism, although the term would have made no sense until the fifties, long after populism was invented. There are some old expressions for the salt of the earth and the great mass of land they call home, but few capture quite the depth of elite contempt (“great unwashed” referred to a different group of people, for example).

Whether the elite actually feel the disdain assigned to them is an open question. Federal officials can’t possibly craft policies that serve every locality; no matter what you do, someone somewhere will be unhappy. What looks like disregard for local necessities and wisdom may just result from balancing of a complicated set of interests. Hollywood types may well scorn the vast majority of their audience, but the their scorn extends beyond flyover country to include most of their local compatriots, many of whom are just plain folks. But the expression is far more often used by its supposed targets than by bureaucrats yanking away another right or film directors offending more sensibilities. Movie executives or powerful officials are rarely quoted using the expression, and if the term ever flourished among the wielders of power, it was quickly co-opted by its targets to attack the aristocrats. Like other terms defiantly adopted by oppressed minorities, it often has a defensive cast.

The adoption of the expression by the slighted majority marks an unusually quick, smooth instance of linguistic ju-jitsu. “Flyover country” apparently never had a chance to establish itself among the elites before the hoi polloi laid claim to it and turned it into a badge of honor. It’s a nice trick: a quick, widely-grasped phrase turned on its head to attack the adversary. The biter bit! The process is not unusual, but the speed and seamlessness are. “Queer” really was a put-down for decades before the gay community co-opted it (and that process took some time). Same with “redneck” or “Chicano.” But no sooner does “flyover country” appear in the lexicon than its targets snap it up and make it theirs.

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cold call

(1980’s | businese (sales) | “peddling”)

Wonderful thing about this expression — it hasn’t really changed since 1980, when it completed its shift from personal sales visit to approach by telephone, a shift already accomplished elsewhere in the culture. (It’s the difference between “paying a call” and “making a call.”) In 1978, Jonathan Kwitny defined “cold call” as “blind telephone solicitation” (Wall Street Journal, April 10). The phrase seems to have arisen in the sixties among salesmen, long after the practice of attempting to sell to people who had not been warned of your coming was well established. Many items were sold that way door-to-door for most of the twentieth-century, and “cold call” originally denoted such encounters. Actually, the phrase more often conjured up a salesman cooling his heels in an executive’s anteroom than the outdoor work of the traveling drummer. By the early eighties the phrase could also apply not just to selling a product or service, but selling oneself, as a job applicant telephoning potential employers without any previous contact. Today, “cold call” still means both these things and is still used almost invariably in sales-related contexts — though it can be used of any telephone call made without prior notice, even if it has nothing to do with selling. Beyond that it hasn’t broadened, or accreted any metaphorical uses.

Telemarketers and stockbrokers did more to popularize this expression — and give it a bad name — than any other breeds of salesman. In the hands of either, cold calls are rife with misleading promises, not to mention just plain getting on lots of people’s nerves. The federal Do Not Call Registry is partly intended to make it difficult for commercial enterprises to cold-call (the expression graduated to verbhood somewhere around 2000, as far as I can tell) those who would rather be left alone. But the registry makes exceptions for organizations that have done business with you before. That raises the question of whether “cold call” covers pitches for an unrelated product from a company that you’ve bought from before. I would say yes.

Cold calling is widely understood to be ethically dubious, and the phrase, like “upsell,” has a taint it can’t quite shake no matter how hard you try to make it reputable. The prejudice is an old one — traveling salesmen made lively objects of suspicion for decades, and not just because they knocked up unlocked-up daughters. Snake-oil vendors abounded, and they liked nothing better than to show up on the doorsteps of people who hadn’t requested their presence. Dealing with a stranger trying to sell you something on the phone is, if anything, more intrusive, especially if it’s a robocall. Salespeople, start-ups looking for clients, and hustlers all continue to make cold calls because they work, at least if you make enough of them. There are people out there who go for the sales pitch, and by the law of averages, you will find some of them. Many recipients express their displeasure by hanging up within a minute or two, so a failed cold call (the vast majority) doesn’t eat up much time. Never mind that everyone hates them, including the drudges who have to make them for a living.

Have you noticed that there isn’t a word for “person on the receiving end of a telephone call”? It seems like there ought to be an everyday term for it. You can use “recipient,” as I did above, but it doesn’t sound idiomatic. Nobody says “callee,” the ostensible opposite of “caller.” Why isn’t there a word for the one who lifts the handset (or receiver, as we said in the old days), or flips open the cell phone, when it’s such a common occurrence? “Phonee”? “Quarry”? “Callcatcher”? “Picker-upper”? Let’s get to work, America!

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standalone

(1980’s | computerese, businese | “independent,” “unconnected,” “separate,” “isolated”)

The earliest instances of “standalone” (sometimes hyphenated, even in this day and age) in Google Books date from the sixties and seventies, nearly always in talking about non-networked computers. The first hits recorded in LexisNexis all date from 1979 in that trusty journal American Banker — but invariably in discussions of the use of computers in banking. The word was used often in the early days of ATM’s, which could, in the manner of computers, be divided into the ones clustered together for protection (e.g., in a bank lobby) and the ones out in the field, far from help. (The latter had to be connected to a mainframe somewhere or they wouldn’t have access to anyone’s account data, of course. And even a standalone computer had to be connected to a power source. No computer is an island; no computer stands alone.) ATM’s were brave and new in the eighties, and I suspect their spread pushed “standalone” into prominence. Other business types were certainly using the word by 1990, generally in reference to computers. It was widely understood by then but remained primarily a hardware term at least until 2000. One mildly interesting point about “standalone” is that it could apply to an entire system as well as to a single device. A standalone device can function even if it is not part of a larger system, but an entire system can also absorb the adjective if it doesn’t depend obviously on comparable systems.

“Standalone” retains a strong business bias, even today, but it is available to describe many things besides computers. A complicated piece of legislation might be broken up into standalone bills. Or a film for which no prequels or sequels are planned (or one in which a character that had been a supporting player in other films becomes the protagonist) might be so described. A government agency that doesn’t rely on another agency for its writ. A restaurant that isn’t part of a chain. “Standalone” is not generally used to mean “freestanding,” although it seems like it ought to be, literally speaking. I am a little surprised that I find almost no examples of the word used as a noun (one does see it used as a trade name), although that seems inevitable. All it takes is the careless insertion of one lousy one-letter article, and the deed is done. You’d think it would be harder to blur fundamental grammatical categories, but no.

The rise of this term inevitably accompanied a change in how we use computers. In the seventies and eighties, when we began to get serious about turning them into tools for business, the idea was that each employee’s work station had to be connected to the mainframe, where all the applications and data were stored. In the nineties, we shifted to the opposite model: each employee’s computer should have a big enough hard drive to store software and data; every work station became its own mainframe (or server, as we would say now). In the last few years, we’ve pushed the other way, and now minuscule laptops and tablets run software from the cloud, and store data there as well. The same shift has taken place outside the office; home computers have undergone a similar evolution. There are no doubt good reasons for the shift; the rules and conventions of the computer game have changed quite a bit. But like many such sizable shifts in our culture, it has taken place with little or no consideration of why we did it the other way. Are the once highly-touted advantages of standalone computers no longer real or significant? We don’t know, because the issue was never debated out where most of us could hear. We did it the old way because there was money in it, and now the powers that be have found a new way to make money. You’re stuck with it whether it helps you or not, and you’re not even entitled to an explanation. That should be surprising, but in practice, it isn’t. Our policy debates routinely fail to explore how things got to be the way they are. It’s as if we all woke up one day and said, “Look, a problem! Let’s fix it!” With insufficient historical understanding, we attack large-scale problems with little or no attention to how they arose and fail to acknowledge the evils the existing approach has successfully prevented.

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max out

(1990’s | enginese? bureaucratese? | top out, use (or fill) up, reach one’s peak, maximize)

A term that has grown in many directions since it came into existence around 1970 — Google Books and Lighter both find no examples before then. “Max out” may have arisen in prison slang, where it meant “serve the maximum sentence.” By 1980, it could mean “reach a limit,” still a very common way to use the expression. An employee might max out with respect to salary or vacation time, or a weightlifter might max out at 200 pounds. A less-used sense probably comes from militarese: “attain the best possible score on an exam.” These were all current by 1985, around the time when yet another meaning started to show up persistently in political reporting: “max out” is what donors do when they contribute as much as the law allows to a campaign. (This meaning is also still going strong, surprise, surprise.) Two more meanings: “get the most out of a situation” or “put forth utmost effort.” Occasionally it is used to mean “make the most of,” although I wouldn’t consider that a canonical definition. The common feature I would ask you to observe about these variants is that they are all intransitive. In order to smuggle in an object you have to use a preposition, so a reporter might have said, “The donor maxed out on campaign contributions.”

Some time after 1990 a transitive usage gained a foothold and by now has probably surpassed the older uses, though they maintain a robust business at the old stand. The history of the word “overthink” shows a similar pattern; “lighten up” went the other way. By 2000, the expression was often used in conjunction with one’s credit cards or retirement account contributions, and these remain among the most popular objects. Another, lesser, transitive use: now “max out” can serve as a substitute for “limit,” as in an Internet form maxing out the number of words or characters one can type.

Such a shift from intransitive to transitive is not uncommon, as even fundamental grammatical categories carry less and less force. “Max out” belongs in a group of verbs that swing both ways: ramp up, downsize, upsell. It’s not that the distinction has become insignificant; even rookie English speakers recognize that some verbs just can’t take an object, while others just can’t stop. But only the beleaguered few care enough to preserve even simple grammatical distinctions, especially with new additions to the vocabulary. It’s easier just to let it all slosh around, and most of your hearers or readers can figure out most of what you’re trying to say most of the time, anyway. It’s like a cell phone conversation in which every third word is inaudible, yet somehow we manage to communicate. Or at least get close.

Another member of the “maximum” family is “to the max,” which Lighter says arose at about the same time but which entered the mainstream a few years earlier. We were all throwing this around during the Valley Girl craze of the early eighties (grody to the max!), but the expression was in use before then. (Assuredly I am being fanciful in hearing the old oath “By the mass” in the background.) “Max out” was just evolving a little more slowly, but it has lasted better; “to the max” sounds distinctly archaic in 2015, but “max out” has plenty of vigor.

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