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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

racial profiling

(1990’s | legalese | “discrimination”)

The verb “to profile” has a relatively complicated recent history, even if you set aside the usual literal or technical meanings from geology, engineering, esthetics, etc. For most of the twentieth century, the most common usage had to do with interview-based journalism — describing a worthy individual or organization in detail. Usually an actor or comparable cultural phenomenon, hence the phrase “celebrity profile.” The word was available as both noun and verb, but from either angle it seems an odd choice. The classical meaning of “profile” — a face seen from the side — would seem, on the face of it (sorry), to have little to do with a revealing biographical portrait. To carry the metaphor to its logical conclusion implies that the reporter has left out half the relevant information, as a profile leaves out half the visage — although an art critic might argue that sometimes the profile is more revealing than a full-face view, and there’s no denying some faces are far more interesting in profile. Sometimes “profile” means little more than “categorize,” as in a corporate profile that provides statistics grouped under various measures of performance. In African-American slang, “profiling” was another word for “showing off.” But when we use the term in African-American contexts today, it has an entirely different slant.

Our use of “racial profiling” today is descended from the more sinister practice of psychological profiling; the OED lists its first example of this usage in 1951. The goal is to see beneath the surface presented by the soldier, teacher, or employee, the psychologist’s trained eye constructing an account of each personality that understands the subject better than she understands herself, or at least better than the boss understands her. Inevitably, it occurred to the criminal justice system that such a thing might be useful in dealing with malefactors, and the idea of profiling this depraved criminal or that deranged terrorist entered the mainstream in the seventies and eighties. By 1990, the concept had undergone further refinement in the form of DNA profiling, by which the expert found a unique way to identify any individual through a bit of hair or saliva, again finding a distinctive marker that was not apparent to the unaided eye or brain. A DNA profile is a hyper-detailed diagram constructing a definitive portrait that cannot be confused with that of anyone else. Though the technology is often used in the context of medical research, it turns up much more often in news accounts of criminals, which has paved the way for “racial profiling,” now the dominant locution in which “profiling” appears. (I append the ACLU’s definition along with a reasonably non-partisan discussion of various kinds of profiling.)

The extraordinary thing about the new expression is that it has turned the old idea on its head. Racial profiling dispenses entirely with a painstaking account of the individual, teasing out a detailed map of characteristics, and replaces it with a simple question: Do you belong to this or that dangerous group? (Profiling based on religion or nationality is also possible, of course.) On one view, the change in usage is a complete reversal, but from another it is more or less seamless — profiling is merely one more weapon in the eternal war against the bad guys — and therefore it may be entitled to a certain poetic license.

The illogic of widespread, systematic profiling has been proven so often that the practice has few defenders but many adherents. When Americans feel threatened — some of us don’t even have to feel threatened — we disregard the studies and the logic and reach for the easy, satisfying answer. If a few people from a certain group mean us harm, make all of them suspect. For that to have any chance to work, the group must be very small, but preferred objects of unequal treatment in our society number in the millions, most of whom are law-abiding and just trying to do their jobs and pay their taxes. Having been mistreated by the justice system, such members of minority groups have no incentive to work with police and a quite reasonable desire to avoid them. Police departments around the country have learned this the hard way. (An exchange between Sam Harris and Bruce Schneier may flesh out the argument sketched above.) But their experiences have not dissuaded an uncomfortably large percentage of us, who demand that the law be simple and punitive. In America, foolish and failed policies can be enacted over and over again, if they benefit — or harm — the right people.

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(1980’s | journalese (politics); | “lambaste,” “lash out at,” “rap”)


(2000’s | computerese? | “snowed under,” “overburdened”)

If you persist in associating slamming with doors, home runs, telephones, or fists on the table, you are behind the times. If you think of poetry or dancing, you’re in better shape, but the verb has taken on two intriguing and non-obvious definitions since 1980, both of which are technically transitive, but one of which is generally used in a way that disguises its transitivity, to the point that it may not be transitive at all any more — more like an adjective. To be fair, only doors and home runs got purely transitive treatment in the old days; telephones and fists required an adverb, usually “down,” although Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, sometimes wrote of a telephone receiver being “slammed up,” which may reflect an older usage or may have been idiosyncratic. Sometimes a preposition is required, usually “into,” as in slamming a car into an abutment. (But you might also say the car slammed into an abutment.) That’s if you neglected to slam on the brakes.

“Slam” today means “attack” or “harshly criticize,” while “slammed” means overwhelmed by work or life in general, when it isn’t merely serving as a past participle. The former emerged first, before 1990 — I found very few examples before 1980 — primarily in political contexts, though it could also be used to talk about entertainment, as in slamming an actor, or his performance. It appears to have been more common in England and Australia; I doubt it originated there but our anglophone cousins may have taken it up faster than we did. “Slammed” came along later; I found only a few examples before 2000, mainly among computer jockeys.

How are the two meanings related? They both rest on deliberate infliction of metaphorical violence, obvious when one politician slams another, less so when one feels slammed “at” or “with” (not “by”) work. When I first encountered that usage, I understood it to mean the boss had assigned a whole bunch of work without recognizing that the employee already had too much to do. That doesn’t seem particularly true any more. “Slammed” no longer automatically imputes malice — if it ever did — and need not suggest anything other than adverse but impersonal circumstances. Gradually it has spread so that it need not refer strictly to having too much to do; in recent years it has developed into a synonym for “exhausted.” It has somewhat more potential for expansion than “slam,” which has not strayed from the basic idea of heated verbal assault.

Is there a direct link between the two? We might expect to discern a path from the older meaning to the newer, but how would it work? The boss can excoriate your performance, or he can dump too many tasks on you, but they would seem to be separate operations. If you’re no good to begin with, why would the boss ask you to louse up still more projects? It’s a compliment if the boss piles work on you, not an insult. The linguistic pathways that led to these two recent additions to the dictionary may remain mysterious, but there should be no confusion about why they have become so popular in the last thirty years. Our pleasure in believing the worst of each other has led inescapably to uglier discourse, offering numerous opportunities to use the older verb. On the job front, whatever productivity increases we’ve wrung out of the workforce since 1970 have come from longer hours and fewer people; so those who still have a job must work harder. Conditions favored harsher language, and there was versatile “slam(med)” to fill the gap.

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empty nest

(1980’s | therapese | “the house feels so empty”)

This is one of those effortless phrases. The first example I found in Google Books dates from 1968; by the late 1970’s it was turning up in the mainstream press now and then, and everyone seemed to get it right away. At that early date, it still required quotation marks and a brief gloss, but little time elapsed before the expression made itself at home. It was well arrived by the time a sitcom of that title debuted in 1988, spun off from The Golden Girls. “Empty nest syndrome,” an early elaboration, is the most common use of “empty nest” in adjective form; “period,” “phase,” and “blues” are other possibilities. As noun or adjective, it retains an innocent, “literal” quality — of course, the phrase is not literal at all, but its evocation of pure-hearted little birdies seems to shield it from irreverent wordplay. Even after thirty years, the phrase has not developed much of an ironic life, and it is not often used to refer to anything other than a home (or family) from which the last resident child has departed. “Empty nest” does have unlooked-for complexity when you take it apart. The first half is literally false — the nest isn’t empty because the parents are still there. The phrase as a whole requires knowledge of how birds bring up their young, sheltering them until they reach maturity, then sending them on their way.

The semantics of “empty nest” may tickle the analytical brain, but the concept appeals to the emotions, and it soon found a home in the long-running debate between parents and grown children over whether it’s really a good idea for the kids to move back in rent-free after college. The kids are all for it; parents are much more divided on the question. In my own case, the model was the great economist or perhaps sociologist Thorstein Veblen, who returned to his parents’ farm after taking a Ph.D. because he couldn’t find work, and filled the time with reading and long conversations about society and politics with his father. That sounded pretty good to me, but Dad saw disadvantages to the scheme and suggested graduate school instead, which ultimately got me out the door for good.

Not all parents are unhappy at the thought of their children moving back in. Some parents get all broken up when the last child leaves the house, and they are the most vulnerable to later irredentism on the part of their down-and-out offspring. Other parents can’t wait to see the back of their kids and have looked forward to the empty nest for years. I haven’t done a study, but I doubt such empty nesters (is it my imagination, or does that term imply a certain affluence?) relish the prospect of having their uncouth twenty-something kids cluttering the living room. This antidote to the empty nest is now known as “boomerang kid,” a term which arose within the last thirty years. By the way, that news article we’ve all read about how unprecedented numbers of college graduates are moving back in with Mom and Dad has been a staple at least since 1980. It’s a wonder anyone under forty lives on their own.

It is less true now, but in the olden days empty nest syndrome was primarily associated with women, a rough complement to the midlife crisis for men. True, mothers nostalgic for having surly kids in the house didn’t usually buy sports cars or cheat on their husbands, but both middle-age traumas mark a troubled transition to a later phase of adulthood. How can you tell “empty nest syndrome” was a well-established concept by 1985? By that time a whole new branch of the advice for the lovelorn industry had already sprung up, especially in women’s magazines, soothing unhappy mothers with an endless stream of counsel and reassurance.

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dog whistle

(2000’s | journalese (politics) | “coded (signals),” “speaking to people in their own language,” “telling people what they want to hear”)

In its figurative political sense, “dog whistle” first began to turn up in quantity around 2000, primarily in the Australian press. When used down there, it was generally identified as an American expression. I’m not saying they were wrong — though in 2005, William Safire quoted an Australian reporter suggesting that the phrase may have originated in Australia after all — but LexisNexis coughs up precious few examples in America, or anywhere else, before 1995. None, really; the Washington Post defined the “dog whistle effect,” a pollster’s term, in 1988: “Respondents hear something in the question that researchers do not.” (I’m not sure if this remains a technical term in polling.) In 1995, a House Republican spake thus of Newt Gingrich: “When Newt and the others would talk about what was possible, it was like a dog whistle. Some people heard it and some people didn’t. If you were tuned into that frequency it made a lot of sense.” And that, of course, is the essence of the dog whistle. One group gets it full force and the others are blissfully unaware of the hidden message, giving the in group the added pleasure of putting one over on the uninitiated. If you want to express covert solidarity, use words and phrases that have special meaning for the target, but not for others. In fact, the phrase didn’t blossom in the U.S. until shortly after George W. Bush took office; he wooed evangelicals with snatches from hymns or Bible verses intended to elude listeners not versed in Christian vocabulary. Bush used religious rhetoric in much more open ways, but he also found subtler means to reassure that reliable chunk of his base. Dog whistles, in Australia as in the U.S., get more of a workout from politicians on the right — wonder why that is — so it’s telling that the concept was associated early on with Gingrich and his merry men.

The New York Times, not normally an outlier when it comes to contemporary usage, nevertheless defined “dog-whistle politics” thus in 2005: “handful of emotive issues that will hit voters like a high-pitched whistle,” ignoring the point of the metaphor but not exactly inaccurate, either. In the more regulation sense outlined above, the phrase has always been more common as an adjective, most often modifying “politics,” but it is also available as a noun. While it is possible to use it in other contexts, it is a political term par excellence. It captures one of the many kinds of duplicity required of politicians, though it’s more roundabout than the usual “I know an easy way to make everything better, and it won’t cost you a penny.”

In case anyone is wondering if the presidential election may have prompted this week’s musings, maybe you’re right. But for the most part, Trump didn’t bother with dog whistles, and that was one of the most extraordinary features of his campaign. Hillary did use dog whistles to talk to investment bankers, but she certainly made no effort to convince coal miners that she had a deep connection with them. It’s not entirely true that Trump dispensed with dog whistles, but coyness is not one of his attributes — which doesn’t mean he’s honest — and he did best when he trumpeted the yearnings and grievances of the white right. If the dog whistle loses its raison d’être in our politics, Trump will get the credit — or blame. Dog whistles are dishonorable, but they are also an acknowledgment of an accepted range of political discourse that does not permit slander, baseless accusations, or entirely fabricated “facts” to become the stuff of campaigns. When Trump wanted to fire up his base, he didn’t bother with the subliminal. And it worked better than anything else Republican presidential candidates have tried lately. Maybe all it proves is that many Republican voters don’t like indirect messages because they’re too dumb to interpret them. Give ’em a little rhetorical red meat, and they’ll follow you to the ends of the earth.

Thanks as always to lovely Liz from Queens, who has contributed countless expressions to the blog and continues to do so. My cup runneth over.

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done deal

(1980’s | businese | “sure thing,” “fait accompli”)

“Done deal” always makes me think of the mob expression “made man.” The alliterative spondee lends both expressions the necessary sense of finality and irrevocability. I don’t know of any connection between “done deal” and organized crime; the earliest uses of the term I was able to find come out of the financial industry, soon absorbed into political discourse. As you might expect given its business origins, “deal” clearly refers to transactions, not cards, although I can imagine a casino employee responding to a poker player’s complaints with “Shut up — it’s a done deal.” Newsweek noted in 1985 that the phrase was a favorite of Treasury Secretary James Baker, and such early patronage by politicians favored its fortunes; there’s no doubt “done deal” is as useful in politics as in banking (or the Mafia, for that matter). Even today, the phrase turns up most often in financial and political news — not that they’re different. “Done deal” has now come to be used more often, if not predominantly, in the negative, to caution us that there’s no guarantee the contract will be completed as advertised (e.g., “this is not a done deal”).

“Done deal” originally referred to business maneuvers, but as politicians picked it up it came to mean any sort of dead certainty (a little like “slam dunk,” but used in different situations). A way of saying “we’re not going back” or “you can count on it.” A done deal need not actually be done, but the point is that even if the papers aren’t signed, they will be soon. It does seem to me that “done deal” is often used to refer to a transaction or agreement that is not yet formal or final; once the deal is truly executed, it is no longer necessary to call it “done.”

“Done deal” represents a form of grammatical displacement not uncommon among new expressions. The concept is an old one, so how did we express it in the old days? “Settled,” or more poetically “chiseled in stone.” In a simpler key, “all over.” These are all adjective phrases that cannot serve as subject or object. Commonplace ideas look for new parts of speech to inhabit, and nouns may slip into power where once ruled only adjectives. To some extent I am speaking fancifully in attributing will to words, which are but bits of breath and ink, but if you spend enough time observing the language, it’s easy to slip into the belief that words have life and motive independent of us, their creators but not their controllers.

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(1980’s | New Yorkese | “heartburn,” “acid indigestion,” “anxiety,” “stress”)

I didn’t know this, but the rest of the internet did: “Agita” originally referred to gastric distress. No one seems to have demonstrated conclusively where the word comes from, but many people blame the Italians, possibly by way of a colloquial pronunciation of “acido” (which means, surprise, “acid”). It may have started life as a euphemism allowing the speaker to avoid unsavory details, just as telling your boss you were out sick with an upset stomach usually ends the conversation. “Agita” seems to have come into use in New York before it did anywhere else — some on-line sources claim it has been around for decades, but the earliest uses I’ve found date from around 1980. Woody Allen’s 1984 film, Broadway Danny Rose, contains a song of that title, and Ed Koch was quoted using the word in the eighties as well. One may doubt Allen’s and Koch’s Italian credentials, but that’s the great thing about New York. Ethnic vocabularies slosh around and get all mixed up in the urban mind just as a big plate of pasta and tomato sauce gets all jumbled in your stomach. For those of us that dislike certain words, there’s even a kind of linguistic heartburn caused by hearing one of them, which provokes an analogous sour, burning sensation in the ear and mind.

Today, the expression is much more likely to refer to a general emotional state than mere stomach trouble. The internet doesn’t answer conclusively the question of how chronic indigestion or aggravation has to be to qualify as “agita.” I tend to think of it as an ongoing condition, but it can also be a temporary tempest that subsides as soon as the irritant is removed. In everyday use, it implies a persistent quality. The substratum of “agita” has changed since the early days: from discomfort caused by indigestion to nail-biting nervousness caused by worrisome circumstances or developments.

Allen and Koch might have had in mind two Yiddish words that are related, though not very closely: tsuris (troubles) and shpilkes (restlessness). At least one commentator equates “agita” with “tsuris,” but they are not an exact match. Tsuris normally come from the outside rather than welling up inside you, but the main point is that they (“tsuris” is plural) are the troubles you are actually having, to which you may react with philosophical tranquility or by waking up in a cold sweat. “Shpilkes” is even farther away, but when “agita” is used as a straight synonym for “agitation,” they have something in common, even though the mood is quite different. “Agita” covers only personal feelings, not “agitation” in the sense of public protest or stirring up unrest. That doesn’t mean entire classes or types of people cannot experience agita, but it’s more a shared experience than a collective one.

“Agita” is a trade name for an insecticide (chemical name thiamethoxam), and in prescription-speak, it means “stir,” which is much easier to understand than the usual cropped Latin found on your medicine bottle. It also appears occasionally as a woman’s name, but I hope in that context it would be pronounced ah-GHEE-tuh, or possibly “ah-JEE-tuh,” not accented on the first syllable as “agita” (AH-ji-tuh). At least I hope so.

Thanks to Anna from the Bronx, friend and colleague of lovely Liz from Queens, who nominated, all unwittingly, this week’s expression.

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(1990’s | computerese | “totem,” “alter ego”)

Occasionally a word will just flip around. For thousands of years, “avatar” meant corporeal embodiment of an abstraction, often a god (the word comes from Sanskrit and is mainly associated with the Hindu god Vishnu). What does it mean now? An incorporeal representation of a flesh-and-blood person. Now your avatar is a tiny image file that stands for you in the on-line universe –- on Facebook, in a role-playing video game, or on a blogger’s profile. It could be a portrait but usually isn’t, and there are dozens of sites that will give you some raw material and a little coaching to help you make your own. Another word for it is “icon,” which is a little different but not that far off. “Avatar” was definitely available in its present form by 2000, though perhaps not all that widespread in the days before everybody needed one to keep up a virtual social life. Now it is all over everywhere.

Is it odd that both terms have a distinctly religious cast? By the time you’ve settled on which South Park character you want to represent you on your social media pages, the sense of majesty and mystery that religion must command has pretty well worn away. Both “avatar” and “icon” have had non-religious uses for at least a century now, or at least “avatar” has, but there’s still a distinct whiff of it. You might also argue that technology, the most up-to-date religion we have going, has simply appropriated sacred vocabulary and repurposed it.

The question leads to a favorite pastime of mine: constructing narratives of cultural decline. “Avatar” once had a mystical tone, associated either with the gods themselves or people who live out philosophically pure distillations of noble principles. Now it’s a few pixels thrown together that allows you to play video games. A decided downward drift, and all in my lifetime! A quick scan of search results does confirm that Google, for one, doesn’t think old-fashioned religious uses of the term count for much — though, of course, the results are skewed by the 2009 blockbuster film. I didn’t see it, but from what I gather the eponymous characters in the film had at least a touch of the guru or sage about them. (I remember the movie as being about blue characters who weren’t Smurfs, but that just shows you how primitive my cinematic consciousness is.)

On-line avatars remind me of choosing your token at the beginning of a Monopoly game (we usually called it simply a “piece,” but if I remember correctly, the rules used the word “token”). The dog, the shoe, the little car, etc. (I liked the wheelbarrow myself.) Most people had a preference, whether they considered it lucky or somehow apt. True, you couldn’t cobble your own avatar together in Monopoly; you had to take what Parker Brothers gave you. But those were the boring old days, my children. Image files are not my strong suit, but I came up with a few related user names, free to a good home. Want to be an actress? Ava Tardner. Fond of the Middle Ages? Avatar and Heloise. For fans of ancient video games, Avatari. For a historical touch, how about Amelia Earhart, avatrix? That’ll light up the chat boards.

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doesn’t pass the smell test

(1980’s | legalese? bureaucratese? | “is fishy,” “ain’t right,” “doesn’t smell right,” “stinks to high heaven”)

The primary characteristic of the “smell test,” I suppose, is that it does not measure or evaluate anything that can be rigorously defined. It’s a more or less instantaneous reaction to circumstances that tells you whether to go further or not. And it usually is an ethical test. Passing the smell test means you are on the up-and-up; to do otherwise means your motives or methods are questionable, or worse. An important characteristic of the smell test is that it is anterior to other kinds of questions that might need to be asked. Deciding that an explanation or proposal doesn’t pass the smell test means you need not go any further to evaluate other aspects of the set-up; you simply turn up your nose and go home. It has failed to meet a minimum standard of credibility or honesty.

Even though it is possible to pass a smell test, the phrase is used far more often in the negative — so much so that while it is very easy to think of idiomatic equivalents to “doesn’t pass the smell test,” it’s much harder to come by conventional expressions that mean the opposite. It would be more economical to have a new expression that fills in a gap instead of lapsing into a well-worn groove, but many recent additions to our vocabulary are unnecessary, if not unwanted.

“Smell test” has a more literal meaning: evaluation of olfactory acuity (not very common) or any examination conducted by means of smelling (less uncommon). An example would be sniffing a sample of the grain harvest to see if it’s moldy or otherwise contaminated. The inspector’s nose must decide if the wheat has something wrong with it that makes it unfit to eat. This appears to be a direct ancestor of our more figurative use, since the same operation and results are at work. The odor is off, so we declare the batch unusable and cast it aside.

I found exactly one example of “doesn’t pass the smell test” before 1980 in LexisNexis. The phrase seems not to have taken hold for several years after that. It was used now and then during the eighties, nearly always in legal or political contexts. In a New York Times article (1988), an attorney named Edward Costikyan credited the expression to a colleague, but it seems likely that the phrase had been around for a decade or more by then. There doesn’t seem to have been a definite moment that catapulted “smell test” into everyday language. A few people liked it and used it as a handy way to refer to a kind of quick and final gut reaction that (usually) warned you away from a crime, scam, or cover-up. Maybe it’s obvious to everyone; maybe you have to know something about a particular field or business to detect the problem, but either way, you know it when you see it. Maybe you can’t give a well-defined reason, but you don’t need one with a smell test — a feature that makes it easy to abuse. For the most part, though, “smell test” does not seem to have become a synonym for arbitrary or prejudicial conduct (e.g., your job application didn’t pass the smell test because your name is Takisha). It still has a faintly commendable ring, evidence of an active sense of right and wrong and a pure heart rather than a means of getting rid of people or projects you didn’t like anyway.

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show daylight between

(1980’s | athletese | “distance oneself from,” “move away from,” “disagree with”)

Now primarily a political term and has been for at least twenty years. It comes out of equestrian sports: space between rider and saddle or between two horses on a track. It goes back a long way among other athletes as well; Lighter found citations as far back as 1903 in sports talk. When a running back sees daylight, he’d better gain some yardage. Before that, “daylights” could mean “eyes” or “guts” (as in beating the daylights out of someone), an odd pairing. (“Lights” is a very archaic term for lungs, as in “liver and lights.”) Daylights plural and daylight singular don’t seem to have a lot to do with each other.

In sports lingo, “daylight” just means there is a gap between two things: a baseball and a foul pole, say, or two defenders. When you see light you know the objects aren’t touching. That particular meaning was next adopted into politics; by 1980, political figures felt free to use “daylight” in the athlete’s sense. By 1990, executives had it in their arsenals, too. Today, it is still primarily the property of athletes and politicians; according to LexisNexis, it turns up infrequently in any other context. Among athletes, “daylight” might be good or bad, according to the circumstances. But in politics, “daylight” always indicates antagonism of some kind. If it’s someone you want it known that you’re in conflict with, you may “put” or “create” daylight between yourself and the other. When an official wants to affirm unity with another official, she says there is “no daylight” between them. It can exist (or fail to exist) between organizations or countries, too.

Politicians, magpies that they are, love to steal the characteristic expressions of athletes, just as they love to hijack military jargon. I have covered at least half a dozen examples: payback, you’re history, raise the bar, slam dunk, punt, game changer, man up, and there are a few more that are less clear-cut. Politicians, especially male ones, may feel a toughness deficiency and look for ways to cover it up. Taking expressions from athletes and soldiers exploits their generally acknowledged masculine superiority and delivers to the audience an (often unmerited) impression of strength, vigor, and determination. I’ve noted before that politicians like to draw on military vocabulary, but their yen for athletese may also be worth exploring. There are other factors at work: “daylight” sounds like a pleasant, uplifting word, and the way it veils animosity also makes it attractive to the politically inclined.

“Daylight” should not be confused with “sunlight” or “sunshine,” words that in political discourse are used to talk about openness or transparency in government proceedings. The use of “daylight” in such a context would suggest a slip of the tongue or confusion on the part of the speaker.

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what part of no don’t you understand?

(1990’s | journalese (politics)? | “no means no,” “don’t you get it?,” “stop acting like an idiot”)

Nearly anything can substitute for “no” in this rhetorical question — “this” and “that” are often used — otherwise it is invariable, except that occasionally you will see a pronoun other than “you” (“they,” I should say, a majority of the time). Normally used as a rejoinder or expostulation suggesting that you fail to grasp something that has been made abundantly clear; therefore, whether actively disingenuous or not, you are being obtuse. Whether directed to a child by a parent or to public officials by voters, it bears an outraged, sarcastic, or at least exasperated edge. Linguist Arnold Zwicky has provided a very thorough exposition and history of the phrase and how it may be amended. The Phrase Finder’s entry is also worth a look.

Neither Zwicky nor anyone else has uncovered a primal connection with a film or television show, which surprises me; this question has always struck me as very likely to have fallen originally from the lips of an actor. (I have noted previously that this sort of genesis isn’t as common as one might suppose.) Lorrie Morgan’s 1992 country hit featured it prominently. LexisNexis suggests that this expression, and its numerous variants, are less common now than in the 1990’s, when it became generally known. A celebrity or public official uses it every so often; presidential candidate Herman Cain, disgraced general David Petraeus, and the president of Venezuela were all quoted using it in recent years. Mostly, it remains the mainstay of those who write cranky letters to the editor.

What gives “what part of no . . . ?” its kick is the fact that “no” is about the least dissectible utterance in the language. It doesn’t have any constituent parts. It can be used in different parts of speech, so it can be analyzed, but it is everywhere the ur-negation (except in a particular usage which is discussed in detail here). The only utterance more indivisible is an animal’s cry: a dog barking or a cat meowing (“What part of woof/meow don’t you understand?” are popular memes nowadays, so the kids tell me). This thrust is lost when nearly any other expression replaces “no.” Here’s a simple example: “What part of ‘Thou shalt not kill?’ don’t you understand?” Well, the hearer might not understand “thou” or “shalt,” or might want clarification of the precise meaning of “kill.” Alternatively, one may comprehend an expression perfectly well but fail to see why it’s relevant.

When wielded, “what part of no . . . ?” is a challenge. But when you look at the issue from the other side — that is, from the point of view of the one whose actions are provoking the questioner — it is quite often a red herring. For prohibitions to be effective, the hearer must recognize the authority of the issuer. Just because someone tells you “no” doesn’t mean they have the right to boss you around or imply that you’re stupid. The way to meet this question is to insist on its irrelevance.

Thanks to Dad, who unwittingly nudged this week’s expression my way. It always reminds me of a memorable episode I experienced with my friend Charles years ago. We were sitting in his yard minding our own business when a nearby homeowner barged out of his house and said to someone he considered a trespasser (not us), “What part of ‘get off my property’ don’t you understand?” The offender’s reply was a fine example of the response described in the previous paragraph: I’m not on your land, so you can’t tell me what to do. Bloodshed was averted even if hard feelings were not.

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