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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

wow factor

(1980’s | journalese (film)? advertese? enginese? | “appeal,” “oomph,” “oohs and ahs,” “brilliance”)

Whereas “wow” and “factor” both have relatively long and complicated histories, perhaps we should begin there before considering their union. “Wow” appears to go back to a Scots interjection, which could be laudatory or derogatory, and our modern understanding of the word emerged even before the beginning of the twentieth century; by 1925 it was going strong as an interjection and available as a noun or verb. The interjection is far more common than the other two today and probably always has been. “Factor” is an even older word that early in the twentieth century meant “gene,” basically (allowing for evolution in our understanding of genetics); now it is defined much more generally as “element or constituent, esp. one which contributes to or influences a process or result” (OED), especially if it’s important and its action is not well understood. “Factor” preceded by another term to denote a particular substance or catalyst is quite common in medicine; “Rh factor” being a longstanding example. “Risk factor” no doubt started life as a medical term but now may flourishes in other fields. “Factor” became popular in Hollywood during the seventies, when it followed “Delta,” “Neptune,” “love,” and “human” (twice) in film titles (they all had to do with science fiction or espionage). And, to complete the picture — or the confusion — “wow factor” was used occasionally among stereophiles before 1980 to talk about irregularities in playback speed of tape decks and turntables, as in the phrase “wow and flutter.” So it seems the stage was well set.

By the mid-1980’s, the phrase started turning up in writing about entertainment (particularly films and television), computer software, merchandise more generally, and even service industries like banking. One early exponent was marketer Ken Hakuda, who used “wow factor” in 1987 to talk about his success in selling toys which he freely admitted were not useful or valuable except as a source of mindless fun. He used the term to refer to a highly visible feature of a product or its packaging that makes a strong, immediate impression, causing shoppers to whip out their wallets. That quality of impressiveness constitutes a common denominator among objects blessed with the wow factor. I’m not willing to take a firm position on the origin of this particular meaning. If I had to guess, I would say Hollywood, but advertese seems like an equally logical breeding ground, and I can’t say it didn’t start there. Because the phrase goes frequently with technological advance (especially when you’re talking about cinematic special effects), it is possible to argue that its source is enginese. While two of the earliest citations found in LexisNexis are due to Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford, the very first (1984) was in the title of Miss Manners’s column, of all places. Did she supply the headline, or do we owe it to a forever anonymous editor? By the mid-1990’s, the expression was no longer extraordinary and had shed quotation marks, exclamation points, capital letters, and such tricks of the trade.

If you looked even cursorily at the pre-1980 equivalents listed at the top of this entry, you may have surmised, correctly, that I struggled to find convincing synonyms from the old days. That is because we used to say the same thing with adjectives — e.g., dazzling, eye-catching, awe-inspiring, cool — or verb phrases: knock your socks off, set something apart, jump off the shelves. Many new expressions have ensconced familiar ideas in new parts of speech, which usually is a net gain for the language. More ways to say the same thing reduces monotony and opens up room for small but significant variations in connotation. I’m inclined to consider the popularity of “wow factor” deserved. It’s short and to the point. And the ground meaning is quite clear, though it can imply two slightly different things, just as in the sixties, “wow” conveyed two different levels of excitement. One was the old gee-whillikers gob-smacked elation at seeing anything unexpected and pleasing. The other was quieter, more meditative, as in the pothead grokking the universe as he exhales. No squealing or jumping up and down, but the profound sense of something worthier than oneself that must be absorbed and appreciated with a drawn-out “wow.” “Wow factor” has always leaned more heavily in the direction of the former sense, but it can shade toward the latter sense as well, and seems to do so more often as time goes by. Not that the two meanings are all that far apart.

It has occurred to me to wonder if we should hear this expression with a whiff of the tawdry or meretricious. Given its early use and likely origins, it’s not hard at all for an old snob like myself to inflect it this way. But that would demand an ironic edge that I rarely or never hear when the phrase is used. A “wow factor” is a good thing that will impress the audience, sell the product, or make something stand out. The idea that there must be something cheap or slutty about it never seems to have taken root.

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flip the script

(1990’s | hip-hop | “turn the tables (or tide),” “turn on its head,” “do the unexpected”)

A few years ago, lovely Liz from Queens and myself were discussing candidates for the blog, and I mentioned “flip the script,” an expression I had just become familiar with. We disagreed about its primary meaning, and though now I can’t remember our positions, I understand better why we weren’t in concord. In its early days, the 1990’s, the phrase had a number of connotations. Here are some variations in meaning that I collected, in addition to those gathered above: “abandon what worked in the past,” “leave something behind,” “change the subject,” “look at things from another point of view.” The underlying idea behind the multifarious meanings had to do with making a complete turn. (“Change the subject” is an exception, but such usage remains rare.) Maybe by reversing the outcome of a previous contest, maybe by following a course opposite the one you had followed before, maybe by advocating (or at least recognizing) a moral or political position at odds with your own. Writer Laura Randolph Lancaster offered some helpful synonyms in Ebony magazine, February 2002: “This year I’m going to flip the script. Do a total turnaround. A complete about-face.” Even when the term’s force is less than revolutionary and it lies closer to “do something different,” it implies a marked departure from a previous method or manner.

The earliest uses recorded in LexisNexis come from rap and hip-hop in the early 1990’s. LL Cool J used “flip the script” in an “Inaugural Rap” performed for Bill Clinton in 1993, and the New York Times noted a new song of that name by a group called Big T a few months earlier. Up until 2000 or so, the expression was almost invariably uttered by or of an African-American — athletes, entertainers, professors, you name it. The new millennium brought with it a wider pool of users, as white people of various stripes began to pepper their speech with it in an effort to sound cool. Coincidentally or not, that’s when the outlying meanings got ground away and the generally accepted meaning began to settle down into two or three broad categories (for corroboration and examples, see When you flip the script, you’re getting back at someone by adopting their tactics, or revising a familiar pattern by making a situation turn out the opposite of what everyone expects, or you’re just surprising everyone be breaking a rule or engaging in unaccustomed behavior. Even the more offbeat definitions of “flip the script” hew closely to the idea of turning (at least changing) things around. It’s become popular as a name for programs that attempt to give poor young people a chance.

Another possible source for “flip the script” is graffiti. A commenter on defines it as “taking a rival’s tag name and replicating it upside down or backwards. This shows disrespect for your rival and showcases your superior graffiti skills by demonstrating that the rival’s ‘script’ or ‘tag’ is so simple that you can replicate it in any orientation.” And, there’s a book about graffitists called “Flip the Script,” but it wasn’t published until 2013. It’s a good story, but I doubt that’s the origin. The world of graffiti is not dominated by African-Americans in the way that the hip-hop world is (and was), and just about everything points to an African-American origin of this week’s phrase.

I would have guessed that “flip the script” came out of Hollywood, and reviewers of film and theater do use it now and then, usually with the ghost of a wink, implicitly acknowledging that it’s not a native expression. The brevity and built-in rhyme probably made it attractive to rappers, but I despair of finding the first person who used it, and I still can’t find the fabled Hip-Hop Word Count. I would love to burrow into that database. One poster on Urban Dictionary speculates that “flipping the script” is really “swapping the script,” as in two people trading roles in a frequently enacted scene between them. That is a plausible origin story, but it covers only part of the range of meaning occupied by “flip the script” today.

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hold that thought

(1990’s | journalese? | “keep that in mind,” “we’ll come back to that,” “hang on”)

This expression is a bit of a dark horse. It slipped into the language without fanfare somewhere between 1970 and 1990 and did not get fully established in print until at least the latter year. An early adopter, sportswriter Thomas Boswell, used it a couple of times before 1990; Ross Perot said it in 1992 (I don’t associate it with him particularly, unlike some other characteristic phrases). One thinks of “hold back” (as in a dam or fence), “hold to,” or even “hold with” (affirm, believe, approve of), but none of those seems like a proper ancestor. “We hold these thoughts to be self-evident” doesn’t have the same ring as Jefferson’s canonical phrase, and it’s not the right meaning anyway. “Hold” in this case simply takes the place of “hang onto” or “suspend.” “Hold on,” “put on hold,” or “hold everything” are much more like it.

“Hold that thought” has always had a bit of contradiction built into it, or at least the potential for one. As the phrase is normally used, it asks the hearer to set something aside but also keep it in the forefront of one’s mind, prepared to reintroduce it at the first opportunity. Take it away, but don’t let it get away. So you rein in the idea on the tip of your tongue, knowing a more opportune moment will soon arrive. In the early days, the phrase could also carry a more unreserved meaning, closer to “stick with it” or “keep the faith,” but I am not conscious of seeing or hearing it used that way now. There is another distinctive feature of “hold that thought,” which is that writers often use it to begin or end a paragraph, or even as a paragraph unto itself. That gives it an air of portentousness, an injunction to the reader to keep your eye on the notion in question. My sense is that in conversation its use tends to be more casual, but even there it may take on the same minatory tinge. One more point, for the sake of completeness: you may see “hold that thought” used in the indicative sometimes, but in that mood it lacks any particular interest; we are discussing the imperative.

My best guess is that this expression arose on television, particularly in news programs or talk shows, where interviews make up most of the entertainment. “Hold that thought” enshrines a necessity imposed by commercial television, which dictates regular breaks in programming, often of two minutes or even more, well beyond the retention span of most of our fellow citizens. Let’s say an expert guest finally gets going just before the host cuts to a commercial. In such cases, the interviewer needs a polite, encouraging way to ask the speaker to take a break and pick up where she left off, and also to enjoin viewers to keep track of the topic through a volley of detergent ads. “Hold that thought” plays that role admirably, I think. The New York Times (April 26, 1987) put it like this: “Television is not always a great place to explore ideas that are complex, subtle or slippery. Things get in the way: a smart-aleck host, the scarcity of time, ‘hold that thought, here comes a station break.'” Sometimes “hold that thought” appears when there is no pause, as in cases where it means “wait while we introduce a related concept” (this usage is available in prose as well as speech). But most often it portends an interruption or delay. That’s why the alternate sense of this expression — “cling to an idea” — didn’t stay in the running. “Hold that thought” was needed for other things.

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air quotes

(1990’s | journalese?)

I often consider, usually without any definite result, how verbal expressions can make their way from non-existence to prevalence in a few short decades. I continue to stumble over the first cause conundrum: Must there always be an instance in which a single individual utters a new expression at a fixed point in time? Or is a more nebulous origin possible? Whether we can actually pinpoint the moment of origin is irrelevant — all sorts of things are lost to science because the right observer isn’t present at the right moment. Perhaps it is due only to my limited imagination, but it still seems incontrovertible to me that there has to be a distinct event, a tree falling in the forest whether there is anyone to hear it or not. And so it must be for gestures. Somewhere, at some time, someone did what had never been done before: held up the first two fingers on each hand while uttering a word or phrase, either to indicate that they were quoting someone else, or (most often) that the locution so decorated is dubious for some reason.

There are cases, of course, where variant forms of a new expression compete — sometimes for years — before a winner emerges. Shouldn’t gestures have the same freedom? Maybe the first propounder of air quotes held up index finger and pinky, or even clenched fists. Maybe Richard Nixon wasn’t making “V for victory” signs after all; maybe he was putting the next four years’ worth of utterances in quotation marks, notably “I am not a crook” or promises to get to the bottom of dirty tricks played on the Democrats, and democracy itself, by a handful of criminals.

The press started noticing air quotes around 1990; in the early days they were associated with the likes of David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Bret Easton Ellis, and other representatives of the culture of ironic self-consciousness that bloomed in the yuppie era (before there were hipsters, there were yuppies). One tried to demonstrate that one was fully aware that everything one said was subject to questioning and critique, and to forestall it by acknowledging it, not to say wallowing in it, before one’s hearers even had a chance (cf. “what’s your point“). In the arts, one focused obsessively on the act of creating rather than actually creating anything, in the manner of television pioneer Garry Shandling — before Seinfeld but after Letterman — who went to his reward recently. Everyone got tired of this jokey, stagey, heavy-handed irony after a few years, but sincerity has never been the same since, and we must remain aware at all times of the futility of everything we say and do. No wonder no one accomplishes anything any more.

Today, air quotes always signal derision, or at least skepticism, toward the expression they surround. They make a straightforward non-verbal substitute for “so-called” or the now defunct “quote-unquote.” When you get tired of using your words, use your hands.

scare quotes

(1990’s | academese)

Scare quotes may just be the print equivalent of air quotes. But while air quotes may theoretically be innocent, scare quotes by definition cannot be. And while it is normally obvious to everyone watching when a speaker uses air quotes, writers may not get to decide whether their punctuation constitutes scare quotes or not. Someone else — usually someone who feels aggrieved — may declare them such.

Scare quotes may not indicate direct attribution, but they invariably proclaim that the expression within is unfit (or inappropriate, as we say nowadays). Maybe it’s noxious, or discriminatory, or wrong-headed, or simply fails to capture the full import of the situation. Scare quotes bear malice aforethought and provide occasion all by themselves for argument. Never mind what I actually said; how dare you call it into question. From the other side: I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death my right to enclose it in scare quotes.

I encountered the expression first in academic contexts, and LexisNexis concurs; the first instance shows up in a letter to the New York Times written by a philosophy professor in 1983. Professors spend a lot of time examining suspiciously the words of others, and that sort of suspicion is a necessary precondition for the use of scare quotes. If you look hard enough, you can find some objectionable term; with a little practice, you need not look very hard.

To me, the odd thing about both of these expressions is the use of the word “quotes” to mean “quotation marks” rather than simply “quotations.” (My English literature survey professor would blanch at either one, but never mind.) Why shouldn’t “scare quotes” refer to words adopted for the purpose of frightening others, like “scare tactics”? Yet the meaning of “quotes” is invariable in both phrases. There’s no reason for such single-minded usage that I can see. “Air quotes” could mean “citing someone else’s words during a broadcast” or even “prices for commercial flights,” but it doesn’t, just as “scare quotes” isn’t used to talk about another person’s words yanked out of context in order to turn hearers against him. Isn’t that what political campaigns are all about? If I were the militant sort, I would start a campaign to redefine, or at least extend, these expressions. But rest easy, America, I have a blog to write. 323 entries and counting.

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you go, girl

(1990’s | feminese (African-American) | “I love it!,” “be strong,” “do your own thing”)

This expression has punch and verve, a bit of alliteration, and even a certain amount of colloquial charm. And it has a distinctly modern sound; it’s impossible to imagine suffragettes saying it to each other, or even sixties feminists. Partly that comes from the insouciant use of “girl.” (I can imagine a sixties feminist saying “You go, sister,” but I don’t think any actually did.) Enlightened women didn’t address each other that way when men called women girls with impunity. Somewhere in there — “you go, girl” seems to date from the late eighties or early nineties; I found no examples in LexisNexis before 1990 — women grabbed hold of the demeaning, infantilizing epithet and made it a term of empowerment. The more I write this blog, the more I realize how essential such appropriation, nay, co-opting (as we used to say in the ol’ English department) is to the development of our language. I’m not enough of a historian to judge how long oppressed minorities have been turning insults into badges of honor, but since World War II it has developed into an industry.

It wasn’t just women who brought “You go, girl” into the language, it was African-American women. (One of the first uses I saw in print came from BPI Entertainment Wire, April 1994, citing hip-hop duo Tag Team’s new song “U Go Girl” and crediting them with “taking ‘Whoomp! (There It Is)’ from street slang into the mainstream.”) At that time, the simpler “Go, girl” turned up about as frequently, though it seemed to be used much more by white women, not that my sample size is large enough to be reliable. (By now, white women have adopted it, so there is no longer even the appearance of a racial divide.) Adding “you” makes for increased emphasis or ebullience. My memory suggests that “you go” unadorned preceded either girl-phrase, but I’m not really sure; maybe the non-gender-specific formulation actually came later. (There was an imported Eastern-bloc car, too — anybody remember?) There’s no class bias; you can say it to your workout partner at the gym or to the First Lady and it won’t be out of place.

The phrase is all about encouragement and solidarity; to date it has not developed much of an ironic side. The implication is that the woman in question is up to something unconventional, difficult, or maybe just healthy, but anyway, worth applauding. That is still predominantly true, even if derring-do is no longer necessary. “Way to go, girl” also turns up occasionally, but “way to go” was old when I was a boy and seems to have been slowly receding from our everyday vocabulary since.

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(1980’s | athletese | “revenge,” “comeuppance,” “just desserts”)

It seems odd to me that this word came to mean what it does as late as it did. “Pay back” has never been the idiom of choice when it comes to getting back at someone else, but instances of it do turn up in many times and places. Surely it would be entitled to the same shift in part of speech as its financial counterpart, which had several nominal uses in the mid-seventies: at the most literal, “act of repaying,” or “restitution,” but often it meant “return on investment” or “reward” — in other words, “payoff.” A related adjectival use was found in phrases like “payback period,” defined as the amount of time required to make back the money invested. (In other words, how long it will be before the investment pays for itself.) That phrase is important in corporate accounting, and it may be shortened informally to “payback” (as in “payback of three years”).

These uses of the word are still around, but “payback” has taken on the more ominous meaning of “vengeance.” I found but two or three instances of the term before 1980 in LexisNexis in this sense, all in sports-related contexts. Sport is a natural breeding ground for retribution because of its competitive nature and because of how leagues work, organizing schedules that match the same teams against each other over and over. They beat us last year, but this year we’ll get payback. By the end of the eighties, athletes were using “payback time” in such contexts, which until then had been an occasional variant of “payback period.” As late as 2000, “payback” seems to have been mainly an athlete’s word, but now it has spread through the language. It made its mark next in political discourse, not surprisingly; you will hear the phrase “political payback,” which always refers to settling a score. When Donald Trump tells his supporters that it’s payback time, part of what he means is “I’m going to help you get back everything the [fill in the blank] have taken away from you.” It ain’t just money.

It has occurred to me that “payback” ought to mean rendering the service bought with a bribe or similar corruption, influenced by “kickback,” just as it sometimes is influenced by “payoff.” You see that every now and then, but it has never become common. It’s a scenario that arises rather often, so having another word to cover it would be helpful. Yet “payback” never seems to have stepped into those shoes. Odd, I call it.

In sports and especially in politics, “payback” is never neutral. It is almost always used to exult in the defeat or destruction of a rival. Although it appeals to a rough justice, payback need not be proportionate; messing the opponent up more than they messed you up to begin with may be desirable and is in any case part of the game. Winning a round carries with it the risk that you will lose the ground gained and maybe more during the next battle. Sometimes you hear “Payback’s a bitch, ain’t it?” The question is uttered with a sneer, a means of rubbing it in when you have skunked your opponent. But rhetorical flourishes are not required; “payback” in its nature bears meanness and resentment, a sense that one was bested unfairly and has no choice but to stick it to the aggressor. The only way to redress the grievance is to make the victor suffer at least as much as they made you suffer.

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what’s not to like?

(1980’s | journalese (arts) | “what’s wrong with that?,” “that doesn’t sound so bad,” “what could go wrong?,” “everything’s cool”)

Except when used ironically, this expression is more or less synonymous with “it’s all good,” but it came along earlier. One can find on-line reports of sightings going back to Dorothy Kilgallen in 1963; my candidate for the earliest use (given the limitations of Google Books it’s hard to be sure) comes from a 1954 play, The Tender Trap, by Max Shulman and Robert Paul Smith. I haven’t found any sign of an earlier citation, though it sounds like something Groucho would have said. It does not seem to have found its footing in cold print until the seventies, when Amtrak used it in an ad campaign. Volkswagen used “What’s Not to Love?,” presumably influenced by Herbie the Love Bug, around the same time in commercials for the Beetle. In the eighties it got settled, most comfortably among actors and athletes (what’s the difference? I know, I know). In recent weeks, it has become almost a reflex to use the phrase in commentary on Facebook’s new “reaction” indicators, intended to give users more nuance than a simple “like” button. On-line language observers often dismiss it as a cliché, but it doesn’t seem terribly ubiquitous. That’s partly because we have so many ways to say the same thing.

It is also quite common for said observers to emphasize growth in the ironic use of “what’s not to like.” Here again, my ear says that’s not so common, though certainly available. My mental image of the phrase is literal and positive. One offers it with a shrug and a goofy smile after listing two or more amenities, benefits, or what have you. If it doesn’t mean “everything’s jake,” it means “there’s nothing wrong with you.” When the boyfriend is afraid the girlfriend’s parents won’t think well of him, she might respond with “What’s not to like? You’ll do fine.” No doubt, the sarcastic face of this rhetorical question shows more often than it did thirty years ago, when such intonation was rare. I’ve noted expressions that started off upbeat turning darker, like “comfort zone,” but “what’s not to like” hasn’t made it that far yet. That’s not to say it won’t.

Phrase Finder correctly identifies “what’s not to like” as reminiscent of Yiddish (maybe Shulman did invent it). Put “so” in front of it and the resemblance only intensifies, and doesn’t it sound suspiciously natural in a Yiddish-American accent? More fancifully, it may be because the question poses an implicit invitation to an argument, which might be counted a characteristically Jewish stance: What’s not to like? Go ahead, just try to find something wrong with it. The irony is there, but more veiled than when some yobbo prefaces a list of horrors with “what’s not to like?” Of course, one can also offer the phrase with a shrug, another gesture characteristic of the Jews, the French, and everyone else. (Full disclosure: I am a goyishe philo-Semite. Or, as lovely Liz prefers, “Semitophile,” on the grounds that “philo-Semite” ought to refer to the sentiment rather than the actor; that is, “love of Jews” rather than “one who loves Jews.”)

A digression on Max Shulman, since I brought him up. If he is remembered at all today, it’s for high-school charmer Dobie Gillis and his beatnik friend Maynard G. Krebs, whose antics could be viewed on Nick at Nite as late as my early adulthood. Shulman was a satirical novelist whose career began in 1943 with Barefoot Boy with Cheek, a fantasia on college life — he was fresh out of the University of Minnesota — and throughout his career he was known as a compiler and chronicler of campus humor. He was a keen observer of American absurdities and a determined social critic. (A World War II veteran, Shulman devoted a couple of novels to our armed forces. A later novel, Anybody Got a Match?, skewered the tobacco industry.) I just found out he wrote the book for the Broadway musical How Now, Dow Jones (1968). His technique could have been more refined, but he used genre parodies and zany wordplay very effectively and was a master at depicting situations spiraling out of control. We remember the Beats, but Shulman belonged to a much different tradition of non-conformism and social criticism. Sort of a Jewish Mark Twain.

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in a good place

(1980’s | journalese (arts) | “at peace,” “in the right frame of mind,” “pleased,” “happy with the way things are going”)

To dispense first with the obvious, we’re not talking about “in the right place” or “in a good location,” or any other literal use of this week’s expression. If you can substitute either of them for “in a good place,” you’ve got hold of its old, boring meaning. Well, that’s so seventies. This week we’re investigating the emotional side of this expression when it describes a mental state rather than real estate. You’re confident and secure as a deodorant commercial, content with your lot, have a good mindset; all’s right with the world. It’s very similar to “feeling good about oneself,” which is a little older, more of a sixties expression. Because it referred to one’s mental condition, in the eighties a variant was “one’s head is in a good place.” That did not mean the same thing as “one’s heart is in the right place” (one has good motives), but the newer phrase “come from a good place” does.

Maybe I’m imagining it — I don’t think so — but this idiom seems to turn up disproportionately in celebrity reporting, and a substantial number of early uses dropped from the lips of popular singers and actors. (I collected examples from James Taylor, David Crosby, Gary Busey, even Betty Friedan.) Maybe I also imagine — naah — that it often has a lightly veiled meaning in such contexts. When a star says “I’m in a good place now,” it usually suggests (or acknowledges) that she has gone through a rough patch — drug rehab, petty theft, a bad breakup, any or all of the messes celebrities get themselves into. It’s a way of saying one has bounced back or gotten over the problem.

No one would have said an abstraction was “in a good place” a generation ago, but an NFL official used it to express satisfaction with a revised rule last month. We still use it much more readily about people, and it has spread well beyond the celebrity ghetto; any of us can use it casually to describe ourselves. It is bound to continue to spread. The phrase has long been available to talk about groups, teams, or agencies, not just individuals. European leader Jean-Claude Juncker said last fall that the EU “is not in a good place right now.” His insertion of “not” follows a later trend; once the positive expression has made its way, the negative can find its place, too.

The obvious origin for this expression is the old euphemism for heaven, “a better place,” as in “He’s gone to a better place now.” I found a transitional example in Smokey Robinson’s eulogy for Marvin Gaye (1984): “I don’t think [Gaye] would have wanted us all to be here today, sad and crying and mourning, because he’s in a good place now. He’s somewhere where nothing can hurt him from now on.” (It’s not clear that Robinson was referring to heaven; he might have meant mere oblivion.) If you want to talk about something more sublunary, you have to settle for “good,” so people won’t think you’ve died. I’m not convinced that’s the root expression, but I can’t think of a better explanation. As talk of heaven has become less ordinary and much less serious, at least in advanced circles, its watered-down variant has crossed the bourn to become the property of the living.

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off the charts

(1980’s | journalese (economics) | “through the roof,” “extreme(ly),” “amazing(ly),” “off the scale”)

Investigation has led me to revise my understanding of the rise of this week’s expression. First, the old meaning of “chart” is irrelevant; I haven’t found any evidence that “off the charts” has any connection with maps. I thought it had something to do with pop music charts, and sure enough, the earliest reference I found dates from 1956 in Billboard, describing a new record featuring Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby: “It has now registered very strong on all fronts and is just off the charts.” The little bagatelles of research I carry out are not what you would call comprehensive, but the phrase didn’t show up again for twenty years in my usual sources. When it did, it was in the context of graphs displaying economic data. Picture the stock graphic that goes with business news reports on television: the line with an arrow on the end of it zig-zagging up and down across a grid. Now picture that line sloping so steeply upward or downward in a brief period of time that it goes below the x-axis or rises beyond the upper margin. THAT’s “off the charts.” (After all, even the most successful record in history can’t go any higher than no. 1, and therefore must still be ON the charts. “Off the chart” was used interchangeably with “off the charts” in the eighties, another clue that the origin of our expression is not pop music charts, which are always plural. Oh, and by the way, when we say “pop music charts,” we’re talking about record sales, not instrumental arrangements.) The expression was used several times during the primary and general election campaign of 1980 by George H.W. Bush, and that seems to have given the phrase a boost. Bush also played a role in popularizing “out of the loop,” “you’re history,” and “go ballistic.”

Graphs and charts are merely means of making economic data quickly intelligible, so other kinds of statistics — demographic, medical, meteorological — could go off the charts, too. Music sales rankings definitely did spawn a closely related term, “knock (or fall) off the charts,” also available before 1980. That use represents an early stage in the evolution of this phrase. Falling off the charts was as common as flying off of them until 1990 or so, but that concept has disappeared. And the verbs have gotten lazier over time, too. In the old days, “off the charts” generally went with active verbs like “zoom” or “soar,” “slide” or “drop.” Such verbs still crop up occasionally, but today we are much more likely to get the copula, usually “is” or “was.” A noticeable difference, but probably rather minor in the grand scheme of things. And another change in range: “off the charts” is used as an adjective (or adverb) phrase much more often than it used to be, though examples may be found as far back as the seventies.

From political and economic pundits the expression spread to sportswriters, who found its vigor useful in describing athletes. Today it can show up almost anywhere. Politicians are not above using it, but they seem less enamored of it than the rest of us now — or maybe it’s just that the rest of us have caught up. “Off the charts” has not become so overused that it has been stripped of excitement; it still has a little pizzazz. May it keep its sizzle rather than turning into a flaccid echo of itself.

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wrong on so many levels

(2000’s | journalese (arts) | “really bad,” “deeply troubling,” “appalling,” “crazy”)

The story of this expression is a two-parter, so get comfortable. Once upon a time, there was a nice little phrase that went “works on so many levels.” It got going in the sixties and seventies and was used by arts journalists to talk about a joke, or a concept, or a play, something along those lines. It was the kind of thing movie reviewers said. The phrase was established, if not entirely common, by 1990. I don’t know if it was the first time I heard it, but it made a memorable appearance in a Simpsons episode in 1995, uttered by Homer, cast in the unlikely role of film festival judge. The simpler phrase “works on many levels” started to appear earlier in Google Books, but “so” adds an extra kick and makes the whole thing more exciting.

“Works on so many levels” is almost always praise, an homage to the depth and breadth of someone’s imagination. Perhaps partly because of its favorable bias, “wrong on so many levels” began to poke its head out in the 1990’s (“bad” or “sucks” may on occasion be substituted for “wrong”; “right on so many levels” is not nearly as common). Nowadays it is the most frequently encountered of the family by a pretty good margin, according to LexisNexis and my own ear. “Wrong on so many levels” has taken root in the unlikely soil of the Internet, so that it might appear as today’s trending meme or as the title of a board on Pinterest. offers a good range of definition. It is possible, of course, to use the phrase jokingly, but that is not the norm. It’s strong language; when people resort to it there’s usually some genuine outrage underneath. It’s the verbal equivalent of throwing up your hands.

A few points about this family of phrases: I always think that “so many levels” should precede a detailed anatomy of the subject; surely the speaker will identify at least three. But it’s unusual to see more than one or maybe one-and-a-half features spelled out. “Levels” itself promises more than it can deliver; it is rarely more than an impressive way to say “aspects” or “ways” with no hierarchical connection to each other. (In the same manner, “works on so many levels” means simply “has a lot going on.”) “Works . . . ” was primarily used in esthetic contexts; “Wrong . . . ” shades more and more toward the ethical. Now the phrase generally has a noticeable moralizing quality about it; often it is little more than a colorful way of calling something offensive, or just plain stupid. No hint of analysis or critique.

I hear in my mind’s ear a variant on this expression that should exist but as far as I know doesn’t. Insert “only” before the first word — or, for greater precision, after “on” — and you get an entirely different feel. “On so many levels,” regardless of the word that precedes it, always suggests abundance. It’s not just a little bit wrong, or a little bit effective. Drop an “only” in there and it turns vastness into a limitation — in the spirit of “You can only get away with so much.” It’s easy to imagine it used in conversation: “I’m using ‘Star Wars’ as a model for my new script.” “Oh, that can only work on so many levels.” Or “I don’t like reality TV, but I’m tired of complaining about it.” “Well, it can only be wrong on so many levels.” Sounds like a worthy addition to the language to me.

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