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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2010’s | teenagese | “engaging,” “relevant,” “familiar,” “accessible,” “personable”)

“Relatable” is one of those expressions thrown up by our younger contingent. (Other examples: “take a chill pill,” “peace out,” “sketchy,” “stoked,” and possibly “love handles” and “no pressure.” “Based off of,” “I know, right?,” and the “because + noun” construction have swept the under-18’s decisively in recent years.) Teachers report periodically new words or phrases bubbling up in the classroom, and “relatable” had its moment somewhere around 2010 and has become widespread since. I certainly did not know the word in 2010, and probably not for three or four years after that. It’s tempting to blame such eruptions on social media, but consumable popular culture for teens has been omnipresent for decades and did not always require Instagram or Tumblr. Once the kids adopt an expression, it has a strong chance of entering the language, because the rest of us spend so much time talking about what they’re up to and what it bodes for the rest of us (ill, generally). Also because some day those kids are going to take over the world, or at least this corner of it.

The teenagers didn’t invent this one, mind you. “Relatable” was available in the early 1980’s, especially in writing on film and television; it meant roughly “agreeable” or “comfortable” — more accurately, “characteristic of something most Americans can identify with” — doubtless descended from “relate to” as used in the sixties. The new sense of the word has hung around ever since, so the teenagers of 2010 had had many opportunities to learn it. The old meaning, “capable of being told,” has grown rare, and we are left with the inescapable fact that “relatable story” means something much different from what it did fifty years ago.

Every teenage addition to our vocabulary calls forth a phalanx of teachers and professors to bewail it, and “relatable” has been written up in The New Yorker, Slate, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among other places. (Ben Zimmer provided a non-judgmental history in the New York Times.) The good professors have a number of reasons for objecting to the term, all of them cogent and stoutly defended. Use of the word proves students self-centered, closed-minded, unwilling to try new things or broaden their horizons. But let’s not forget that the older generation always says as much about the younger, often with justice. It is true that most kids don’t want to do a lot of work to absorb their lessons, and therefore they prefer everyday language, stories, and characters they can understand without effort. But plenty of these same kids will grow up and open out, and it’s no use pretending that this is some unprecedented defect never encountered before millennials stuck a trembling toe into adulthood. Grousing about the rising generation is as old as civilization, at least.

“Relatable” doesn’t always mean likable. When used to talk about everyday situations, it is more likely to connote awkwardness or embarrassment than triumph. You can find collections of mottoes, truisms, and slice-of-life stories all over the web that advertise themselves as relatable. Maybe my sample size isn’t large enough, but I came away with the distinct impression that the most of them have to do with unpleasant contretemps that we try to get past without humiliation. We are all supposed to sympathize and see ourselves in others’ tales of woe, or the nuggets of wisdom acquired from them. Any pleasure we take in such misfortunes is rueful. But we are also to take away the unstated conclusion that those who encounter the same predicaments or feel the same way about etiquette as we do make up the only world that matters — our experience is universal, and everyone else’s? — well, we’ll make room for that around the edges, if we feel like it. “Relatable” is seductive to the extent that it assures us that our group is the center of the universe.

Thanks to that inspirational teacher and observer of the language, Lovely Liz from Queens, for pointing out that this expression needed an airing. I hope I pass.

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my work here is done

(2000’s | businese? | “I’ve done what I set out to do”)

Little wonder this phrase has become a popular meme in recent years; it can convey exactly the sort of self-satisfaction and superiority that express themselves so often and so malignantly on the internet. Of late it has become popular in right-wing circles as a means of bashing Obama — they never tire of it — as in this cartoon. It doesn’t have to be this way. The phrase can have a benevolent sound, the sort of thing Gandalf or Obi wan Kenobi might say, though as far as I know neither of them ever did. But juvenile irony is winning the day; now the expression goes readily with scenes of catastrophe and chaos.

Most on-line sources cite three possible sources of the catchphrase: the Lone Ranger, Mary Poppins, and Blazing Saddles. I’ve been able to verify only the last, not the other two. Some cite Errol Flynn in The Mark of Zorro (1940). “My work is done here” is a variant (used by Leonard Nimoy in the monorail episode of The Simpsons, for example); it means the same thing and has the same weight. This formulation is technically ambiguous, but the alternate meaning (I do my job in this place) does not obtrude. “My work here is done” began to appear sporadically in LexisNexis right after 1990. Then as now, it was a favorite of departing CEO’s who wish to convey the impression that they have completed their stint with honor and can safely hand responsibility to their successor, provided they get their severance package. Perhaps that’s when the phrase picked up its odor of smugness. Despite, or because of, the ironic turn, it still bears a hint of hipness and remains the property of college kids, middle-aged columnists, and corporate consultants alike.

But the question is not “When did this expression originate?,” because the phrase is not fixed, and any normally equipped English speaker could utter it in the course of conversation. It’s an ordinary English sentence, after all, and doesn’t require a mythical origin. True, it is a bit more elaborate than what you might call the ground-level expression, “My work is done,” which has an almost Biblical simplicity. The question is when did it become the sort of thing people ask about in chat rooms and forums? According to LexisNexis, it started turning up regularly in the press not long after 2000. It might be used to end an article, or, conversely, as a blogger’s headline. As early as 2004, I found an example of the now familiar meme: “Chaos, panic, disorder — my work here is done.” (Google it and despair.) The phrase has always had a bias toward the smug, but now it has a healthy dose of snark as well, as we use it to crow about the mess we (or someone else) have made rather than acknowledge an edifying experience. The expression’s grandiloquence is real but easily subverted. The trend toward using it sarcastically continues and may win entirely in another ten or twenty years.

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peace dividend

(1990’s | militarese, bureaucratese | “post-war boom”)

I was surprised to learn that “peace dividend” began to crop up as we were ending the Vietnam War by expanding it into the rest of southeast Asia. According to the Congressional Quarterly, the phrase was born in 1968, as pressure mounted to end the war, and Nixon won the election partly on the strength of a promise to do so — neither the first nor the last of his brazen lies. It occurred to a number of people that we would save a lot of money if we weren’t garrisoning a huge army and manufacturing and destroying vast arsenals of weapons. If we were to spend that money, or part of it, on education, infrastructure, clean air and water, or other components of the much-maligned general welfare, it would be analogous to dividends from stocks and bonds (in fact, the analogy is very weak, but there’s no rule that says new expressions have to be plausible). It’s worth noting that the phrase does not refer to more general benefits conferred by the cessation of conflict; it nearly always has a purely economic cast. It didn’t really get popular until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989; for five or ten years after that, we heard a lot about the peace dividend that would arise from the end of the Cold War. Anybody seen it?

The phrase rarely takes metaphorical uses, although soon-to-be former New York City Police commissioner Bill Bratton has used it to talk about improved community relations following a drop in stop-and-frisks and other small-time arrests. Another meaning did emerge briefly, though it never gained much traction, after the Camp David accords of 1978 between Israel and Egypt. One of the means we used to get the parties to agree was to promise lots of military aid to both sides, which inspired some commentators to talk of a “peace dividend” to Israel and Egypt. A kind of bribe, in other words, to give both sides incentive to agree to a rather unpalatable set of conditions. (Arms manufacturers and their shareholders received quite literal dividends as well, but that was not pointed out in the mainstream press.) One can find examples from the late seventies and the early eighties, but that sense of the phrase was never more than a distant runner-up.

The end of the Cold War marked the last time the peace dividend played a significant part in U.S. politics. Maybe that’s just because the various wars and police actions* we’ve undertaken were either on a very small scale (former Yugoslavia) or are still more or less in progress (Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism). But the fact is our officials have abandoned alternatives to the national security state. No one considers, much less proposes, eliminating policies that seek to impose our will on the rest of the world whether they like it or not. Concomitantly, evidence that our efforts to do so rarely succeed and often backfire are blotted out of public discourse. There is no alternative to meddling and warfare. And there may be no discussion of the fact that there is no alternative. Naked emperors are as embarrassing as ever.

The problem with the peace dividend is that it is more a fiction of accounting than anything else. It makes sense in theory, but economists are always quick to point out that it won’t amount to much in practice. True, the army never gets much smaller and the pace of armament production never slows for long. But even if they did, government budgeting bears so little relation to personal or family budgeting — where reducing spending in one department might well lead directly to increased spending in another — that savings disappear without a trace into a complex web of interests and bureaucracies. The only way to change that would be to reduce the size of the federal government to something closer to what it was in the early days of the republic, when the population was much, much smaller. Despite a lot of big talk, neither the right nor the left wing has any interest in doing so, or any idea of how to go about it.

* Remember that phrase? It goes back to to the Korean War, when it still made some tradition-minded Constitutional scholars squeamish to refer to a “war” that Congress had not declared.

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boots on the ground

(1990’s | miltarese | “infantry,” “combat troops,” “invaders”)

The army has been the butt of jokes for a long time. In my childhood, we all learned the “biscuits in the army” song, and as an organization it has long been associated with inefficiency, rigidity, stupidity, profiteering, etc. For those reasons and others the army is seen as the least appealing branch of the service. The navy is also pretty plebeian but has better uniforms and goes on voyages, the Air Force has its own lofty glamor, and the Marines are our badass fighting force, taking on the jobs no one else will take. These rough distinctions form part of the background for this week’s expression.

In the 1990’s, it came to the attention of policymakers that the Cold War was over, and the basis of our military strategy for the last fifty years had vanished. That didn’t bother anyone too much (somehow the money kept rolling in, despite ominous talk of a “peace dividend”), but debate over the proper response to this revolting development smoldered for a few years. One prong of it boiled down to a conflict between the Air Force, touting the virtues of long-range warfare relying on satellite missile guidance and precision airstrikes, and the Army, for whom there is no substitute for sending lots of soldiers and tanks to slog through the mire to victory. Clinton’s foreign policy predictably developed a strong preference for avoiding U.S. combat deaths, which meant fewer mess tents and more smart bombs. We all know that sending in platoons of grunts means more casualties, more brutality, billions of dollars down the drain, and quagmires. Who wouldn’t prefer a nice, clean missile? But presidents who try to pull troops out of combat zones usually find themselves putting them back in sooner or later. Boots on the ground have never quite gone out of style; missiles and drones have their cachet but can’t do it all by themselves.

“Boots on the ground” began to appear in the mid-1990’s among military officials and their pretorian guards — members of Congress, think-tank warriors, and journalists. By 2000, it was making its way into everyday life; the expression was evocative and easy to understand, and readers and hearers were quick to grasp it. I was surprised to see recent examples in a variety of civilian sources, not just law enforcement, for which the military analogy is obvious, but wherever efficient action is needed to counter a threat: disaster response, political campaigns, trade missions, NASA (I’m serious), even hospitals. Here’s one fresh from a Frontline Technologies press release (June 21, 2016): “Teachers are the ‘boots on the ground’ in your school district. More than anyone, they have their finger on the pulse of the student body, they look at the data and know the student needs in their particular building, and they know the areas where they need to grow as educators.” It conjures images of dedicated people fanning out and getting the job done. The notion of response to a direct threat is fading; sometimes the phrase is little more than a way of saying “taking action” or “doing something about it.” Available as a hyphenated adjective for a long time, but I’ve never seen it used as a predicate complement. (As in “That’s very boots-on-the-ground.”) The speed with which the phrase has spread is impressive.

An unfortunate and now forgotten assistant secretary of the Army, Sara Lister, was forced to resign in 1997 after saying, “I think the Army is much more connected to society than the Marines are. The Marine Corps is — you know, they have all these checkerboard fancy uniforms and stuff. But the Army is sort of muddy boots on the ground.” She noted that the Marine Corps was more prone to political extremism than the Army, which may well have been true. The relations between the military and the rest of us were much discussed in the nineties; some commentators were concerned that our men and women in uniform were becoming hostile to American society, because it was too soft, or liberal, or heathen, or whatever. The trend is unlikely to have changed since then. There is plenty of evidence that eliminating conscription has led to a definite rightward shift in the politics of the average soldier, but it no longer fashionable to point it out.

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(1990’s | militarese | “combat soldier”)

My libertarian readers will need no reminding that this week’s expression became necessary only after dramatic changes in the functions of U.S. armed forces over the course of the twentieth century. But armies have always had numerous soldiers and hangers-on essential to the functioning of the machine who never see combat — who wants to serve in a battalion where all the cooks got shot? — and “warfighter” merely denotes a combat soldier as opposed to all the other kinds. Right-wingers like to grouse about Our Troops used for the dreaded Nation-Building, and they are correct that we ask our armed forces to perform more, and more varied, duties and take on more roles in the world than we did before World War II. But that fact is but a sidelight as far as this term is concerned.

Even now, I’m not sure the term counts as everyday language, since it still turns up predominantly in military or at least government publications, or journals published by and for military contractors. I ran across it last week in Newsday, which conjured up a few other foggy memories of seeing it in the last few years. The first instance I found in LexisNexis came from the illustrious pen of Sen. Mark Hatfield, but it was uncharacteristic (see below). Today’s meaning of the term stared turning up regularly in the nineties, when it made occasional incursions into the mainstream press. Perhaps a few years earlier, military commanders began to talk about “warfighter exercises” designed to simulate combat situations more accurately than the old exercises had. (The use of the word as an adjective, or first half of a compound noun, still appears, but it has not become the norm.) It’s important to remember that “warfighters” is not the same as “boots on the ground”; a drone pilot thousands of miles away is every bit as much a warfighter as a wretched infantryman in Kabul (if we have any wretched infantrymen left in Kabul). It is settled wisdom in the military that the entire infrastructure and bureaucracy is there to serve the warfighter, to give U.S. soldiers the best possible chance in whatever sort of combat they are pursuing at the moment, most often in terms of technology and training. Yet so far the word has not come into use as a means of glorifying soldiers or making them objects of pity (as in “support the troops” or “brave men and women in uniform”).

Occasionally one sees this week’s expression used as the second part of a compound, as in “nuclear warfighter” or “guerrilla warfighter.” (The former appeared in Hatfield’s New York Times op-ed in 1986.) It turns up infrequently, but it’s not an unreasonable broadening of usage, actually. “Warrior” has a definite old-fashioned sound, more suited nowadays to movie franchises and computer games than actual warfare, though it might still be used of elite fighters. I think “warfarer” should be given consideration, but it looks too much like “wayfarer,” I suppose. By the way, there’s an Android game called Galaxy Warfighter; maybe this will be the rising generation’s cue to adopt the expression and push it irreversibly into our vocabulary.

“Warfighter” is an accidental addition to an accidental series formed loosely around the idea of strife, or making it go away. See “conflicted” and “-whisperer.”Pushback” and “win-win” are other terms in this category. Peace out, y’all.

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(1980’s | therapese? | “torn,” “ambivalent”)

“Conflict (with)” has been a verb for quite some time now, and “conflicted” was its past participle, so it has long been able to serve as an adjective, but it rarely did before 1970. And when it did start making adjective appearances, it didn’t quite seem to be doing the work of the past participle of “to conflict.” Why don’t we say “conflictful” or even “conflicting” (as in “conflicting schedules”)? When you’re divided within yourself, two parts of you are in disagreement, so it’s not a completed action, and the present participle seems more suitable. (When a conflict is settled, it ceases to exist, after all.) Maybe I’m being too fussy about grammar, but there’s something irregular about the way we use “conflicted” today. Yet it doesn’t sound strange, even to me.

The definition doesn’t require much explanation, but using the word with the right force is important. You don’t use it when you’re trying to decide between chicken soup or a TV dinner; there must be pretty strong currents at work to invoke the term. One is conflicted about major issues or in the face of important decisions. Powerful emotions or principles must be reconciled in order to make one’s course clear.

In 1977, sportswriter Thomas Boswell referred to the New York Yankees as “wealthy, conflicted and almost-too-talented.” But he meant strife between rather than within, more like “fractious” or “confrontational.” The Yankees were famous for having too many players who didn’t like or respect each other, so the word presumably meant they fought all the time. Today, it’s more common to use “conflicted” to describe a single person, but if you view a team as a single organism, the meaning is basically the same as ours. Instead of everyone pushing toward the same goal, too many people are going in different directions, so the team isn’t single-minded. (The weakness of the baseball team as metaphor for the individual may be seen in the Yankees’ three straight pennants while in such a “conflicted” state; people mired in a dither are rarely so successful.)

If “conflicted” can be used to talk about groups or organizations, why not nations? It has become normal to talk about the U.S. as conflicted about this issue or that, or just across the board. Lovely Liz from Queens suggested last week that the U.S. needs a “republic-whisperer” to help calm all of us down and start working together to identify and solve problems, or at least agree that probably not everyone on the other side is guilty of treason. When a single person is conflicted, maybe you can help him sort it all out, but when half of us are unable to agree with the other half about anything, the task seems impossibly daunting. Our house has been divided before and we’ve survived, but as the retirement fund managers like to say, past performance does not guarantee future results.

Why do I place a question mark after “therapese” as the source of this expression? Could there be a clearer example? The early instances of the term I have found don’t come invariably or even consistently from shrinks and counselors; it turns up in social science and other branches of academese as well. One strong indication: as “conflicted” was taking on its new usage, it turned up in arts writing, especially book reviews, a lot. Arts journalists being more neurotic than average, they tend to be early adopters of therapese, before editorialists or sportswriters. Arguably, journalists do more than anyone — with the occasional exception of an actor or screenplay writer — to make new expressions common to us all. Many of the expressions I have treated started life in a specific professional or demographic subdivision of vocabulary before seeping or exploding into everyday language. Each type of journalist, unsurprisingly, tends to prefer certain subdivisions. Arts journalists are lucky to draw on such a fertile source of new expressions as therapese, sportswriters mine the rich veins of new vocabulary generated by athletese, and editorial writers enjoy the fruit of our prolific military men and bureaucrats.

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(1990’s | journalese | “healer,” “wise woman or man”)

Never a common word, “whisperer” certainly existed before 1980 and was used in a number of different ways. Aside from the ground-level meaning of “one who whispers,” it had a fair range of referents: rumormonger or backbiter; irritating theatergoer; obscene caller; meek, negligible person. The first of these is related to another old phrase, “whispering campaign,” which had to do with spreading gossip in order to undermine a person or institution. The word frequently had a negative connotation and rarely a positive one. A whisperer doesn’t speak his mind forthrightly, or if he does you can’t hear him, and there’s something surreptitious, if not underhanded, about that.

All that changed after May 1998, when “The Horse Whisperer” splashed onto screens across America; it grossed $75 million and grafted an entirely new meaning onto an old word. Robert Redford’s character cured traumatized horses by whispering to them and just sorta all-around bringing healing to troubled equine souls. Mother Nature’s wisdom administered with a mild hand works wonders on animals, including people, and the Horse Whisperer coincidentally worked wonders on the mother and daughter who owned the horse. The film was based on a novel published in 1995; although the book was a much-touted best seller, the film had a much more decisive impact on the language. By 2000, “whisperer” was appended to other creatures; a nanny known as the “Baby Whisperer” became an overnight sensation in Hollywood. Behold the unguessed linguistic powers of Robert Redford! The trend has continued; now anyone good at quieting living creatures and making them more tractable merits the label. (“Whisperer” still requires a prefix; using the term as a general occupation, unmoored from a particular species, sounds unidiomatic.) Not long ago, a friend of mine wished for a “kid-whisperer” to help the troubled daughter of a friend, prompting this post. Thanks, Amanda!

The change in feel from backstabbing and low-down to heartwarming and humane is striking. We are accustomed to seeing similar progressions when members of minorities take over derogatory terms, as in the ever-cited example “queer,” or “girl,” or “flyover country.” Yet there is no groundswell of public support for the -whisperers lobby, as far as I know. Like villains in literature, the expressions that have turned sour in the last forty years seem more compelling: “enable,” “hipster,” “sketchy.”

Real-life horse (or whatever)-whisperers are people who have spent a lot of time with animals and understand them better than the rest of us do. One possible model for the title character of the novel was a trainer named Monty Roberts, who talks of getting horses to “join” or work with humans, rather than compelling obedience through intimidation and beatings. “Whisperer” suggests a quiet, gentle demeanor, and horse people have long used “gentle” as a verb to refer to the same sort of approach. Someone who gentled a horse (a “gentler”?) made it pliant and cooperative by creating a calm atmosphere and soothing the horse, enabling it to resume normal activities. From the perspective of individual liberty, the horse-whisperer puts down rebellion and maintains the status quo with humans firmly in charge, stamping out resistance among the equine ranks. But she does so not by breaking the animal’s will but by convincing it that we’re all on the same team. There may be a lesson there for those who must deal with human revolutionaries.

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body wash

(1990’s | advertese | “liquid soap”)

In 1988 or thereabouts, a company named Genesis Research Corp. created a product they called “Body Wash.” That was not the first occurrence of the phrase, and if they trademarked the name, it did no good; “body wash” (sometimes “personal wash”) has always been treated as a common noun, not to be confused with “face wash” or “hand wash.” Judging from LexisNexis, I would say that by 1995 the expression was commonplace and most people had heard it, even if a few older people may not have been quite clear on what it meant. LexisNexis also indicates that writers didn’t feel compelled to define the term; it was customarily used without quotation marks or amplification. Early publicity for Genesis summarized the case for it: “Body Wash is an invention which allows the user to enjoy a luxurious stand-up bubble bath by using a hands-free soap dispersement while showering. Research indicates that use of Body Wash should result in a cost savings over the use of bar soap. Additionally, it eliminates the chance for transmission of bacterial infections, which could be passed to the next user of a bar of soap.” More luxurious, more sanitary, and cheaper, too? Well, maybe. And how did you manage “hands-free dispersement [sic]”? All the body wash I’ve ever seen comes in a bottle that has to be opened and squeezed, an operation I would not like to perform with my teeth or toes. Be all that as it may, we know now that body wash caught on like crazy. Within ten years it was no longer a specialty item, and it has been overtaking “bar soap” (the adjective was rarely required in my youth) in popularity ever since. Today even men use body wash, at least among the young.

“Personal care” products — anyway, those sold as aids to washing and grooming (distinct from vitamins, tampons, etc.) — have conquered the world since my boyhood. When I was young, most people’s “personal care” unguents consisted of shampoo, soap, toothpaste, and deodorant, plus shaving cream and aftershave for men and maybe moisturizer for women. When my parents were kids, you washed your hair with soap and no one had ever heard of deodorant. Their grandparents made their own soap. Today you have to contend with lotions, gels, oils, scrubs, butters, serums . . . Oh, and you can’t just find plain old shampoo any more. It comes not only in many brands, but in dozens of varieties, concocted specially for every kind of hair, with or without conditioner (which also comes in dozens of varieties). If you’re an old-timer who just wants the same name-brand shampoo you started using forty years ago, it’s probably out there, but you’d better bring your high-powered reading glasses to the drugstore, because the minute differences in packaging won’t help you distinguish all the new-fangled kinds from the “classic” or “original” formula.

“Personal care” is a little old for the blog; it was established by the end of the 1970’s, at least as a modifier of “product.” As a noun phrase, it was already on the way to replacing “personal hygiene,” which sounded technical and antiseptic. “Personal hygiene” was something that one did at least partly for others, but “personal care” is something you do for yourself. (Yes, personal care products make you look and smell better, a benefit for those around you, but they also make you feel better in ways that are only indirectly perceptible to others.) “Personal hygiene” isn’t based on self-indulgence, but “personal care” is. Or maybe it’s more fundamental than that. From a Washington Post blog (May 21, 2016): “People are looking for an increased identity with the products, a personal relationship,” says Eleanor Dwyer, a beauty researcher for the market analysis firm Euromonitor. “There’s an idea that the products you use symbolize yourself.” Like artisanal food, the particular variation on soap that we prefer is supposed to serve as a window to our souls, affording us satisfaction while sending a laudable message to others as well. It’s not just about looking good any more. Beauty is no longer skin-deep.

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failed state

(1990’s | academese? journalese? | “social collapse,” “anarchy,” “unrest”)

This term attempts to denote a single phenomenon, but each manifestation looks different from all the others. It is roughly defined as a government no longer able to provide what you might call basic services — roads, education, law enforcement, etc. — or the nation ruled by such a government. That’s the carrot-centric way to look at it; the big stick approach says it is a government that no longer maintains a monopoly on violence. Failure may be caused by civil war, corruption, insurgency, economic depression, or any shock to the system. The first uses in LexisNexis date from 1992, including an article in the journal Foreign Policy by Gerald B. Helman and Steven R. Ratner that has been cited as bringing the phrase to general attention. (I didn’t find anything to suggest that they didn’t invent the expression, but I didn’t look very hard.) Somalia was the first example to spring to everyone’s lips, with Haiti a close second; Rwanda and Bosnia were not far behind. Pundits may disagree on whether any given nation is a failed state or not, but most of them happily agree that there are a lot of failed states, which is handy in case a large western nation feels like limbering up an invasion force. States that look like they might fail any day now are called “fragile states.” (Here’s an SAT analogy for you: “fragile state” is to “failed state” as “food insecurity” is to “hunger.”) One commentator urges the absurdity of referring to states as “failed” that had never been successful, or functioned at all.

Experienced pundit-watchers will note that most failed states reside in what we like to call the third world, and there’s no doubt that the phrase is every bit as paternalistic as it sounds. The more deleterious the effect of previous western interference in the state in question, the less polite it is to bring it up — just as it’s not cricket to observe that first world nations routinely show shocking ineptitude in their efforts to impose effective governments on third world nations. The phrase long since emerged from scholarly lingo to become common currency among politicians and bureaucrats, who are in the best position to send the marines to restore order, or at least grab some of the goods. If enough Americans and Europeans (aw, hell, let’s throw in the Japanese and Australians, but not the Chinese and Russians!) think you’re a failed state, you can expect bombing runs or foreign soldiers spraying bullets. So it’s not a term to throw around lightly.

If “failed” turns out to be a bit unsavory when applied to nations, maybe we can make room for other uses of the adjective. I thought of it only this morning when I walked into the kitchen and realized we had forgotten to refrigerate, or even cover, a partly eaten mango yesterday: voilà, a failed mango. We’ve all been to failed parties. If your computer refuses to yield up your hard-entered data, you have a failed hard drive. As a longtime devotee of Monty Python, my thoughts can hardly fail to turn to failed parrots. It’s much more poetic and pathetic than referring to any old botch as a “fail,” as these kids today do.

June 26, 2016: It occurred to me that “Failed State” might also be the name of a university, as in, “Yeah, I went to Failed State.” I’ve been trying to come up with a team nickname for the school. After entertaining Second Bananas, Lieutenants, and Albatrosses, I’ve decided to go with Underdogs. Those who prefer the collective-noun-as-team-name formula that became standard after my childhood — which has penetrated the NBA but not the NFL or MLB (professional soccer led the way, as I recall) — can use Underdog.

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no pressure

(2010’s | teenagese? | “(there’s) no hurry,” “take your time,” “don’t be alarmed”)

This has become a fixed phrase recently, within the last ten years, I’d say. I learned it from teenagers, who probably picked it up from one song lyric or another, if Google is anything to go by. It’s been a hit recently for Justin Bieber, but as I understand it, all of his songs are hits. The phrase has become an interjection, most often used to comment on a pending proposal or assignment. It is related to “pressures” (“identifiable sources of stress”), but it is bound more closely to a more general kind of pressure (see below). It no longer needs the structure supplied by verb or modifier; “no pressure” stands on its own.

Even though some athletes and other performing artists thrive on it, pressure is nearly always unwelcome. It involves coercion and/or stress, and it’s hard to resist when it comes from above. “Pressure” used this way goes back several generations in discussions of salesmen; there was an old joke about the low-pressure salesman who rang the doorbell and said to himself, “Nobody home, I hope.” That joke made sense because high-pressure sales tactics were well established and thoroughly resented. Other fields in which “pressure” was routinely used to refer to wielding influence in order to get one’s way were diplomacy and sports; the word had been common for years to talk about situations where the game was on the line. Or there were just the boss’s demands that a job be done on time, or a teacher constantly reminding students that they need to push themselves harder to get into a good college. “No pressure” — in its simple form — attempts to relieve the hearer by assuring them that they will not be hurried, chivvied, or bullied. Unless, of course, it’s used ironically to mean “This is a daunting project,” or “It’s all riding on you,” or “The fate of our relationship hinges on your answer.” That usage will become more common over time, as the stress economy continues to take more out of workers while paying them less, but the forgiving form is still there when you want to convey “I’m not making any demands,” or “Make the decision at your own pace.”

Just for fun, I reviewed the alphabetical entry list to find expressions of similar tone and meaning — intended to soothe or relax the hearer — and didn’t find any good analogues. “No harm, no foul” has the same general tone but is used in much different contexts. “Lighten up” or “take a chill pill” have related meanings, but they are insults, not a soft answer. Plenty of terms go the other way: “burnout,” “gut check,” “hype,” “race to the bottom,” “zero tolerance.” We are producing more expressions to report on the ways we grind down our fellow human beings than expressions that ease their minds. That’s an ominous sign.

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