Skip to content

Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 35 years

cold call

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: , , , , , , , ,


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

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

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

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

max out

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: , , , , , , ,

comfort zone

(1980’s | enginese | “groove,” “sweet spot,” “where you feel at home,” “good way”; “old familiar ways,” “rut”)

Among engineers, this is not a new expression at all. It is at least a hundred years old, first used by the kind of technician who studies indoor environments and how human occupants respond to them. (The term may also be used to talk about the outdoors, but it has always been more common among heating and ventilation engineers than among climatologists.) Specifically, the “comfort zone” is defined by the answer to the question: What range of temperature and humidity allows people to go about their business without sweating or shivering? Metaphorical use was possible but rare before 1980. A few advertisers adopted it in the early sixties — it was even the name for a model of brassiere — but it didn’t take flight then. The passage to general and frequent use seems to have gone through sports reporting, whether talking about fish choosing where to hang out in a lake or a basketball player’s favorite place to shoot from. By 1990 it had spread pretty far.

When this phrase started getting tossed around in the eighties, it could mean almost anything. A range of statistical values (e.g., An inflation rate of 2 per cent is well within the comfort zone), a stage of development (so you might go through several comfort zones on the way to mastering a complex skill), a margin of error (as in a hockey team feeling bolder because they have a good goaltender), an ideal position (as in an OPEC minister after demand for oil has gone back up), a close relationship (two friends who get along especially well have a high comfort zone), even personal space. The American people got hold of this engineer’s expression in the seventies and eighties and reinterpreted it gleefully and thoroughly. But most of these meanings didn’t persist; by 2000 two had pretty much won out. One was the athlete’s sense described above, which was descended directly from the original meaning. In the old days, the point of the comfort zone was to equip buildings with a pleasant environment, where employees would be at their most efficient, or where homedwellers would be as graciously cocooned as possible. The comfort zone was where you felt your best and did your best work. That connotation has held up, particularly in sports talk. But “comfort zone” has grown a complementary yet distinctly unsavory connotation. Instead of being the groove you swing in, it’s the groove you’re stuck in — where one gets trapped in the same old same old, the old reliable routines we live with because they’re too much trouble to change. Orators and do-gooders of all stripes enjoin us to expand our comfort zones, or break free of them entirely, so we can do things we thought we couldn’t (or wouldn’t), which in turn will free us up to experience new things, grow in new directions, maybe even reach our potential. It’s rather striking how ubiquitous this meaning has become. If LexisNexis is to be believed, the negative use of “comfort zone” has all but taken over the language, with all others trailing far behind.

This expression’s decisive turn to the pejorative was not predictable. One possible source is the idea of a stage in development I alluded to above; you have to go beyond your comfort zone to get to the next level, and, ultimately, attain mastery. But here’s a more likely example from USA Today (January 24, 1999) that may help explain the shift. “The students described how whites and blacks seldom interact socially at [the University of] Virginia, preferring to stay in what several students referred to as their ‘comfort zone,’ with people of their own race who share their interests, tastes and culture.” Sure looks like a transitional form from the positive meaning to the negative meaning. The students flock to those with whom they are most at ease. That’s meaning no. 1, right? They’re at their best with the people they understand the best. But you can see what lies around the corner. This comfort zone leads directly to distrust and segregation and the bad old days, allowing the kids to reinforce their prejudices and miss out on valuable new experiences. After a few years of that, a motivational speaker has to come to campus to tell them to step out of their comfort zones and talk to the ones who don’t look exactly like they do. “Comfort zone” was never entirely innocent once it broke out of the engineers’ ghetto, because doing the easy thing every time causes you to forget that you still need to work toward becoming a better person. Over time, this worm in the apple has eaten the whole thing, and “comfort zone” has become a term of repentance and reproof rather than relief and relaxation.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

irrational exuberance

(1990’s | bureaucratese | “mania,” “speculation,” “fiscal irresponsibility”)

This expression took hold instantly. It sprang from the fertile mind of Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan on December 5, 1996 and soon became ubiquitous in financial discourse, as it remains to this day. Within a few years, it became possible to encounter it elsewhere, but such uses have never become common. I can’t think offhand of another example of a new phrase taking off so fast ex nihilo; it got 500 hits in December 1996 on LexisNexis after a grand total of zero before that; Google Books shows maybe one or two random instances before Greenspan. That is a reflection not of Greenspan’s popularity, but his majesty in financial circles, the ritual awe with which his every word or decision (one forgot for a while that the Fed was actually made up of several governors, not just one emperor) received from the rattiest day trader or the suavest mandarin. There have been other expressions that were born at a specific time and place (“trophy wife,” “tiger mother,” “factoid,” “deep doo-doo”), but has any of them shot out of the gate quite so precipitously?

The phrase recalls the old expression, “throwing good money after bad,” except that in some cases there isn’t any good money. “Irrational exuberance” involves excessive risk and excessive debt run up in pursuit of unreliable investments. When one person overdoes it, it doesn’t matter a whole lot to the larger market, but when everyone does, the consequences can create a wide swath of destruction and despair. In order to prevent such panics (as we used to call them), or collapses (as we call them now), the government must regulate banks and commodities markets. During eras when no one wants to do so, the boom and bust cycle starts again.

Greenspan’s exact words — “How do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions as they have in Japan over the past decade?” — illustrate his practice of avoiding direct statements and forcing auditors to guess more or less confidently at his meaning; one thinks of wall posters in Beijing under Mao or of the Oracle of Delphi. All you can really get out of his question is a theoretical possibility that the market might overvalue enough stocks, say, to cause a bubble. Now that’s taking a stand! Is it too much to ask that the chair of the Federal Reserve seek to forestall asset bubbles or remind investors in no uncertain terms that it is possible to buy too much on the margin or pay too dearly for a chance to pick up a few extra millions? That would mean open dissent from the fanatical, and entirely unsubstantiated, faith that the market — a bunch of workaholic moneygrubbers driven by desire for personal gain — is somehow infallible if left alone. Well, we all know that’s bullshit, but that doesn’t seem to keep us from admiring, and even electing, those who proclaim it as gospel truth.

Investor psychology isn’t particularly complex; as long as some assets somewhere — Chinese stocks, African diamonds, Gulf of Mexico oil, U.S. junk bonds — do well, the money has somewhere to go, investors feel secure, and the numbers keep going up. Now that many of us have our retirement funds invested in mutual funds, rises in stock market value are widely cheered, but only a few of us will ever amass fortunes worthy of Croesus. Too few to buy sufficient consumer goods to keep the economy humming — that’s why maldistribution of wealth leads to stagnation and falling fortunes for most people. Too much money in too few hands, a sure breeding ground for irrational exuberance.

Thanks to lovely Liz from Queens and almost-as-lovely Lenny from Cherry Valley for this week’s contribution. Even when you think he is not listening, Lex Maniac hears all.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

trash talk

(1990’s | athletese | “needling,” “insults,” “bad or offensive language,” “insolence”)

“Trash talk,” meaning the banter or vituperation athletes exchange during a game, developed and grew out of the sports world. During the eighties, the phrase was encountered only in sportswriting; by the mid-nineties, it was appearing in political and arts journalism, and its denotation was quietly starting to spread. One early addition was the idea that trash talk was characteristic of defiant kids or adolescents. It was established enough by 2000 that it could be used jocularly in articles about municipal garbage collection; it had also been baptized as a verb by then (one that takes an indirect object, so you can trash talk someone). A lesser meaning that may have disappeared, but was available from the late eighties until at least 2000, comes from the rise of the sort of low-taste talk shows hosted by Morton Downey, Jr. or Geraldo Rivera. That usage was an adjective phrase, as in “trash-talk show.”

The phrase first conveyed slurs uttered in the heat of battle, with intent to distract, intimidate, or relieve tension. The fundamental purpose of trash talk is keeping the other player’s mind on something other than the game. And some great players have been notable for their skill in trash talking, particularly in football and basketball, where close quarters and violence open avenues for verbal exchange. But it doesn’t have to be clever; it can just be raw hostility designed to put the other guy back on his heels. Derision is the mainspring of trash talk, and the phrase always conveys animus. In politics, the idea isn’t to throw your opponent off stride so much as to blacken his character, so “trash talk” used in politics is a close cousin, perhaps an example of, negative campaigning. While the expression still turns up frequently in the sports pages, it has grown and spread quickly — the tabloids love it — and has taken on a range of meanings from empty rhetorical gestures to language offensive to a group (rather than a particular person) to slander (that is, discourse designed to trash another person). It may be something to take very seriously or something unworthy of the least attention.

I’ve always been a little puzzled by the formulation, because the primary meaning of “trash” is well established: something of no value. If the word were carried over literally, “trash talk” would mean idle boast or wasted words, vain statements with no action back of them. But the whole point about idioms is they’re not literal, isn’t it? And trash means other things, such as filth or perversity. As a verb, it means degrade, as in a reputation or a place. So “trash talk” may not be so opaque after all. “Talk trash” is older; I can hear it in my southern relatives’ voices: “Don’t talk trash!” “Trash” in that context meant nonsense, but it also indicated malice, so the command instructed us not to smear other people behind their backs. But it didn’t mean “engage in trash talk.” The athletes turned it around and made it theirs. I’m not sure if the rise of the phrase coincided with the rise of the phenomenon — that is, more and more ballplayers were taking verbal swipes at each other, creating conditions that demanded new expression. When I was a boy that sort of thing was still considered unseemly, at least among older fans. Players were expected to keep quiet, do their jobs, and not fraternize. True, there were always a few players known for yakking away during games, but it was considered a mark against them. Now such carrying on is much too ordinary to count against even the chattiest cager. And you don’t have to sit in the first row to hear it any more; players will cheerfully report it after the game.

One phenomenon that might have helped this phrase grow beyond the playing field was the rise of internet flame wars in the late nineties. Sometimes “trash talk” was used to refer directly to anonymous and (therefore?) hate-filled on-line rantings. Even when it wasn’t, the idea that it’s fun and sometimes necessary to flay a person you’ve never met gained currency, and the phrase became more useful as the idea took hold that our culture consists largely of insults bandied back and forth, whether between chat-room warriors or celebrities.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

guest worker

(1980’s | bureaucratese? | “migrant worker,” “bracero”)

An import, “guest worker” is a literal translation of the German “Gastarbeiter.” Early occurrences in the New York Times confirm a German origin. Like the signifier, the signified is imported — an imported worker. In both English and German, the term is a euphemism devised to speak politely about a group of people no one really likes. Until 1980, it was used almost entirely in reporting on other parts of the world, mainly Europe, where waves of laborers from poorer countries (southern and especially southeastern Europe) moved to richer countries to fill temporary labor shortages. Early in his first term, Ronald Reagan proposed a limited guest worker program along similar lines: Mexican laborers could spend a few months here picking crops and then be shuttled home until next year. This sort of limited-time, manual and/or seasonal labor was what we thought of when we thought of guest workers for at least twenty years thereafter. Somewhere around 2000, it became possible to use the expression to talk about skilled laborers, meaning programmers and engineers, usually from Asia. Now both levels are available in everyday discussion, and there doesn’t seem to be much difference in frequency.

When presidents talk about sanctioning (now there’s a fine example of a word that can have two opposite meanings) guest workers, it’s usually one prong of an immigration strategy that also includes stricter border control and acceptance of workers who are already here illegally. In other words, we want to make it harder for people to sneak in from now on, but we know there’s not much we can do about the ones already here that isn’t incredibly expensive and incredibly intrusive. But then we need guest workers to replace the stream of illegal immigrants. Reagan and G.W. Bush both proposed a version of this plan, and so has Obama. Immigration goes right on fueling a long-simmering debate in the U.S., where second-generation immigrant groups are always ready to pull up the ladder once they get established, and there are always plenty of upstanding citizens ready to look askance at more recent ethnic arrivals. The right can appeal to national unity; the left to jobs and job security stolen from American workers (actually, right wingers often talk about jobs, too). As for the guest workers themselves — who are making their way to America the same way we’ve been doing it for 400 years, and for the same reason: it’s where the money is — they remain an easily exploited group of utterly expendable people, forever victims of injustice or worse, so destitute they must endure all sorts of privation and danger to give their families a slightly better chance of a slightly better life.

I alluded above to the class divide among guest workers, which can be roughly summed up by the difference between two U.S. workers’ visas, the H1-B (high-tech) and the H2-B (low-tech). It may be an overbroad generalization, but I find the class divide applies not only to the guest workers, but to those who use the term “guest worker.” When executives or members of Congress use the phrase today, they’re usually talking about highly educated workers, ostensibly needed to prevent the U.S. high-tech industry from collapsing in the face of foreign competition and an inadequate domestic educational system. When small-town or middle-class people use it, they’re talking about the harvesters and landscapers who take a toll on public services and depress wages for everyone, besides taking jobs away from folks who’ve lived around here all their lives. Of course, both usages are available to both sides of the divide, but doesn’t this sound like some new class-based vocabulary? Wait: You mean the same word can mean different things to the rich and the poor? When you put it that way, it doesn’t sound like a new idea at all.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 130 other followers