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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 35 years


walk back

(2000’s | bureaucratese | “retract,” “backpedal on,” “back down from,” “tone down,” “mitigate”)

It does not apply to dogs, horses, or bicycles, or tracing a stream to its source. Nor does it mean the same thing as “walk away from,” although there are situations in which either phrase could aptly be used. Not to mention “back away from,” which is pretty close — same sense of moving cautiously and disassociating yourself from the subject at hand, effectively the opposite of talking back. “Walk back” does not mean “turn back” or even “turn one’s back on,” although, once again, there are moments when you might be excused for detecting them in the background. To confuse matters further, it sometimes is used to mean “restore to a previous state,” or even “turn things around.” In these cases the expression adds a temporal dimension to “back” that is only implicit in its more common manifestation.

It’s what you do when you or one of your colleagues exaggerates, or says something stupid, or goes off the rails, although the phrase is generally applied to statements or policies rather than faux pas of other kinds. You do it when you have to, but no one ever enjoys walking it back. Because it always applies to some sort of disavowal, it may be used neutrally or scornfully, but walking back a statement or policy is not sold as a principled act even by the most brazen politicians. It may be presented as an explanation or clarification, however. It is closely connected to “damage control,” and less obviously related to lowering expectations (also a political term of abuse), when it is done to temper a far-reaching policy announcement (or leak). The phrase “walk it back” means “eat one’s words,” when you’re overruling yourself, or “clean up after . . .” if it’s someone else. Simply enough, the act of walking back is a “walkback” (sometimes hyphenated).

One point of semantic interest about “walk back”: It makes it easy to introduce the idea of a partial renunciation of what you said yesterday. So you might read that an official, or spokesperson, walked back her comments a bit, meaning she stands by most of what she said but has rethought an insignificant part of it. The phrase “partial retraction” has been around for a while, but today’s alternative seems folksier and pleasanter. Politicians are always on the lookout for ever more delicate ways of wiggling out of whatever inconvenient thing they said last week or last year.

Sen. Chuck Hagel traced the expression to “State Department parlance” in 2002, and LexisNexis bears him out. The earliest instances I found in LexisNexis date from the mid-1980’s, invariably in the context of international relations. Our president, or someone else’s president, says something radical (by mistake, of course), and the diplomats have to get out there and walk it back. Politicians and journalists used it now and then during the 1990’s, but it remained insider vocabulary at least until 2000, when it became more common among officials while starting to appear in other contexts. Even now, the phrase is far more comfortable in political discourse than anywhere else, but it can be used naturally in legal contexts, or in discussions of corporate policy, or even on the sports page. The phrase jumped in frequency with Obama’s rise in 2008, even though I don’t associate it with him. Even a moderately active news consumer might still not have absorbed the expression by the beginning of 2008, but he surely had by the beginning of 2010.

The diplomatic origin of the expression is fairly clear, but why “walk back,” anyway? My best guess is that it’s a transitive variation on “backtrack,” which was already common in political reporting before 1980. Not invariably, but often, it was used to mean “renege on an earlier commitment or position,” which would make it a clear forerunner of today’s expression. Pat Buchanan (McLaughlin Group, 2009) offered an elaboration that I doubt points to an origin, but might: “this cat is out of the bag and he [Eric Holder] can’t walk it back.” (That refreshing touch of the literal is hard to resist when you’re creating folk etymologies.) Doesn’t “walk back” just sound like diplomatic language? Not “roll back,” “push back,” or “cross out” (much less “strike out”). Even if we have to weasel out of absolutely everything the boss said yesterday, we’ll make it sound like we’re strolling home from the park. Diplomats are famous for this sort of thing. Compare “frank exchange of views,” which means “heated argument.”

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lighten up

(1980’s | journalese | “don’t be (so) uptight,” “get off your high horse,” “take it easy,” “stop and smell the roses,” “cool it”)

“Lighten up” signals that someone is overdoing it. Which means it’s basically an insult — patronizing or sneering or exasperated. This is a fixed phrase now, used intransitively (unusual before 1980) and imperatively (likewise), and directed at a specific person or group. In the old days, “lighten up” meant simply “make lighter,” in weight or color or mood, and it was usually transitive, often used as a substitute for “brighten up.” When it was used imperatively, it was much more literal; it meant “lay off,” that is, exert less pressure or throw less weight around. The new meaning revolves around mood or demeanor: don’t be so sensitive, or angry, or humorless, or obsessive, so it’s closer to “chill out” than “stop busting my chops.” It’s clear that our expression is descended from the older meaning and not that much different from it. But “lighten up” before 1980 almost always meant “brighten,” or “loosen,” or “abate,” not “take yourself less seriously.”

The origins of our specialized form of the phrasal verb probably lie in the sixties, among either hippies or African-Americans, who didn’t overlap much. Early mainstream uses occurred mostly in reporting on entertainment. Articles about pop stars and movie personalities contained the earliest examples I found; Oliver Stone and Louis Gossett, Jr. both were quoted using the expression in the early eighties, and it made the script of Bill Murray’s film “Stripes” (1981). Johnny Carson used it on the air in 1986; in 1987, Washington Post television critic Tom Shales remarked, “If this odd little decade has a credo, it is probably ‘Lighten up.’” Infrequent in 1980, the phrase had arrived by 1990.

It’s worth asking why Shales chose “lighten up” as the motto for the eighties. I blame everything on Reagan, who definitely had a light-hearted, or perhaps light-brained, quality about him. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to go for the wisecrack, or to admit that you don’t understand everything that’s going on. Hey, it’s morning in America, and we don’t have to sweat the details — David Stockman will take care of that. More generally, the eighties does seem to have been an unusually superficial decade, to the extent that such generalizations mean anything. The sixties were terribly earnest all across the political spectrum, and it took twenty years to shake all that off and decide that what really matters is partying and acquiring worldly goods rather than inner, or even outer, peace. In the sixties, we were self-centered in order to improve our world; in the eighties we were self-centered because it was easy and fun. Telling someone to lighten up may mean telling them to be less concerned about solving the world’s problems, but it’s also a way to say, “stop gazing at your navel.” Get out more, have some fun, live it up. And while you’re taking everything else less seriously, take yourself less seriously, too.

Google suggests that “lighten up” has become increasingly popular, almost standard, as a way of naming or referring to weight loss programs. Gyms, bloggers, government agencies all use it to encourage the rest of us slobs to slim down. The vocabulary of fitness continues to evolve. “Losing weight” has shrunk to “losing,” and “loser” is carving out space for itself as a compliment. There’s something inspiring about the way Americans fight back against obesity — one television show, or one slogan, at a time. Speaking of slogans, November 14 is “Loosen Up, Lighten Up Day,” a reminder to relieve stress through exercise and humor. “Lighten up” has loosened up. It may mean as little as “have a good laugh,” and it seems to be heading for “relax and unwind.” How wide can it glide?

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interpersonal skills

(1980’s | therapese | “diplomacy,” “social graces,” “courtesy”)

This staple of job descriptions started to appear in the psychological literature during that magical decade, the 1960’s. (“Interpersonal” is much older.) An irresistible example from Laycock and Munro’s “Educational Psychology” (1966): “Probably the most important problem in the world today is that of improving interpersonal and intergroup skills.” Somewhere around 1980, the phrase began to turn up in the mainstream press; even at that early stage, it was frequently associated with employment, touted as an asset valued by employers even if not directly expressed on a resumé. Here is an instance where the business world acted as a megaphone for psychological jargon, rather than the usual popularizers: religion, education, and the arts. Yet the expression also comes readily to hand in talk of relationships and can be used in a range of contexts — the rise of autism in recent years has given it another boost. Its formal, bureaucratic tone makes it perennially useful in situations where one wants to sound fair, or at least neutral. “He’s an asshole” still doesn’t sound right on an employee evaluation, but “he has poor interpersonal skills” fills the bill. “People skills,” the country cousin of this phrase, started showing up a decade or so later; now it has a following of its own. “Soft skills” is another rough synonym. “Leadership skills” is not, precisely, but many leadership skills turn out to be of the interpersonal variety.

I’m still not quite sure whether there’s a difference between “interpersonal skills” and “communication skills.” My initial reaction would be to say that the one is a subset of the other, but when I try to come up with a specific interpersonal skill that isn’t some sort of communication skill, I can’t. N.C. State’s student health center breaks it down into four broad categories: communication, assertiveness, conflict resolution, and anger management. Only the last might not be considered a communication skill, though I would argue that it is an essential prerequisite. Here’s a longer list of interpersonal skills, and a still longer one; nearly all the traits listed directly involve communication. In business, “communication skills” sometimes is a code word for “literacy” (thanks, Liz!), but it is commonly used to talk about face-to-face interaction as well.

“Skill,” at any rate, is enjoying a good run in the social sciences as the word for “useful behavior,” whether learned or innate. “Coping skills” and “life skills” are other examples, among a multitude. It’s almost impossible to imagine a job description that doesn’t demand good interpersonal skills. What noble employer out there will take on the inflexible, inattentive, robotic, rude, slouchy, dense, passive-aggressive, cold-hearted, self-absorbed, and clueless? They have to eat, too.

This phrase can be used in a general, or naive, way, but it normally has a none-too-subtle subtext. Interpersonal skills are in demand wherever there are difficult people to deal with. It can go either way. You may need advanced interpersonal skills because you work with difficult people, or you may be lamenting the absence of interpersonal skills among the difficult. Thus, techies, engineers, doctors, and other terrifying experts are chided regularly for their lack of interpersonal skills and encouraged to develop them through rigorous training, since it is obvious that they will never develop them from within. When advice columnists talk about interpersonal skills, they’re usually answering a question about an unreasonable office colleague. It’s not just a matter of being friendly and nice. Interpersonal skills are prized because they neutralize troublesome people, paving the way for settling disputes and winning battles.

This expression marks the third in an unintentional series, following “win-win” and “play well with others,” and is closely related to the latter. One way to get at the difference between them is to ask the question, “Is my goal to get along or to get my way?” The former is more like playing well with others, but interpersonal skills have more to do with getting what you want, even if all you want is to finish a group project without bloodshed. Assuming you’re competent and effective most of the time, deliberate use of interpersonal skills is inevitably a form of manipulation.

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play well with others

(1990’s | academese (education) | “cooperate (be cooperative),” “get along well,” “work well with others”)

This expression got my attention when Allan Gurganus published his similarly titled novel in 1997. LexisNexis shows pretty clearly that the phrase, while going back a couple of decades in educational parlance and even political reporting, hadn’t been widespread for more than a few years. In the early nineties, it started popping up in a variety of sources, notably computer magazines and arts writing. In 1982, political columnist Richard Cohen attributed the phrase — in its expanded form “work and play well with others” — to the “education biz.” (In case you were wondering, he was referring to Muammar Gaddafi and using the phrase in the negative, as it so often is.) Cohen was an early adopter, but it turned up occasionally in political journalism throughout the 1980’s. There is little doubt that the expression goes back to that American scholarly institution, the report card. It’s one of the criteria used to evaluate how well small children deal with other kids, so that the self-centered, sulky, or withdrawn ones might be spotted early. With adults, the phrase takes on a more general coloring, so that it denotes someone who is easy to work with, affable, unselfish, responsible, and able to contribute to group efforts, light or serious, without making the rest wish he or she hadn’t. Playing well with others requires good interpersonal skills, to use a term of the same vintage. If you’re not good at those things, then you don’t play well with others. You may be any of a thousand things, but you are always difficult. Prickly, idiosyncratic, egotistical, sullen, whatever — failing to play well with others never connotes commendable individualism. It’s all about orneriness.

A slightly older word for such a person is “team player,” the same verb used in more of an athletic and less of an educational context. Before that, you might have said that a person “pulled her weight,” or that he was a “good scout,” though that was a more general compliment. The phrase has for years frequently been used in businese, most often in articles about how to keep your employees happy, or just how to keep your employees. I’m not sure when or why we started using “play” to talk about what used to be known as work. Elementary irony aside, the shift takes advantage of the original connotation of “play well with others.” Like “on task,” its origins in teachers’ dialect forced on it a patronizing character even after it came into general use. Particularly when used in the negative, the phrase tends to sound snarky, and there is often more than a hint that the target is not just unreasonable, but downright childish. On the other hand, when used unadorned, it seems to have shed most of that tinge by now. By and large, “plays well with others” has evolved into a compliment. The negation has retained its original patronizing inflection, but the affirmative has lost it and become positive over time. At least that’s how I hear it.

You would think the phrase “play well with others” would fall naturally from the lips of musicians, and occasionally you run across a book about ensemble playing or being a good accompanist that uses it in the title. But it still has the air of a play on words rather than a straightforward, literal phrase.

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win-win

(1980’s | businese? | “mutually advantageous,” “everybody gets a piece of the pie,” “everybody’s happy,” “best of both worlds”)

“Win-win,” now commonly used as a noun but originally an adjective, rose up within the art and science of negotiation, whether in discussions of pre-divorce mediation, collective bargaining, sales, or politics. Everyone gets something; no one goes away mad. At first it pertained only to adversarial situations; originally the term was conventionally opposed to “win-lose,” where one party bests (or even humiliates) the other. Rare in 1980, by 1990 it was used frequently in almost any situation where all concerned are at least vaguely satisfied, whether as a result of negotiation or not. “Win-win” could be spelled with a comma or a virgule, but to me it looks most normal with a hyphen. Although the meaning has remained pretty stable over thirty years, I found an interesting variant from the early days in an article on the cable industry. Communications Daily in 1984: “Many remain confident that [the cable] industry is . . . in a ‘win, win’ situation” regardless of whether a piece of legislation passed or not. Not “everyone wins,” but “I win either way.” That seems just as plausible, and just as sensible, as the accepted sense.

A book called “Getting to Yes” was published in 1981. Written by a couple of Harvard eggheads, it proved a very popular and durable guide to negotiation — the third edition was published less than five years ago. I haven’t determined if “win-win” actually appeared anywhere in the first edition, but the spirit of the thing breathed from every page. The authors emphasized resolving conflicts to mutual advantage whenever possible. Keep your cool, think about how the issues look from your adversary’s point of view, and look for answers that offer something to both sides. By 1984, the nation’s first master’s program in conflict intervention was established at George Mason University. This had to do with settling violent international disputes, rather than the smaller-scale conflicts that “win-win” usually covers — not that it couldn’t refer to the resolution of a war or comparable conflict. But regardless of the magnitude of the stage, this kind of negotiation embraces the principle that the purpose of bargaining is not that one combatant grind the other into the dirt.

This expression lends itself to a particular unsavory use due to its optimistic, reassuring character. It is often used by spokespersons for powerful corporations or the government to describe a policy change, regulatory effort, or private-public partnership. They trot out “win-win” in order to convince us that we all benefit as much as the massive impersonal institution benefits. Most of the time, that means we get a bone thrown to us that doesn’t cost the institution anything, while the institution gets just about everything it wants in return, no matter how harmful or costly the results. Just another straightforwardly Orwellian (and highly effective) misuse of the language. Not all wins are created equal, and you have to look very closely when a powerful organization invites you to accept its version of the new state of affairs.

A further note on origins: The first director of the conflict resolution program at George Mason (now known as S-CAR), a psychiatrist named Dr. Bryant Wedge, was also the first person recorded using “win-win” in LexisNexis, five years earlier. Perhaps the unheralded Dr. Wedge, an important advocate for peaceful resolution of disputes, deserves some credit for the popularity of this expression.

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national conversation

(1980’s | journalese? bureaucratese? | “lively debate,” “broad-based or general discussion,” “public discourse”)

Another expression we owe to the Reagan years, though not to Reagan himself. The first example in LexisNexis shows up at the beginning of 1984 from the pen of George Will (Google Books kicks up a few scattered uses before that), but Secretary of Education William J. Bennett seems to have debuted this phrase definitively; he took office in 1985 and used it frequently, and it started to show up more after that. The phrase was a commonplace by the end of Bill Clinton’s first year in office, once again associated with a particular official, NEH chair Sheldon Hackney. Originally it referred to discussion of a single event or issue — in Bennett’s case it was education policy — politicians and their spokespersons would call for a national conversation about their field of interest or responsibility. “Have a national conversation” replaces “focus our attention on” or “get people thinking about.” Another, more general, meaning soon crept in, and we may use the term, generally preceded by the definite article, to refer to what everyone is talking about, even if not directly related to traditional political questions. The latter meaning is harder to pin down, more mythical, than the original.

It won’t do to give the politicians too much credit. The rise of talk radio, cell phones, and the internet in the early 1990’s seemed to embody the national conversation, and the phrase slipped naturally into a kind of shorthand for these brave new means of mass communication. Talk radio, in particular, was quickly embraced as opening a window on our collective consciousness or oversoul, or something. Personally, I doubt that any of these innovations has really contributed much to improvements in civil discourse, other than making it easier for us to trade trivialities or blow off steam (the internet has made itself useful as a storehouse of information, which is not insignificant). But I admit the possibilities seemed powerful at the time.

“National dialogue” had already come into use before 1980, but it sounds too two-sided to take multiple perspectives into account. (“Dialogue” seems to be the preferred term when some kind of reconciliation is needed, reinforcing the notion that only two parties can be involved.) I suspect Bennett was looking for a word that sounded not only more diverse than “dialogue” but also less confrontational than “debate,” which for centuries served its turn as the word for the process of figuring out what the government should do next, or what its guiding principle in a particular area should be. “Debate” conjures up sweaty candidates at podiums, observing strict rules about how much they can talk and maybe even which matters they may address. Conversations are different. They’re not staged, or bound by formal procedures; they proceed naturally as people try to deal with the problem at hand. It’s not just the prerogative of politicians and their advisors, but something we can all do. This jibes nicely with one of our cherished stories about self-governance: just by leaning over the back fence, we can participate in our most urgent policy discussions and guide our leaders to the best, most democratic solution. The facade does become harder to maintain as the population grows, and “national conversation” may promise more widespread involvement than it can deliver.

If a welcoming, inclusive effect was what Bennett was after in 1985, we can judge that he was not particularly successful. Maybe that’s because the loss of rules and standards that accompanied the shift from debate to conversation forestalled any such result. The premise underlying political debate was a commitment to giving all sides a fair hearing, in the hopes that each position would be explained clearly and buttressed by the best available arguments. A good debate represents the various viewpoints well enough that observers may reach sensible, reliable conclusions. Conversation makes no such promise. It’s easy for a conversation to degenerate into a shouting match or vituperation, or simply two people talking past each other; the rules of debate that limit or prevent such failures don’t apply. It’s true that debates are often won by the best debater, rather than by the defender of the most cogent position, but conversations are even worse. The old standards required not only that each side be heard respectfully, but that participants would acknowledge opposing sides of the argument. Now even that theoretical baseline has been lost. Conversation carries no obligation to listen to anyone else or any means to compel it. So you get less efficiency and more clash.

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wingman

(2000’s | militarese | “buddy,” “sidekick,” “ally”)

Once upon a time this word was entirely serious. In the context of military aviation, the wingman is terribly important — the pilot of another plane just off to the side and behind the lead, an essential member of the group who might well save the lead pilot’s ass. In that sense, it goes back to the 1940’s, albeit as two words, according to the OED. By my childhood, the word also had a very specific use in sportswriting — think basketball, hockey, soccer — where it designated a position. Up until 2000 or so, that was about it, as far as LexisNexis is concerned. Many on-line sources point to the 1996 movie “Swingers” as the event that pushed the word into our vocabulary, but there’s no sign of it in LexisNexis, and the word does not appear in either of the scripts I found on-line, not that I trust them particularly. (What, you want me to sit down and watch a whole movie?) Anyway, by 2010 a new meaning was established, one for which there was no precise equivalent in the old days. The predatory male conspires with another man, who is pledged to aid and abet the aforementioned predatory male in picking up a woman (at a bar, for example). There are different ways to do that, of course, but most definitions agree that the wingman is there mainly to a) soak up the quarry’s unattached friend, who probably isn’t very attractive, and b) talk up the predatory male when he steps away in order to impress the quarry with the p.m.’s heroism and humility. Like a designated driver, the wingman is expected to forgo his own satisfaction for the night for the benefit of those around him. It is a sacrificial role, for which he generally expects some sort of compensation.

The modern conception doesn’t seem like much of a departure from the older sense. In either case, it’s a tight bond between two men, one of whom watches out for the other as he faces the enemy — er, uh, I mean the nice young lady — bravely and unflinchingly. As metaphors go, it’s pretty straightforward. The female equivalent, “wingwoman,” who can work with either another woman or a man, is starting to turn up; “winger” may become a unisex term. The verb seems to be “to wing,” which has nothing to do with winging it, much less flying by the seat of your pants. In politics, “wingman” also refers to a myrmidon of some kind, whether a fundraiser or a fellow legislator who runs interference. Occasionally it is used more fancifully still, as in a blogger referring to a digital camera feature as a “wingman,” automatically correcting your photographic mistakes.

Wingmen turn up a lot in movies and television; two characters open up many more possibilities. I’m pretty sure there was a Happy Days episode in which the Fonz observed Richie trying to impress a girl, offering sotto voce advice or critique when the girl visited the powder room, as girls must always do, at least in fiction. It would not have occurred to anyone in 1975 (much less in the 1950’s) to call Fonzie a “wingman.” Now we have a word for it. Who says civilization doesn’t advance? In “The Blue and the Gray,” Homer Simpson serves as Moe’s wingman. It seems like every few months there’s another buddy movie in which one man helps another pick up women. The new movie, “The Wedding Ringer,” ratchets it up several notches: Kevin Hart’s character hires himself out to prospective grooms who can’t generate their own wedding party — the wingman gets promoted to best man. An extreme twist, but still not quite in John Alden’s league. In real life, the wingman isn’t a paid employee, but that’s what screenwriters are for.

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