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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

craft (v.)

(1980’s | “prepare with care,” “forge”)

And here we go with the verb. The OED records an unusual pattern: “craft” was in use as a verb until roughly Shakespeare’s day — though it usually meant “act craftily,” that is, deviously — then disappeared until the 1960’s. Even then, the citations were limited to constructions in which it appeared as a past participle, as in “crafted of mahogany” and so forth. By 1990, it was possible to encounter it used in the present indicative, though still not the rule. Now serious people craft things right and left — proposals, solutions, poems, constitutions, you name it. I sense that it not used often for physical objects — bracelets, shoes, pizza — but for abstractions, usually for something written. The verb is intended to suggest expertise (related to words like “craftsman” or “handcrafted”) but also care and attention, qualities in such short supply throughout the culture that we must slap a new part of speech on an old word to record the occasional instances where they occur. It is not the only term I have written about that shows a long trough in use, or outright disappearance, followed by a resurgence in our era — see hurtful, overthink, ramp up — and, as in the other cases, it is doubtful at best that the pre-1600 use had any influence. Far more likely to be a back-formation from “crafted” as recorded in the OED.

“Craft,” I admit, makes me a bit dizzy. There’s this verb, see, that we didn’t have when I was a kid, that seems like established, always-there English to an entire generation by now. Fine; I’m past that. But then there’s this noun, “crafting,” that we didn’t have when I was a kid either, and it means something vaguely related but quite different. It’s more like “arts and crafts,” which I remember with terror from my childhood. But in its most frequent form — “engaging in a craft” — it’s not the gerund of “to craft,” which does not mean “engage in a craft.” Like I said, dizzying.

Other odd points about “craft”: As an adjective, it appears most often with “beer” (I’ve come across “craft doll,” “craft cannabis,” and there are probably other examples), which I covered last week. In the old days, though, you had craft unions (unions for skilled laborers); o.k., that’s related to the noun. Learn your craft and join the rank and file. As verb, “craft” doesn’t really start turning up until the eighties. Here’s another oddity: “handcrafted,” which clearly has influenced the way we use “craft” today, is a past participle without a present tense; “handcraft” isn’t a verb. That is, it could be used as a spot verb, but it sounds strange. “Handwritten” and “handmade” work the same way. “Hand” is really an adverb, but it got grafted on so long ago that we don’t notice any more.

In my head, “craft” goes with “curate.” Not just because they’re new (or more widespread) verbs that have come into common use among the educated classes — both expressions insist on thoughtful and informed work, pains taken and conventions observed. The words carry the distinct implication that you’re getting a more inspiring playlist or a more lasting resolution to a thorny problem. They don’t seem likely to develop an ironic side.

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craft beer

(1980’s | businese? journalese?)

“Craft” has taken on new life as a verb, but in this expression it acts as adjective — anything but a noun! It’s a little strange to call it “craft beer,” anyway. Why not quality beer (an echo of Qualitätswein in German), artisanal beer, or all-natural beer? Now we might even contemplate “small-batch beer,” though that comes too close to “small beer.” Where else is “craft” used as an adjective? I went through, and there are dozens of phrases in there that use “craft” that way. I have never heard a single one of them; yet it sounds so normal in front of “beer.” The brewers had to do something when a few popular microbrews found wider audiences in the eighties and early nineties. “Microbrew” started out as an answer to the giant breweries that dominated the industry — Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Miller, et al. — so the size of the operation is an essential part of the term’s definition. Local guys producing much smaller quantities, which allowed them to experiment, try out new ideas, and aim for uniqueness rather than uniformity. Some of them gained national distribution — Samuel Adams, Anchor Steam, Redhook, the lamented Pete’s Wicked Ale — and couldn’t be microbrews any more. They needed a term that said “better than the slop the national brands make” that also allowed for a larger scale. Ergo, “craft beer,” an ingenious if unorthodox coinage.

Microbrews come from microbreweries, and “craft breweries” quickly joined the language. (Again, “craft beer” seems like the odd phrase out, but I’m grateful that “craftbrews” has not become a thing, not to mention “craftdraft.” The participles “microbrewing” and “craft brewing” do not sound normal to me, but I may be behind the times.) Their inevitable complement is the brewpub — it’s not enough to craft amazing beer in your basement; you also have to provide a friendly barkeep, or good Buffalo wings, or something, that inspires customers to return. The brewpub was not just part of the business model but a new entry in the language as well. One important driving force was connoisseurship, that is, assuming the mantle of superior knowledge and discernment and discoursing learnedly on lambics, mouth-feel, or the German Reinheitsgebot. (Actually, the Reinheitsgebot is pretty simple; it says you can use only barley, malt, hops, and yeast when making beer for public consumption. Rice, corn, or corn syrup are considered adulterants, prohibited by law.) So craft beer rose with hipsters, inevitably, right around the same time as gourmet coffee on every corner. The coffee shops are still there, but now brewpubs (sometimes “alehouses”) have elbowed their way into respectability.

The earliest incidence of “craft beer” I found in LexisNexis dates from 1987, and it was rare until 1994, when the business press was abuzz with it — the behemoth breweries had started to take notice — no less than lifestyle columnists. The initial boom fizzled after a few years, but the movement recovered and has been quite successful. At least in New York, craft beers take up more and more room on the grocery store shelf; now every town has at least one or two places with ten or twenty craft or microbrews on tap. Even the top five beer manufacturers have to create brands that can pass for craft beers now. Craft beer not only tastes better than mass-produced beer, it also tends to be stronger, which gives it a certain appeal. It gives every sign of continuing to hold its gains. Sophisticated beer is here to stay, and all we lager lovers are the better, if poorer, for it.

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kiss up, kick down

(1990’s | bureaucratese?)

I don’t have a good story for the origin of this expression — I usually don’t — but it requires a hierarchical organization and therefore crops up frequently in business, government, and the military. It seems likely that one should get the credit, but I don’t know which. The phrase entered our vocabulary decisively in 2005 thanks to John Bolton, Trump’s recently axed National Security Advisor. It is unusual, if not historic, to find an expression so closely associated with an identifiable individual. NSC official Carl Ford pasted the label on Bolton during hearings on his nomination as UN Ambassador. Ford did not invent the phrase, which appears as early as 1995 in LexisNexis but saw scattered use at best before 2005. After 2006, the frequency died down again — Bolton’s return to officialdom did not portend a revival — but remains higher than pre-2005 levels.

Bolton’s nomination failed, although Bush finagled him into the post briefly with a recess appointment, long enough to make the rest of the world grateful for the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. (Republicans have an odd trick of hiring people for high-up positions who believe the position should not exist, which is like Ford or GM hiring only executives who think automobiles should be banned.) Bolton, too irascible and doctrinaire to be confirmed to a prominent federal post in 2006, now finds himself insufficiently venal and worshipful to survive in Trump’s White House.

“Kiss up, kick down” is trouble; it describes a person who flatters and fawns on superiors while bullying those below, usually with the emphasis on mistreating underlings, who resent the effects more. Such an attitude is most often ascribed to bureaucrats and bosses. The beauty of this sort of management style is that the people who can hurt you and the people you are hurting are carefully segregated; mistreating subordinates is not particularly dangerous unless you break certain rules, and maybe not even then. Those who abuse their authority probably think of themselves as strong and tough. To the rest of us they seem weak, bullying others to avoid confronting their own insecurity. I don’t know of another expression as comprehensive, that captures the two-pronged obnoxiousness of certain executives. I’ve also seen it used once or twice to refer not to a person, but to economic policy, that is, the kind that funnels money to the rich and keeps it mostly out of reach of everyone else. That’s a sidestep worth watching.

“Kiss up” was established, if not common, by my college days, but not much before that; the first citation in Lighter’s slang dictionary dates from 1965. (“Suck up” is older.) “Kick down” is not a common phrase on its own and doesn’t sound especially idiomatic, but it does sound enough like “kiss up” to produce some cheap euphony, and the meaning is not hard to decipher. “Kiss up” conveys the right amount of scorn, while viciousness and inhumanity radiate from “kick down.” So it works despite the awkwardnesses.

This post goes out to Steve from Eastchester, who inspired it. Everyone needs a little lexicography now and then . . .

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glide path

(1980’s | enginese (aviation) | “home stretch”)

Literally, a glide path is a guided landing route with a defined angle, designed to give the aircraft the best chance to land safely. Not necessarily easily or smoothly, you understand. In financial and economic use, it does suggest smoothness or ease: a course one creates to ensure a planned, predictable transition to a desired state. Today, it is often used to talk about saving for retirement, as in creating an investment strategy designed to provide maximum returns and security. The idea of smoothness in getting where you want to be still predominates. In all these senses, “glide path” implies that you are headed for the finish line.

While use in the financial realm continues to predominate, I sense a change of direction for this expression, which suffers from the same malady as any other that conveys reassurance — it is easily misused. Because “glide path” in popular usage (not that it’s used much in everyday conversation) suggests not only smoothness but security — a sense not only that you are coming for a safe landing but that you are landing in a safe place — it is no great matter for the unscrupulous to adopt it to disguise difficulties and uncertainties. Bureaucrats especially seem prone to such flummery, confidently assuring members of Congress or their superiors that everything is on the road to success and prosperity, where a less biased observer might notice significant shortcomings. I likewise sense that the phrase is starting to develop an ironic side, on which the destination may not be so desirable after all, sort of a modern version of Matthew 7:13, “broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction.” We may start to see more and more references to a “glide path to perdition” and that sort of thing. Keep an eye out.

The phrase goes back a ways in aviation, at least to the 1940’s. Arthur C. Clarke wrote one novel that was not science fiction, and it was titled “Glide Path,” a fictional account of the development of ground-based radar to help land planes during World War II, says Wikipedia. Seems straightforward enough. I haven’t done an aviation term in a while. The others I’ve covered are “ahead of the curve,” “flame out,” “under the radar,” and “wingman.” For some reason, all of these have turned into hardy perennials, expressions that have grown not only commonplace but so well assimilated that we no longer think of them as new expressions. (“Glide path” hasn’t reached that eminence yet; it remains a phrase mostly encountered in print, smacking faintly of the unfamiliar.) Considered among the total number of new expressions that have washed into the language over the last fifty years, aviation is a minor source. But the ones it does produce have a good track record. Flying continues to have some mystique, I guess. We still carry around the image of the taciturn yet heroic captain bravely saving the plane, or dedicated fighting men driving the enemy out of the sky. Or maybe the reproductive success of aviation-born expressions is random, driven by a conventional combination of evocativeness, the rise of new concepts requiring new words, and coming along at the right moment. But I don’t think so. There’s a reason terms sprung from aviation have done so well.

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(businese (finance) | “take advantage of,” “turn to one’s advantage,” “exploit”)

A word that has always baffled me slightly. Most words are pretty easy to define with a little thought; I can usually come up with two or three synonyms for an ordinary word, and at least one for the less ordinary. “Leverage” has many definitions, and it has an unusual quality: Just when you think you understand what you’ve got pretty well, some other usage comes along. The word seems too simple to encompass such a large field. I learned it first in the ancient Archimedean sense of having a solid enough base to exert force or pressure in a certain direction. (As a boy, I heard the word pronounced “leeverage,” but in my family we said “levverage.”) I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but it was already available as a verb in businese, whence it has sprawled in ungainly growth. In the financial world, leverage has mainly to do with debt. I’m not a good guide to financial jargon, but the basic idea of leverage, as I understand it, is that you borrow money to put yourself in a position to borrow more money from someone else. So you might borrow money to purchase another company, and you use those funds as collateral for the loans you have to take out to complete the larger transaction. That’s a simplified description of the leveraged buyout, which caused a lot of trouble in the eighties. In this sense, “leverage” seems clearly descended from the Archimedean; the borrowed assets provide means to liberate larger sums, as a place to stand provides means to move the earth. An older way to define leverage is as an institution’s ratio of debt to equity — the higher the ratio, the more debt the company carries. In fact, sometimes “leverage” is a straightforward substitute for “debt” in the financial press.

And that’s the puzzling thing about “leverage.” The thread of debt runs through it — debt, which should be a source of weakness rather than strength — but the word “leverage” itself lends it power. While loans with a reasonable probability of being repaid are the lifeblood of capitalism, when too many people lend too much money at too much risk, things can go south in a hurry, as history has shown time after time. That proves true within single corporations as in entire economies. Money that you can spend now and don’t have to repay until later continues to exert a fascination for any capitalist, and debt carefully managed may lead to substantial gains. Maybe I just have puritan ideas about how money ought to be handled, but I wonder if the notion of gaining strength from debt rather than sapping it is what gives me trouble with this word.

Well, it’s not just for bankers any more, leverage. (Like “monetize,” it is a technical term in economics that has seeped into the greater discourse.) Now it commonly serves as a transitive verb meaning roughly, “make the most of what you have to work with.” So you leverage data gleaned from your web analytics to increase your customer base, or you leverage your skills or talent to create a side hustle. These examples still reek of the financial, but the word is used casually by people far from the industry. It means roughly the same thing as it did in the financial sector in the seventies, when banks leveraged assets all the time — using whatever they could scare up to produce larger gains. Which is still a recognizable echo of our old friend Archimedes. The idea of surprising gain from relatively little effort persists down through the ages. But now the idea seems to be let’s use whatever we have lying around or can generate, whether it provides more bang for the buck or not. Leveraging is successful if it produces any benefit at all, even if everybody has to do extra work. Leverage has lost its ease. (Wait, wouldn’t that be “lvrag”?)

In politics, leverage means brute exercise of power over others for any sort of gain, political or personal. The distinction matters little; leverage can be used on or against anyone for any purpose. Finding the lever that gives you the ability to put your opponent into an untenable position, with very few holds barred. An idea as old as politics, clothed in a new word.

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(1990’s | journalese?)

“Bridezilla” is one of those expressions, like “high-maintenance,” that makes little effort to conceal its misogyny. (Borne out by the fact that even in the age of gay marriage, the term is rarely or never applied to men.) The word is intended to be funny, but it is undoubtedly derogatory; one commentator has suggested that it’s high time we stop using it. The reality show “Bridezillas” — still running on WEtv — which sprouted in 2004 certainly encouraged audiences to despise women who turned overbearing and intolerable as their weddings approached, and a caricature took hold easily: the fiancée from hell, a monster, like her nominal ancestor, Godzilla. The essence of the sub-species is selfishness, which fuels a determination to make unending unreasonable demands on the wedding party, outside contractors, and even guests. The term often suggests a temporary state, a condition engendered by complicated and frenetic wedding planning that otherwise even-tempered women may fall into. (Thus the bridezilla partakes more of the drama queen than the diva.) A newer word, “bridechilla,” means the opposite — a bride-to-be who handles problems sensibly and avoids extravagance. (Presumably that’s “chilla” as in “chill pill,” not “chinchilla.”)

The first instance in LexisNexis dates from 1995, cited by bridal advice columnist Martha Woodham as wedding planner lingo. I don’t know how long they had been using the word among themselves, but if LexisNexis is anything to go by, “bridezilla” didn’t catch on until after 2000. Modern Bride magazine inaugurated an eponymous comic strip in 1999 — written and drawn by men, oddly enough — intended as a lighthearted look at overzealous wedding planning. The WEtv reality show seems to have helped to push the term into general use; a noticeable upward trend begins after 2004 in LexisNexis. The British took to “bridezilla” as well; by my casual count, it became at least as common in the former Commonwealth as here, and so it has remained. Stories about elaborate weddings and women who attach too much importance to them have been around for a while. I don’t know if they have gotten more frequent in real life, but we certainly hear more about them than we used to. There’s something a television executive can’t resist about people behaving badly at the top of their lungs. But it’s hard to tell if the reality show has added momentum to a wave or merely ridden it.

Another nonsense suffix, like “-berg” and “-holic” — and, like both of them, instantly understandable. I doubt anyone was ever stumped by “bridezilla.” Merriam-Webster gives several examples of other “-zilla” words, even a brand name or two, but nothing aside from Mozilla that sounds familiar, while Urban Dictionary adds further examples and reminds us that “zilla” may be used on its own, unattached. Seems to me that “bridezilla” is the undisputed champ, for now, though a rival may show up any time.

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(1980’s | businese (real estate)? journalese? | “convenient”)

Before it applied to downtowns, “walkable” had a general meaning — of or pertaining to conditions that permit perambulation, or, suitable for perambulating (as a hiking trail) — and it could modify specific nouns, such as distances, surfaces, or even shoes — most often distance, with topography figuring in occasionally. “Walkable” as in “compact, pleasant, and safe (from traffic and crime)” carries over many of the old meanings, but adds a gemütlich touch that has lodged it in the vocabulary of real estate agents and city planners. The word still describes, as always, a place that lends itself to walking, but somehow it carries more promise. In the old days, “walkable” was a neutral term. Now just about everyone wants walkable areas and towns, and the word has acquired a pleasing sound. “Bikeable” is following in its footsteps.

While the notion of limited distance persists in today’s usage, it is less essential. When you talk about a walkable city (as opposed to neighborhood or community), you mean an aggregation of smaller areas, most of which are pedestrian-scaled. If an area is walkable, that doesn’t mean you can cover all of it in an hour. The word evokes a different set of attributes; larger areas and longer distances may merit the term than in bygone days.

“Walkable” goes with “traffic calming” and a host of anti-motor and pro-pedestrian measures — bicycle paths (and resulting removal of traffic lanes), entire blocks turned into plazas, restricted parking, delayed green lights, etc. — a slow-brewing rebellion against Robert Moses-style urban design, which sundered neighborhoods with highways and measured everything by motorized vehicles. The streets of New York have changed dramatically in the last 25, and particularly the last 10, years — traffic capacity cut significantly with wide bike lanes, bus-only lanes at the curb, crosswalks mid-block, and more. It took a while, but the human scale is winning at last. Reducing the flow of cars and trucks on New York streets is absolutely a net gain. It creates inconvenience for some, but it means less air pollution and aggravation, which benefits us all. And somehow the city still crawls along about the same as ever. Walkable is workable.

The model of everyone jumping into their cars and driving madly off in all directions is so mid-twentieth century. If we look back a full hundred years, the population was less spread out (of course, there was less of it), with most long-range transportation provided by mass conveyances. We got drunk on prosperity after World War II and decided that everyone should have his and her own private train to get around. Car culture is getting harder and harder to sustain, though we’re doing our utmost to keep it going. Yet younger people seem to prefer the older ways; millennials are said to desire small, dense communities where they don’t have to drive, even to go to work. Such customs seem quaint, downright pie-in-the-sky, to one of my generation, an idealistic phase that the kids will probably grow out of. But putting a car in every garage has obvious drawbacks, even before you find out what carbon dioxide does to the climate. Those damn kids are on to something.

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cultural appropriation

(1990’s | academese? | “exploitation,” “cultural imperialism”)

Another Lex Maniac special, wherein The Author chooses an expression of little linguistic import so he can indulge in a couple of paragraphs of shallow-profound political comment. The only point of interest of this phrase is its British origins; it was all over the Canadian press by 1990, but it showed up only occasionally in the U.S. Otherwise . . . no one knows what “culture” is, exactly, but we know it when we see it, and its adjective form is “cultural.” Got that? “Appropriation” is a bit more complicated, because of the divergence of “appropriate” (v.) and “appropriate” (adj.), which has lost quite a bit of power, gradually pulling away from its origins into a quite different (albeit related) area. Both words are rooted in the word for property, and until at least the sixteenth century they had closely related definitions, expressing the concept of taking something for oneself, meaning no one else could have it, especially the person you were taking it from. In the verb world, that meaning has held up pretty well, but the adjective has devolved to mean fitting, suitable, or applicable. “Cultural appropriation” evokes the verb, of course. But the idea is more that the appropriator is taking the other’s culture for his own use rather than taking it away tout court — the victim may get to keep it, or at least what’s left of it.

What changed was not the thing itself, which has been going on for eons and is essential to the development of our species. (As Lovely Liz from Queens pointed out, cultural appropriation is the same thing as culture.) But a growing sense that co-opting elements from a different culture is morally wrong has taken hold in the academy and perhaps here and there outside it. On the surface, it looks similar to the white supremacist’s position, which decries mixing our customs and theirs, whether black people acting like white people (which was comical or threatening, depending on the context) or vice-versa (which leads to the utter destruction of the white race — which we know when we see). But their motivations are antipodal. The white supremacist fears defilement of an imagined racial purity, while the academic is indignant because some first-world jerk is making a buck, or just acting disrespectfully — and taking advantage of someone in a weaker position.

There was, in my youth, a milder word that sounds like “appropriation,” which was “appreciation.” It didn’t usually go with “cultural” but might have, in the hands of a sufficiently tin-eared educator. Art appreciation had more to do with pleasant acceptance of others’ esthetic conventions, or at least a duffer’s knowledge of art history and genre. Appreciation of others’ cultures went with what we now call diversity and multiculturalism (not to mention political correctness), and cultural appropriation is their perverse product. Take an American teenager with a narrow ken, and expose her to art, or literature, or customs and habits that are new to her. She is struck; they speak to her somehow, and she believes she has learned something valuable and become richer for it. That’s how it’s supposed to work, right? Broaden the kids’ horizons, give them something new to think about, and they might become wiser and more humane. But then say she takes a piece of what she learned and incorporates it into a poem, a dance piece, or a sculpture. Now it’s cultural appropriation — she’s taken something from another culture and corrupted or stolen it by adopting it into her own. It’s fine to admire it, but not to use it. Alas, that’s not how art works. Art propagates itself through small strands as well as broad strokes.

We raid cultures of other times as well as of other places, which results in what I would call “chronological appropriation.” It’s the same phenomenon, but no one gets offended when Americans participate in Renaissance Faires or Civil War re-enactments. (It might be different if we drew on historical practices or events from southern Africa or Japan.) The troubadour, long extinct, no longer has rights we are bound to respect; neither does nineteenth-century cannon fodder. This illustrates again the fundamental tort of cultural appropriation, which is depriving someone else — in a weaker position — of either their way of life, or their chance to make money off of it for themselves. If no one is using the culture, we can do as we please with it.

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exit strategy

(1980’s | businese | “way out,” “cutting one’s losses,” “covering all the bases”)

You would think this is a militarese term, but it isn’t, or it wasn’t. Used almost exclusively in the financial press until 1990, its definition was straightforward: a contingency plan to get out of an unwanted obligation, partnership, or any foreseeable situation in the most advantageous way possible. In case everything goes south, figure out an escape route that will spare you penury or embarrassment. Before 1990 it appeared typically in quotation marks, but that was no longer true by the mid-nineties; by the time William Safire immortalized it in a December 1995 column, it was common currency. The financial usage has not disappeared, but in the public mind it has been overwhelmed by the political. Candidates looking to get out of a losing campaign picked it up before 1990, at least in a couple of cases. After 1990, foreign policy analysts grabbed the expression, and it soon became de rigueur for invasion planning. How do you take out the bad guys, bring your people home, and avoid a quagmire?

You don’t have to be an astute observer of foreign policy to know that the advent of the new expression has not made our military leaders any better at formulating or executing workable plans — we are still stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq. Which raises a significant point: In warfare, only invaders need an exit strategy. If you’re being invaded, you just have to sit there and take it, unless you can force the invader out by causing enough casualties and mayhem. (An official of the invaded country might also need an exit strategy, a way to leave town quickly and quietly if the political winds shift.) When a financial institution needs an exit strategy, it’s usually a matter of extricating itself from an internal decision that isn’t working out, or of getting out of a contract between two more or less equal parties. In the military, you have to commit offensive action; there’s no need for an exit strategy if you never leave the base. When one field borrows an expression from another, naturally the meaning may change, but this is quite a twist.

The odd thing about the expression is that it is not used literally. You don’t hear one nervous moviegoer ask another, “What’s our exit strategy?,” in a crowded theater. It doesn’t sound right when you’re talking about a building or vehicle. It may, however, be used whimsically to talk about a job, relationship, or some other important sector of our lives. It’s not hard to imagine two brokers discussing the most effective ways to get away from their employers, or two men discussing how to get away from the girlfriend if she loses her appeal. (Mercifully, Paul Simon didn’t call the song “Fifty Exit Strategies for Leaving Your Lover.”)

It’s a little far-fetched, but I hear in this phrase the echo of stage direction. Here’s how it might be used: Imagine a king suffering a reverse and announcing that he intends to lash out blindly and abandon reason from now on. Like Macbeth, for example. When he finishes, the stage directions say, “Exit King. Exit strategy.” Yes, it is a little far-fetched.

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lean in

(2010’s | athletese? | “give your all”)

I sense the need for an anatomy of this odd expression, changed forever by Google and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. The first fork in the family tree branch generates “lean in” and “lean into.” The latter has been used for some time by sportscasters to denote exerting extra force in a certain direction (as a batter leaning into a pitch), or shifting weight on a skateboard or in a car to assist the steering (leaning into a curve). “Lean in” is more complicated. At the simplest level, it denotes a motion or posture understood to express attention, interest, or excitement. That is, it’s another way to say “lean toward.” Some time after 2000, the phrase became an adjective current among advertisers and entertainment executives, as in “lean-in experience” or “lean-in factor.” The latter was typically used in connection with exciting moments on television, conjuring the image of audience members on the edge of their seats, breathlessly awaiting the next utterance. “Lean in” has another application as well, as an antonym of “lean back” or “back away” — that is, as the opposite of taking it easy or retreating. In such contexts, leaning in is a sign of toughness and resolve. That would seem to be the most direct ancestor of Sandberg, but I don’t think it’s much older. The earlier athletic usage has a claim as well.

Sheryl Sandberg published her book in 2013, though she was quoted using the phrase before that. She preached ambition and assertiveness for women in the work force, or, as Lovely Liz from Queens summarized: women need to act more like men. Sandberg’s dicta have permeated the culture and spawned a women’s empowerment movement; the Lean In Foundation is a big organization, helping women all over the world learn from each other and move up the ladder. Yet a Washington Post writer declared the Lean In movement dead at the end of last year, after Michelle Obama drove a stake through its heart. More recently, Marissa Orr published a critique of Sandberg called “Lean Out.” Will “lean out” take its place alongside “lean in”? Will Sandberg’s addition to the lexicon lose momentum? Stay tuned . . .

It all starts with “lean,” which is tricky because it may suggest both a casual or relaxed tendency and much more concentrated force, as in the cases of “lean in” and “lean into.” “Lean” strictly speaking denotes any departure from the vertical in a normally upright object, and at least when people and animals do it, we usually have a specific purpose; we lean toward something or someone. “Lean in” has always shared that sense of purposefulness. To reach its present eminence, it had to lose its appendages, a step in the evolution of several expressions, including “give back” (other examples here). “Leaning in” once was invariably followed by “a certain direction,” “favor,” etc. Now it is a set phrase all on its own. In most similar cases, this slimming process results from a distillation of a number of competing longer phrases into a single shorter one. But in this case, the casting off seems to have come with the establishment of a new definition, imbuing the phrase with attributes of superior dedication and willpower. Not boiling down, but striding forth in a new direction.

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