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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 35 years

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 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.

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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.

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low-hanging fruit

(1990’s | businese | “the easy part or stuff,” “easy pickings,” “quick results”)

The primary point of this expression is quick, easy, and beneficial; the secondary point is making yourself look good. New managers often go after low-hanging fruit to get quick, eye-catching results. This may lead others to denigrate their accomplishments as cheap, but fixing obvious problems for the sake of an obvious improvement (in the bottom line, productivity, or morale) is something no one ought to apologize for. The expression is generally used to hint that it will be impossible to continue to make progress at the same pace, but it may also suggest the quick progress made so far promises more of the same. My sense is that the expression has never really borne the dishonorable connotation of “easy way out,” although I have seen a few examples very recently, so the concept may be coarsening as we speak. A recent post on defines the expression as “do a few small things, and big results will happen.”

I can’t discern a definite origin, but this expression was used most often in the business community and started to show up regularly after 1990, with scattered use at best before then. Executives, consultants, and bankers used it, usually with “pick the” in front of it. Politicians, ever keen to be where the money is, latched onto it quickly, and it mostly remains the property of those with power. The meaning of the phrase has changed little: obvious ways to improve efficiency or profit, or maybe just your life. (Wisegeek has the best discussion I found in two minutes closeted with Google.) The phrase can cover more ground now, of course. In the nineties, cheerleaders for technology used the phrase to refer to savings or gains in output rendered by computers. More recently, the emphasis has shifted. Now, rather than harvesting the fruit, you try to avoid being harvested, that is, avoid becoming an easy target for hackers and cyberthieves, ever on the cyberprowl for low-hanging cyberfruit.

One interesting point about this expression is that it is nearly always used with the past tense. By the time anyone mentions it, it is all gone; its notable absence reminds everyone that the easy part is over, and everything from now on will be more costly and harder to obtain. It is beloved of managers warning their bosses that they can’t be expected to keep producing at the same rate, but it might also be an executive claiming that an industry has done everything reasonable to meet regulators’ demands, or a salesman telling you the most likely customers are already sewn up. When it’s all picked, we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. The processes or upgrades that constitute low-hanging fruit change over time, and yesterday’s complications are today’s low-hanging fruit: “There comes a time when new technologies are no longer new and become a series of low-hanging fruit components to assemble into new and disruptive opportunities.” (citation)

Another interesting point about this phrase is that even after all the low-hanging fruit has been picked, there must be more opportunities; it can never be used to mean that we have exhausted all the possibilities. There can be no low-hanging fruit without high-hanging fruit.

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(2000’s | businese (finance) | “sell,” “make money off of,” “put a price tag on”)

This was a rarefied financial term as late as the nineties, used almost entirely in discussions of gold prices and government debt. Originally, it was even more literal; you monetized gold by making it into coins, thus converting it into legal tender. By the seventies, though, “monetize” basically meant “liquidate.” There’s the kind of money that you can go out and spend, and the kind of money that is otherwise occupied, like the value of your property, a stake in a business, etc. The former is referred to as liquid; more or less what economists used to call “M1” (for all I know they still do). The government is in a unique position when it comes to controlling the money supply, so it’s not much of a stretch to talk about government “monetizing” debt by selling bonds (for example). Or the government might monetize a portion of its gold reserves by selling it off. When gold prices shot up in the late seventies, a process that has continued to this day in fits and starts, banks and nations alike found an easy way to produce ready cash. That made “monetize” something of a dirty word to conservatives, who see disastrous inflation as the inevitable consequence of any expansion of the money supply.

Monetizing has long involved selling, and it still does. Sometimes the sale was indirect, and this notion has grown utterly commonplace, as the term has also come to mean something like “commodify” (convert into a commodity that can be sold — an extra step). Sometimes the sale is more indirect still, as an on-line business selling advertising on the basis of the number of page views it attracts. Only the most hardened cynic would regard this as a literal sale of the customers, but the practice definitely trades on their existence, and “monetize the customers” has a rather sinister sound. There is another meaning I should mention, although it has always been more marginal: assign a value to. You monetize something by figuring out what it is worth; whether you go on to sell it for that price is irrelevant.

For decades this word belonged to governments, corporations, and large financial institutions. It still does, but no longer exclusively. It has taken a popular turn, and nowadays a small business or an individual can indulge just as easily. An artist might monetize her work by selling it on-line, for example. The growth of “monetize” has coincided with the growth of the internet as a marketplace, and that is not a coincidence. Before 2000, anyway, the word had a technical sound that might convince the unwary that the speaker had arcane financial knowledge. For those who wanted to appear cutting-edge, or just edgy, it was an easy to word to adopt. By the time everyone figured out all you meant was “exploit for personal gain,” you’d be sitting pretty in the Caribbean somewhere.

When a term from a certain professional jargon (finance, in this case) slides into general use, it cannot help but broaden its meaning, applying to more areas or simply taking on new definitions. (Examples: ahead of the curve, curate, template.) In one way, the meaning of “monetize” hasn’t really changed, but it is an exotic word that gravitated naturally to an exotic means of commerce: the web used as a means of selling just about anything. “Monetize” represents yet another appropriation of specialized vocabulary by the masses, and in such cases one feels the loss. Our language cries out for terms that fill narrow niches and allow us to describe very particular states, categories, or objects; every word that becomes less precise detracts from our ability to understand what’s going on. As “monetize” has become sloppier, it has become more crass, at least to my ear. I wouldn’t say the word was ever noble, exactly, but it was reserved for relatively grand situations, not the property of any third-rate businessman trying to take advantage of a new market.

I must remember to thank my father, not just for raising me but for suggesting “monetize” many months ago. Sometimes these things take a while to germinate.

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junk science

(1980’s | legalese | “quackery”)

This is an expression with an agenda. We began to hear it regularly a little after 1990; a Washington Post editorial referred to “what some are beginning to call ‘junk science'” in March 1996. Google Books and LexisNexis cough up several instances from the eighties, and even this diamond in the rough from 1903: “But that conceited laugh of junk science, how laughable it is after all” (Peter Burrowes, “What is truth?” in Revolutionary Essays in Socialist Faith and Fancy, Comrade Publishing Co.). Whatever Burrowes may have meant, both the meaning and connotation of this expression were pretty clear when it came into its own at the other end of the century. The term was most often used by lawyers to complain about so-called expert witnesses purveying unsubstantiated theories about harms to plaintiffs and driving up the cost of judgments against well-meaning, God-fearing corporations. The phrase generally reared its head in discussions of tort law, that is, lawsuits filed to obtain compensation for wrongs not covered by criminal law. And it was generally used to assail dubious medical or technical testimony that swayed gullible juries (or judges).

It isn’t always so clear what “good” science is, even in our everyday Newtonian world; practicing scientists with good credentials may disagree vigorously on the interpretation of a piece of evidence even in simple cases. Attacks on junk science often rely on the unstated assumption that proper science is easily defined and recognized, not subject to controversy among scientists. That is true most of the time, but not all the time, and it does foreclose the possibility of finding value in the new or unconventional. The Supreme Court has ruled that scientific evidence should be peer-reviewed but stopped short of setting absolute limits on what can or can’t be presented in the courtroom.

No doubt many verdicts have been influenced by doubtful expert testimony. Peter Huber cited and documented several with relish in “Galileo’s Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom” (Basic Books, 1991); the subtitle probably played a role in popularizing the phrase. His plaintiff-bashing set the tone; it took several years before “junk science” came to be applied regularly to any doubtful theories propounded by big business. In its early days, junk science always had a bleeding heart, causing courts to fall for sob stories bolstered by expert witnesses who were far too sure of themselves. Crazed environmentalists, quack psychiatrists, doctors on the take — they were the ones who relied on junk science to con the scientifically illiterate. Nowadays, the phrase is comfortably used in a much wider variety of contexts, but it still seems to be favored by the right wing, though it is no longer solely their property. (I shudder when I ponder future semantic possibilities given the recent rise of “junk” as a slang term for “genitals.”)

The funny thing is that you would expect the forward-looking lefties to brandish science against the backward righties, but they got in first on this term, which fit neatly into their strategy of attacking people seeking redress for injuries allegedly caused by corporate negligence. The web site Junk Science, opened in 1996, is unabashedly right-wing and contemptuous of the scientific establishment, debunking climate change, solar power, and other usual suspects, particularly government participation in scientific research. (Ironic, because the original definition of “junk science” as propounded by lawyers depends on conformity with scientific consensus.) The phrase allows right-wingers to dismiss a favorite left-wingers’ trump card and beat them at their own game. References to science make you sound serious and learned, and who’s going to make you explain why the object of your scorn violates this or that scientific principle? It has become one more way to say, “Shut up. You’re wrong.” But then, it never really was anything else.

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(2000’s | teenagese | “dangerous,” “creepy,” “uncanny,” “bizarre”)

A new meaning of “sketchy” arose while I wasn’t paying attention, still mainly the property of kids and young adults, though such words invariably become the property of the superannuated fifty years on. Ten years ago, you had to be in college, or younger, to hear it this way. I learned the new meaning from kids within the last three or four years. Last year I asked my niece (then thirteen) if “sketchy” meant “scary” or “disreputable,” and she answered, “Both!” It has taken on a dark shade, and a new set of nouns. “Sketchy” (or simply “sketch”) now describes people or places — very unusual in standard English as late as 2000. (The change seems unrelated to the old use of “sketch” to mean “eccentric person.”) “Sketchy neighborhood” meant nothing thirty years ago, but now it means something very definite: it’s a neighborhood you don’t want to be in. Maybe because it’s ill lit, maybe because it has a bad reputation, maybe because drug deals happen on every corner. An app called SketchFactor encourages users to submit information or impressions about what we used to call bad parts of town; the designers note, “Sketchy means a number of different things. To you, it may mean dangerous. To someone else, it may mean weird.” Just like my niece said.

I have been bedeviled for some time trying to understand how “sketchy” went from inchoate or incomplete to sinister or screwy. But with a little help from lovely Liz from Queens and my own research, I think I get it now. If you search LexisNexis in the seventies or eighties, the overwhelming majority of your results will show the term describing details, statistics, or reports. That usage is quite venerable, and it wasn’t a long step from “inadequate” to “dubious.” But occasionally you would see something a little different, as when “sketchy” modifies accounting practices, or recordkeeping. There are some contexts in which it is not o.k. to be quick and dirty or less than thorough; in such cases to be sketchy is to be unethical or illegal. Another possible contributor is the fact that the word showed up often in early reports on disasters or tragedies, and may have picked up a negative tinge that way. But the truth is “sketchy” has had a bit of an underbelly for decades now; it has been used to mean unsavory or subpar for a long time, as in a sketchy character or reputation. For another example, E.B. White referred to his “sketchy health” in a letter from 1943 cited in the OED. I haven’t tried, but it might even be possible to demonstrate that this aspect of the word has been increasing in frequency for some time and has finally won out among the younger generation.

But maybe more evolution is on the way. “Sketchy” has changed emphasis in the last twenty years, since the dawn of the internet. So we would expect a lot of web sites with “sketchy” in the title to be about scary or disreputable things. There are some; is pretty good, and Sketchy Santas are popular. But Google calls forth a surprising number of sites that confer on “sketchy” still another meaning distinct both from the older and the newer: of or pertaining to drawing. Sketchy Notions and Let’s Get Sketchy are both run by artists. I had high hopes for Sketchy Miami, but right there on the home page it says, “The goal of Sketchy Miami is to create a portrait of every person in Miami.” Sketchy Neighbors? Nope — it’s an artists’ collective in Houston. I don’t have enough examples to determine if this is a new trend or just some silly coincidences, but never doubt the power of earnest artists to change the language.

This is the second, possibly third, week in a row I’ve taken on a recognizably slang expression, which I am supposed to leave to What interests me about “sketchy” is how decisive the change was, and how quick. People under 20, probably even 30, hear some variation on “icky” as the predominant meaning, though most of them also recognize the sense of “dashed off.” I hear kids use the newer sense all the time, the older sense rarely. But “sketchy” was a solid citizen of a word with a decent foundation; “sketch” goes back to the seventeenth century, for Pete’s sake, the adjective almost as far. The old meaning had been standard English for well over a hundred years; the new one most adults would still regard as slang. That distinction, always porous, has become more blurred rather than less over time. There are still arbiters — judges, professors, Associated Press editors — and I wouldn’t say the distinction is dead yet, any more than the distinction between clean and dirty words has disappeared, but the once forbidden, or at least frowned upon, has crept into many more contexts and is getting harder and harder to avoid. The barrier between slang and standard English used to be higher, and it had fewer tunnels undermining it.

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hot mess

(2010’s | journalese | “siren”)

How quickly this phrase has cropped up! It feels that way, but it’s been around for a long time. The phrase dates back to a time when “mess” meant “meal (service),” especially for soldiers. On good days, the troops got a “hot mess.” That hasn’t disappeared entirely, but it’s highly specialized, even in phrases like “mess of victuals” (if any young people are reading this, that word is pronounced “vittles”). At least in American English, “mess” has thoroughly staked out its meaning: state of clutter, filth, or chaos, and even if one refers to a dish or a lunch as a mess, we hear “sloppy” before we hear “meal.” A good history of this phrase on reveals that “hot mess” has been in use for at least a hundred years to mean “unusually bad situation,” and that meaning definitely remains in play.

Somewhere around 2005, you started hearing “hot mess” applied to persons, a mutation that has established itself rapidly and decisively. At first, the phrase was used to denote a very attractive but emotionally unstable person, someone who gets into at least minor trouble and makes life difficult for everyone around. Britney Spears was an early avatar; several sources credit television programs “Project Runway” (ca. 2008) and “Arrested Development” (ca. 2013) with popularizing the term. Today, the predominant meaning seems to be a watered-down version of that: disheveled, attractive woman (usually), attractive either despite or because of the dishevelment. I regard that as the predominant meaning — and so does Urban Dictionary; among 62 definitions, it has by far the most thumbs-ups. But it may also refer to an unattractive and unfashionable person, or someone unkempt without redeeming qualities, in which case one might say “I looked a hot mess” (reminiscent of an older expression, “sweaty mess”). “Hot mess” may apply to anything hazardous (hot as in too hot to handle). It has sexual and excretory uses that I probably don’t need to explain. The sheer number and persistence of competing meanings drives the instability that makes this expression worth watching. My own sense is that television has won, and the fashion-jargon definition — attractive, disheveled person — will win out over time, if it hasn’t already. But I’m not sure which of the other senses will disappear.

The mutation of meaning constitutes another case of an idiom misunderstood because we’ve lost sight of older meanings of words and try to make sense of an expression in terms of modern vocabulary. We hear “hot” to mean attractive (rather than dangerous, although a “hot mess” may be dangerous) and “mess” to mean “disaster”; glue them together and you get either of our recent definitions. In this case, the retreat to the literal seems less damaging than in the case of my favorite example, “beg the question,” or even “dress down” and “ramp up.”

Thanks to Liz and Adam from Queens, two of my most faithful correspondents, who proposed this week’s expression independently in the past month, so its time has come. Hope I did it justice.

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