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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

boots on the ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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body wash

(1990’s | advertese | “liquid soap”)

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

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

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

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failed state

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

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

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

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

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

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no pressure

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

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

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

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

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(1990’s | teenagese (surfing) | “psyched,” “thrilled,” “fired up”)

Every now and then, an old word sprouts a new meaning — cougar, default, enable, flag — usually more or less related to at least one of its old ones (though not always in an obvious way). “Stoked” has taken on a new definition, all right, one that reverses centuries of practice by carelessly becoming intransitive. Even more important, its weight has changed. By acquiring its new meaning within the lingo of an evocative component of American (or at least Californian) culture, the word has become lighter, spread wider, and veered away from its stolidly literal roots.

I don’t know when surfers began using “stoked,” or why. The earliest instance cited in the OED dates from 1963, so it’s likely to be older than that. Based on the few early quotations I found, the term had a somewhat mystical cast back in the sixties. “Stoked” was more like ecstatic than merely excited — so blissed out by surfing that you graduated into an exalted state, which some surfers adopted as a way of life. In that light, it sounds suspiciously like “hooked,” but “stoked” is not normally used to mean “high” or “buzzed,” nor should it be. “Ev’ryody must get stoked” ain’t how the song goes. Whatever American Heritage says, this term has never had anything to do with drug-aided intoxication.

The older metaphorical uses of “stoke” have never disappeared and show no signs of waning even now. Debate, passions, fear, tensions, anger, pride — all subject to stoking, fueling, or building up. The literal use, which has to do with fires and furnaces, has not gone anywhere, either (the older sense of preparing for hard labor by eating heavily is disappearing). Far from supplanting all the old uses of the word, the new one has grown up alongside, like ivy, simply making the word more common in everyday language. It wasn’t until 1990 or so that “stoked” made it out of glossaries of this semester’s college slang and into anything remotely like mainstream discourse; the term was primarily used by young athletes, following their comrades the surfers and skateboarders. Even today, I would say that you still expect the word to fall from the lips of the young and hip; older people don’t use it as much. And it is still characteristic of the entertainment industry (including sports). But now we all know what it means, which wasn’t true twenty-five years ago.

“Stoked” may be the most successful example of surfer jargon penetrating mainstream talk, no longer even slang, exactly, yet retaining a slangy sound. “Wannabe” also grew out of surfers’ lingo, at least partly. There are a few surfing terms, aside from “stoked” — e.g., “bail” (abandon), “dude,” maybe “gnarly” or “rad,” that have shed their dubious wave-borne past and entered the language. Most surfer terms — for instance “hang ten,” “wipeout,” or “amped” (which means the same thing as “stoked”) — are still easily identified as such. You know a slang expression has arrived when most people have become unaware of its origins.

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(1980’s | businese | “recruiter,” “matchmaker”)

Forget Borneo. Headhunters today thrive in the corporate jungle, a much less straightforward place. The businese meaning crept into the mainstream press in the mid-seventies, when the word already had two definitions: the familiar anthropological, and the athletic. In the latter context, “headhunter” denoted a player who deliberately tried to hurt opponent players — especially a pitcher who throws at batters’ heads or a defensive player in football who resorts to dirty tricks. These usages have not disappeared, although the term sounds decidedly archaic now in an anthropological setting. The first corporate use I found anywhere was a book published by Alan J. Cox, “Confessions of a Corporate Headhunter” (Trident Press, 1973) — I suspect the word was already pretty well established in business jargon by then. “Headhunter” began to show up in redoubts of conventional wisdom like the Washington Post and Newsweek by the end of the decade, sometimes in bashful quotation marks, and bearing the usual wobbly word division — two words, hyphenated, or one — characteristic of compounds. The term has undergone one significant change in the last forty years: now, it applies as readily to a firm as to an individual. Back then, executive search firms were not known as “headhunters,” but today it’s quite common.

Headhunters search for attractive candidates for high-level positions in corporations, law firms, and government, often by prying them away from other companies, but that’s all part of the game. The catalyst who delivers just the right power player, or the pirate who makes off with our best talent. One supposes that “headhunter” in this sense is simply “head [man]” + “hunter,” but some of the stronger animus used in referring to South Pacific islanders or malicious athletes may rub off. The use of the adjective in Cox’s book title brings to mind a later phrase, “corporate raider,” and the implicit violence of “headhunter” is perpetuated there as well.

More recently, dating services have begun to use the expression to refer to what we might once have called “relationship counselors,” or, more innocently, “yentas” — real, live people who sift through thousands of profiles to find the exact custom-made helpmeet for your spousal needs. Any computer can spit out some compatible names, but a romantic headhunter who really knows his or her business makes all the difference. The dating game can be quite predatory, so the use of the term seems as appropriate here as in a business context.

Why isn’t the one who finds your new boss a “bounty hunter”? It’s just as plausible metaphorically, and just as violent. But what’s odd about “headhunter” is its mildness in everyday usage; it does not have rapacious connotations, in spite of its lurid roots. Such a suggestive term, such a banal occupation. They’re not painted cannibals or even defensive backs spearing wide receivers; they sit in an office all day and go home to their spouses at night. Somehow all the danger has leached out of this word, and it’s become just one more cog in the corporate machine. Bounty hunter? In your dreams. How about switchboard operator, travel agent, psychopomp?

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listen to your body

(1980’s | athletese | “don’t overdo it”)

The injunction “listen to your body” has nothing to do with listening. The verb is an exact substitute for “pay attention.” Oh, you might not like the way your joints crack, but that’s only one corner of the room this expression occupies. The doctor listens to your body every time you go in for a check-up — that’s called “auscultation” — but this phrase has nothing to do with stethoscopes, or little rubber hammers, even though it’s always reflexive. You would never say, “Hey, doc, listen to my body. Something doesn’t feel right.”

Listening to your body, in fact, has more to do with how you feel than with any of the other senses. Pain, weariness, rapid heartbeat, that kind of thing. “Feel (or sense) your body” creates the wrong impression, I suppose, and listening does include the idea of actually learning from what you’re hearing. The expression started to appear in the seventies, according to my sources, invariably in the context of running, a burgeoning fad at the time, or physical fitness (just before the spread of “wellness”). Over time, it came to be used more generally about health or lifestyle. The first instance I found in LexisNexis dates from 1977, uttered by a doctor, and doctors still use it to mean “don’t discount your symptoms.” Trainers, coaches, physical therapists. It is used both by those who can’t afford to have their bodies break down — dancers, manual laborers, pregnant women — but also by the rest of us, as a way of reminding ourselves not to push too hard. Like “give back,” it is boiled down from longer phrases: listen to what your body is telling you, listen to your body’s signals, etc. By the time George W. Bush used it in reference to Dick Cheney after a pacemaker implant in 2001, it was a cliché. I’ll quote the entire statement: “He is such a good example for Americans who may share the same condition he has, and that is to listen to your body, to take precautionary measures, and to be active.” Notice how he put it; he didn’t say, “He has to listen to his body.” It doesn’t sound natural that way.

In the imperative, it has become quasi-proverbial. Uttered sententiously, it pretends to a kind of universal irreducible truth, mother-wit so basic that even the dullest cretin recognizes it instantly. Not listening to your body buys you a hospital stay, or an early grave; the phrase is always given as an admonition or warning. I’ve covered other new phrases turned maxims: “no pain, no gain” and “pick your battles.” Will these apothegms join the ranks of “Better safe than sorry,” “Waste not, want not,” and “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”? Some day, “Think outside the box,” “Be careful out there” and “Been there, done that” may follow. Those of us old enough to remember a time before such phrases littered the landscape will slowly, grudgingly die off, and then such parvenus will seem just as immemorial. The connection to “no pain, no gain” is pretty obvious, but when I hear “listen to your body” I think of mindfulness, the mind-body problem notwithstanding. That’s what a lot of mindfulness boils down to, anyway — put yourself in a meditative state and pay attention to what your heart and lungs are doing until your mind gets limbered up and starts doing its stuff, or shuts down entirely. It’s all part of the introspective, omphaloskeptic method. Maybe the full phrase should be “make your mind listen to your body.” Now there’s a proverb worth weighing.

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