Skip to content

Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years


(2010’s | “step up,” “promotion,” “improvement”)

It’s not easy to tell the new definition of this phrase from the old ones still floating around, so here are a couple of seemingly insignificant clues to watch for. One, the humble hyphen — which is not invariable, but when it’s there you can be pretty sure you’ve got the new sense. Two, the preposition that comes after it, which will almost certainly be “for.” If it’s followed by any other word, or nothing at all, it’s probably the older usage. To be a level-up, it has to be a cut above what you had before — so a renovation results in a level-up for the kitchen, or an actor takes a leading role for the first time, or a political movement gains popularity and exposure. It’s a lot like the older taking it to the next level (or a higher level); that’s why you have to watch the punctuation and preposition. When you hear it, the stress pattern is also a good indication: the old uses accent “up,” but the newer one emphasizes “level.”

Another way to tell them apart: the new expression is pure noun, not an adverb disguised as a noun, as in “play a level up,” not infrequent in athletic-speak, or “take (it) a level up.” The phrase in its new sense is not yet ordinary in any part of speech; I’ve noticed occasional appearances as an adjective. Ciara’s 2019 hit, which takes “level up” as its title, employs the phrase as a verb in the imperative; it isn’t clear, however, that it is derived from the newer nominal usage. “Level up” has been available for some time as a verb in its older senses, and I can’t see how the new sense could possibly generate a verb distinguishable from those older forms.

The new usage may have grown out of nothing more than semantic, or grammatical, drift. It’s not a big jump from “I’m moving a level up” to “This is a level-up for me.” There are some likely conduits for the new meaning. One is video games; in fact, “Level Up” was the title of a series on the Cartoon Network built on the premise that video game characters become three-dimensional and invade the gamers’ lives. Education is another possibility, where ever greater achievement is the desired path for students. Exercise and work-out culture is another. “Level-up” bears fainter echoes of “level with,” a verb phrase meaning the opposite of “beat around the bush,” but probably not the “Great Leveler,” death. I have not come across “level-down,” referring to a demotion or comparable loss of status, but there’s nothing to stop that sneaking into the language, too.

This week’s phrase parachuted into my consciousness thanks to Kevin Hart, who was quoted using it in Friday’s paper. Thank you, Mr. Hart. Please keep making us laugh; we need it.

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

throw under the bus

(2000’s | politese? athletese? journalese? | “blame,” “sacrifice,” “humiliate,” “throw to the wolves,” “leave for dead”)

Many on-line sources relay definitions of this phrase and speculate on its origins. The definitions center on harming another to advance one’s own interest, often with an implication of treachery or betrayal of trust, even a deliberate attempt to destroy the other person. Most sources specify that personal gain has to be involved (e.g., Urban Dictionary). That is generally true, although sometimes the gain is indirect, as when you throw someone under the bus just to get them out of your hair — ridding yourself of a pest more than acing someone out for a promotion. The phrase has a wider range of meaning than it is usually given credit for. It can also mean “abandon,” as an elected official turning away from a constituency she courted during the campaign, and “to scapegoat,” without imputation of backstabbing. These shadings are not obligatory but may rise to the fore. The primary fields of this rather vigorous idiom are politics and business, though it may be used most anywhere by now; it has caught on fast.

Some of the more adventurous language blogs trace the phrase well back into the twentieth century, but without any real evidence; the citations generally do not match our wording and seem at best to be collateral ancestors. I didn’t find any instances of the term before 2000 in LexisNexis, or anything similar. There are old jokes about such predicaments — There’s a bus leaving at 7:30, sonny. Be under it. — but the addition of “throw” was rare at best before 2000, and I can find no sign that the fixed phrase existed before that. In the spring of 2008, there was much speculation over whether Barack Obama would throw the Rev. Jeremiah Wright under the bus, and that probably gave the phrase its final push into mainstream language. (Note that in 1992 no one used the expression to describe Bill Clinton’s disavowal of Sister Souljah.)

The vocabulary used for this sort of situation once had a religious cast: scapegoat, sacrificial lamb. Now we look to the agent rather than the victim; the one who does the throwing gets attention while the patsy is forgotten. And a modern mechanized replacement seems fitting for the mysterious process of redemption through ritual burnt offerings. It’s a significant note that in popular culture buses are unpleasant — cramped, smelly, and none too clean. Surely it would be much nicer to be thrown under a limo. If the expression does in fact originate in politics, it may refer simply to the campaign bus, still a staple in the twenty-first century, at least until this crazy year.

One of the oddities of this phrase is the word “under,” which won out over more sensible choices like “in front of,” “off (of),” or “out of.” The former preserves the violence, the latter two the sense of exiling the victim. A couple other odd notes on this odd phrase: 1. The definite article is used a very large majority of the time, as if to say it is not just any old bus. 2. It is normally used of people or groups of people, but that isn’t obligatory, either. Single businesses or whole sectors of the economy may get the sub-bus treatment. After an unfavorable court decision, losing counsel might say that a law or principle has been thrown under the bus. And when a judge willfully misreads law or precedent, that is a betrayal not only of the law but of the people.

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

virtue signaling

(2010’s | journalese | “piety,” “posturing”)

“Virtue signaling is everywhere” ran a headline in the Newport News Times of May 7, 2019. It certainly is. The swift-rising expression is about five years old; it is usually, though not always, credited to British commentator James Bartholomew. It is much bandied about on social media but doesn’t seem to have been born there. It sprang up in the U.K. and U.S. mainstream media in 2015, not having appeared before, according to LexisNexis. (It predominated in the British press and does seem to qualify as a Briticism.) The meaning has to do with taking actions that draw attention to one’s own devotion to good causes, with the implication that such actions are intended primarily for show, and may cover words and deeds that run counter to the stated goal. Back when, we would have said “holier than thou,” but that’s an adjective. Like the older expression, “virtue signaling” has two axes: ostentation and hypocrisy. Only ostentation is invariable, but the accusation of hypocrisy often worms its way in.

For it is always an accusation, never a compliment on the good example one is setting for others. Many commentators on-line point out the value of modeling ethical conduct, but there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it, and virtue signaling is the wrong way — the sort of empty, self-seeking ritual decried by philosophers and religious leaders down through history. (A notable example from the western tradition comes from Luke 18:9-14 in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.) Scripture writers have generally agreed that good works should be done quietly, without self-aggrandizement. But “virtue signaling” goes beyond such self-effacing wisdom; when you use the phrase you are dismissing as insincere any gesture toward a moral position, imputing bad motives to the speaker or agent even without grounds for doing so. And in fact the phrase is often used of people whose motives and general approach to life one has no possible way of knowing. Every Facebook post in support of Black Lives Matter may be casually dismissed as virtue signaling, regardless of what it says or the character of the person saying it. That two-word rejoinder not only insults the other party but distracts from the main issue.

The expression is most characteristic of the right wing, which is why I chose Black Lives Matter as an example — also to point out that “virtue signaling” has gotten a big workout this year in the wake of the George Floyd atrocity. I’ve covered several characteristically right-wing expressions, so here’s another of my little catalogues: “junk science,” “nothing-burger,” “snowflake,” “stay in your lane,” “tough love.” “Off the grid,” “politically correct,” and “play the race card” started on the left but became more popular on the right. It’s not like only the left engages in virtue signaling. Right-wing politicians like to talk about the dangers of running deficits and then pass giant corporate tax cuts that slash revenue, for example. Or talk about the importance of families and then dismember them at our borders. Or talk about compassion while making it harder for the disadvantaged to survive in a thousand ways. Yet for the most part they have kept the phrase in their arsenal. (For more rigorous evidence of the right’s disproportionate usage, see the Language Log.)

The significance of “signal” has changed in the last few decades. Ronald Reagan used to talk about “sending the right signal,” which in practice meant “avoid sending mixed messages.” But attaching importance to the signal gives it a solidity that makes it seem like an action in its own right, and that sense persists in “virtue signaling.” Another twist: The idea that a signal should be deliberately misleading, even to those it is intended for. The point of a signal was that the other person would comprehend it quickly and unerringly; there was often the implication that sending a signal was somewhat furtive, not intended to be seen by everyone. (When you wanted everyone to see it, you said “clear signal.”)

The noun-gerund compound has become standard as a noun, though it could serve as well as an adjective (“low-down, cotton-pickin’, virtue-signalin’ bandit!”). I haven’t seen “virtue signal” as a verb, but I don’t get around much. (I’d prefer “signal virtue,” but that is already a well-established adjective-noun combo, meaning the most striking of one’s worthy qualities.) “Virtue signaling” sounds clunky to me, like “politically incorrect,” but maybe that’s the point.

More dithyrambs to Lovely Liz from Queens, who posited this expression many months ago. Well, I’m slow.

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

I’m aware

(2010’s | teenagese | “I know that,” “there’s no need to tell me that”)

I dip a nervous toe into kids’ lingo every now and then. I used to have a few kids in my life — they are all adults or near-adults now — but I don’t talk to them enough to get much of a read on the latest vocabulary, though they’re very nice if I take the trouble to ask. “I’m aware” is a young person’s term. I haven’t heard anyone over twenty-five say it, and I don’t expect to until my nephew turns twenty-six. We used to say, “I’m (well) aware of that,” which had a somewhat similar sense: You don’t have to tell me that. Now the kids have lopped off the prepositions and conjunctions and use it unadorned. There’s quite a group of shortened set phrases derived from longer ones; I’ve covered lean in, give back, and others.

I haven’t encountered “I’m aware” much, so my sample size isn’t large enough to make generalizations, but that won’t stop me. When I have heard it, I’ve heard a defensive (or, as lovely Liz from Queens suggests, protective) tone, a way of acknowledging that there’s something to be discussed while shutting down the possibility of discussion. Maybe it’s none of your business; maybe we’ll revisit the subject later. It could be a college student responding to needling from elders about an inadequate social conscience, or a high school student to a friend’s reminder of relationship difficulties. It’s not like “I know, right?” which has a certain lift, a hint of jubilation. “I’m aware” is darker than that. More rueful than joyful, more closed- than open-hearted. That’s how it differs from “I get that,” which in other ways it resembles. But “I get that” is intended to prolong the discussion by admitting that the other party is making a legitimate point.

What is the difference between “I’m aware of” and “I know”? At first I thought not much, but as I dwelt on the matter I concluded that awareness brings a little more life with it, more alertness, more intensity than mere knowing. Reminds you of “beware” — there’s a reason for that — whose purpose is to grab your attention with a warning. To be aware of something is to know it AND be alive to it. Most of the things we know are useful from time to time but don’t change our lives. Which is part of why “I’m aware” means more than “I know, I know.” If it seems strange that an expression that signals greater consciousness also signals an unwillingness to engage it, it shouldn’t. That heightened importance is what makes it hard to talk about. If it’s a subject the speaker has no reservations about, they don’t say “I’m aware.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

last mile

(1980’s | merchandese? | “home stretch”)

Often, an expression commonly understood to apply solely in the physical world loses its corporeality and takes a metaphorical cast (in fact, I covered one only last week). Think of an expression like “blow up in your face,” which suggests literally an explosion marring one’s countenance, but in everyday use it has nothing to do with dynamite. “Last mile” has wandered along both sides of the body/abstraction divide. Its original referent was macabre enough — the walk to the death chamber, after which the convict will walk no more. That’s pretty darn corporeal, yet the phrase has a powerful poetic effect, subtly reinforcing a grim moment. But by 1990, it had become more mundane: making telephone and internet service available to far-flung customers after the last trunk line (or whatever) petered out. Pretty incorporeal, right? Cables, yes, but they’re carrying electrons and such, not the sort of thing you can throw into a truck and drop off miles away. But by now the trucks have won, as the term has tied itself firmly to the physical world; you can still use it to talk about communications, but “distribution assets” (warehouses) get much more attention as vans clog our neighborhoods. Delivery service is one of few economic growth areas this year, and clever investors have already moved into last-mile logistics, real estate, etc. Last-mile funding (or financing) is aimed at students or startups that are close to reaching their goal but have run short of money.

“The last mile,” once very evocative, has become disappointingly earthbound. Whose idea was it to turn the walk to the electric chair into getting the merchandise to customers? Was it solely a matter of ignorance, initiated by someone who had no idea what they were messing with? Why not “last leg,” or “final flurry,” or just “outermost network”? It’s hard to believe that anyone familiar with the older meaning would adapt it so blithely to delivering telephone service or goods from Amazon. I didn’t find any sign of transitional or intermediate forms, so I’m betting techie illiteracy was the cause. Not a very satisfying explanation, but life is rarely as compelling as art.

As a noun or adjective, “last mile” is probably more common than it has ever been. It’s what I’d call a stubborn expression; it doesn’t absorb new meanings easily and steadfastly resists the urge to spread out. It may have found a permanent home now that COVID-19 has convinced millions more that on-line is the way to shop; if so, you can be sure it will stick with it. Another stubborn quality: “last mile” has throughout its lifetime borne a single meaning at a time. For decades, it was a prisoner’s phrase. The incidence of capital punishment dropped, which opened it up for the telecom industry. They grabbed it and shook it around for a decade or so, at which time (coinciding roughly with the beginning of large-scale internet sales) the shippers and shoppers got hold of it. As a new usage takes over, the old ones seem to disappear, or at least dwindle to near nothing.

We’ve gotten considerable mileage out of “mile.” There’s “go the extra mile” (which we owe to Matthew 5:41), “walk a mile in another’s shoes” (which I was taught as a Native American proverb), “give him an inch and he’ll take a mile” (or “ell,” as my 1888 dictionary of proverbs renders it), “talk a mile a minute,” “the mile-high city.” The U.S. may never convert fully to the metric system, but even if we do, we’ll carry the marks of the English system for many years. “I love you, a cubic meter and a liter”? I don’t think so.

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

stay in your lane

(2000’s | athletese | “stay out of my way,” “keep your nose out of my business,” “don’t make waves”; “stick to what you do best,” “bear down”)

Oh, for the good old days when this expression was used in two contexts: driving instruction and sports (football and auto racing). It had a nice literal ring to it, if you understand “lane” to mean “bounded pathway,” which wasn’t hard to do by 1975; rustic alleyways had largely disappeared by then and most people thought of lines on a roadway when they heard the word. “Stay in your lane” was rarely used any other way until 2000, at least. At some point in the new millennium, it was adopted into a wider vernacular, by which process it was divorced from any physical referent, becoming metaphorical and generally admonitory. While driving instructors and sportswriters have to reach to find an alternative, the rest of us, who have plenty of alternatives (see above), have glommed onto it.

Yet we use it in a variety of ways, which I will try to delineate. “Don’t go looking for trouble.” Then there’s “keep your hands to yourself,” or its milder cousin, “keep your head down.” It also means “don’t interfere in matters that don’t concern you” or “don’t discourse on things you don’t understand.” Perhaps most perniciously, it means “know your place” or “keep it to yourself.” In this sense it is used often by right-wing political commentators to inform uppity athletes, actors, emergency room doctors, and anyone with brown skin regardless of occupation that their carefully considered opinions are not wanted and they should shut up and do their jobs. It is not clear that this usage will win in the end. Most multi-meaning expressions lose all but one or two over time, and “stay in your lane” will probably settle down as well. And it does have a couple of more positive senses, which I should not neglect, such as “focus” or “play to your strengths.” While I can’t predict which definitions will emerge from the pack, I have considerable confidence that the hostile shade of this expression will win; there’s just too much momentum in that direction.

The interesting thing about the right-wing snarl is that it enforces a hierarchical vision of the world, in which the old, white, and wealthy do their utmost to keep everyone else down. Yet “stay in your lane” understood literally has a strictly lateral horizon; it means don’t move from side to side (in an environment where moving up and down isn’t even possible). The phrase has been yanked out of its proper dimension to enforce a top-down view of the world. I couldn’t tell you why, when there are plenty of other ways to get the point across. It may just be one of those things where an influential loudmouth used it and others picked it up, as happens often in the internet echosphere.

I’m not sure when this particular usage began to bob up, but it definitely has built up a lot of steam in a short time, and it is likely that left-wing commentators will adopt the expression, if they haven’t already, ironically at first but soon enough in earnest. There is not much communication between representatives of our armed political camps, but an effective insult or quip that shuts down the argument travels easily from one side of the aisle to the other. In an era that shows few flashes of bipartisanship, the infectious sharing of new idioms between left and right feels perversely comforting.

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

don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining

(1990’s | “what do you take me for?,” “I’m not stupid”)

More or less arbitrarily, I’ve adopted the Judge Judy form of this expression, which takes other wordings as well. I can’t say for sure it is the most common, and it certainly is not the original, but it gained pride of place after she took it as the title of her 1997 bestseller. Another version is “Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining,” used in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (YouTube to the rescue again). Examples, variants, and euphemisms may be found as far back as 1900, also in the form “don’t spit in my face and tell me it’s raining.” As formidable language blogger emeritus Michael Quinion pointed out, “piss down one’s back” is found in Grose’s late-18th century slang dictionary, where it is defined as “to flatter.” Assuming, as Quinion does, that our modern variants are descended from the older vulgarism involves some twists and turns. There is a pretty firm on-line consensus about the meaning of the phrase. Most loosely, it means “don’t expect me to believe you when you’re obviously lying.” More precisely, it means “don’t act against my interests and then pretend you’re on my side.” Common to both is “don’t mislead me by pretending you’re a better person than you really are.” That is flattery in reverse, or at least akin to it — a means of gaining ground through deceit, taking advantage of another’s soft heart, or head.

While it has never become especially common, and it is not strongly associated with any particular field, “don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining” has made a place for itself. Most people have no difficulty understanding it, certainly not in context. Forceful and memorable, it usually elicits a guffaw, and that esprit makes it attractive. If you have to accuse someone of a brazen lie, a little humor helps. Still, we hear in it the voice of outrage — a rebuke, but also self-defense. You are definitely pinning a lie on someone else, but you are emphasizing your ability to detect the deceit. It traffics in indignation and incredulity as well.

The urinary tract has been a great source of vocabulary; if you look in any good slang dictionary you’ll find at least a couple of pages for “piss,” some old, some new. “Piss off” is the champ, at least in the U.S., where “pissed” means angry rather than drunk and “piss off” means “irritate” rather than “scram.” We all have our favorites. I like “(full of) piss and vinegar” (vim and vigor), “pissing match” (a disagreeable contest), and “go piss up a rope” (go fly a kite). Honorable mention goes to “I wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire,” which contrasts nicely with the phrase under discussion. Although “pissed off” has several substitutes, such as “ticked off” or “teed off” — but never “peed off” — most such expressions lose their point without the vulgarism. But as Judge Judy has shown, in this case you can slide “pee” in there without losing much.

“Piss” is a very old word and was not regarded as particularly heinous during its first several centuries; my sense is that it is more acceptable now than it was in my childhood, when George Carlin included it among the seven words you can never say on television. But I would still be a little surprised to hear it in mixed company.

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

After six months with no end in sight, time to pause for a coronavirus vocabulary review. If I may revert to the original post on the subject: some expressions are thriving, notably “pandemic” and “social distancing” (with “practice,” “observe,” or even “maintain”). COVID-19 — now “Covid” or “covid” in conversation and informal writing, with “19” optional even in formal writing — has settled in as the name of the illness caused by the the present iteration of the coronavirus. (I’ve also seen “covid-15” used as an analogue to “freshman fifteen” to refer to shutdown-related weight gain, proving that Americans have not lost our sense of humor.) We stopped hearing “community spread” right around the time it got out of control. The phrase had significance only when the outbreak was in the earliest stages; it becomes unnecessary once community spread becomes the rule. “Flatten the curve” and variants may still be heard and will be available when the next new virus comes along. “Telework” holds its own, but “distance learning,” popular last spring, now seems to be losing out to “remote learning.” Then again, the new school year is just starting and it would be prudent to let the educators run a few more laps. Here’s a question: How come no one ever brings up “remote teaching”? All the attention goes to students’ experience. Maybe it’s just because I have a lot of teachers in my family, but I think more ink should be spilled over the demands and trials they face in these times.

Some expressions I didn’t cover the first time around that have clearly made it:

The “bubble” in pro sports refers to a single complex — where all games are played and where everyone involved in the games, including staff, is housed — from which no one may stray, in order to keep everyone virus-free. The NBA and NHL playoffs and the entire WNBA season are being played in bubbles.

New vocabulary has bloomed around the embattled mask, or “face covering” in bureaucratese. “Mask up” (indicative or imperative) has become the normal verb phrase, but it does not have an opposite, at least not yet. “Demask”? “Unmask”? “Mask off”? “Mask down”? The last has a literal touch, because when you remove the mask from your face, you typically pull it downward, under the chin. Standard terms for doff the mask may emerge definitively, but there are many words without opposites and other such inconsistencies in English. So maybe not.

PPE (personal protective equipment) is here to stay, a catchall for any kind of shield against infection, whether you wear it or apply it, generally used by (or when talking about) medical workers. A classic example of new exigencies forcing a new expression into everyday language.

“Quarantine” is spawning variants that may or may not enter the mainstream. So far I’ve encountered “quarantunes” — a playlist for people home all day with nothing to do — and “quaranteam,” a small group of families who quarantine rigorously from the rest of the world so they can socialize among themselves (an example from recent news). Less elegant but needed more often in practice is “quarancheat.” And why not “quaranteach”? Once again, teachers get short shrift.

“Stop the spread” still hovers between slogan and ordinary language, so I’m not sure it has arrived, but it may well solidify. It can refer literally to taking steps to prevent passing germs around, in which sense it was available long before COVID-19; it is also the rallying cry of a group determined to combat false information about coronavirus. That seems like a useful goal, deserving a name of its own.

The next thing to worry about is the forthcoming flu season, which may turn out to be a real doozy if COVID-19 spikes again. Two words to watch if the double whammy strikes: “twindemic” and “fluvid.” So many new expressions wait to be born as we continue to learn our way around the landscape of contagion.

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


(1990’s | “driving mad”)

In the annals of new expressions derived from movies, this one is extraordinary, with a lag time of over forty years; most film-born(e) locutions rise with the release of the film. Maybe it has always been around in conversation, but LexisNexis yielded only one instance before 1990. It started to appear more often after that, especially in the British and Commonwealth press; one source attributed it to a pair of English psychiatrists. It may be a pure Briticism, or it may just have taken root over there first. In its strictest sense, “gaslighting” denotes the act or process of deliberately manipulating conditions in a way that causes another person to doubt their own perception and ultimately, to think they are going crazy. The meaning is derived from the plot of a film released in 1944, titled “Gaslight” because one of the villain’s tricks was to fiddle with the gas valve and cause the lights to flicker inside the house, then lie to the victim by telling her she imagined the flickering. The word is used much more loosely now, but it can still convey deliberate deception in an effort to convince an adversary (often one’s significant other) that they’ve lost touch with reality. “To gaslight” does not seem to have made itself at home until after 2000. What is the past tense? “Gaslighted,” surely. Or do we just stick with the imperfect?

In politics, “gaslighting” is cruder, little more than a synonym for “deceiving” or “disinformation.” Usually, though, the implication remains that the gaslighter is telling you to disregard the plain evidence of your senses, or at least banking on your credulity. (Only one’s opponents commit gaslighting, never an ally.) In this sense it is related to “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining,” now a popular objurgation. Every year political discourse becomes more brutal, and “gaslighting,” originally so refined that only Charles Boyer could pull it off, has unfortunately joined a long list of expressions used as grenades, intended to replace debate with annihilation. Unlike some of the others, this one merits the opprobrium. Gaslighting has always been devious and reprehensible. Even should the devious part crumble away, the reprehensible never will.

In relationships, the term goes to the opposite extreme. Gaslighting isn’t brazen; it’s covert, intended to cover up something so the need to deny it does not arise. That makes sense with reference to the original film; the villain did his dastardly deeds because he had a secret to conceal. In advice columns, it’s often cited as a method of distracting a partner from an illicit affair, for example. When you gaslight your spouse, you’re not so much trying to overwhelm their reason as keep them in the dark. Charles Boyer’s character was evil, but elegant. The eponym has lost its elegance, but the evil lingers on.

Thanks to my father for passing this word my way. It’s astonishing how many new expressions have made their mark in the last fifty years. It keeps Lex Maniac young.

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

own (v.)

(2000’s | journalese? celebritese? | “acknowledge,” “admit,” “take pride in,” “embrace”)

The bottom line here seems to be responsibility. In the old days, ownership conferred certain benefits along with certain duties — some enforced by law, others by custom — that could not be disregarded. More than an echo of that old idea of owner’s obligation remains, although “own” is used much more loosely today. When it started appearing in its up-to-date sense (somewhere around 2000, as far as I can tell), it was likely to be an implicit or explicit confession of wrongdoing or inadequacy. In that sense, it seems like an obvious descendant of “own up,” which is what embarrassed kids did when caught breaking the rules. “Own” owes a lot to “own up” but has gone well beyond it; in the last twenty years, it has taken on a tinge of pride. When advice columnists and therapists use “own,” they are nearly always counseling us to stop being ashamed of whatever it is, causing the word to become less sheepish on the average. Nowadays it may mean anything from “fess up” to “take charge.”

Another modern meaning of “own” is “dominate” or “defeat,” from the notion that ownership gives dominion, the unfettered ability to do what one likes — if you have humiliated someone, you can really rub their noses in it; in fact, it’s an obligation. This sense of the word comes out of computer games, where competitors must endlessly come up with ways to denigrate each other’s performance. It has lifted off in politics, particularly in the phrase “own the libs” (roughly, “aggravate the liberals”), often used ironically to signal a misguided or ill-conceived attack on liberal piety that hurts the attacker worse than the target. Yet when the attacker has political power, the results are not so amusing. “Own the libs” is now firmly associated with Donald Trump’s regulatory policy, which apparently boils down to repealing Obama-era regulations regardless of their effects, because that so thoroughly pisses off his opponents. Trump is a great believer in heaping coals of fire on his enemies’ heads.

“Own” expressions seem to have a disproportionate tendency to be portentous. Think of “on your own” in the sense of not being dependent on anyone else; here “own” marks the transition to adult responsibilities. Or “released on one’s own recognizance,” a legal expression meaning you don’t have to go to jail and never will. Or “one’s own boss,” the mark of success for Americans tired of the rat race. “To own” conveys legal possession primarily, but also individuality. The word brings it home to a single person or group, and while it doesn’t suggest power by itself, it does suggest agency — the ability to act without direction from others.

Here is a fixed phrase I would like to see: “you own this,” meaning “you’ve made this mess, now deal with it.” The dark side of “you got this” (“you can handle this easily”). I’m sure someone has used it somewhere, but I want it to be much more ordinary. The phrase would be a favorite of politicians, certainly, but it could come up in any number of situations — any time one person needs to let another know that they are washing their hands of a problem. We already have “it’s on you (us, me, etc.),” which expresses a similar idea with similar force, but I swear I hear in my mind’s ear a challenger belaboring the incumbent with “you OWN this” rather than expending a paragraph on the failed policies of the present administration. I have proved a very poor predictor of linguistic change, but maybe I’ll get this one right.

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