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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

mental health day

(1980’s | businese? therapese? | “sick day,” “day off”)

Always closely linked to workplace stress (cf. “power nap” and “go postal” in this regard) and always tied to the much older concept of the sick day, that venerable custom which affords employees the right (nay, duty, in the case of contagious disease) to take an unscheduled day off due to unforeseen illness. In the seventies, the phrase “mental health day” was unusual, most often used about intensive care nurses or inner-city teachers; now anyone with a medium-stress job may need one. The expression became more common in the eighties, beating out competitors including “sick-and-tired leave,” which I rather like. I don’t remember hearing it before the mid-nineties, when I learned it from my worldly-wise girlfriend. That was just after I had started working nine-to-five following a stint in graduate school, where every day is a mental health day.

I should not fail to mention World Mental Health Day, which falls every year on October 10. This is not a day for everyone in the world to sick out (great idea, though), but a day to learn about and think about mental illness and how we may help those who are afflicted. That’s actually what you would expect from this construction; phrases that end in “day” often refer to such secular observances. (Weeks and months get the same treatment.) Oh, it’s Mental Health Day and the president of the Mental Health Society is giving an address at the bughouse. Or getting one. I apologize for the persiflage, but sometimes I just can’t resist. Anyway, if it weren’t for the fixed association with “sick day,” we might hear this phrase quite differently.

There has never been a generally effective way to prevent people from taking sick days when they feel fine physically, and employers resent that. But the mental health day partly redeems it; you’re skipping work to cope with excessive stress, which, left unchecked, will exact a much greater toll — physical and mental — than an occasional day off. The expression still carries the implication of an undeserved break, but that appears to be changing slowly as the old bosses die off. The next generation may be more willing to accept them as inevitable. Maybe union contracts of the future will include provision for mental health days. And power naps.

Lovely Liz from Queens, or maybe her daughter, pointed out recently that mental health means mental illness. It’s true, and it’s a big reason why troubled minds continue to attract less sympathy than injured bodies. If you are not demonstrably mentally ill, then mental health is not an issue; the subject just doesn’t come up. That isn’t true of corporeal health, which we understand in more complex terms than mere absence of obvious infirmities. Improved mental health is a goal only for those who know they are sick. There is such a thing as mental fitness, but it’s a legal expression. And it’s not analogous to physical fitness; it’s more like the minimum strength required to get around without keeling over. Just as most people have minor bodily ailments that don’t prevent them from getting through the day, most of us have observable but non-crippling deformities of the mind or spirit. But we take greater pains to ignore them, because of the shame and stigma they bring.


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(1980’s | academese? literese? | “underlying idea,” “hidden meaning,” “substratum”)

Ah, the drama. Dramatists have given us hundreds of new expressions — Shakespeare alone is responsible for dozens — but this expression is different in that we owe it to a theorist of drama rather than a creator of it. At any rate, several sources point to Stanislavsky as the source of this expression. It might be defined in different ways. Story behind the story, undercurrents among the characters, unexplained background, unexpressed motivations. Most simply, it’s the unstated yet significant part(s) of the plot, and it may be made obvious to the audience or not. It is the result of what we used to call “reading between the lines,” even though it places itself under rather than within.

The OED’s examples go back to the late nineteenth century, so Stanislavski didn’t invent it, but he doubtless gave it a powerful push. That great literary critic Freud’s “unconscious” (das Unbewusste) was carelessly rendered as “sub-conscious” for many years, which probably helped “subtext” gain a toehold in everyday language. Another precursor was “subliminal,” as in message, which spiraled into the language in the late fifties thanks to the underappreciated Vance Packard, who published an exposé of dubious Madison Avenue practices called “The Hidden Persuaders.” Subliminal advertising was intended to bypass conscious understanding or thought and appeal to a part of the mind over which we have limited control (there’s your subconscious), a bit like hypnosis. So you want to buy the product without knowing why. (“Liminal” means “of or pertaining to thresholds”; the messages were intended to stay below the threshold of conscious thought.) It’s not clear how effective subliminal advertising was, but pretty much everyone except the advertisers agreed that it was unethical.

Probably in the late seventies, “subtext” ventured forth from its theatrical cocoon and took wing. LexisNexis would have you believe it entered political contexts first, but that may be due to its indexing bias. Political scientist Larry Sabato recently defined it as “the between-the-lines character sketch that guides and sets the tone for press coverage.” In this definition it has a personal focus; the subtext gives us a frame for understanding coverage of political figures more than issues or developments. While it may come out of a pattern of undisputed facts adduced in previous reporting, it is always more or less subject to bias. That’s part of the reason Trump’s defenders and critics see him in such starkly different terms; they are starting from entirely different premises. Every word and act is measured against antipodal subtexts, both maintained with considerable rancor, each producing a radically different basis of interpretation.

Sabato’s definition is unusually precise. “Subtext” has come to refer generally to any underlying message or idea that must be divined, or ferreted out. Those who grasp it will understand the situation better and respond more effectively. As in politics and fiction, there is room for idiosyncratic judgments, so different observers may see different things underlying a situation, or assign greater or lesser significance to the same underlying element. Applying principles of drama criticism to real life is a touchy business, but it’s inevitable. If you really want to understand what’s going on, you need to look below the surface, in life as in literature.

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(2000’s | computerese | “precise,” “precisely categorized,” “well-organized,” “detailed,” “distinct”)

The new meaning of this expression has become ingrained (sorry) in our language rather quickly. Twenty years ago it turned up occasionally in computer talk — generally modifying “data” or “information” — now it turns up in all sorts of speech. Like many expressions born of computer jockeys, it is rather vague and indiscriminate, particularly ironic in light of its meaning, and so it has spread to modify lots of things since the dawn of the new millennium. A recent list drawn from LexisNexis: “focus,” “workloads,” “control,” “detail,” “list,” “insight,” “goals,” “analysis,” “stories,” and “urea” (just wanted to see if you were paying attention). And there are times when the equivocator in me wants it to be replaced by “granulated.” Take this clause from 1999: “Because precise capacity planning requires a highly granular collection of network traffic data . . .” It’s not the collection that’s granular; it’s the data. But I like the idea of a “granulated collection,” in which the data is chopped and ground ever more finely, perhaps to the point where we would have to call it “powder(ed).” Excuse me, I have to go powder my data.

There is at least a notional connection between the new meaning and the old, which was firmly literal, describing the consistency of sand or table salt, too coarse to be powder, too fine to be pellets. Useful in the laboratory and the kitchen, it had three fields, broadly speaking: industrial processes, meteorology, where it modified “snow,” and cuisine. “Granular” is about two hundred years old (“granulate” is older still), but only recently has it developed any kind of figurative life. In computerese, it suggests more of a sliding scale than an absolute state; data is stored, organized, and retrieved in more or less granular ways, with more granular understood to be better. Greater granularity implies more than taking a data set and channeling it into new and finer categories; it also implies more reliable access, and perhaps, as a consequence, data made useful in more contexts or fields.

Computerese has taken a number of terms with primarily physical applications and used them to talk about things that have little or no corporeality. The key change undergone by such three-dimensional words drafted into computerese is precisely that surrender of dimension. (Is data one-dimensional? Two? Three? N? Or none?) “Access,” “bug,” “folder,” “handshake,” “packet,” “virus.” “Granular” is an adjective, not a noun, which seems noteworthy. Not all computer terminology comes from existing words, but a lot of it does, and none of the examples adduced above seems to have taken any great semantic twists or turns as they settled into the new dialect. Even “granular” seems a logical enough borrowing, if not quite as right as some of the nouns. As noted above, computer whizzes don’t have much of a way with words, but their comprehension seems solid and straightforward in these instances, at least. Give the geeks their due.

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wedge issue

(1980’s | journalese? politese?)

I haven’t been able to come up with older synonyms for “wedge issue.” Exploiting political divisions is a very old strategy, and it’s not like no one ever conducted campaigns that way. There were bread-and-butter issues, or kitchen-table issues, but those had more to do with pushing people together than with driving them apart. (Recently, the phrase “bridge issue” has sprung up in climate activism to denote the opposite of a wedge issue.) The rise of the wedge issue marks a deterioration in our politics, to the point that some mainstream candidates openly espouse ripping the country in two. In the old days, you had to play lip service to unity, but that’s over, which is why so many formerly unacceptable utterances, and deeds, now pass unremarked.

The wedge issue, named for a tool designed to split wood, first made its presence felt in the late eighties, when political strategists, or the people who reported on them, began using the phrase to refer to controversial questions that cause voters to take sides, so those already on your side will stay there and the other guys will turn on each other. In 1999, Thomas Edsall wrote, “The ideal wedge issue performs two basic functions: It unites strong partisan supporters on common ground with swing voters, and it fractures the opposition.” The British chestnut, “thin end of the wedge,” used especially in political discourse, is related. But a wedge issue works its malice much faster; it’s more like a bomb than a slow-spreading poison. And while the nation may not have been quite as polarized then as it is now, there were plenty of sharp disagreements, so wedge issues were not hard to find. The phrase was first used in quantity leading up the 1988 presidential election, and Republicans typically were credited with wielding them, though Democrats followed suit as soon as they figured out what was going on.

Back then, wedge issues were associated suspiciously often with Lee Atwater — roughly the equivalent of Steve Bannon today — though I don’t know that he ever used the term in public. Atwater generally avoided the obvious trappings of white supremacy — he wasn’t quite as bad as David Duke — but his understanding of politics was noxious all the same. His skill as a campaign strategist stemmed from his ability to scare enough voters away from the rival while holding his side together with rage and loathing, and he was distressingly good at it. Political thuggery and dirty tricks have a long and rich tradition in America; Atwater was more effective than most. He died young, but he sowed the wind, and now the whirlwind is reaching tornado proportions.

Within the realm of party politics, wedge issues have their own remorseless logic: find your opponents’ weaknesses and exploit them. But another way to think about politics requires noticing the great divides between the one percent and the rest of us. There aren’t that many super-rich people out there; they are vastly outnumbered. Yet they get their way a very high percentage of the time, and one of their best tricks is the wedge issue. When minorities want to maintain power, they must divide their subjects in order to conquer them. The smaller the minority, the deeper and starker must be the divisions. Our opponents are not the people on the other side of the abortion divide, but the ones on the other side of the wealth divide, who enrich themselves at unprecedented velocity, only to make life harder and more uncertain for the rest.

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in a heartbeat

(1980’s | militarese? | “without hesitation,” “right away,” “in a flash”)

The sources of this phrase appear to be two: southern pop music — it’s not all country, you know — and the military. There’s probably a connection there. The earliest instance I found in LexisNexis was a song title from Carlene Carter (daughter of June) in 1979, “I’d Do it in a Heartbeat.” But most examples from the early eighties stem from military sources. By the end of the decade, all the cool people were using the phrase; I remember hearing it, as a novelty, in college. It’s a fine dramatic phrase, redolent of medical wizardry and life-and-death heroics. In some early uses I saw, the phrase did entail high risk that had to be handled immediately. (As in: When you’re flying a plane, everything can change in a heartbeat.) But it was more often used to express alacrity, that is, quickness infused with enthusiasm. “I’d do it in a heartbeat” usually means “I’m very eager to do it.” (How about a love song titled, “Anything Can Happen in a Heartbeat”?)

Vice President Mike Pence used “in a heartbeat” recently to declare his willingness to take a lie-detector test to prove he did not write the New York Times op-ed that says pretty much the same thing as everyone else who has spent any time observing the Trump White House. (It’s hardly news that Trump is intemperate and ill-informed; New Yorkers have known that for decades, and everyone else had eighteen months — more than enough time — to figure it out before the 2016 election.) In the old days, when we brought up the Vice President at all, we used a different expression that had a more solemn tone: “a heartbeat away from the presidency.” If the president dies suddenly, it’s the vice president’s job to assume the office, so it was a recasting of “the king is dead, long live the king.” It was an oddly ritualistic phrase, and while it is still used regularly in such contexts, it hasn’t spread around that much.

Heartbeats have other connotations, such as intimacy or simply proximity. Rapid heartbeat signifies excitement of some sort (hearts aflutter), when it doesn’t mean it’s time to go to the emergency room. Sometimes the heartbeat suggests that which is fundamental or essential. It makes a different sort of metaphor from “pulse,” as in the old expression “finger on the pulse,” which has more to do with gauging a mood or zeitgeist. It seems a little strange to me that “in a heartbeat” would have settled into a meaning that disregards the word’s metaphorical riches in favor of mere speed, but the phrase suggests a decision made so quickly that it does not require any thought, related to Macbeth’s vow, “the very firstlings of my heart shall be the firstlings of my hand.” That, of course, appeals to other common associations of the heart: unreasoning passion and gore.

(in a) New York minute

(1980’s | journalese? | “no time at all,” “instant”; “just like that,” “immediately if not sooner”)

Another southern expression that emerged around the same time is “New York minute,” according to Safire (October 19, 1986). This expresses the same sense of haste as “in a heartbeat,” but not necessarily the same enthusiasm. The mood is usually closer to “if you snooze, you lose,” though you might hear “do it in a New York minute” to mean the same thing as “do it in a heartbeat.” “New York minute” requires no preposition to get its effect, but “heartbeat” does. The ideas are similar but have slightly different fields.

“New York” often modifies food, but not much else, as far as I can tell. Fashion, maybe. In the hinterlands, bagels or pizza, or the deli they’re sold in, may bear the appellation, and certain characteristic preparations, like egg creams, Reuben sandwiches, and pastrami might also take the adjective for explanatory reasons. (If New York has its own cuisine, it surely is kosher deli, whether meat or dairy.) I’ve read in mid-century novels about diners ordering a “New York cut” at the steakhouse, but I don’t know what that would be called now.

Among many other things, New York epitomizes hustle and bustle, which is why “New York minute” has entered the language. This (justified) popular image of the city gives rise to the (unjustified) perception that New Yorkers are always brusque and rude. Sometimes we are, but only when someone ahead of us commits the cardinal sin of getting in the way — taking up too much room on the subway stairs or clogging a narrow passageway. This sort of situation occurs vastly more often here than elsewhere because the population density — and tourist density — is much higher. Now it’s understandable when people unfamiliar with the city’s ways get confused, but that doesn’t give them the right to hold up everyone else. Stop obstructing the flow and you’ll discover that New Yorkers can be very nice.

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people of color

(1980’s | officialese? academese? | “non-whites,” “non-white persons,” “dark-skinned people OR races”)

The expression feels old because it is. “Free people of color” was ordinary in the first half of the nineteenth century to denote descendants of white Europeans and Africans, particularly around the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. (As opposed to descendants of white Americans and Africans, who were enslaved people of color, but no one called them that.) The phrase did not disappear altogether after a sharp decline in the mid-nineteenth century, but it needed well over a hundred years to regain, and surpass, its former strength, according to Google Ngrams. Although the phrase was not used generally (as far as I know) under apartheid in South Africa, it recalled the racial designation “colored” — of mixed race, somewhere between white and black. “Colored” was a respectable term in the U.S. well into the twentieth century — almost always referring to African-Americans — but lost legitimacy during the civil rights movement.

When late twentieth-century Americans finally adopted “people of color” — which took a while because “colored” had become a thoroughly retrograde word — they took a concept intended to do harm and turned it into an honorific or at least neutral term, a common enough process, as I have noted elsewhere. According to Safire in 1988, the phrase received a definitive boost from Martin Luther King in a 1963 speech; the corpora offers little doubt that the first to use the term regularly and revive it were, in fact, people of color (“person/persons of color” is not used nearly as often). Jerry Brown said it in 1979, by which time more advanced white people had begun dropping it into speeches. It has been and remains a polite term, acknowledging the sort of difference we can’t help noticing while avoiding insidious older expressions, and it is intended to cover everyone who does not count as white in U.S. culture.

The boundaries of whiteness have changed quite a bit over time. (For some purposes, the category now includes those of East Asian descent, which would have unthinkable 150 or even 50 years ago, when Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid might still be encountered in anthropological texts.) They still matter because we have not freed ourselves of the framework of white vs. everyone else here in America, which makes it useful to have a single term that covers everyone else. That seems to be the primary purpose of “people of color,” which at least does not include the word “white.” The phrase betokens resignation in the face of racism that persists regardless of all the cogent and powerful arguments against it. Maybe because of them; one response to proof that you are an idiot is to press the idiocy harder than ever. It may be a luxury we cannot afford much longer. If China keeps growing and Russia keeps threatening, even our most benighted white-ists may conclude that we need contributions from everyone, and may go so far as to admit that people of color are needed to keep the nation afloat. If so, that would be a historically unusual though not unprecedented development, one that runs counter to current trends.

I did a little experiment in LexisNexis, searching the phrases “men of color” and “women of color” at roughly ten-year intervals starting with 1989-1990 and ending with the past year. In each of the four searches, “women of color” outnumbered “men of color” by convincing margins, usually four or five to one. That agrees with my own observation; I’m quite sure that “women of color” is more common. To me that suggests that we use “of color” (I distinctly remember Jimmy Breslin’s striking use of the phrase with no noun in front of it, back in the nineties) when we are focusing on discrimination and its victims. In one sense it is a neutral term and applies perfectly well in stories of uplift or empowerment. But “people of color” are people who suffer because they are not white, and women of color suffer more because they are neither white nor male. Fairly or not, “of color” harbors a touch of victimhood; the more oppressed a group is, the easier it is to use “of color” when talking about their non-white members.

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person of interest

(1980’s? | bureaucratese | “suspect,” “(material) witness,” etc.)

Virtually no use outside of law enforcement, but inside it “person of interest” has spread from its original field — big-time operations combating organized crime, terrorism, anti-war activism, etc. — to any old local crimefighting, though you would expect persons (not “people”) of interest only in complicated or dramatic cases. Aside from the rather stiff and formal plural, the phrase has other quirks; for example, in the singular it takes only the indefinite article — because if there were one person of interest, as the definite article suggests, that would be the suspect. But the whole point of persons of interest is that they are not necessarily suspects (as educators are not necessarily teachers). The term is vague; it could refer to a witness or someone with pertinent information, someone who can help with the investigation or who might even, with luck, turn into a suspect. If the person is only a blurry image on a surveillance video, the cops may not even know who it is.

I wouldn’t have thunk it, but the New York Times records instances of this expression in the early seventies, usually in quotation marks, invariably in articles covering law enforcement actions on a national scale. In 1970 the Times offered a definition: “those citizens, many with no criminal records, whom the government wants to keep track of in effort to avert subversion, rioting and violence or harm to nation’s leaders.” Now it might be said of anyone who, to adopt a courtly old expression, assists the police with their inquiries. I’m not sure when it entered everyday vocabulary, or how. It seems like one of the many outstanding, or not so outstanding, cop shows between 1980 and 2000 should have played a role, but if so I don’t know which one(s). Faithful readers? By 2000 it came up often enough in the mainstream press that most of us probably had heard it.

The components of the expression are deliberately bland and ordinary; there’s no fanfare here, no chest-beating — hardly surprising in bureaucratese. The blandness diverts our attention from intimidation, and excessive accumulation of personal information. Every person of interest goes into the database, and anything they say can be used against them. This term makes unobtrusive both the browbeating of those the cops don’t like, and the amassing of data in government hands. If they keep rounding up persons of interest, they’ll have the dirt on all of us eventually. The expression has another advantage for the people who deploy it, in that it has a certain amount of ass-covering built in. It looks bad when the cops have to turn a suspect loose, but excusing a mere person of interest will hardly be noticed. When there is more than one or two of them, it suggests strongly that the investigators are not making much progress.

The expression does not seem to have acquired any particular ironic or figurative life, or any life at all outside of quite literal-minded law-enforcement contexts. I would plump for more variety, more interest, as it were, attached to this unassuming phrase. Shouldn’t a “person of interest” be a crush, or at least someone you’ve found beguiling in the break room? Just the right degree of coyness, a good mix of optimism and realism. More prosaically, why doesn’t it mean someone who has a stake in an enterprise (i.e., one who holds an interest), or, more narrowly, someone who stands to gain or lose from an executive or judicial decision? Or, more narrowly still, the legislators or judges themselves. Seems like there should be any number of financial applications. I could even hear it as an ironic term for loan shark, in the euphemistic manner of “goodfellas” or “godfather.” Fellow citizens! Let’s take this phrase back from Big Brother!

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get into the weeds

(2000’s | bureaucratese? journalese? | “go into detail,” “sweat the small stuff,” “dig deeper”)

I have to confess I wasn’t familiar with this expression, but it was ably urged upon me by Lovelies Martha and Liz from Queens, who between them pretty much wrote the entry, or would have if my memory were better. As it is, they bear responsibility for the accuracies and the good stuff, and I get the blame for everything else.

Not especially common, the phrase has something a bit elitist about it, a direct legacy of its earliest occurrences in the corridors of power. The first use I found in LexisNexis attributed it to Bill Clinton in a one-on-one meeting with Boris Yeltsin in October 1995, and when it turned up after that, it was usually in the mouth of a powerful public official. By now it has spread beyond that narrow band, but I sense that it has remained largely outside demotic vocabulary. Actually, the earliest search result from LexisNexis yielded a quite different application; a Republican Congressional official in 1998 invoked the gentlemanly nature of competitions for House leadership by saying, “You don’t get into the weeds here.” No throwing mud or alley-cat tactics. That strikes me as a perfectly sensible definition of this rather odd phrase, but it has not caught on.

Instead, it generally seems to imply an arduous and vaguely unpleasant task, and in fact it is used strikingly often in the negative (“We don’t need to get into the weeds here”) to mean “I’ll spare you the complexities” or “Let’s not lose sight of the big picture,” which is how Clinton used it in 1995. Only geeks and specialists need understand the underpinnings. Sometimes it suggests undue effort, or even frustration, but that doesn’t seem predominant. Because of its firm association with the will not to overlook anything, it turns up occasionally as a synonym for “micromanage.”

I find it edifying to ponder briefly the usual connotations of “weeds.” (Not “weed,” which has replaced “pot” as the standard kids’ word for marijuana.) When you’re not using an archaic phrase to denote widows’ garments, they are unwanted plants that compete with or endanger whatever you’re trying to coax out of the soil. They are not pleasing to look at, spread way too fast, and require toil to uproot. So it makes sense that “get into the weeds” implies unwelcome effort. The most common shading I found in my researches is “get lost or tangled up in complications that ultimately doesn’t make that much difference.” That connotation gives the phrase the power to distract from or obscure genuine wrongdoing; sometimes “let’s not lose sight of the big picture” means “let’s not hold anyone responsible for what happened.” But the phrase has avoided degeneration into a synonym for “cover up,” and it remains a bureaucrat’s or academic’s way of saying “delve into the minutiae.” Sometimes you need to do that in order to get to the heart of the matter, but you’re probably not going to enjoy it.

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(1980’s | journalese? | “reflection,” “self-criticism”)

Solecism or just language doing its thing? Roughly analogous to a mutation, the sort whereby your offspring grows an extra limb that serves no useful purpose. To reflect on x meant to think x over, in a reasonably thorough way, and might include abstract questions. But in fact x was usually something you, or someone else, had said or done, and the unstated goal was to determine how you could improve. It was a sober process with the goal of greater understanding and improved conduct. Now, in addition to “reflection,” we have “self-reflection,” without a significant new shade of meaning. Reflection was always a self-absorbed process, so in a way it’s natural to add “self” to it.

In truth, there has been a shift in the drift from “reflection” to “self-reflection,” though it remains generally possible to substitute one for the other. (“Self-reflect” has not become ordinary as a verb, yet.) It’s a difference of degree more than kind: self-reflection is more rigorous, still more narrowly aimed at unearthing one’s flaws, with less of the philosophical detachment the old term sometimes bore. There are times in the popular press when it reminds me of the sort of ritual public acknowledgment of guilt that Communist officials have to make in order to keep their jobs (or their heads). The new phrase has harsher possibilities than the old, which may reflect a generally more hysterical tone of reporting and commentary these days. One can’t help but notice a yen in the American oversoul for more exacting judgment of everyone, public figures and private citizens alike. Strident moralists run amok among us, only to be struck down in turn by revelation of their own venalities and perversions.

Another notable shift: self-reflection is something groups or corporate bodies can do, not just individuals. That wasn’t true of “reflection”; it would have sounded very odd to credit the Lakers or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with aggregate reflection, but you hear that sort of usage now.

“Self-reflection” had a previous life in art criticism, where it is still used; it referred to the practice of incorporating one’s own life directly into one’s work. So an artist who relied on autobiography might be noted for self-reflection. As we know it today, “self-reflection” was around by the mid-1980’s. According to one source, there is a Japanese word that translates as “self-reflection,” and in 1980 we were all getting used to buying Japanese cars and admiring Japanese engineering and entrepreneurship, so it’s not impossible that there was influence from that quarter.

“Reflection” is not the only word to acquire a solipsistic pendant in the last few decades. I’m looking at you, self-care!, which no doubt deserves an entry of its own. The prefix has been around for a long time; self-loathing, self-doubt, self-satisfaction, self-control, self-centered, self-important were all commonplace in my childhood and before. I like a good Chicken Little story as much as the next neurotic, but my sense is that there has not been an explosion of new “self-made” words in the last forty years. “Self-branding” (I can’t get the image of mortifying one’s own flesh with a hot iron out of my mind), “self-driving cars,” “self-growth,” “self-harm,” “self-narrative,” “self-storage” (perhaps a bit older, but not common in the seventies), “self-tanning” (without benefit of sun or sunlamp). There are a few more. Hardly an onslaught, but a couple of important ones. “Selfie” is different, but is doubtless an evolution of “self-portrait.”

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lay down a marker

(1980’s | militarese? bureaucratese? | “draw a line (in the sand),” “make a statement,” “establish a position,” “set a standard”)

William Safire, in his comprehensive way, listed a number of meanings of “marker” in a 1990 column before suggesting that the military practice of indicating boundaries or targets with colored powder or dye is the most likely progenitor of this week’s expression. The phrase has an insidious quality which makes it sound at first very natural, but the more you think about it the odder it seems. Why “lay down” rather than “put up”? And why a “marker”? None of those meanings Safire adduced makes much of a match with this expression — except perhaps its uses in surveying — and the word fails to strike the ear as particularly apt. To me, “lay down a marker” conjures up a dog pissing on a lamppost, probably due to the phrase’s political associations. It actually goes back to the Carter administration, Carter himself, in fact, according to Safire, and Reagan administration officials also adopted the expression. Politicians and bureaucrats took it up first, which, given their yen for generals’ jargon, supports Safire’s suggestion of a military origin.

In politics, the expression almost always boils down to “send a message,” but beyond that it also has a necessary preliminary quality. It’s something you do before a vote, summit, negotiation, or just some undefined future moment when your point of view might get some consideration — you announce a stance or position that puts your adversaries on notice. (The mere act of laying down a marker implies an adversarial relationship.) Safire again: “ranges in meaning from ‘send a signal’ to ‘announce a presence’ to ‘issue a warning of “this far, no farther.”’” Nixon said, “Let me make one thing perfectly clear.” Reagan often spoke of “sending a signal” (again, in adversarial contexts). “Lay down a marker” partakes of both.

The beauty of sending signals is that you’re not bound to anything. You’re free to abandon the position quietly later if it becomes inconvenient; it’s a matter of talk, not action. Laying down a marker serves the same function in the same way, with an active verb. In a recent post, I commented on the sneaky habit of giving words the force of deeds by equating laudable sentiments with real action. “Laying down a marker” very definitely does that; the more definite it is, the more it sounds like the statement enunciated is actually taking effect rather than merely setting the stage for later maneuvering.

While political reporters continue to turn to this phrase regularly, it seems clear both from LexisNexis and Google that nowadays it occurs most often in sportswriting, where it means “earn respect from other players or teams,” generally by winning convincingly or showing that a perceived weakness is not as debilitating as it seems. Politicians, of course, often lay claim to athletic locutions, seeking to skim off their vigor and certitude. Here is an instance that has gone the other way: a politicians’ term taken over by athletes. Perhaps the frequent sporting use lends the expression a virile quality that might have leached out of it had it remained the exclusive property of our solons. Another note from the corpora: the phrase is now more frequently used in British English than American, even though its origin on these shores appears indisputable.

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