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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

baby on board

(1980’s | “child in car”)

Strictly an eighties phenomenon in the U.S., these signs, designed to stick to the inside of a car window and look like miniature roadside warnings of sharp curves and other hazards, were imported from Germany (“Baby an Bord” or “Kind [child] an Bord”), where they were in use by 1980. By 1985, they were a fixture on American roads, and by 1986, the backlash had begun, both in the form of innumerable parodies and law-enforcement crackdowns, justified on the grounds that the signs obstructed the driver’s view. The manufacturer, ironically, touted them as safety equipment, and there were two common arguments for their use: they alert other drivers to be solicitous of the precious cargo inside, and they alert police and paramedics to ditto. (In my suburban youth, it was common to see stickers on house windows telling the fire department where the children’s rooms were.) Unbelievers tended to ascribe obnoxious parental officiousness to those who so decorated their cars, an uncharitable interpretation, but probably not far wide of the mark in many cases. The fad rose quickly and fell slowly; “Baby on board” remained common in back windshields for some time, though you see them much less often now. But they have never shed the taint cast by the quick rise and reaction of the eighties.

Parenthood has become more demanding since my parents were in the business, and “Baby on board” was part of that evolution — yet another precaution parents might fail to take, thus endangering their children instead of protecting them. I’ve commented before on the oppressive growth of parenting as competitive sport, or competitive anguish, and on changes in standards and expectations for those unlucky enough to give birth. Whether intended as a sinister marketing scheme or not, “Baby on board” signs did their bit to harass new parents, promising increased safety, or at least a chance of it, at a low price. It wasn’t just fear of losing a young child because you hadn’t told first responders to look for him. It was a quick, cheap way of avoiding the appearance of negligence, and what parent wouldn’t want that?

Why doesn’t “baby on board” mean pregnant? Now it does, sometimes, but I don’t recall anyone using it that way, or understanding it that way, even in a fit of explication du texte. Khloe Kardashian used it to mean “having very young babies in the house” in a trailer for the next season of “Keeping up with the Kardashians” (a modern-day soap opera), alluding to the newborns produced by members of the clan, and it may be used, with a hint of jocularity, to refer to expectant mothers as well (as in “if you have a baby on board, you can expect . . .”). It feels to me like the shift to this usage has been slower and less general than you might expect. For reasons unclear to me, some expressions never stray far from their original senses, while others fan out far and wide. “Baby on board” strikes me as an example of the former that ought to be an example of the latter.


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(2000’s | bureaucratese | “accompanying,” “staff”)

LexisNexis doesn’t show any evidence that anyone used “embedded” to refer to war correspondents treated as part of military units before Donald Rumsfeld in 2003, so chalk this one up to the Bush administration. Before 2000, the word was available in figurative senses and used regularly in writing about finance, computer science, and the arts, and those uses persist. But Rumsfeld gave it a lasting and memorable twist, changing the face of journalism. (NPR recently created a series called “Embedded” in an effort to make respectable a term journalists have always been queasy about.)

It’s worth pausing over the meaning and implications of “embedded” in the Rumsfeldian sense. He presented the concept as a way to counter Iraqi war propaganda and give the lie to Saddam Hussein, a neat bit of misdirection. His real goal was giving the appearance of endorsing the freedom of the press to cover the war while placing restrictions on its ability to do so, and eliciting more favorable reporting by increasing the likelihood that the inkstained wretches would sympathize with the soldiers. These are classic examples of authoritarian strategy to blunt and curtail freedom, and Rumsfeld succeeded in feigning respect for the First Amendment while limiting the damage its free exercise might do to the war effort or his own reputation. Reporters fell into line when it became clear that the non-embedded would be subject to the same restrictions without comparable access to the military’s spokespersons. In 1968, of course, war correspondents did their work with or without cooperation from the authorities — but Vietnam taught the authorities to fear the press, and they have tried various means since then to constrain war reporting. Embedding is just the latest example.

Why “embedded,” anyway? There’s a passing resemblance to “embattled,” but more importantly, it lacks the possible connotations of “planted,” which sounds dishonest, or “ridealong,” which sounds frivolous, or “team,” which sounds mundane (the last two, being adjectives, lose some of the force of the past participle). Bringing in a less obvious word has advantages, such as avoiding prejudices built into more familiar or intuitive expressions. What “embedded” does connote in this sense is a bit of a mystery, though. Traditionally, the word was used to imply that something was firmly, even immovably, fixed in something else. In computer jargon, it often took on the sense of “built-in.” All very cozy, right? The timid correspondents, tucked securely in the benevolent bosom of the regiment, relaying only fair and honest progress reports to loyal Americans back home. The suspicion that embedded reporters are sell-outs has never been completely quieted, and that is partly because the word suggests that they passively accepted a compromised position imposed by someone else — they did not embed themselves; they were embedded. Before Rumsfeld, people did not get embedded in anything, except as the result of a horrible mishap. Now, if you’re a journalist, it’s part of the job.

Thanks one more time to lovely Liz from Queens, who so often proposes blog fodder but this time did it unawares, while discussing artists in the days before photography who went along on expeditions to paint whatever natives, flora and fauna, etc. they discovered, so there would be a visual record of exotic dwellers in other climes. When she described them as “embedded,” I realized right away that it was just the right word, and certainly a modern one. No way she (or anyone) would have used “embedded” that way thirty years ago.

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(2000’s | athletese | “strong suit (or point)”)

A nautical term, you say? As we use it today, it comes out of baseball lingo, where it dates back at least as far as 1959, according to Dickson’s Baseball Dictionary. I remember hearing it in my childhood. It is the part of the strike zone (usually) from which the batter can hit the ball the hardest. If a batter hits a home run on a belt-high fastball, the announcer will say, “He got one in his wheelhouse,” or something along those lines. That sense is identical, mutatis mutandis, to the way the word is used today in arts, politics, corporate life, even sports other than baseball. It’s your area of greatest strength or talent, what you do best. The spread seems to have happened between 2000 and 2010, according to LexisNexis; I don’t remember hearing “wheelhouse” in such contexts until after 2010.

Funny thing about this word, baseball-wise. Only hitters have a wheelhouse, not pitchers or fielders. No matter how many times Ozzie Smith made a diving stop in the hole, no announcer ever said, “Another ground ball in Ozzie’s wheelhouse!” So your wheelhouse is a matter of offense, not defense, and in fact a power hitter is much more likely to have one than a singles hitter. The other thing about a wheelhouse is that’s it’s personal. Every hitter, and therefore every singer, mid-level administrator, and aspiring governor has their own. Although a baseball team might be successful if most of its players have similar wheelhouses (just about everybody likes a belt-high fastball), no organization can be. Even a small business requires people who are good at different things. But otherwise the resemblance holds: an assignment or issue in your wheelhouse is your chance to do your part for the team, excel at your share of the work, in short, to succeed.

As hinted in the opening sentence, “wheelhouse” is not even really a baseball expression to begin with. It’s a synonym for “pilothouse” on a boat, which is more like the nerve center than the part where you bash away at your favorite task. But, as one writer suggests, “when a captain is in his or her wheelhouse, that’s a place of command and control. If you’re in your wheelhouse, that’s any situation in which you feel comfortable.” That’s plausible, sort of, but the truth is the identification of a wheelhouse with the batter’s preferred location for a nice, juicy fastball doesn’t make any sense. Dickson suggests that it has to do with a hitter wheeling the bat around with a strong swing, which is not very convincing.

Why, then, have arts writers and artists embraced an unintuitive and relatively obscure baseball expression? Baseball has infiltrated our language to a great extent, it’s true — no one who has spent much time in America fails to understand “three strikes,” “off base,” or “screwball” — but artists and their camp followers normally spread therapese across the language, not sports talk. (Although “raise the bar,” popular among educators, is an exception.) I can’t think of other contemporary examples of this sort of thing. Some sporting expressions have become general property, even if the spread didn’t start with arts writers: “slam dunk,” “dream team,” “real MVP.” I doubt it’s a matter of sounding sweaty and manly; it’s probably more about sounding ruddy and vigorous. Athletic locutions tend to pack punch, pizzazz, and a touch of passion, or at least vehemence, which makes them attractive to anyone looking to add pace to their prose.

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don’t ask, don’t tell

(1990’s | militarese? bureaucratese? | “keep it to yourself,” “don’t bring it up,” “let sleeping dogs lie”)

An odd name for an odd policy. Until 1993, gay people were legally prohibited from serving in the military (a bit of history here). A year earlier, Bill Clinton had campaign-promised to end the ban, and he made an effort to do so within the first few months of his term, a time when presidents usually push their highest priorities. Whatever you think of Clinton (I never liked him, but I never met a politician I liked), he deserves credit for political courage, and it does seem likely that his insistence on raising the issue led ultimately to the full, official acceptance of gay people in the service, though that took another fifteen or twenty years. At the time, the compromise was generally viewed as a failure on Clinton’s part.

LexisNexis provides a blow-by-blow account of those debates in 1993. The important thing to remember is that although the phrase is associated with Clinton, it is not due to him. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was something Clinton had to settle for, not something he wanted. It was foisted upon him by Congress — which even then was unwilling to insist on an outright ban. Senator Sam Nunn may have been the first public figure to use the exact phrase (the record is not conclusive), but the APA Divisions web site credits one Dr. Charlie Moskos with inventing it: “a well-known, politically active military sociologist from Northwestern University, and a member of Division 19, told me that he had suggested the DADT compromise to President Clinton and to Senator Nunn. At the very least, Charlie is credited with coining the DADT name — which was originally titled ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue’ and later as ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue, don’t harass.'” The dam broke in May 1993, when an expression that previously had not even qualified as obscure burst into the press and has remained firmly lodged ever since.

In truth, the old word for “don’t ask, don’t tell” is “discretion.” Before 1990 or so, few gay people went around bragging about how gay they were, which permitted public opinion and state repression to ignore the fact that these people were violating “civilized” norms (besides, lots of gay people were highly civilized). “Discretion” is actually a polite word for the old state of affairs; younger people may not know that “the love that dare not speak its name” was a euphemism for “gay love,” and it meant what it said. Generally, gay people had to disguise their relationships, not just paper them over, and there was always social or physical risk as well. That was likewise true in the armed forces; when lifting the ban became thinkable, a compromise was required. The old guard kept the power to bar openly gay soldiers, but they could tolerate the closeted provided no one had to acknowledge anything. Within twenty years, the compromise was no longer necessary, and even Sam Nunn, who made sure Clinton couldn’t simply repeal the ban in 1993, supported getting rid of it in 2010. So well established in 2018 is the refusal to discriminate against gay people — even, apparently, within the ranks — that the best the revanchist right can do is to try to keep trans people out of the service, and they’re not assured of success. Doesn’t that suggest that the bans were never necessary in the first place? So many of us cling to the idea that we can define groups of people as inferiors, and need to. But diversity and inclusion march on because they work better than discrimination. The larger your talent pool, the higher percentage of effective workers you’ll have, and we need all the help we can get.

Today “don’t ask, don’t tell” may be used in reference to a wider range of subjects, from abortion to zoning, but it still generally is used where a large bureaucratic organization — like the Defense Department — is involved, and it means something like “don’t rock the boat.” If you are breaking or bending a rule, and no one is hassling you about it, you’re apt to say, “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Or it may expose you to legal trouble to request, or volunteer, certain information. As in asking for salary history in a job interview, now illegal in some states, or testing employees for marijuana use, which fewer employers are doing now, because it’s just easier not to find out and have to do something about it. That’s fertile soil for this expression.

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ask (n.)

(2010’s | athletese? | “request,” “appeal”)

I still don’t know for sure, but it looks to me like “ask” first grew as a noun in Australia, as far back as the eighties, mainly in sports lingo. It may have happened earlier, it may have happened somewhere else, but by 1990 it was not hard to find the nominal “ask” in the antipodal press, often in the phrase “big ask” (which meant simply “a lot to ask”). In the U.S, it didn’t occur often before 2000, and it seems to have leached into the language over the next ten years through that eternal pursuit, fundraising. Political candidates, hospital executives, church ladies all must eventually “make the ask” of donors (put the bite on, we used to say irreverently). To this day, it turns up most in financial contexts; an ask generally involves money and is directed to an individual, though it could also be made of a charitable institution.

“Ask” is still used far more often as a verb, and that should remain true for a long time. But the noun is out there now, getting a bit more normal-sounding every year. It’s not very interesting semantically, simply filling space that once belonged to “request” or “appeal.” The noun tags along behind the wealth of phrases involving the verb, e.g., “a lot to ask,” “not too much to ask,” “asking price” (well, that’s a participle), or more picturesque entries like “ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”

So “the ask” really doesn’t add much to the language except another thorn in the side of traditionalists. That and opportunities for wordplay. Imagine a situation in which a fundraiser from one organization calls a donor shortly after one from another organization has gotten a sizable commitment. Wouldn’t that be a “tough ask to follow”? Top fundraiser for the year? The Askmaster! Medical research? “The Ask of the Red Death” (why not “The Ask of Amontillado”? ask the Poe-lovers). And it need not be reserved for filthy lucre. Students of antiquity may dwell quietly on the possibilities of Cleopatra’s ask, or Balaam’s. Then there’s “ask-backwards,” but that’s pushing things too far, trying to make an adjective out of it. Never fear, we’ll get there some day. Will “ask” beget “asky” (not to be confused with “ASCII”) — possible meanings: demanding, importunate, chancy — as “judge” has begotten “judgy”?

tell (n.)

(2010’s | athletese (poker) | “giveaway,” “telltale sign”)

This noun we owe to card players by general agreement. The OED cites a first instance from 1974, the second from 1998, both from commentary on poker. When the noun started to turn up shortly before 2010, writers often suggested that it was a poker term. It certainly seems plausible when you consider that poker players make their living by interpreting revealing behavior from their tablemates. A man named Mark Bouton published a book called “How to Spot Lies like the FBI” in 2010 in which the expression appeared often. The fact that a tell betrays that which one would rather hide causes it to be used to imply unsavory or deceptive behavior: lying, bluffing. Or a revelation of shame or vulnerability, as the gun shop owner who looks for “tells” suggesting that a buyer wants a gun in order to commit suicide. You can use another’s tell to help or harm them, but harm is more likely.

Apparently it’s no more than an abbreviation of “tell-tale sign.” I suppose it has the appeal of all shortenings, which is a higher meaning-to-syllable ratio. Like “ask,” “tell” portends little of semantic interest, but that doesn’t keep devotees of the latest vocabulary from embracing it. Then again, it may have a more capacious side, as in this from Gawker in 2007: “Restaurants, like poker players, have certain tells, minute signifiers that betray a whole constellation of facts.” Not one ho-hum revelation, but a peek into a universe of certainties deduced from one minor detail. Perhaps that’s a bit too Holmesian, but there is a sense in which “tell” opens up not just one surface inference but any number of supporting circumstances. A good tell reader will get more out of your tic or gesture than just the knowledge that you’re lying. (What are the words for the person issuing the tell and the person discerning it, anyway?)

I’ve done a couple of other words that have to do with unwelcome revelations: exposure, unpack. “Unpack” and “tell,” one a verb and the other a converted verb, are sort of opposite sides of the same coin, both related to getting underneath the obvious and extracting deeper significance. But in this case the unpacker can’t let on. Part of the point of noticing and correctly interpreting a tell is that the “teller” doesn’t know you’ve done it, doesn’t realize he has clued you in through an involuntary or unconscious movement. On the other hand, unpacking is normally a public process, in which the actor wants everyone to know what she’s doing. Maybe “tell” is really the opposite of “TMI,” betraying oneself with a small but highly significant hint rather than sheer garrulousness.

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destination wedding

(1990’s | journalese)

How were destination weddings first pitched? A number of rationales were adduced in the nineties, when it all started. Sheer romance is but one. Probably more common is the problem of the parties being from two widely separated points, hence the need for a neutral locale. Another reason was keeping the size of the wedding down, at least if you pick the right destination, such as one many of your friends and family can’t afford to get to. Some writers thought of it as a way to get a running start on the honeymoon; the author of “Modern Bride Honeymoons and Weddings Away,” Gerry Bain, advised making it “the trip of a lifetime.” It was pointed out occasionally that destination weddings are cheaper, which in some cases is true, at least partly because of the reduced-guest-list effect. There seems to be a consensus now (but not in the nineties, as far as I can tell) that they bring your guests closer to each other, if not to the couple, giving them extra opportunities to hang out and befriend each other. (And maybe get it on, weddings being what they are.)

“Destination wedding” appeared in the general press first in the early nineties, as far as I and LexisNexis can tell. By the end of the decade it had become common. The simplest definition I came across was propounded in the New York Times, July 11, 1999: “going somewhere for your wedding where you do not live and no one else [in the party] lives.” At its core, I suppose that’s what it means. It doesn’t have to be a pleasant or exotic location, just someplace everyone has to travel to, including the bride and groom. When you put it that way, it looks like a plot hatched by travel agents. Maybe it was. Another much less common expression that means the same thing is “weddingmoon,” alluding to the combination of ceremony and honeymoon noted above. A vaguely related term of recent origin that has not become popular is “guerrilla wedding,” which mainly expresses stealth and cheapness, so it’s similar to the old concept of eloping.

Although destination weddings need not be costly or exotic, my picture of one requires a desirable, or at least expensive, location. In the nineties, Disneyland and California wine country were popular places for couples to go, but no one ever nominated a Las Vegas chapel (the truth is, it’s not a destination wedding if there are no guests at all). Even if the whole point is to make it equally inconvenient for everyone, you should go somewhere nice, for Pete’s sake. To me, “destination wedding” sounds like a beach or a volcano, a tropical resort or Paris. Judging from the sort of web sites that advertise or tout distant nuptial services, I’m not alone. It seems to be more or less de rigueur now for destination couples to leave the continental U.S., at a minimum.

When the happy pair are choosing where to go to tie the knot, isn’t that process called “destination weeding”? Just asking. (This joke brought to you by a typographical error.)

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thoughts and prayers

(1970’s | journalese (politics) | “(heartfelt) good wishes,” “(heartfelt) condolences,” “deepest sympathy”)

In the U.S., and presumably in other countries as well, presidents and their administrations are a rich source of vocabulary. In my lifetime, Ronald Reagan has done the most of any president to augment the roster of expressions we reach for habitually. Yet this expression we owe to his predecessor Jimmy Carter — the first openly born-again president in living memory — who spent a lot of time talking about prayer and other Christian virtues. Less than two months after his inauguration, Carter told the family of the Rev. James Baker that they were “in my thoughts and prayers” after his passing. (Other Carter-era new expressions: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” “in the loop,” and partial credit for “human capital” and “workaholic.”) The Iran hostage crisis soon gave us more chances to throw around thoughts and prayers. In March 1981, when Reagan was shot, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau offered thoughts and prayers, and the phrase was well launched. It soon became clear that there were plenty of opportunities to express sympathy, the world being what it is, and that thoughts and prayers are a quick, easy way to do it. Something for everyone: Thoughts for the secular, prayers for the religious. It sounds solemn without being too lofty or high-toned. It sounds empathetic without smarm or gush.

Sounds noble but is also cheap and easy. That may explain why “thoughts and prayers” has become a can’t-miss incantation, the first resort and last refuge of anyone called upon to sympathize with sufferers from almost anything. (The victim must be worthy, of course; you don’t send thoughts and prayers to the survivors of Moammar Gadhafi upon his inglorious death.) Hurricane came through? Thoughts and prayers. Plane crash? Thoughts and prayers. High school shot up? Thoughts and prayers.

Broadly speaking, there are two different ways to convey thoughts and prayers, and the distinction is subtle but not insignificant. “In my thoughts and prayers” was standard originally, up until the mid-eighties, at least. Today, we are much more likely to send them — an active verb. This gives the impression of doing more than dispensing ritual sympathy, but it also changes the target. When someone says, “You are in my thoughts and prayers,” it means that person is thinking about you and giving God a reminder that you need help. When the same person sends thoughts and prayers, it’s more like directing mental energy toward those who need it. That sneaks in the implication that you are taking positive action, when in fact, all you are doing is making a gesture that, if not entirely empty, requires little effort and has little effect. Norman Vincent Peale thought that “the human brain can send off power by thoughts and prayers,” but such a postulate was essential to the gospel of positive thinking. No one nowadays thinks they will do any good beyond making some of the intended recipients feel better. And making the sender look better.

There has been some pushback lately against the “thoughts and prayers” mantra after mass shootings; many people no longer feel shy about observing that such invocations, however well-meant, have done nothing to prevent or eliminate them. It’s a fair point, one seized upon by right-wingers to protest yet another attack on religion. Hardly. That mass shootings have become more frequent and destructive despite an ever-increasing volume of thoughts and prayers is an indisputable observation that does not require irreligious tendencies. If defenders of religion want the rest of us to show their particular god(s) more respect, they need to come up with one who does some visible good, the kind you don’t have to be a convert to see.

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cognitive dissonance

(1970’s | academese | “ambivalence,” “confusion”)

“Cognitive dissonance” is what happens when facts confront beliefs. The expression has a single author, psychologist Leon Festinger, who sought to prove that people “need to maintain consistency between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors” (so says If forced to absorb an event or idea that runs counter what we believe, say, or do, we must do extra mental work (which may translate into action) to resolve the conflict, which in turn suggests a state of tension or uncertainty that Festinger likened to an auditory phenomenon. Festinger began work on the theory in the 1950’s, and by the late 1970’s the expression turned up now and then in the press. Psychologists often define the concept in terms of what happens when we have a certain idea about ourselves but do something that calls it into question, as in this recent example from Psychology Today — “you see yourself as smart but can’t believe you made such dumb stock investments.” This sort of usage keeps it all in the family, but the pundit thinks of cognitive dissonance as something that impinges directly and invariably on the body politic.

The problem with “cognitive dissonance” as a political concept — not simply comparing your self-image with your latest blunder — is that very few people are actually distressed by it. Blame what you will — deteriorating public education, the rise of fundamentalism, the internet — many Americans are dumb as dirt and proud of it. They aren’t about to be bothered by huge flaming contradictions among or within their most cherished beliefs; in fact, they may not discern them at all. “Dissonance” implies pain, or at least discomfort, and that seems to be what the inventor of the phrase meant to suggest. But if you’re placidly unaware that there’s anything amiss, you won’t be bothered. It’s not just the dissonance you’re missing; it’s the cognition as well. Yet “cognitive dissonance” has become yet one more weapon in our political wars, generally used when one side rips apart the other side’s position and then wonders solicitously how the poor dears can endure so much of it. It’s one of those things, like “hive mind” or “politically correct,” that has emerged in political discourse solely to express hostility. I can’t help but wonder if “cognitive dissonance” is secretly related to the French verb “cogner” (fight or beat up). That might explain why it’s become so combative.

Here’s an example of political cognitive dissonance that isn’t there. It actually goes back to the Cold War, though it should be rushing back into vogue any day now. We held fast to two contrary beliefs about Russians: one, they are fiendishly clever schemers, always laying and carrying out insidious plots against us (cf. the outcry over the last presidential election); the other, that they’re drunken bumblers who can’t shoot straight. How can their plots make any headway if they’re too wasted to get out of their own way? Like all thumbnail summaries of national character, it’s not a useful dichotomy; Russia has plenty of room for both the ruthless and the incompetent, and the ruthless can do considerable harm. But it should have produced forty years of cognitive dissonance in the mind of the average American, and it didn’t.

I was an English major, and English majors learn about something called “negative capability,” defined as “[ability to be] in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” The phrase goes back to Keats, and he cites Shakespeare as a great exemplar. Negative capability mitigates cognitive dissonance, not by resolving it but by reducing its unpleasant quality. A person with lots of negative capability recognizes the dissonance but doesn’t find it bothersome, so you roll with it and wait for matters to straighten themselves out. We can learn a lot from the great poets.

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assisted living

(1980’s | doctorese? businese?)

But one of the host of expressions born in the last fifty years to cover the plights of the senior citizenry, but one of the most common. There were a number of rough synonyms when this expression was new, back in the eighties: “residential care,” “custodial care,” “catered care,” “respite care” (for people recovering from surgery). But then there were all the other terms that formed the ecosystem of which “assisted living” became such a prominent part. “Congregate housing” (i.e., dormitories with dining halls) and “barrier-free housing.” “Continuum of care” and “life care.” All manner of buildings, amenities, and services required to run the gamut from independent living to the dreaded nursing home (now there’s a continuum). Today, sprawling complexes for the elderly (“retirement communities,” an old expression, or “continuing care facilities”) offer a breathtaking array of options, designed to make progress toward the grave as pleasant as possible.

As usual, we need a lot of different terms (I’ve but scratched the surface) to match the growth in the number of ways to accommodate the elderly — it’s important to distinguish them precisely. (Many families take care of their oldest members at home, and those endeavors have produced new expressions like “caregiver,” but we don’t call it “assisted living.” It’s all a matter of who provides the care, and where.) In the industry, two acronyms have become current: ALF = “assisted living facility”; “ADL” = “activities of daily living,” normally plural. If you’re my age, you’ll remember a certain lovable sitcom character and the Anti-Defamation League when you hear those abbreviations. As the baby boom turns into the elder boom, who knows? Old understandings of acronyms are subject to replacement by new ones. In the 1930’s, NRA meant something completely different.

It was early in 1989 when the Washington Post announced an “important new American housing trend” whose “name is unknown among the general public and little known even within the home-building industry.” There were several instances of “assisted living” in the 1980’s press, actually, but it does appear that the phrase was pretty specialized for its first ten years or so. I don’t recall if I knew the expression before 1990, but if not, it probably wasn’t long after. Definitions of “assisted living” vary around the edges, but generally include help with basic living needs (food preparation, bathing, dressing) and housekeeping, social and recreational activities, maybe transportation, maybe some kind of licensed medical personnel on the premises, if only an unregistered nurse. The point is that you’re in a house or apartment, not a foul-smelling bed in an institution, but there’s always someone on hand if you need help. The goal is to preserve some crumbs of autonomy for people who can’t quite take care of themselves any more.

It seems irreverent to bring it up, but “assisted living” is not the opposite of “assisted suicide,” also a term not in general use before 1980. Not strictly speaking, anyway. The connection lies in the purpose of assisted living, which is to keep the old and infirm out of nursing homes and thereby discourage them from contemplating assisted suicide. Ethically, they’re on different planes. Assisted suicide makes nearly everyone at least a little uncomfortable, but only people who think the elderly ought to be put to sea on ice floes are troubled by assisted living. It’s hard to object to giving older people a chance to keep some cheer and dignity for a little longer. Which is why the elderly are big bucks now and getting bigger, and why investors concern themselves with housing the aged. There is no federal regulation of assisted living facilities, and not much at the state level, so levels and standards of care can vary wildly, and a local scandal blows up now and then. But a growth industry is a growth industry and serving retirees has been one for over thirty years now. As the vocabulary proliferates, the dollars proliferate, too.

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perfect ten

(late 1970’s | athletese | “goddess,” “knockout”)

Bo Derek, meet Nadia Comaneci. The Romanian gymnast achieved a perfect score in the 1976 Olympics, as no one had ever done before, and that was the source of the phrase “perfect ten,” also spelled “perfect 10.” Not until the tail end of the decade did Bo Derek come along to wrest the phrase into a new realm. Bo made it go, though; after that, both senses became noticeably more common.

Nadia Comaneci was on the cover of Sports Illustrated back then, when I was reading it, and I can still visualize the photo. What I can’t remember is whether I saw her medal-winning performance. She was elfin and charming, contrary to our usual image of women athletes from the Eastern bloc. Her combination of attractiveness with stunning skill and poise added up to adorable.

One wonders if it would have occurred to anyone to say “perfect ten” in reference to a woman’s physique — the woman herself may be called simply a “ten” — if it hadn’t been for Comaneci. It is a different kind of perfection, to be sure. I was of just the right age and sexual orientation to be struck dumb by Bo Derek. Yet for all the lust she provoked, the point about Bo Derek’s character in that film was that she was unattainable, as all goddesses must be.

Between 1900 and 1980, Google Books shows only occasional instances of the exact phrase, generally having to do with numerology — in some traditions, ten is a perfect number, along the lines of three and seven (which add up to ten! Proof of the existence of the Illuminati!) — though the use of grading scales in which ten equals a perfect score goes back at least a century. But here’s one from New Catholic World (1957) that seems prescient: “Ellen McRae is not only a perfect ten but an honestly engaging actress.” Sure sounds like Bo Derek to me (except for the “engaging actress” part), a score of years and more before she came along. So the true origins of this expression may snake back somehow to Rome.

Whether you’re using it to talk about athletic prowess or sheer pulchritude, “perfect 10” means you’re keeping score, tallying up attributes and moves and declaring the denominated one flawless. Today it is still used in the context of scoring sporting events (not only gymnastics) and to denote a gorgeous woman. The phrase may be used in other contexts to mean anyone or anything truly outstanding. I do not have the sense that it is often used ironically or even jocularly; when you call someone a perfect ten, you mean it.

The implication when used of women is that, like the gymnast, they are scrutinized and rated according to a detailed list of qualities and features that are spelled out to some extent but also lie partly within the whim of the judge. In other words, looking her over good and grading various anatomical features, reducing women quite literally to the sum of their parts — a practice to which women, and even a few men here and there, rightly object. It still goes on constantly, of course, although I’d say men today are less likely to discuss or rate women’s bodies in public or in print than they were in my boyhood, which might be considered progress.

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