Skip to content

Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years


(1990’s | computerese? | “old,” “out-of-date,” “inherited,” “left over”)

I fear I am easing into a spell of griping over grammatical shifts. A few weeks ago it was “step up” idly taking a formerly unknown intransitive sense. “Legacy” has gone further, opening a whole new adjective department, one which is as far as I can tell based in computerese, worse yet. It has come to mean “hard to maintain because superannuated, but still useful or needed.” For example, an old computer that has to be kept around to run some indispensable software, or an old recording that has to be digitized. “Legacy” can be digital or analog. It is similar to other johnny-come-latelys such as “classic,” “retro,” and “vintage,” but more technical. It has spread; in politics “legacy issue” means “problem inherited from one’s predecessor,” turning the word into a convenient way to blame the previous administration. The noun “legacy” is still used literally and figuratively to refer to that which one leaves behind — something of value left in a will or, more often, an inspiration that lives on after one passes from the scene, or a series of achievements that needs to be preserved and augmented.

The academy offers another possible source for the concept of the legacy, in the sense of “descendant of an alum.” Phrases like “legacy preference” and “legacy admission” had appeared by 1990 but do not seem to have been common before then. The arrival of the adjective around the same time in computerese may be simply parallel evolution, or there may be some kind of connection. Both uses evoke the dead hand of the past, but in the academic context the state of being a legacy is desirable. That’s not how tech people use it.

“Legacy” sounds attractive, raising associations of class and financial advantage. But in computerese it is anything but a compliment, denoting a thing to be tolerated at best and a damnable nuisance at worst. The world is older than the personal computer, and it still has things in it that must be made legible to the machine brain. That’s legacy data, or legacy media, which may be thousands of years old, or as little as a decade. But the swath left by widespread computer use, after only about forty years, is already littered with many generations of hardware, software, operating systems, and standard file formats. Almost everyone who does a lot of work with computers has a legacy component somewhere, or has to help out someone else who does. The wages of computers is obsolescence. Concentrated and continuous technical advance must produce generations of disused hardware and outgrown software — even if they still work. But everything doesn’t die at the same time. Just as you can keep an antique car going far beyond its normal lifespan, so you can still run Windows 95, with all its limitations. The mere act of operating and maintaining computer systems over time breeds what you might call legacies (which has not become a collective plural, as far as I can tell, but probably should).

Many businesses prosper by helping corporations deal with legacy problems. There’s something threatening in the (not always implicit) message: if you don’t enlist our services, you will fall irrevocably behind and slide into failure. The problem is, being all state-of-the-art and having your legacy problems faithfully taken care of doesn’t guarantee you’ll be successful; it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition. It’s probably true that you need to spruce up your systems, but doing so doesn’t mean you’ll live happily ever after.

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


(2000’s | “embarrassing,” “appalling,” “repellent,” “disgraceful”)

The reason the word is so effective is that cringing is a very strong, primal reaction of instinctive avoidance. That which is cringeworthy is acutely shameful, disgusting, etc. — not just any old awkward moment or fleeting contretemps. The term so often attaches itself to the least excusable antics or pratfalls of celebrities (or anyone unfortunate enough to be in the public eye). For it is beloved of gossipmongers and social media addicts; anyone can humiliate themselves, but the word turns up disproportionately in celebrity journalism, or so Google makes it appear. Much celebrity journalism exudes more than a whiff of Schadenfreude, and “cringeworthy” suggests a certain pleasure in another’s discomfiture beyond the word’s primary effect of evoking the discomfort in oneself. My sense is that originally “cringeworthy” was used often in artistic contexts, to talk about a song, say, or a performance, that left you feeling sorry for the purveyor, and sorry for yourself for having endured it, too. Over time it has come to apply more often to situations, utterances, or actions that leave the feeling of having experienced something indecent, a low point in another person’s conduct that you would rather not have witnessed and can’t unsee, as today’s kids say.

This expression straddles the line between a strictly personal reaction and a social consensus about what is objectionable and what isn’t, which must go on to rank the objectionable things so we’ll know exactly when to start cringing. When you describe a text or act as cringeworthy, you are appealing to a set of boundaries that most people, or at least most people who have any interest in the field under discussion, would subscribe to. Each of us grimaces and shies away as an individual, but we are animated by a shared understanding of the awful.

“Worthy” as a suffix is not unknown, but seems kind of quaint. Praiseworthy, blameworthy, credit-worthy, seaworthy. It turns up now and then in surnames, as in Galsworthy. “Cringeworthy” was, in fact, the name of a character in the long-running “Bash Street Kids,” a recurring feature in the British comic book “The Beano,” and almost sounds like a name in a Dickens novel, but not quite. The mating with “cringe” works well because it too is an old-fashioned word. I daresay most people know what it means, but you don’t hear it much in casual conversation (the rise of “cringeworthy” may propel it into greater prominence). Two quasi-archaic expressions shoved together — a natural. Had the word been invented in the U.S., it might have come out “cringe-making,” but it is a Briticism; it was common in Commonwealth countries by the mid-nineties, a decade or so before it caught on over here. (A bit more history for them as wants it.) You do hear “cringey” sometimes, which means the same thing.

No mean Anglophile herself, Lovely Liz from Queens proposed this week’s expression. I say, thanks, old top!

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

take to the next level

(1980’s | athletese? journalese (arts)? | “push myself (etc.) harder,” “move up,” “graduate”)

There was always a next level, of course. In any hierarchy, any given rank — except the top and bottom — has another above and below it. “Go to the next level” could be used easily in such a context: get promoted, or (less often) get demoted. It might even turn up in a building evacuation plan. It was an uncomplicated expression with little or no metaphorical dimension.

The form of the phrase is fixed, though the verb may vary (“go” or “move” frequently stand in). “Take to the next level” has two obvious interpretations which are not exclusive but which have much different significances. One is playing the same game better. Another is playing the same game in a better league. In athletese, the former usage has become the norm, but the latter is more common elsewhere. Take, for example, an outstanding college athlete joining the NFL or NBA draft; suppose he says “I’m taking my game to the next level.” My contention is that we would hear that to mean, “I’m going to improve as a player” rather than “I’ll be playing in a higher league.” In other cases — such as in a financial context, in entertainment journalism, even in international relations — it means being promoted, in effect; bettering your own or someone else’s performance, or just changing the situation so much that you break into a new stage, or provoke a new intensity. Often, the point of taking it to the next level is outdoing another person or overshadowing an earlier event. The expression turns up frequently in discussions of relationships, where taking it to the next level denotes getting serious — going steady or becoming engaged, for example. Such a usage may bear a hint of improving one’s performance as a romantic partner, but it partakes more of the idea of a different league.

Most people probably hear it now as an athlete’s expression, but there were some early instances in performance reviews, and in the earliest days it didn’t seem more likely to appear in one than in the other. I’m not sure who got hold of it first — artswriters or sportswriters — but by the end of the eighties one was already more apt to hear it from athletes. In either case, it suggests an advancement outside an established hierarchy, as in a team or player summoning resources not normally available for a big game or a stretch run. It might be a pitcher adding a new delivery that will fool hitters, or a guard taking extra shooting practice so she’ll be more reliable in game situations. On the one hand, it is something athletes are always trying to do: develop their abilities and win more often. Yet the phrase gets trotted out most often before a big game or series. One must reach deep inside oneself and find new strength and skill to defeat a formidable opponent.

The expression is quite similar to “raise your game” and is used in the same way at the same junctures. It has a bit more of a mystical side to it, I would say. You can prepare to raise your game on the practice field, but taking it to the next level requires finding something you didn’t know was there, an unguessed reservoir of will, adrenaline, and physical ability that leads to victory. That’s how I hear it, anyway. On the field there’s probably no way to tell preparation from inspiration, certainly not for the spectators, and maybe not for the players themselves.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

stand-up guy

(1970’s | journalese? politese? | “someone you can count on,” “mensch,” “rock”)

Quite a stand of “stands” we’ve cultivated in English — I’ve but scratched the surface in memorializing “stand down” and “standalone.” “Stand up” has its own roster of expressions, any of which could be the root of “stand-up guy.” My notion is that the original use was weighted more heavily toward the idea of standing up to someone, such as a bully, or something, such as a faceless bureaucracy. Willing to resist, or at least show spirit in defense of one’s values or allies. But there’s also “stand up for,” to defend, which is the same idea but plays out differently. You can stand up to someone by standing up for something, of course; the phrases work together well. An older expression, “stand up and be counted,” could also be an ancestor, though the connection is not as clear. But it is quite clear that a stand-up guy would never stand anyone up.

The expression is always laudatory, but its precise meaning may be hard to pin down. It seems to reach into three separate but overlapping circles of a Venn diagram: the honest and honorable; the tough and brave; and the reliable and trustworthy. Stand-up guys exhibit at least one of those sets of traits and quite possibly more. I do get the sense that reliability is very often part of what we appeal to when we use this expression, at least in everyday life. It’s not as spectacular as the feisty aspects, but a stand-up guy is someone who steps up time after time. You don’t earn the distinction by doing the right thing once; you have to do it again and again, showing those affected that you will back them up whenever they need it.

“Stand-up guy” doesn’t seem to have anything to do with “stand-up comedian,” a term that appears to have arisen a little earlier and might also be an influence. Here standing up is a literal description of what the performer does, but it’s also an indication of what she doesn’t do — act, sing, perform tricks, etc. A stand-up comedian just stands there and talks. It is a neutral term for a certain kind of performer and doesn’t convey praise, unlike “stand-up guy.”

A notable feature of this week’s expression is that it is invariable — cf. “smartest guy in the room,” which admits of substitutions. I don’t know what you call a woman who displays the same characteristics. “Guy” is a funny word. As a man’s name, it means “guide” or “leader.” Its use as a common term for adult man came into being in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and according to Webster’s Second, it was at first derogatory. In fact, the word had referred to an effigy of Guy Fawkes, or any grotesque or distorted effigy, so when it was first used to refer to living persons, it’s not surprising that it took on a negative tinge. (It could also denote a funny-looking or oddly dressed man.) But by mid-century in the U.S. it had lost all that and turned into a standard, if slightly slangy, term; today it is perhaps the most frequently used. (“Guys” in the plural may refer to women, but you would not use the singular to refer to one woman). It still retains a bit of the old insulting quality, to my ear, when used in direct address; “Hey, buddy” may or may not be friendly, but “Hey, guy” never is. Under most circumstances it sounds quite natural, and the odd phrase like “stand-up guy” may even lend it a celebratory air.

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

step up

(1990’s | athletese | “rise to the occasion,” “step in,” “do your part,” “take a stand”)

I’ll tell you what’s up: “Step up” used to be transitive. Now it has a well-established intransitive use. That sort of thing happens now and then, but I think not very many people notice. We grumpy grammarians, on the other hand . . .

It was still transitive most of the time in 1990, but the intransitive had emerged, primarily among athletes. Other verbs, including “ramp up” and “ratchet up,” have made space for “step up” to meander into another meaning. “Step up” meant “increase” or “augment,” also sometimes “increase the pace of.” These senses have not disappeared, but they have been joined by “step up” shorn of all its appendages, used to mean take charge of handling a problem or situation (it crops up a lot in crunch time). When it was transitive, even if it didn’t have an object, it was followed by a prepositional phrase, notably “to the plate.” That expression is likely the progenitor of today’s use, which may be followed by an infinitive, as in “step up to make sure the job is done,” but more often closes a clause or sentence.

As so much athletes’ vocabulary does, this has spread to politicians and businessmen. “Who will step up?” has a ring to it, it’s true, although “step up” also sounds like a kind of baby dog. To me it evokes a medal-winning Olympic athlete mounting the podium, or the older expression “step forward” (think of a line of soldiers, a few of whom have stood forth to volunteer for a dangerous assignment). Stepping up emphasizes crucial duty more than unpleasant duty, but the latter implication can definitely creep in. I’ve covered a couple other locutions like it — “designated driver,” “real MVP,” “take one for the team” — that express a blend of solidarity and heroism that may be found in the humblest office or in the seventh game of the World Series. I haven’t covered “stand-up guy” (not “step-up guy”) but that’s part of the group, too.

It’s not easy to pin down precise opposites. (“Step down” is not one of them, although you might step down after failing to step up.) The most direct, I think, are “flop” or “fall down on the job” — not nearly so pithy — and a less closely linked but still related antonym is “stand down,” which refers to disengagement, which may in turn result from failure. You can try to go above and beyond and fall short, or you can simply back away from the problem and leave it to others; either would constitute a failure to step up. When you use the past tense, you’re implying pretty strongly that the intervention was successful; it isn’t nearly so common to say “so-and-so stepped up” when he gave it his best shot but didn’t pull it off. (“He gave it his best shot” wouldn’t make a bad epitaph, would it? Some rich ambiguities there.)

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

crunch time

(1980’s | journalese? | “when the chips are down,” “time to get down to brass tacks”)

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to notice the great “crunch” cluster. The word unadorned denotes an abdominal exercise. Then ya got “crunchy,” ya got “crunch the numbers,” and “crunch time,” derived from the sense of “shortage” or “crisis,” or, ideally, crisis caused by shortage. In my boyhood, “energy crunch,” which would have translated either as shortage or crisis, became common. (“Crunch” has had that sense for decades, but why? I’m not sure, but it may have to do with feeling crunched, that is, constrained and uncomfortable. See below.) The first examples I found of “crunch time” date from the late sixties, but use didn’t really pick up until after 1980, or so says LexisNexis. During the eighties, it entered sports slang decisively, but it didn’t originate there. The word has become less specific over time, as often happens; now “crunch time” need have nothing to do with shortages but still evokes crisis. It’s time to get serious and give it everything you’ve got — an impending disaster, a looming deadline, the end of a close game. The expression may be used in lighthearted ways, as the name of an apple festival, for example, but the more foreboding use predominates.

The root word calls up a certain sound or texture and pertains originally to chewing, and this sense underlies at least two of the expressions noted above. The fitness term is noteworthy because it abandons the sound that used to be a necessary part of the concept, while retaining the idea of grinding things together. As for the second, used of hippies and tree-huggers, the path back to the root meaning is pretty clear; those who live off the land eat crunchy (unprocessed) food, and the word goes well with both nuts and granola, foodstuffs long associated with the natural set. As I speculated earlier, “crunch the numbers” may go back to the idea of chewing up a big mouthful of cereal, reducing it to swallowable mush — thus, digesting reams and reams of raw numbers into a few useful trends or principles. I have an equally fanciful etymology for “crunch time.” I think of workers caught in the gears of a giant machine, constantly in danger of being crushed between metal teeth (wait, that reminds me of a movie). Or metal plates, if you prefer the garbage compactor in Star Wars. Crunch time is when if you don’t exert yourself and get the job done, you get crunched. Or scrunched. Or crushed.

It’s unusual to see so many different meanings in widely divergent fields sprung from the same root. It’s not like “crunch” has been around all that long — invented in the first half of the nineteenth century, says the OED — and just in the last fifty years it has produced a fine litter of idioms. I’m impressed.

“Crunch time” recalls an older concept, the moment of truth — also a crisis, but of a kind that reveals, or forms, character. Is it just something you have to push through and get past, or is it a more portentous test? Everyday usage doesn’t make much of a distinction. Any crisis might derail the operation, after all; any failure to come through in the clutch may sink the project and ruin a career. In a game, at the office . . . crunch time always carries the potential for heroism. We’re knights enduring ordeals or matadors preparing for death in the afternoon as we hunch over our keyboards, bathed in the stale sweat of stress.

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


(1970’s | therapese | “exchange-based”)

First there was transactional immunity, a legal concept having to do with grand jury testimony, where a witness may be compelled to testify about a crime he was involved in with a promise that he won’t face prosecution. Traditionally, the witness was assured that no prosecution would follow for a crime described in testimony, and that was known as “transactional immunity.” Congress changed the law so that a witness could be prosecuted for such crimes, but the witness’s grand jury testimony could not be used as part of the prosecution (“use immunity”). A complicated distinction with big ramifications.

In the seventies, along came transactional analysis, encapsulated in the book “I’m OK, You’re OK” by Thomas Harris, which led a fad in the middle of the decade. I don’t remember being aware of the term at the time (though I was aware of the book), and the definition seems to have been rather vague, but the idea was to examine how you dealt with other people in order to improve such encounters (transaction = interaction). In practice, that meant you did role-playing exercises to help you deal more pleasantly with others and learn more reliable methods of engaging with them. Transactional management, which emphasized maintaining an existing system through rewards and punishments, invoked a related concept in businese.

Today the catch-phrase is transactional data, which is what Google and Amazon want: detailed records of your purchases, on-line or otherwise, so they can wring more money out of you. Here we have a straightforward adjective formation meaning “of or pertaining to a transaction,” which has been around a long time and represents what is probably still the most common guise of “transactional.” In the seventies it was not used often; it’s much more common now.

Despite the continuing prevalence of the business usage, the real story here is the shift from the legal and financial to the human, which began with Harris. The word is often used now to talk about the ways we treat each other, related to the older concept of “keeping score” in a relationship. A connection between two people, like any other kind, does require some scorekeeping. Any relationship I’ve ever seen, healthy and successful or otherwise, involves a certain amount of paying attention to who has done what for whom lately and making adjustments accordingly. But a predominantly or purely transactional bond doesn’t last very long, because it forces you to focus on the wrong things. Instead of making the most of your partner’s pleasing or compatible traits, you wonder whether you’re getting enough for what you’re giving, and that line of thought leads to dissatisfaction and resentment.

A recent example from the wider world of politics: several commentators described as “transactional” Michael Bloomberg’s apology for excessive stop-and-frisks by the NYPD during his term as mayor. The word conveys the idea that the apology was insincere, a kind of bribe offered without any real reflection or concern about the effects of the policy. It’s safe to say that Bloomberg’s move asked for a quid pro quo; he was in effect asking African-Americans to reconsider him and even give him their votes. In larger social contexts as in smaller personal contexts, the transactional requires an ongoing series of exchanges, which must involve calculation and record-keeping (writing, humanity’s pre-eminent means of keeping records, developed out of commerce, after all). Now that the term has moved into social science jargon to talk about the interpersonal, it is firmly anchored in two realms and seems unlikely to budge from either.

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

business model

(1980’s | businese | “business plan,” “grand strategy,” “big idea”)

Putting a business model into practice requires a lot of attention to detail, but the business model itself doesn’t. It can usually be summed up in a few sentences, a statement of general means to achieve broad goals, or a couple of concepts connected loosely with a method of bringing them about. These are not the fiendishly complex models of the hobbyist; they’re like economic models that set up a highly simplified map of how money moves around intended to make reasonably accurate predictions about real life. Business models look to the future, and they are subject to change; executives must recognize when they need a new one, lest the firm fail or fall behind. A start-up might boast of future profit infallibly brought to pass by their business model, while an established concern is more likely to tout a business model that is serving them well in the present and doesn’t need changing, thank you very much.

In everyday use, the expression is pretty casual, but there is a bit more to it. A 1990 definition in Computerworld magazine broke it down thus: “[Business] models, generally developed by a data administration unit, describe current and planned business activities and the related information requirements. A model is typically a four-level hierarchy that identifies business functions, the processes within each function, the activities within each process and the information needed to accomplish each activity.” At some level there must be attention to detail, even in the most devil-may-care industries.

Before 1990, “business model” also meant something else and was more likely to be paired with institutions of higher learning, or perhaps government agencies and even individuals. The idea was “act like a business,” that is, subscribe to the reigning corporate nostrums and show no regard for employees. If you did that, the financial poobahs would congratulate you on following a business model. That use remained in play into the nineties, which is when today’s understanding of the term took over. The tech companies dragged it into prominence; the computer industry seems to be the first that was generally expected to produce “business models.” That’s probably because new firms can’t attract funding without one, and computer start-ups were a dime a dozen in those days. Also because with a few off-the-charts exceptions, most computer companies have never quite figured out how to be profitable, even with an enthusiastic customer base and lots of love from investors. (In that respect the tech industry resembles American society in general, where a tiny minority is staggeringly prosperous while the vast majority does its best many levels below.) But even an unsuccessful venture may pull the wool over the eyes of investors long enough to free them of their money and give the principal shareholders time to grab the capital and run.

For the business model is the blueprint for making money. It helps if it has been proven by others; if it’s untried, you’d better have a good line of patter to back it up. A common way to disparage an enterprise is to say that its business model is the same as that of another company that failed or is in the process of failing. But how much success can be traced back to the business model? If the product’s no good, the business model won’t save it; if your employees don’t do their jobs, your big idea won’t go far. If the theory isn’t put into practice effectively, it doesn’t matter how good it is.

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

body positive

(2000’s | therapese | “secure,” “self-confident”)

An expression with quite a prehistory. Before 1980, LexisNexis returns zero results for the exact phrase “body positive.” In the eighties and nineties, it turns up capitalized as the name of an English organization that helped people who had been exposed to the HIV virus. Back then, gay men wrestled with the decision of whether to take the test to determine if they were harboring antibodies. If you were “antibody-positive,” you had been in contact with someone who had the virus; you might not develop full-blown AIDS, but you could pass HIV on to others. The name of the organization seems to have evolved from the medical term. During the nineties, a U.S. group called The Body Positive, which seeks to help girls and women struggling with eating disorders, formed and has continued to grow since. Possibly an echo of “the body beautiful”?

By 2000, you could find the phrase used as an attributive adjective to mean “healthful.” A trainer or therapist might advise you to engage in “body-positive behaviors,” like going for a walk (if you need exercise) or relaxing with some comfortable music (if you’re wired). It was about corporeal soundness, but also warding off nervous and emotional strain — the two go together, after all.

By 2010, “body positive” had started to show up in the way we use it today, but it doesn’t seem to have taken off until the new decade. The phrase is widespread now, used to mean free of shame or guilt over one’s size and shape, particularly if larger than average — the phrase often appears near “plus-size.” We are told to separate moral judgments about ourselves from how we look, accepting our appearance below the neck proudly. The body in question, as far as I can tell, is always one’s own — and always a girl’s or woman’s — though one might refer to a body-positive group, which would be understood to consist of people who aren’t going to judge anyone else on how fat they are. While we are all expected not to mistreat others on account of their size and shape, being body positive requires you above all to accept your own form confidently, without falling prey to anyone else’s stereotype of how you should look. Once you’ve done that, it will be easier to avoid dismissing others on similar grounds.

Most often used as a predicate adjective following “to be,” the phrase may be a hyphenated adjective as well. “Body positivity” is the noun (I have also seen “body pos” for noun and adjective). The new vocabulary betokens the striking rise of a movement that has spawned minor celebrities and driven people all over America to argue over what it means or ought to mean. (Here is a recent discussion of the state of the movement.) The expression has come far in the last ten years, and it has a strong affinity with surging social trends; it is still hitting its stride. In another ten years it may be even more ubiquitous, but it may not mean then exactly what it means now.

Another entry dropped from the lips of Lovely Liz from Queens, always an informed and intelligent voice in discussing these matters or any other.

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

plus one

(2000’s | journalese (society page)? | “date,” “guest”)

Now a staple of the younger set, “plus one” is a companion, usually temporary, for a social event, such as a wedding. No particular connection is implied; in fact, the term may suggest casual relations at best, maybe even just the only person you could scrounge up. (But it’s also possible to have a regular plus one who becomes a reliable escort, or to bring a good friend to an event they would enjoy.) Occasionally the phrase is used when a stronger connection is understood, and that related but distinct meaning may be gaining ground gradually. It bears some relation to “arm candy,” but whereas arm candy has to be attractive, the plus one has no particular attributes. Arm candy is a plus one, but a plus one probably isn’t arm candy.

“Plus one” could easily devolve into meaning any companion for a social occasion; the implication of the ad hoc acquaintance, sufficient for this party or that bowling night, may disappear into a broader, sloppier term. Another usage note: “plus one” is used sometimes to refer to an accessory (as in make-up or jewelry) — in that case, the connotation changes and the plus one becomes more of a sine qua non, required whenever you’re out in public.

The phrase may be a Briticism, but I can’t tell. The earliest example coughed up by LexisNexis is from 1998, in a British source, but it turns up in both U.K. and U.S. press, and I couldn’t trace a distinct origin. Some early uses suggested a different meaning in context — something like a ticket or pass that one is granted so that one can bring a friend — but it is not plain to me that that was ever a true definition of the term. There’s something frustratingly inconclusive about this expression. Can’t tell where it came from or isolate variant meanings. Some nerve.

plus size

(1980’s | businese (fashion) | “full-figured”)

Not present in the mainstream press in 1980, but definitely there by 1990. “Plus-size” has become a relatively neutral way to refer to women (as far as I can tell, the term is applied invariably to women) who are normal-size Americans or larger, or their apparel. For decades, we are told, designers made clothes only for thin women; anyone bigger than size 6 had to settle for cheap sweaters, or dowdy stretch pants, or spend the money to have their outfits custom-made. (Lane Bryant was a pioneer in selling clothing designed for such women, and it’s still around. The male version of that is the “big and tall store.” But “plus-size” doesn’t modify “store.”) Somewhere around 1980, couturiers noticed that a lot of women fit that description, and decided to see if they would pay for designer clothes. There is still some bias toward skinny models in the fashion industry, but plus-size women have come a long way since 1990. That’s an old American story: for decades, centuries, we’ve discriminated against this or that group of people for whatever reason. One day, someone notices that those people have money. Then the gold rush begins, the market is cultivated, and a few decades later, it is no longer o.k. to discriminate against that group. Groups that don’t have money, of course, remain on the shit list.

The plus-size revolution isn’t only a matter of business. It has gone along with a movement encouraging women to accept their bodies without guilt or mortification of the flesh. Part of that is finding expressions that are not off-putting or down-putting (if that’s a word); it’s difficult to think of older terms that did not bear at least some condescension. Customers will spend more freely if they feel welcome, reason the advertisers, who more adeptly than just about anyone else avoid offensive language or imagery, not out of civic motives, but from a desire to keep the income rolling in from as many wallets as possible. The hypersensitive left is generally blamed for the ascendancy of political correctness, and the righteous right uses that story very successfully for fundraising purposes. But advertisers have a lot more power to drag society in one direction or other than a few thousand professors, foundation heads, activists, and politicians.

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