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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

drip pricing

(2010’s | bureaucratese? academese? | “bait and switch,” “nickel and diming,” “bleeding,” “death by a thousand cuts”)

Lex Maniac usually waits until a new expression has been in general use for a while before throwing a spotlight on it, although on occasion I’ve ripped one from the day’s headlines and run with it, as it were. Here is a new one on me: “Drip pricing,” apparently a Briticism, appeared first in the press in 2009, according to LexisNexis. Our own FTC warned against it in 2012 and has recently issued regulations to eliminate, or at least curtail, the practice. Ten years — not bad for a government agency.

The phrase still is frequently glossed, so I will explain. Drip pricing means adding charges — which may be mandatory (tax, concession fee) or at the whim of the seller (transaction fee) — to an advertised price, increasing the total cost of the good or service, often substantially. Legally, it may be defined as failing to disclose the full cost at the outset of the transaction. Drip pricing is a subtle way to hold the customer for ransom; it’s a special case of the bait and switch, a much older term that is surprisingly self-explanatory. It goes nicely with on-line selling, because buyers expect to go through several steps, and it is easy to sneak in items along the way. Ticket vendors and travel services are especially notorious for adding convenience fees and service charges, but a much wider range of purveyors engages in drip pricing.

Everyone agrees that “drip” refers to steady, relentless accumulation, like water from a leaky tap. (Just as a dripping faucet can drive you crazy, drip pricing can make you tear your hair out.) I have yet to encounter an origin story for the expression — perhaps some anonymous economist, who may remain forever in obscurity, had a flash of inspiration one day. For more context and illumination, I recommend this excellent post from language blogger Nancy Friedman.

The phrase, which has largely been restricted to specialist jargon, has gained new respect this year because more and more retailers are resorting to drip pricing to squeeze a little more money out of us; customers have noticed and feel embittered. When you’re feeling embittered, it’s helpful to have a tidy expression to decry the injustice at hand, and “drip pricing” seems poised to plunge into everyday language, soon to be recognized and understood by a large majority of English speakers.

The practice works because by the time you’ve made it almost all the way through all the checkout screens, you’ll swallow the added cost just to get the whole ordeal over with. The aggravation is real, but not as great as the aggravation of starting over or of trying to find a way to get what you want without paying extra — a near impossibility in some cases. It’s deceptive, but in America we believe in letting people get away with a lot if they’re engaged in the honorable pursuit of chasing money. “Caveat emptor” was never our national motto, but it would work fine if we ever go looking for another one.

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not wrong

(1990’s | “on target,” “quite right,” “not dumb OR unwise”)

To say “you’re not wrong” is to say “you have a point” or “you’ve got it right.” The only difference is that the newer locution relies on the copula, the verb we reach for most readily, especially in conversation. One spur to new vocabulary is simplifying grammatical structures; a new expression may be indistinguishable from a familiar one in terms of denotation and even connotation, but it finds its raison d’être in offering a shortcut.

“You’re not wrong” constitutes an admission of some kind, usually an acknowledgment of a statement or argument that cannot be ignored. There is always at least an implicit conflict. Occasionally it is roughly equivalent to “not out of line.” The phrase may be used to suggest that what the other person just said is not as stupid as it sounds, but that implication is far from necessary. Indeed it is a noteworthy feature of “not wrong” that its syntax and diction make it look grudging, but quite often it isn’t. (To hear the grudging tone, imagine emphasizing the second word heavily: “not WRONG,” and not right, either. But you normally hear less difference in emphasis; “wrong” may come through a little stronger but “not” has its innings as well.) Another possible but not mandatory implication is that the speaker is leaving out salient points and failing to tell the whole story.

The moral dimension is another within which to understand “not wrong.” “Wrong” may certainly carry an ethical charge, and fifty years ago “not wrong” did so a majority of the time as well; it meant “morally unobjectionable.” The phrase may still be used that way, but in general I would say that “not wrong” now signals judgment of the soundness of an argument or the accuracy of a statement, rather than the ethical consequences of the speaker’s position. When it appears in its old-fashioned guise, I would suggest that it has the same quirk found in today’s usage — on the surface it may be mistaken for a sneer but its true function is to commend the other party’s ideals, grudgingly or otherwise.

When thinking along the lines of moral vs. logical limned above, we should note that sentences where “not wrong” occurs most often begin with a personal pronoun followed by the linking verb. “It” or “that” are less common, but they do appear and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be seen as regularly. Perhaps the implied conflict noted above makes the personal pronoun spring more naturally to our lips. The point is significant because demonstrative, as opposed to personal, pronouns introduce an unmistakable moral dimension. The abstract “it” lends itself to broad statements that may qualify as instruction or catechism. Conventional proverbs seldom begin with “you,” although the implied “you” who ought to be paying attention is always there. Yet such precepts — the Ten Commandments aside — typically rely on impersonal constructions.

An analogue to “not wrong” from an earlier day is “not bad,” which also sounds dismissive but actually has a positive connotation. Other analogues: not stupid, not crazy, not too shabby.

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(1990’s? | journalese | “background information,” “backgrounder,” “how-to guide”)

I do not recall encountering “explainer” until a few years ago, but it had an occasional if steady presence in the popular press well before then. A crucial distinction: in the old days, certainly before 1990, an explainer was invariably a person. It was a nonce word, or nonce title, bestowed on someone who supplied helpful context or knowledge to help us understand a complicated concept or event. That usage has not disappeared, but it has been largely supplanted. Now the explainer is the produced, not the producer (the content, not the content provider, so to speak). That is, it is a text or video — “explainer video” is often used, but not “explainer text,” for some reason — intended not only to lay out all the relevant issues but make it clear why the whole business is important in the first place. It doesn’t have to be political or particularly serious; an explainer might demonstrate a home repair or bring you up to date on a reality show. Explainers may come from manufacturers or news organizations, or indeed any source, reliable or not. The TED talk is a good example of a certain genre of explainer.

The shift from person to thing is modest and unobtrusive, but it seems significant. Its main effect is to obscure agency; consumers of the explainer don’t necessarily know where it is coming from, and even when that is clear it may be hard to tell who is responsible. When you hear something from a specific person, at least in theory you can establish and evaluate their qualifications. But even if you know exactly who wrote the New York Times explainer, its credibility depends more on the institution propounding it than the individuals creating it. And why does it have to be humans doing the work? If bots can change voters’ minds by spreading false information, they can probably create fake explainers as well. Just what we need.

The word is so transparent lexically that I won’t dwell on it further — we’re lucky we didn’t get “explainment” or “explain-o-rama.” But what’s wrong with good old “explanation”? The words do not mean the same thing; I would suggest that an explainer is made up of many explanations. When something happens, most of us don’t know enough about all the issues surrounding the event to make sense of it, so those who have studied them rush in to feed us context so we can see the event in more immediate, comprehensible terms. The explainers who create the explainers will have biases and leave things out, and are always in danger of talking down to their audience. Manufacturers’ videos are less prone to reporters’ biases, but they must serve an insistent master, the company’s profits.

Humble thanks as ever to lovely Liz from Queens, who presented “explainer” to Lex Maniac a while back. It proved more interesting than I gave it credit for, as lovely Liz’s nominations often do. Because we are both longtime New Yorkers and therefore do a lot of griping, I propose “complainer” (possibly “explainter”), a special case of the explainer, provided when the listener needs background to grasp the full force of the indignity under discussion.

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pro tip

(1990’s | athletese (golf? video games?) | “tip,” “word to the wise,” “a word of advice”)

I was surprised to learn, not being an on-line whiz, that this term has two lives distinguished entirely by spelling. I’m accustomed to seeing it rendered as two words, but “protip” is also common, particularly in the world of on-line gaming and on-line more generally, as in the hashtag #ProTip. The meanings, mind you, are identical. Both spellings encompass the ironic or sarcastic cast of the expression much enjoyed by snarky bloggers, as well as simple acknowledgment of expertise. The one-word incarnation has an extensive history dating back to the mid-nineties, chronicled on Know Your Meme; Urban Dictionary and other sources confirm the one-word rendering. Whereas in the less on-line world, “pro tips” sprinkle the writings of experts in make-up, investments, home repair, and sports of all kinds, in fact any field where the less knowledgeable may learn from those who know whereof they speak.

Golf lingo is probably where the phrase arose. The golf pro is an institution — every country club has one — and part of the pro’s job is advising less experienced and talented players. In the nineties, before the expression became ordinary, you were more likely to encounter it in articles about golf than anywhere else. Yet the one-word form has a comparable chronological claim, and I wouldn’t want to assign a definite origin, despite some evidence that the two-word version came first. The normal progression — from two words to hyphenated to one word — has in this case been swept aside.

It’s probably a dumb question: Is the point of a pro tip that it comes from a pro, or is directed at a pro? Based on limited research, I would have to opt for the former. In most cases, it seems pretty clear that the expert dispenses pro tips to the eager neophyte. But I can’t help but hear another avenue: from one pro to another. (It’s true that in both cases, the counsel emanates FROM the pro.) In other words, the expert concludes that the recipient understands the problem well enough to take advantage of a hint that would hinder the less adept. Far from condescending, the pro tipster might confirm membership in a select group. I believe I have seen “pro tip” used that way, but not often or convincingly enough to uphold it as a secondary definition.

Further notes: Both one- and two-word variants act the same way, as an introduction. The word/phrase is not generally integrated into a sentence; it just gets tacked onto the beginning, promising a nugget of wisdom. Pro tips most often involve “hacks,” tricks and shortcuts intended to make our lives easier in ways small and large. Because the sarcastic side of the expression seems to get roughly the same amount of play as the face-value side, it joins a relatively short, though growing, list of persistently two-faced words covered by Lex Maniac.

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(1990’s | activese | “whitewashing”)

Having already covered some properties of the word “green,” including the one under discussion this week, I’ll take that as read and push ahead.

Thirty years after it burst into the mainstream press, “greenwashing” is still glossed sometimes, so I will define it. (Everybody else has had a go at it; why shouldn’t I?) It is the practice of exaggerating the ecological benefit, or understating the harm, of a given product, industrial process, or way of doing business in order to appeal to customers who want to support environmentally responsible companies. In order to qualify as greenwashing, such claims must be deceptive.

The Guardian traced the term to activist Jay Westerveld, who used it in an essay published in 1986. It does not appear in LexisNexis until 1990, when it begins turning up in quantity; by the mid-1990’s people who consumed a lot of news had to know what it meant. The meaning, force, and character of the expression haven’t changed since then. It remains an accusation, and it remains an act of which only corporations are capable. It has never been adopted as a badge of honor by oil executives or similar malefactors. (Turns out that turning insults into defiant honorifics is much easier for the oppressed than the oppressors.)

In fact, greenwashing was used before 1990 in the press, but it meant something different: laundering money. (A different kind of green, the one corporate executives are deadly serious about.) I couldn’t determine that it was ever commonplace in that sense, and it may have been a nonce word. Another term from corporate America of the era, “greenmail,” had to do with stock transactions and corporate raiding — buying up a substantial stake in a corporation and threatening a hostile takeover unless the corporation agrees to reclaim the stock at a price above its current value. Simple extortion by another name (greenmailers usually weren’t interested in controlling the target company, just the easy profit).

Either sprig of greenery may have been sprouting in Westerveld’s head when he came up with “greenwashing.” He explained that the original form and context of the expression was “it all comes out in the greenwash.” The reference to “It’ll all come out in the wash” (i.e., the problem will sort itself out) is clear, but the resemblance to “whitewash” (as “greenmail” to “blackmail”) is striking, to say the least. “Greenwashing” looks like a special case of “whitewashing,” which was probably in Westerveld’s mind as well; if not his, certainly in those of people who picked up the word and helped make it prominent. (Westerveld’s claim as the first to use “greenwashing” in this way seems solid; thus it joins the roster of expressions attributable to a single person.)

Greenwashing may be illegal — Deutsche Bank’s offices were raided earlier this year after they were accused of lying to investors and the government about the ecological worthiness of their assets — but it generally does not involve outright fraud. It is simple enough to create advertisements that are misleading yet not demonstrably false. Big corporations have the money and the megaphones; the people who point out their deceptions are always on their heels and have to work harder to make themselves heard. At the individual consumer level, we know that a lot of what big corporations tell us about their environmental do-gooding is dubious, but it is too much work to figure out which ones are the worst. Thus we retire from the field in confusion and keep buying the same familiar brands, and wish for a well-funded and reliable evaluator of all the hooey and hokum that corrupts our linguistic, social, and political environment. It is an endless uphill battle.

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ghost (v.)

(2010’s | “desert,” “run away from,” “kiss OR blow off,” “ignore”)

Altogether a confusing verb (not that it’s all that straightforward as a noun). Usually transitive, but not always. In my youth, “ghost” was short for “ghostwrite,” as in ghosting a novel or memoir for a celebrity. That usage never seemed very apt to me, but it did make some sense if you think of a ghost primarily as an invisible being; the point of ghostwriters was that they did not receive credit. They just flitted around behind the scenes and did the work.

The new meaning — cutting off all communication with a friend or significant other without warning — moved into the mainstream after 2010. The communication is understood to be primarily electronic, though of course it’s true that actually running into the person you are trying to ghost defeats the purpose. “Ghost” goes with the rise of dating apps, particularly the ones aimed at quick hook-ups rather than lasting romance; the term, if not the practice, has become infinitely more common as they have proliferated, especially among the under-forties. A small constellation of related terms, as laid out in Psychology Today:

— breadcrumbing: leading on an ex, inducing false hope for resuming a relationship

— orbiting: continuing to make insignificant gestures toward someone after you’ve broken up

— caspering (i.e., friendly ghosting): making a single final statement that you’re breaking up, then cutting off communication.

Is today’s meaning any more intuitive than “ghostwrite”? Less, if anything. Why “ghost”? This is an expression, like “soul patch,” that does not seem to lend itself to armchair etymologizing, so I’m reduced to trying to figure it out on my own. The usual explanation of the origin of our definition of the term is that the person refusing to communicate has turned into a ghost, no longer present except in the mind of the victim. If you accept the noun-to-verb twist, that sort of makes sense, though I don’t see any reason “ghost” ought to mean “turn into a ghost.” It should mean “act like a ghost” if it has to mean anything. Another possibility is that the victim has become a ghost (cf. “you’re dead to me”), a revenant reminding you that it is still out there.

It is assumed that generally a person who ghosts another (there do not seem to be satisfying terms for the two parties, so we make do with ghoster and ghostee) does so in order to avoid a difficult or painful breakup. There is no easy or pleasant way to tell a regular companion that someone better has come along, or that you can’t stand them any more. Sometimes ghosting is a response to a serious offense. (We used to say, “I’m not speaking to you,” or give someone the silent treatment.) It might also be regarded as the reductio ad absurdum of playing hard to get. The act is typically dismissed as immature or cruel, likely true a large percentage of the time. Research suggests that people who believe in soulmates are more likely to end relationships by ghosting, perhaps because once it’s clear that the new prospect is not The One, there’s no point in wasting time and energy. Cut your losses and go looking for the next candidate.

The pre-electronic version of the concept involved Daddy running off with (or even without) another woman or the family’s savings. How many songs and stories center on a father abandoning the family, leaving the house one fine day to buy bread and never returning? It was easier a century ago to go somewhere else and assume a new identity. Considering the sheer number and variety of communication channels nowadays, ghosting seems like it must be nearly impossible, yet many people manage to pull it off. All it takes is ruthlessness.

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too big to fail

(1980’s | businese (banking)? bureaucratese?)

When “too big to fail” gets thrown around, you know the banking system is in trouble or soon will be; it belongs to a class of financial words of ill omen, exhibit A being “recession.” If LexisNexis is any guide, the first crisis that attracted the phrase in any consistent way was the failure of Continental Illinois, one of the largest banks in the U.S., in the mid-eighties. The Reagan administration was in charge, and those proud, cutlass-waving guardians of free enterprise promptly stepped in and bailed it out, on the grounds that default would do too much damage to the economy — including ordinary taxpayers (who got stuck with the bill, remember). Economically sound or not, that rescue soon became a precedent; by 1990 high-up government officials Alan Greenspan and William Seidman were defending an established policy of saving the largest banks, even when their problems resulted from stupid or criminal acts. By that time the expression was established in the financial press.

Even today, the expression turns up most often near the names of certain large banks, but other contexts are possible. Referring to non-bank corporations and enterprises as too big to fail was allowed even before 2000, as it still is. Today, cryptocurrency attracts the label. Treaties, markets, even nations . . . anything that would cause too much financial havoc — that is, obliterate enough wealth — if it went under and stopped meeting its obligations.

It didn’t take big-time bankers long to figure out that “too big to fail” was a license to take jaw-dropping risks with depositors’ money. Sure enough, just when it looked like the phrase might sink out of sight in the late eighties, the savings and loan crisis gave it a new lease on life. Many small thrifts simply folded, but the leviathans had the FDIC to ride to the rescue. In 1999, when Congress gave up most of its authority over the banking system, you heard it again. Heaven knows it got around in 2008 and 2009, when executives’ reputations and fortunes hinged on whether their institutions proved too big to fail or not. The phrase seems inevitable in an age of deregulation.

The result of all that deregulation, as always, is oligopoly; a few nationwide banks have grown much too big to fail as the rest of the financial landscape has grown sparser and less forgiving. The incentives now run exactly counter to the age of Teddy Roosevelt and the trustbusters; government at all levels openly encourages a few banks (and other kinds of institutions) to engorge or overwhelm their competition. The bigger they get, the more they can count on government backing. American government and American capital have long been co-dependent, and we have seen this sort of capitulation to moneyed interests before. The concentration of banking power leads directly to concentration of wealth; actually, nearly every change in financial policy over the last forty years has led to greater concentration of wealth. Opinion polls show consistently that large majorities on both sides of the political spectrum believe there is too much money in too few hands. If the left and right wings of the American people weren’t so busy vilifying each other, they might band together and do something about that. But a lot of that concentrated wealth has gone toward training us to demonize those we disagree with, and we have swallowed the bait instead of uniting against the overlords.

The pithiness and weight of the phrase are undeniable, and many other languages have simply adopted it rather than come up with a local equivalent. Even before e-mail, chatboards, and social media unleashed a wave of abbreviated phrases, when no one had ever heard of ROTFLMAO, “TBTF” appeared in the press.

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passion project

(1990’s | arts | “pet project,” “big idea,” “grand plan”)

Considering the sort of thing “passion” gets up to in its riper moments — think “crime of passion,” “in a passion [rage],” even “passion fruit” — “passion project” may be accounted relatively tame. It denominates any endeavor or undertaking that holds a strong interest for a particular person. It would be possible to use it in a corporate setting, but mostly it belongs to each of us; “personal passion project” is an alternative phrasing. Often it is implied that the project bears a particularly strong motivation, something one takes seriously because it hits home (e.g., cancer research, a film a director has always dreamed of making). Less often but not infrequently, it suggests a side hustle, distinct from one’s day job. Occasionally, it is used to mean that the undertaking is something of a white whale — that is, it has overcome many obstacles and taken years to complete. Thus the phrase is a favorite of those who have pursued their personal Moby Dick, such as Dwayne Johnson discoursing on the film Black Adam. In two words, it answers the fundamental question, “Why didn’t you give up?”

The expression starts showing up in the early 1990’s in LexisNexis, nearly always in the mouth of a musician, actor, director, or someone dealing with such people. By the end of the decade, it was possible to use it in non-creative contexts. It didn’t take off until after 2000; while not ubiquitous today, it has continued to grow on the language. It remains common in artistic settings but fits comfortably in others: a new small business, a charitable cause, a home renovation. If it hasn’t been used as the title of a porn film, it surely will be.

“Passion project” sounds better than “pet project,” and it does mean something slightly different, although the two phrases are often interchangeable. “Pet” in this sense has a derogatory shading, at least potentially, hinting at self-indulgence and even going further to suggest “petty.” A word like “passion,” its checkered career notwithstanding, carries a gust of excitement backed by strong commitment or belief. “Passion project” might have an insulting, eye-rolling cast, after all; it could turn snide and suggest that the effort is directed toward an excessively idiosyncratic or insignificant goal. It’s not unusual for a new expression to go over to the dark side like that, but so far “passion project” seems to have stayed clean.

The expression succeeds partly because of its constituents; “project” sounds official and important, while “passion” provides élan. Alliteration and firm trochaic meter don’t hurt, lending the phrase a compact resonance. It’s only fair to add that while there were rough equivalents in our pre-1980 vocabulary (see above), no single expression covered the same ground. It gives us another way to pay homage to enthusiasm and persistence, qualities most of us practice less than we admire.

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move the goalposts

(1980’s | journalese (politics) | “change the rules OR standards”)

This expression works so well because it succinctly conveys injustice in words almost anyone can understand. All you need is a rudimentary knowledge of sports, well within the capabilities of most of the world’s population. Moving the goalposts almost always involves change imposed from above. It is often envisioned in terms of a large, impersonal organization (such as the government) set against an individual or a less powerful organization. It occurs at the last minute, after previously set conditions have been met. Everybody agreed on the rules, then blam! they change without warning. The expression is used only by the aggrieved party; those moving the goalposts would never use it to describe what they are doing. The prevalence of this phrase among politicians does not result from their usual habit of adopting new idioms from athletes; “move the goalposts” started life in political discourse.

Safire confirmed that “move the goalposts” is a Briticism; LexisNexis does not show that unambiguously, but most of the early hits from the eighties stem from the British press. I suppose the English and Americans have different mental pictures: a soccer goal being whisked aside as a shot approaches vs. uprights jumping backward, extending the distance to be covered. “Finish line” would work just as well, but I never heard of anybody pushing back the finish line.

“Move the goalposts” has gradually broadened its field of operations. A bank might be accused of moving goalposts for a loan application, for example, or a sports league might change rules for membership. Sometimes it is as simple as extending a deadline or the date a project will be completed. A recent example from the Philadelphia Inquirer (May 4, 2022) emphasizes the sisyphean nature of moving goalposts: “When you throw in the gender pay gap, which widens with age, it’s becoming more difficult than ever for Black women to pay off our student loans. The goal post just keeps on moving” — and freedom keeps on receding. These examples generally retain the feel of a large, impersonal institution unfairly crushing a single person.

Thanks to our polarized politics, “move the goalposts” has grown popular as an accusation of hypocrisy, in which one side claims the other has abandoned or watered down a previously avowed standard of conduct or policy. Here there is no sign of negotiation or regulation, merely a retreat from principle that can be — and often is — undertaken by any public official. It may suggest making a target easier to reach rather than more difficult, as when the right-wing press attacks Biden for downplaying talk of a recession.

Another expression that sounds like it should be older than it is, “move the goalposts” doesn’t seem to have been used much, if at all, before 1980. While it still occurs most often in political commentary, it has developed other uses. My favorite: the name of an informal fallacy in logic, denoting the act of pressing an argument by continually changing the standards of adequate evidence for the opponent’s position. Surely the logicians adopted the phrase after it arose elsewhere; was there a name for such improper methods before? Did the fallacy exist?

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read the room

(1990’s | businese? arts? | “size up the room,” “get a feel for things,” “gauge the mood”)

I assumed this expression was born of the performing arts, especially those in which a certain amount of improvisatory nimbleness is necessary. In order to please the audience (they call it a room, but it’s really the people in it), you have to figure out what they want. Some performances — symphony orchestras, classic plays, ballet — proceed on the premise that the performers do what they are going to do anyway, and the audience is free to like it or not. But stand-up comedians, cabaret singers, or politicians may have to adjust their programs quickly depending on audience mood. Hence the need to read the room.

LexisNexis shows that the expression was used in other fields before it became associated with artists and performers — politics (a form of performance), promotion (likewise), and advice to executives. I wouldn’t consider the results definitive, but “read the room” may have other streams feeding into it. One source identified it as a gambler’s expression, and it may be. A gambler is always looking for tells, and the only way to find them is to survey your surroundings.

The room-reader’s goal is to gain the audience’s confidence by avoiding, or correcting, an unsuccessful approach. When the prepared remarks draw indifference or grumbling, try something else — but the something else must stem from what the performer has divined about the audience’s desires. Reading the room in that sense is a defensive maneuver, necessary only when things don’t go according to plan. That isn’t always the case; sometimes reading the room is an important piece of preparation for a comedian or musician. When there are a lot of directions you might go in, it pays to take the customers’ preferences into account.

Nowadays the expression has evolved in an imperative direction, used to rebuke cluelessness, especially among politicians, who are told to pay greater heed to their constituents’ feelings. It’s satisfying to bawl out politicians, but “read the room” serves them better than it serves us. Unscrupulous officials prosper by braying at top volume whatever pieties or articles of faith will keep the suckers voting for them, even as they quietly go about working against our interests. For a comedian, pleasing the audience or not pleasing the audience is all there is. But we elect representatives to keep the government running; there’s much more to that than seducing us with a soothing line of patter.

This is an expression that seems like it should have been around longer than it has. The alliteration and words of one syllable contribute to the effect. It isn’t faux-proverbial in the manner of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” but it sounds like something vaudevillians would have said to each other a hundred years ago. If so, there is no sign of it in Google Books. Some expressions sound older than they are, and “read the room” appears to be one of them.

“Read the room” most recently impressed itself on me thanks to Dilbert, so thanks to Scott Adams!

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