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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

man card

(2000’s | journalese?)

The phrase begins to show up in LexisNexis shortly after 2000. At first, it was typically jocular, something that one lost (or had confiscated) upon saying or doing anything coded as feminine: enjoying a weepy song (or just weeping), watching “The View,” spending time on Pinterest. (See definitions 2 and 4 on Urban Dictionary for further detail.) The idea was to acknowledge one’s own lack of testosterone, or to make fun of someone else’s. The fact that it normally was something you started out with and surrendered is significant, redolent, if you are of the Freudian persuasion, of castration anxiety. (In the case of Bushmaster’s post-Sandy Hook advertising campaign, which became a cause célèbre, the explicit yoking of a big gun and an unimpeachable man card makes the connection embarrassingly obvious.) The usage conventions appear to have changed in the intervening years; now it is perfectly common to talk of earning or restoring one’s man card, and it isn’t always cute any more.

A man card is not something you play — it’s a mythical membership card (if you’re insecure enough, you can get a real one). There is grounds for confusion, because “man card” sounds related to other cards that one might play: “common man card,” “strong man card,” “family man card.” Phrases like “play the race card” have steered the language in new directions and come to affect how we hear such expressions. That kind of influence makes itself felt over time, causing changes in how certain terms are used or heard; perhaps in a generation or two “man card” will succumb and change its meaning.

The idea that masculinity is fully represented by a card you carry in your wallet is part of the joke, of course, with its implication that bureaucracy has gone so far as to define and regulate the oldest difference in the world. Who does the certifying, and who does the judging? What will cause you to earn, or lose, your man card? The answer depends on how your peers define masculinity. Even when the lighter side of the expression is invoked, having your man card revoked remains contemptible. There are sins of commission — reading Harlequin romances — and sins of omission — driving a Prius, because wasting gas is a God-given American right that real men must exercise at all times. Polluting the atmosphere? That’s a two-for-one! Your man card just got bigger! A different set of questions leads to the darker side of this expression. To some men, any hint that they are following a woman’s orders or advice indicates emasculation. Such loss of man cred may lead to an extreme reaction, including violence, against the insubordinate woman. Certifiable male behavior all too often comes down to aggressiveness, stupidity, disregard for others, or all three. Men complain a lot about being made to feel guilty for doing what they’ve always done; what they mean is that it’s a little harder to get away with being an asshole than it used to be. The man card need not evoke this particular tune — it may still be used jokingly or ruefully — but watch out when it does.

Thanks to redoubtable scholar and quondam blogger Mark from Montclair for dropping this expression into a recent conversation, which caused me to tackle it this week. Us mens gotta stick togedda.


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bad hair day

(1990’s | “bad day,” “terrible day”)

A term that shot into prominence in the early 1990’s, though it had been around before that. How long before, I’m not prepared to say; one on-line source finds an example as early as 1970. No one has a convincing origin story for it; it just started bubbling up more often around 1990 and caught on. (1992 was the magic year, as far as I can tell.) As in the case of glass ceiling, the force of its rise and spread suggests pent-up demand. It’s something most of us undergo, at least occasionally, unless we’re fortunate enough to be bald. An inveterate cowlick sufferer in childhood, I know the feeling well. I can’t come up with a precise old-time equivalent, but the verb phrase “look a fright” meant something similar.

From the beginning, the bad hair day had a psychological component. You didn’t just have hair that wouldn’t behave, you were compromised mentally; your mood and concentration suffered because you couldn’t stop thinking about how your hair looked and imagining the reactions of everyone around you. It’s no secret that self-image affects self-esteem, but a full-blown bad hair day could be serious, causing one to become completely ineffective until the next day. And what happened if your hair refused to cooperate then? I don’t see any reason bad hair days couldn’t stretch to bad hair weeks and months, a long-term handicap, like a bad haircut, which is not the same thing but might be a precursor of some sort.

When you consider the disruptive force of the bad hair day, it’s not surprising the phrase took on the broader meaning of “day from hell.” A bad hair day often means a day where nothing goes right and you should have stayed in bed, but it still has to start with recalcitrant hair. Otherwise, it’s some other type of impossible day.

My sense is that “bad hair day” has receded somewhat and is not as popular or ubiquitous as it was when its flame burned brightly back in the nineties. But it’s part of the language, and its meaning hasn’t changed. The phrase has settled down as it has settled in, and now bad hair days may bring on the average more rue and less panic than they did back then. Yet the same threat of temporary psychological damage remains, and studies continue to show that bad hair days can have a debilitating effect, preventing us from doing our best work.


(1990’s | “rumpled hair or look”)

Probably a Briticism; the earliest instances I found in LexisNexis came from Canada, and to this day it seems to be more common in the non-American press. In England, “bedhead” for centuries has referred to what we could call a headboard in the U.S. I’m not sure whether that makes it more or less likely that the newer meaning — tonsorial disarray upon rising — arose in the Isles. Originally, bedhead was unintentional and therefore unwanted, but now it can refer to a studied style, one more way for celebrities to arrange their hair. It may even look sexy if it’s done right, but in the early nineties, when the word appears first in LexisNexis, bedhead was a misfortune, more to be pitied than ventured.

Bedhead strikes even before you find out it’s going to be a bad hair day. But sometimes your hair may be tamed with ritual application of unguents and elixirs, or at least Brylcreem. Someone should do a study to determine how often bedhead leads directly to bad hair and a subpar day (that would be a “bed hair day”). A substantial percentage, we may surmise, but how substantial? Thirty? fifty? ninety? If it were at the lower end, we might take modest comfort in knowing that we’ll get a break sometimes and the universe is not invariably a hostile place. All I ask is that the universe remain neutral. When it starts stacking the deck, I get offended.

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(2000’s | music industry | “release,” “come out”)

It is somewhat unusual for a new expression to act solely as a straightforward substitute for an old one; there is normally a semantic or grammatical distinction. In this case, it’s all in the grammar. “Drop an album” means exactly the same as “release an album.” But “the album dropped” doesn’t share that tidy equivalence, because “the album released” makes no sense, and “the album released itself,” while grammatically complete, doesn’t make any sense, either. Then again, I’ve never heard anyone refer to “the drop [of an album],” but you could use “release” in that slot as a noun. The music industry usage is transitive or intransitive, equally at home either way, with essentially the same meaning. Though “to drop” was often used, and still is, to suggest an accident, putting new work out there is a very deliberate process.

I found a couple of examples as early as 1999, and it may have been recording industry slang well before then. “Drop” can go with single songs as well as whole albums, movies or their trailers, and television shows (or a whole season of them). I haven’t seen it applied to books yet, but I don’t read Publisher’s Weekly. As far as I know it continues to attach itself only to creative projects, but it is broadening its field from recorded music to other media.

This is one of those expressions, like “roll with it,” for which one delights in trying to come with a definitive ancestor. It, too, has a rich array of objects, and some varied idiomatic uses: drop it, drop in, drop out, drop off, drop off to sleep, the penny dropped (“I figured it out”), at the drop of a hat, drop it like a hot potato (or rock), wait for the other shoe to drop, and even, for you antiquarians, you could hear a pin drop. The idioms are manifold, but none seems an obvious predecessor of the specialized usage. What about all the things you can drop? A hint, a name, a line, a sum of money (as in “I dropped $100 on this jacket”), the bomb, the ball, the mic, anchor, charges, acid, trou, the soap (how did those get in there?), and, finally, everything. But there’s a somewhat archaic phrase that I always think of when I hear this expression, and that is “drop a calf” (which doesn’t mean “have a cow,” o.k.?). When it comes to animal husbandry, dropping means giving birth. That’s the best analogue I can think of to the creative process that eventuates in Taylor Swift or Jay-Z bringing out a new single.

Another expression brought to the fore by lovely Liz from Queens, doing her bit for the lexicon. Thanks, baby!

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it is what it is

(2000’s | athletese | “that’s (just) how it is,” “what more can I say?,” “what can you do?,” “there’s not a damn thing I can do about it”)

Anyone who reads the sports pages has long since grown tired of this one, now an indispensable response any time something goes wrong. Athletes use it to express frustration over their own performance, or the team’s generally, or a controversy affecting the team’s play. There’s no sense, however, that “it” must result from one’s own actions; any adverse circumstance may rate the phrase. The often unspoken sequel is “and now we have to deal with it.” “It is what it is” expresses resignation but not despair (cf. “roll with it“). Nothing to be done but move on and make the best of it. That’s why “it is what it is” remains fundamentally a forward-looking expression. What happened in the past created our current difficulties, but this phrase allows us to put that behind us and look resolutely ahead. And that’s why you don’t hear “it was what it was.” Why doesn’t a dejected quarterback use the past tense after a punishing loss? Is a touch of the literary too much to ask of our gladiators? Or before the Super Bowl, why not “It will be what it will be” (wait, wasn’t that a song?). Another common expression — I know what I know — seems related somehow. It has the same brute obviousness, the same logical assurance of certainty so certain as to be empty, but the mood differs. “I know what I know” carries more determination; it may even be a touch truculent. “It is what it is” is not uttered in anger or any kind of passion. Grit your teeth if you must, but this phrase has a weary feel. If you’re extremely irritated, you don’t use it.

The concept is very old. Nowadays we might translate Ben Franklin’s dictum about death and taxes as “When it comes to death and taxes, it is what it is.” (For earlier examples, try the book of Job or any Greek tragedy.) The expression draws attention to the intractability of certain states, which has led some commentators to deplore the way the phrase is used as a cover by people who don’t want to deal with their problems, no matter how crippling. (Here are examples from business and personal contexts.)

An observation so simple as to be asinine, “it is what it is” is even more tiresome than most apodictic statements. What else could “it” be? If “is” may be permitted to retain any rags of meaning at all (thanks, Bill Clinton!) it can hardly be otherwise. Does it differ from “that’s how it is”? I can’t see that it does, except it is a bit more resonant. There is rhetorical value in simplicity; if managed well, it lends a certain power, making expressions more memorable (cf. “that’s that”). It may even convey philosophy or profundity. Simple language may seem to express irreducible truth, forestalling further comment, which may be why it is attractive to athletes trying to get through the unpleasant chore of the post-game interview. It serves the same message as “end of story“: stop asking me about this subject.

Lovely Liz from Queens asked why this phrase annoys so many people. It appears frequently on lists of obnoxious clichés and is deplored with machine-like regularity by self-styled style mavens. The answer, we agreed, is partly a matter of its studied emptiness, partly a matter of how often it is used, and partly a matter of who uses it (athletes, celebrities). No doubt some catch-phrases become grating through sheer repetition — and this one, like “same old same old,” is not only repeated a lot but has repetition built into it — and a few, like “been there, done that,” have lost popularity after a few years of ubiquity. Not this one, at least not yet: “It is what it is” is riding a twenty-year wave and shows no signs of waning.

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elephant in the room

(1980’s | therapese? | “touchy subject”)

Another expression that may sound older than it is — though Lovely Liz from Queens suspects it has been around for a long time, Google Books can’t find any examples before 1990. As far as LexisNexis can tell, elephants began shyly sneaking into rooms some time not long after 1980, and there are some good examples before 1990, but “elephant in the room” didn’t truly arrive until after that. It got exposure in advice columns thanks to an eponymous brief essay on mourning the death of a loved one by Terry Kettering — the elephant in the room being the brute fact of the death, which one rigorously avoids by means of trivial conversation. A lot of people read advice columns, so that probably had an effect. Sometimes the elephant is adorned with a color — pink or white — but that is an unnecessary elaboration. It’s a significant issue or event that no one wants to bring up — even though all participants know it is there — because it is sure to provoke discomfort, awkwardness, or guilt. Around the family dinner table, at a party, at church, at a political convention — the phrase has private and public dimensions. It may be used to suggest disingenuousness (because you’re maliciously avoiding the crucial point), but generally isn’t. The expression always implies that everyone involved is ignoring the issue willfully, but typically with good intentions, however misguided.

If “elephant in the room” is not an old expression, how did we say it before? I haven’t been able to come up with a really precise, idiomatic equivalent, but I might suggest related concepts, such as the verb phrase “tiptoe around a subject” (which might involve walking on eggshells) or the adjective “awkward,” which we still use to describe an unpleasant social situation.

The proverbial huge animal that I remember from childhood is the 800-pound gorilla, who sat wherever it wanted, a metaphor for the ability to compel others to do your bidding. The elephant in the room exerts a more subtle power by trammeling up conversation, effectively prohibiting discussion of a fact or situation that has a material effect on every other topic of discussion. That sort of suppression usually benefits someone, often those who already have an advantage of one kind or another. Maybe another way to look at it would be that the elephant in the room is the person who is powerful enough to compel others to avoid a sensitive subject.

As the noble elephant horns (or tusks) into the language in one more guise, I can’t resist rifling through the trunk (sorry) for others. The most common associations are sheer physical size, the Republican party (in the U.S.), and unnaturally good memory. If brain size is truly correlated with intelligence, elephants must be a lot smarter than we are. We also have pointless extravagance (white elephants), the D.T.’s (pink elephants), Dumbo, the Elephant Man, and the heartbreak of elephantiasis, a faintly comic disease as long as you don’t have it. “Elephant in the room” seems to be a simple appropriation of the most obvious of them, sheer size. If it’s not a big, overwhelming subject, it can’t be the elephant in the room.

They are not closely connected, but “adults in the room” echoes this expression and arose later, apparently during the G.W. Bush administration. A political expression par excellence from the beginning, it has gotten a considerable workout in the Age of Trump. The phrase attributes superior knowledge or more measured judgment to the “adults” who must mind the children that the voters have put in charge (if you remember the British sitcom “Yes, Minister,” you get the idea). But you don’t have to be especially smart, judicious, experienced, or wise to qualify as an adult in the room, just slightly moreso than the politicians. It’s all relative, and the standards can plummet in a hurry.

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(2010’s | advertese | “endorser,” “influence”)

I came across this word in the arts world, of which I am a loose member, but of course it is far more common in the realm of advertising, particularly on social media, where influencers have grown a multi-billion dollar business. It’s a nice word for “shill.” As in the old days, they may be celebrities, but they may just as well be previously little-known people (and who knows? maybe the occasional bot) who have developed a potent on-line presence. The work is done by cultivating a following on Facebook, or Amazon, or somewhere, and convincing some brand to pay for plugging its products, if you don’t have a brand of your own. Then influencers weave their spells, convincing mobs of hapless sheep to buy the product just by kvelling over it on Instagram. The more loyalty an influencer inspires, the more dollar signs light up vice presidents’ eyes.

The concept of the recommendation is much older than advertising but has always held an honored place in it. What could be better than finding out exactly what you need from a friend or a respected authority? Like everything old made new again by the internet, such an adviser must have a new name. Am I the only one that thinks “influencer” sounds like a villain of some sort? Like “the fixer” or “deep throat” in a political thriller, a name people utter reluctantly, in a hushed, slightly awed tone.

In the arts world the concept is similar but a bit less crass. Influencers have the ear of the people with money, the people on the board who decide what to program and whom to hire. So if you want to promote something, you need to worm your way into their good graces. This sense is closer to how the word was used in the eighties (when used at all). An influencer was similar to an éminence grise or power behind the throne. They didn’t get the credit or the spotlight, but they got their way. That idea remained in use in advertese up to the social media revolution, but seeking out the one right person who can make your project happen is quite different from persuading millions to whip out their credit cards.

I’ve covered a number of new expressions that end in “er,” denoting agency of some kind. Some of them have a touch of the poetic: headhunter, rainmaker, -whisperer. Some lack any sort of distinction: deal-breaker, fraudster, server. “Influencer” belongs to a group composed of awkward, hyper-literal formations that strike the ear as bureaucratese or jargon: caregiver, early adopter, facilitator, first responder, warfighter. Adding an “er” suffix is one of those linguistic shortcuts — like pasting “ize” on a noun to create a verb, or adding “ment” or “ness” to go the other way — that help establish that quality. Such affixes are the last refuge of those with no ear or sense for language who just need to come up with a new word for whatever it is. Even the more literate may resort to an “er” nonce word after painting themselves into a grammatical corner.

Influencers have become a thing in recent years, and advertisers have embraced them heartily, as excited articles pile up in trade journals analyzing the most effective means of employing their services, rules to live by, practices to shun. Micro- and nano-influencers have shorter lists of followers but may be potent within those limits; they have begun to attract their due. These things rise and fall, but we seem poised to hear ever more about influencers in the near term, at least.

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(2000’s | internese? advertese? | “social anxiety”)

Fear of Missing Out. Now used in a number of contexts, this acronym was first applied primarily to social situations. The idea was that you would forgo sleep, homework, a vacation, or nearly anything, to stay in close touch with your group of peers and experience everything everyone else was experiencing. It was then, as now, associated with young people, particularly students. Early FOMO sufferers made exhausting rounds of parties, clubs, and anywhere else their friends might be congregating. When social media came along, FOMO found its natural fuel; almost overnight it became exponentially easier to learn what you were excluded from. By now the term is used in other contexts, notably the financial; the FOMO-stricken investor jumps on the bandwagon, no matter how dubious, because the thought of missing a jackpot hurts more than the thought of losing a lot of money on a lousy investment.

You get to choose your origin story for this expression. Marketing specialist Dan Herman claims to have invented the concept (though not the acronym) in 1996, publishing a paper on it in 2000. Or there’s the Patrick McGinnis story, which says that the Harvard Business School student came up with it in 2003, along with a companion acronym, FOBO (fear of better options), that never caught on. The two ideas are similar, because a primary cause of FOMO is the feeling that there are so many worthwhile places to go and people to see that you can’t help missing something good. Neither the acronym nor its spelled-out form turned up often before 2005 or so, and McGinnis was on the scene when one of the great contributors to FOMO, Facebook, was born. Maybe a split trophy is in order here.

FOMO can be crippling, yet many on-line discussions seem uncertain how seriously to take it. Is it simply part of growing up nowadays? (Was there ever a time when it wasn’t?) Is it just a fashionable neurasthenia, the latest in a series stretching back to the nineteenth century? Psychologist Barbara Kahn has suggested that FOMO has to do with weakened feelings of belonging, or solidarity, with the group, and the actual events aren’t important — it’s the bonding. The introverted and inept have begun to get their own back with JOMO (joy of missing out), which is when you log out of Instagram and happily stay home. All that’s missing is ITMO (indifference to missing out). No Mo’!

FOMO does stand for other things, but in the U.S., for all intents and purposes it has only one meaning. An early explicator in the British press said it stood for “faux homosexual” in addition to “fear of missing out,” which is the only time I’ve ever seen such a thing suggested. It also stands for “Friends of Malawi Orphanages” and has a couple of technical meanings. Contrary to rumor, it wasn’t part of Nixon’s 1972 campaign slogan. And it has nothing to do with “promo,” “pomo,” or “slo-mo.”


(2010’s | teenagese? | “what the hell”)

You Only Live Once. Like “FOMO,” it has a few other possible meanings that lost the race. My favorite is You Obviously Lack Originality, so if you’re sick of “YOLO,” you can spit it right back. I can say from a brief survey of web-based resources that YOLO attracts a lot of contempt, being commonly associated with teenage imbecility. It is roughly the same age as “FOMO”; traces it back as far as 2004 but concludes, as other sources do, that it came to prominence through the good offices of Drake in a 2011 single, “The Motto.” It doesn’t have to be about irresponsible teenage acts; it can also be used for adventurous fun like skydiving that responsible adults engage in. Like many hashtags, it may be spoken, but not often in my stodgy circles.

YOLO comes across as more lighthearted than FOMO, though it usually indicates more immediate danger. That devil-may-care quality is infectious, far from the gloom and wretchedness wrought by FOMO. It’s almost a ritual prayer that one utters just before doing something stupid, and you can afford to be cheerful because the consequences haven’t sunk in yet.

Since the mid-nineties, we’ve seen an explosion of acronyms and abbreviations spawned and nurtured by various manifestations of the internet. First e-mail (widespread by the mid-nineties), chat groups, and primitive web sites brought us “FAQ,” “IM(H)O,” “ROTFL,” “BTW,” “FWIW,” “AN” (Don’t remember that one? Ad nauseam, of course). Texting provided another big impetus, and although plenty of hashtags are spelled out, Twitter and Instagram have given the initials trend another boost. The last time we saw anything like this was when the Roosevelt administration tried to pull us out of the Depression with a bewildering sprawl of agencies with three- and four-letter names. It’s sort of cool that the power of the acronym is no longer reserved to the ruling class, though it’s hard to see any real gain for the the rest of us. More likely another opiate of the people.

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it’s a thing

(2000’s | celebritese? | “you haven’t heard about this?,” “it’s the latest thing,” “it’s a big deal”)

Oh, that “thing.” How much of a change does this recently fixed phrase really represent? Hasn’t “thing” always been capable of referring to a phenomenon at least temporarily larger than life? Perhaps hard to define, but all-encompassing. The sheer vagueness of “thing” lends it transcendence and gives it a shadowy power that makes itself felt in this week’s expression. We had by 1985 “It’s a thing with me (her, etc.),” meaning a distinctive habit or practice. In the late eighties, a related expression, “it’s a black thing,” took wing. That I believe was the first phrase of that form to sweep the culture. (It was often followed by “you wouldn’t understand,” and that insular quality has always gone with phrases of this type.) Just speculating here, but maybe Wheel of Fortune also had an effect; all those times Pat looked solemnly at the lit-up board and said, “It’s a thing” may have prepared our ears to hear the words in a new way — to refer to that which you must reckon with, know about, or acknowledge if you expect to be taken seriously. An outcropping of the culture, part of the zeitgeist. But normally an activity, institution, or trend must be fairly novel to be referred to as a thing. The steam engine is no longer a thing, or cars, but maybe Teslas are still a thing (maybe not). A certain amount of excitement attaches itself to a thing.

“It’s a thing” is part of several other oft-used phrases, such as “it’s a thing of beauty,” “it’s a thing of the past,” “it’s a thing to do,” not to mention “it’s a thing called . . .” But it is not a shortening of any of them; it springs from different sources. Indeed, it is grander than any of them. The absence of adjectives or any qualifying clause give the phrase license to open onto wider vistas, a wild card of the vocabulary that can stand in for any noun.

“It’s a thing” may be uttered defensively to head off another person’s suggestion that a phenomenon is trivial or unimportant. It does not go with “inanimate”; “thing” in this sense denotes more than any old object or abstraction. And it doesn’t mean “it’s the thing,” though that is closer. “It’s the thing” means “it’s getting attention right now” but suggests that it won’t be next month or next year. But “it’s a thing” carries no implication of permanence either way; maybe it will last, maybe it won’t. You can find examples of the phrase as far back as the 1980’s in LexisNexis, but it hardly shows up before 2000, and not all that much before 2010. I’m not really sure when “it’s a thing” became a thing. It doesn’t seem to have become ubiquitous until fairly recently, but now it appears here to stay.

From German we take the expression “thing in itself” (“Ding an sich”), but here it has twisted subtly to mean something more like “thing all to itself.” When you say of any phenomenon that it’s a thing, you are saying it can be defined and circumscribed, understood on its own terms in relation to other phenomena and able to hold its own. Turns out it’s not so vague after all.

Yet again has lovely Liz from Queens unearthed and breathed life into an expression buried in my raw list. When lovely Liz speaks, people listen. If they’re smart.

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ya think?

(1990’s | journalese? | “you think so?,” “isn’t it obvious?,” “no(, really)!”)

Some new expressions aren’t so new because they’re really shortened older expressions. Recently I covered “it’s not about you,” which falls into that category — the hacked-down stub of a much longer thought. “Give back” is another. “Not so much,” “thanks for sharing,” “globalization” in a sneaky way, maybe “people of color,” “got your back.” “Ya think?” probably is no more than a shortening of “Ya think so, huh?,” but it also occurred in “Whaddaya think of . . . ?” and “Ya think I (etc.) can . . . ?” Back when it was part of longer phrases, it was there to help set up the main event, not to boss the whole conversation around. Now, just like “it’s not about you,” it has acquired a nasty tinge in the process of shedding its appendages — in the early days, at least, it could be an exuberant way of asking “Could this be true?” without irony. (It may even now be used to second a statement you agree with, but even then it is a bludgeon.) Today, “Ya think?” means “you just made a very obvious or unnecessary statement” with the strong implication that only an idiot would have said such a thing.

The exact expression started creeping in by 1990 or so, slowly separating from its parent(s) and learning to stand on its own. A number of journalists used the phrase early on, not generally quoting interview subjects, so I think this may be a genuine example of journalese — that is, the journalists acted as creators rather than simply megaphones. “Ya think?” might be athletese or celebritese as well, given its early exposure among sportswriters and gossip columnists. “Don’t ya think?,” which came along a bit earlier, means simply “Don’t you agree?” But “Ya think?” is not its opposite. We already had “Who’d a thunk it?,” which had a hearty, naive quality that “Ya think” drew on at first. The spelling “d’ya think” was favored by Pittsburgh sportswriter and early adopter Gene Collier, tender of the annual Trite Trophy.

Punctuation note: I have no hesitation in spelling “ya think?” with a question mark only, but I don’t deny that it might in many cases also rate an exclamation point, in the manner of “hello?!.” In speech, it bears considerable emphasis, partly through force of utterance and partly because it is designed to create a pause by denying the other party a compelling reply. Only a few expressions that don’t include “what the hell” can carry both query and outburst convincingly.

“Think” is a tricky word to use here, because the expression is meant to suggest that the speaker was not thinking at all. If your brain had actually been working, the interlocutor would not have found it necessary to emit a loud “Ya think?” accompanied by an eye-roll and a healthy shot of sarcasm. (“Mentate” and “mentation” are handy words to denote cerebral activity that does not rise to the level of thinking. But “Ya mentate?” probably will not catch on.) The use of “think” sharpens the irony, reminding you that not only did you say something dumb, if you had thought about for a split second, you would have kept your mouth shut. Or maybe I’m giving too much credit to the “Ya think”ers. How would Rodin have posed one of them?

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live your best life

(2000’s | therapese? celebritese? | “live life to the fullest,” “make the most of one’s life,” “treat yourself right”)

Maybe I should stay away from this expression now that it has been trademarked by Pharmatech, Inc. — if this post suddenly disappears you’ll know why. I did not come across “live your best life” until a couple of years ago, during an odd moment watching daytime television in a doctor’s waiting room. I believe Kelly Ripa uttered it, in what context I can no longer say: “He’s living his best life.” The tone was a touch surprised but accepting, as if to suggest that most people would not consider such a life particularly desirable, but different strokes for different folks. That’s not the original implication; the phrase started as a clarion call to self-improvement, to make strides toward a better you, whether that means doing that which lifts you up or avoiding that which brings you down, or the ideal combination.

The beauty of this expression — always “your, etc. best life,” not “the best life” — is that it can’t be tied to a specific program; you have to decide what your best life is, with help from advice columnists and on-line quizzes, of course. Locking people into a narrow list of procedures won’t work; giving them a broader set of principles might. But even at a high level of generality, the phrase remains vague. Does it mean you’re as happy/joyous/content as you can be, or having the most fun possible? Does it mean you are kind and forgiving toward yourself? Does it mean you are exemplary, or useful to those around you? (Probably not; most best lifers emphasize self-love and self-care over helping others.) One author who titled her book “Living Your Best Life” added the following subtitle: “Ten Strategies for Getting From Where You Are to Where You’re Meant to Be.” Presumably the book will guide you to figuring out exactly where that is, but clearly it is not the same for everybody. There is no single route to happiness that everyone can follow, but there is a path that you personally can tread that will give you a better shot at living your best life. The concept is great for life coaches, because the trick to being an effective life coach is understanding that what works for you won’t work for everybody.

Endeavoring to live your best life raises the classic Epicurean dilemma: Live it up now knowing I’ll pay a price later, or practice self-restraint in the hopes of a long, untroubled life? Epicurus preached moderation, and modern medicine raises plenty of red flags for those who overdo it in youth and middle age. I haven’t seen much explicit discussion of the question among best lifers, but there is an implicit bias toward thinking about long-term well-being. We tend to consider this question in physical terms, but who can doubt that there are mental and emotional patterns that cause us harm down the line?

Some expressions come from movies, and some from magazines. This bit of psychobabble, or sociobabble, is one of the latter. No more suspense: “live your best life” goes straight back to Oprah Winfrey. In 2000, she launched a magazine called “O” (not Jackie, you understand), and on the cover of the very first issue was emblazoned “Live your best life!” Whether she is the author of the slogan I don’t know, but she put her muscle and money behind it; it entered the vocabulary and has hung around ever since. As Oprah defined it at the time: “to see yourself differently . . . peel back the layers of yourself, look at who you really are, read stories about other people who have done it, accomplished, dreamed big, done well, people who failed but kept getting up, people who shared their aspirations with other people and said, ‘This is how you do it. Living your best life.'” It’s notable that she left out bodily health, concentrating on mental and emotional work. But she did indicate the inherently interpersonal nature of lining up your best life: other people offer lessons, you learn, you tell your story, and others benefit in turn. We are social creatures, whether we like it or not, and there aren’t enough isolated caves for everybody to have one. You can’t even be selfish without reference to other people.

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