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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | businese | “recruiter,” “matchmaker”)

Forget Borneo. Headhunters today thrive in the corporate jungle, a much less straightforward place. The businese meaning crept into the mainstream press in the mid-seventies, when the word already had two definitions: the familiar anthropological, and the athletic. In the latter context, “headhunter” denoted a player who deliberately tried to hurt opponent players — especially a pitcher who throws at batters’ heads or a defensive player in football who resorts to dirty tricks. These usages have not disappeared, although the term sounds decidedly archaic now in an anthropological setting. The first corporate use I found anywhere was a book published by Alan J. Cox, “Confessions of a Corporate Headhunter” (Trident Press, 1973) — I suspect the word was already pretty well established in business jargon by then. “Headhunter” began to show up in redoubts of conventional wisdom like the Washington Post and Newsweek by the end of the decade, sometimes in bashful quotation marks, and bearing the usual wobbly word division — two words, hyphenated, or one — characteristic of compounds. The term has undergone one significant change in the last forty years: now, it applies as readily to a firm as to an individual. Back then, executive search firms were not known as “headhunters,” but today it’s quite common.

Headhunters search for attractive candidates for high-level positions in corporations, law firms, and government, often by prying them away from other companies, but that’s all part of the game. The catalyst who delivers just the right power player, or the pirate who makes off with our best talent. One supposes that “headhunter” in this sense is simply “head [man]” + “hunter,” but some of the stronger animus used in referring to South Pacific islanders or malicious athletes may rub off. The use of the adjective in Cox’s book title brings to mind a later phrase, “corporate raider,” and the implicit violence of “headhunter” is perpetuated there as well.

More recently, dating services have begun to use the expression to refer to what we might once have called “relationship counselors,” or, more innocently, “yentas” — real, live people who sift through thousands of profiles to find the exact custom-made helpmeet for your spousal needs. Any computer can spit out some compatible names, but a romantic headhunter who really knows his or her business makes all the difference. The dating game can be quite predatory, so the use of the term seems as appropriate here as in a business context.

Why isn’t the one who finds your new boss a “bounty hunter”? It’s just as plausible metaphorically, and just as violent. But what’s odd about “headhunter” is its mildness in everyday usage; it does not have rapacious connotations, in spite of its lurid roots. Such a suggestive term, such a banal occupation. They’re not painted cannibals or even defensive backs spearing wide receivers; they sit in an office all day and go home to their spouses at night. Somehow all the danger has leached out of this word, and it’s become just one more cog in the corporate machine. Bounty hunter? In your dreams. How about switchboard operator, travel agent, psychopomp?

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listen to your body

(1980’s | athletese | “don’t overdo it”)

The injunction “listen to your body” has nothing to do with listening. The verb is an exact substitute for “pay attention.” Oh, you might not like the way your joints crack, but that’s only one corner of the room this expression occupies. The doctor listens to your body every time you go in for a check-up — that’s called “auscultation” — but this phrase has nothing to do with stethoscopes, or little rubber hammers, even though it’s always reflexive. You would never say, “Hey, doc, listen to my body. Something doesn’t feel right.”

Listening to your body, in fact, has more to do with how you feel than with any of the other senses. Pain, weariness, rapid heartbeat, that kind of thing. “Feel (or sense) your body” creates the wrong impression, I suppose, and listening does include the idea of actually learning from what you’re hearing. The expression started to appear in the seventies, according to my sources, invariably in the context of running, a burgeoning fad at the time, or physical fitness (just before the spread of “wellness”). Over time, it came to be used more generally about health or lifestyle. The first instance I found in LexisNexis dates from 1977, uttered by a doctor, and doctors still use it to mean “don’t discount your symptoms.” Trainers, coaches, physical therapists. It is used both by those who can’t afford to have their bodies break down — dancers, manual laborers, pregnant women — but also by the rest of us, as a way of reminding ourselves not to push too hard. Like “give back,” it is boiled down from longer phrases: listen to what your body is telling you, listen to your body’s signals, etc. By the time George W. Bush used it in reference to Dick Cheney after a pacemaker implant in 2001, it was a cliché. I’ll quote the entire statement: “He is such a good example for Americans who may share the same condition he has, and that is to listen to your body, to take precautionary measures, and to be active.” Notice how he put it; he didn’t say, “He has to listen to his body.” It doesn’t sound natural that way.

In the imperative, it has become quasi-proverbial. Uttered sententiously, it pretends to a kind of universal irreducible truth, mother-wit so basic that even the dullest cretin recognizes it instantly. Not listening to your body buys you a hospital stay, or an early grave; the phrase is always given as an admonition or warning. I’ve covered other new phrases turned maxims: “no pain, no gain” and “pick your battles.” Will these apothegms join the ranks of “Better safe than sorry,” “Waste not, want not,” and “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”? Some day, “Think outside the box,” “Be careful out there” and “Been there, done that” may follow. Those of us old enough to remember a time before such phrases littered the landscape will slowly, grudgingly die off, and then such parvenus will seem just as immemorial. The connection to “no pain, no gain” is pretty obvious, but when I hear “listen to your body” I think of mindfulness, the mind-body problem notwithstanding. That’s what a lot of mindfulness boils down to, anyway — put yourself in a meditative state and pay attention to what your heart and lungs are doing until your mind gets limbered up and starts doing its stuff, or shuts down entirely. It’s all part of the introspective, omphaloskeptic method. Maybe the full phrase should be “make your mind listen to your body.” Now there’s a proverb worth weighing.

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(enginese, computerese | “number sign,” “cross-hatch”)

Let’s start with a home truth. This symbol, in my youth, was commonly known as a “number sign” in the U.S. That was by far the most settled, widespread way of referring to it. I don’t remember ever seeing it used to denote “pound(s),” though apparently it was. The musical kids might have called it a “sharp sign,” although the pitch symbol is tilted upward and doesn’t look quite the same. It could be called a “hash mark,” although that isn’t how I remember seeing that term used. “Hash mark” in the military meant service stripe (a patch sewn onto the sleeve of the uniform), and it’s part of a football field, where it refers to yard markers between the yard lines that run the width of the field and mark multiples of five and ten. You might call the symbol a “cross-hatch,” or possibly a “grid” (another football echo: the football field was once known as the “gridiron”). And of course, a tic-tac-toe board, for that quickest of childhood games: four lines on a piece of paper and off you go. True, a tic-tac-toe board has all right angles, unlike the slanted lines necessary for the number sign or sharp sign.

The common name for this symbol has changed twice in the last thirty years, which is unusual, even striking. “@” has been revived by the onset of e-mail and then Twitter, but it is still generally referred to as the “at-symbol” or just “at,” as far as I know. (But who knows what our young, fast fellow citizens call it now?) “Star” has gained a lot of ground on “asterisk,” but it was common to call an asterisk a star before the dawn of the computer age, and “asterisk” has remained ordinary, partly due to its common use in discussions of baseball statistics. Typographical symbols, punctuation marks, oh, they may have more than one name, but four or five? No, “#” seems uniquely blessed in that department.

Some recent writers have erred on the side of credulity by citing “octotherp” (or “octothorpe”) as the proper technical term for this symbol. There are several versions of the story on-line. Bell Telephone introduced Touch-Tone dialing in 1963, but the pound key and star key did not appear until 1968. The engineers didn’t know what to call it — some say that it was called “pound sign” from the beginning, but evidence either way is sparse — and some of them began referring to it as “octotherp” (“therp” being a nonsense syllable) or “octothorpe” (in honor of Jim Thorpe). That may be what the guys down at the engineers’ lodge called it on wild Friday nights, but no one else ever uttered such a word until the internet — able to spread more misinformation faster than any previous medium — came along.

Our no longer new friend, the “pound sign,” seems to have entered our vocabulary around 1990 (I don’t remember when I first encountered it, but that sounds about right) in reference to the telephone keypad. You can find many elaborate explanations on-line of the “lb” glyph with a ligature evolving into the “pound” sign. Maybe so. As noted above, I don’t recall ever seeing “#” used that way until people started trying to figure out why the hell we were all calling it the pound sign all of a sudden. I would love to see some old photos, or movies, that showed an actual use of the symbol to stand for “lb.” Not that there any more convincing explanations out there. A few brave souls try to derive it from the L-shaped symbol for British currency, but that seems less likely still. (For the most comprehensive exposition of the pound sign mystery, try the ever-reliable Language Log.) Thanks mainly to endless recorded instructions played over the telephone, we all learned the new name in short order, and it was even starting to worm its way into non-telephonic fields, when along came Twitter.

The new social media service was looking for a simple way for people to express common interests and form groups; in 2007 Chris Messina proposed using the pound sign as a prefix to allow easy searches for tags. The idea took off, and now “hashtag” is used even in spoken conversation. “Hash” is an older computerese term, and the “pound sign” has been called the “hash key” (presumably a corruption of “hatch”) for years in Britain. “Tag” was and remains a blogger’s term for a subject heading, a term appended to a post to make it easier to find with a search engine. So “hashtag” was ripe for the plucking, and “#” grew yet another name. While “pound sign” still rules telephony after 25 years, “hashtag” is moving beyond Twitter and teenage conversation. The fact of the matter is that outside of telephones and Twitter, we seldom have occasion to refer to “#” and therefore probably don’t really need a general term, much less two or five. Well, not five, now that “number sign” is extinct. A humble old name for a once-humble symbol, pushed aside by the usual suspect, aggressive technological change.

If Twitter remains part of everyone’s everyday life, it’s quite possible that “#” will remain “hashtag,” shed its other names, and settle into respectability. Maybe it’s another symbol’s turn to develop a promiscuous side. I nominate the caret (shift-6), to be renamed (at first) the “hat sign,” indicating one’s preference in headwear, as in “^fedora” or “^tarboosh.” #anotherbreedofhat

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wow factor

(1980’s | journalese (film)? advertese? enginese? | “appeal,” “oomph,” “oohs and ahs,” “brilliance”)

Whereas “wow” and “factor” both have relatively long and complicated histories, perhaps we should begin there before considering their union. “Wow” appears to go back to a Scots interjection, which could be laudatory or derogatory, and our modern understanding of the word emerged even before the beginning of the twentieth century; by 1925 it was going strong as an interjection and available as a noun or verb. The interjection is far more common than the other two today and probably always has been. “Factor” is an even older word that early in the twentieth century meant “gene,” basically (allowing for evolution in our understanding of genetics); now it is defined much more generally as “element or constituent, esp. one which contributes to or influences a process or result” (OED), especially if it’s important and its action is not well understood. “Factor” preceded by another term to denote a particular substance or catalyst is quite common in medicine; “Rh factor” being a longstanding example. “Risk factor” no doubt started life as a medical term but now flourishes in other fields. “Factor” became popular in Hollywood during the seventies, when it followed “Delta,” “Neptune,” “love,” and “human” (twice) in film titles (they all had to do with science fiction or espionage). And, to complete the picture — or the confusion — “wow factor” was used occasionally among stereophiles before 1980 to talk about irregularities in playback speed of tape decks and turntables, as in the phrase “wow and flutter.” So it seems the stage was well set.

By the mid-1980’s, the phrase started turning up in writing about entertainment (particularly films and television), computer software, merchandise more generally, and even service industries like banking. One early exponent was marketer Ken Hakuda, who used “wow factor” in 1987 to talk about his success in selling toys which he freely admitted were not useful or valuable except as a source of mindless fun. He used the term to refer to a highly visible feature of a product or its packaging that makes a strong, immediate impression, causing shoppers to whip out their wallets. That quality of impressiveness constitutes a common denominator among objects blessed with the wow factor. I’m not willing to take a firm position on the origin of this particular meaning. If I had to guess, I would say Hollywood, but advertese seems like an equally logical breeding ground, and I can’t say it didn’t start there. Because the phrase goes frequently with technological advance (especially when you’re talking about cinematic special effects), it is possible to argue that its source is enginese. While two of the earliest citations found in LexisNexis are due to Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford, the very first (1984) was in the title of Miss Manners’s column, of all places. Did she supply the headline, or do we owe it to a forever anonymous editor? By the mid-1990’s, the expression was no longer extraordinary and had shed quotation marks, exclamation points, capital letters, and such tricks of the trade.

If you looked even cursorily at the pre-1980 equivalents listed at the top of this entry, you may have surmised, correctly, that I struggled to find convincing synonyms from the old days. That is because we used to say the same thing with adjectives — e.g., dazzling, eye-catching, awe-inspiring, cool — or verb phrases: knock your socks off, set something apart, jump off the shelves. Many new expressions have ensconced familiar ideas in new parts of speech, which usually is a net gain for the language. More ways to say the same thing reduces monotony and opens up room for small but significant variations in connotation. I’m inclined to consider the popularity of “wow factor” deserved. It’s short and to the point. And the ground meaning is quite clear, though it can imply two slightly different things, just as in the sixties, “wow” conveyed two different levels of excitement. One was the old gee-whillikers gob-smacked elation at seeing anything unexpected and pleasing. The other was quieter, more meditative, as in the pothead grokking the universe as he exhales. No squealing or jumping up and down, but the profound sense of something worthier than oneself that must be absorbed and appreciated with a drawn-out “wow.” “Wow factor” has always leaned more heavily in the direction of the former sense, but it can shade toward the latter sense as well, and seems to do so more often as time goes by. Not that the two meanings are all that far apart.

It has occurred to me to wonder if we should hear this expression with a whiff of the tawdry or meretricious. Given its early use and likely origins, it’s not hard at all for an old snob like myself to inflect it this way. But that would demand an ironic edge that I rarely or never hear when the phrase is used. A “wow factor” is a good thing that will impress the audience, sell the product, or make something stand out. The idea that there must be something cheap or slutty about it never seems to have taken root.

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flip the script

(1990’s | hip-hop | “turn the tables (or tide),” “turn on its head,” “do the unexpected”)

A few years ago, lovely Liz from Queens and myself were discussing candidates for the blog, and I mentioned “flip the script,” an expression I had just become familiar with. We disagreed about its primary meaning, and though now I can’t remember our positions, I understand better why we weren’t in concord. In its early days, the 1990’s, the phrase had a number of connotations. Here are some variations in meaning that I collected, in addition to those gathered above: “abandon what worked in the past,” “leave something behind,” “change the subject,” “look at things from another point of view.” The underlying idea behind the multifarious meanings had to do with making a complete turn. (“Change the subject” is an exception, but such usage remains rare.) Maybe by reversing the outcome of a previous contest, maybe by following a course opposite the one you had followed before, maybe by advocating (or at least recognizing) a moral or political position at odds with your own. Writer Laura Randolph Lancaster offered some helpful synonyms in Ebony magazine, February 2002: “This year I’m going to flip the script. Do a total turnaround. A complete about-face.” Even when the term’s force is less than revolutionary and it lies closer to “do something different,” it implies a marked departure from a previous method or manner.

The earliest uses recorded in LexisNexis come from rap and hip-hop in the early 1990’s. LL Cool J used “flip the script” in an “Inaugural Rap” performed for Bill Clinton in 1993, and the New York Times noted a new song of that name by a group called Big T a few months earlier. Up until 2000 or so, the expression was almost invariably uttered by or of an African-American — athletes, entertainers, professors, you name it. The new millennium brought with it a wider pool of users, as white people of various stripes began to pepper their speech with it in an effort to sound cool. Coincidentally or not, that’s when the outlying meanings got ground away and the generally accepted meaning began to settle down into two or three broad categories (for corroboration and examples, see When you flip the script, you’re getting back at someone by adopting their tactics, or revising a familiar pattern by making a situation turn out the opposite of what everyone expects, or you’re just surprising everyone be breaking a rule or engaging in unaccustomed behavior. Even the more offbeat definitions of “flip the script” hew closely to the idea of turning (at least changing) things around. It’s become popular as a name for programs that attempt to give poor young people a chance.

Another possible source for “flip the script” is graffiti. A commenter on defines it as “taking a rival’s tag name and replicating it upside down or backwards. This shows disrespect for your rival and showcases your superior graffiti skills by demonstrating that the rival’s ‘script’ or ‘tag’ is so simple that you can replicate it in any orientation.” And, there’s a book about graffitists called “Flip the Script,” but it wasn’t published until 2013. It’s a good story, but I doubt that’s the origin. The world of graffiti is not dominated by African-Americans in the way that the hip-hop world is (and was), and just about everything points to an African-American origin of this week’s phrase.

I would have guessed that “flip the script” came out of Hollywood, and reviewers of film and theater do use it now and then, usually with the ghost of a wink, implicitly acknowledging that it’s not a native expression. The brevity and built-in rhyme probably made it attractive to rappers, but I despair of finding the first person who used it, and I still can’t find the fabled Hip-Hop Word Count. I would love to burrow into that database. One poster on Urban Dictionary speculates that “flipping the script” is really “swapping the script,” as in two people trading roles in a frequently enacted scene between them. That is a plausible origin story, but it covers only part of the range of meaning occupied by “flip the script” today.

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hold that thought

(1990’s | journalese? | “keep that in mind,” “we’ll come back to that,” “hang on”)

This expression is a bit of a dark horse. It slipped into the language without fanfare somewhere between 1970 and 1990 and did not get fully established in print until at least the latter year. An early adopter, sportswriter Thomas Boswell, used it a couple of times before 1990; Ross Perot said it in 1992 (I don’t associate it with him particularly, unlike some other characteristic phrases). One thinks of “hold back” (as in a dam or fence), “hold to,” or even “hold with” (affirm, believe, approve of), but none of those seems like a proper ancestor. “We hold these thoughts to be self-evident” doesn’t have the same ring as Jefferson’s canonical phrase, and it’s not the right meaning anyway. “Hold” in this case simply takes the place of “hang onto” or “suspend.” “Hold on,” “put on hold,” or “hold everything” are much more like it.

“Hold that thought” has always had a bit of contradiction built into it, or at least the potential for one. As the phrase is normally used, it asks the hearer to set something aside but also keep it in the forefront of one’s mind, prepared to reintroduce it at the first opportunity. Take it away, but don’t let it get away. So you rein in the idea on the tip of your tongue, knowing a more opportune moment will soon arrive. In the early days, the phrase could also carry a more unreserved meaning, closer to “stick with it” or “keep the faith,” but I am not conscious of seeing or hearing it used that way now. There is another distinctive feature of “hold that thought,” which is that writers often use it to begin or end a paragraph, or even as a paragraph unto itself. That gives it an air of portentousness, an injunction to the reader to keep your eye on the notion in question. My sense is that in conversation its use tends to be more casual, but even there it may take on the same minatory tinge. One more point, for the sake of completeness: you may see “hold that thought” used in the indicative sometimes, but in that mood it lacks any particular interest; we are discussing the imperative.

My best guess is that this expression arose on television, particularly in news programs or talk shows, where interviews make up most of the entertainment. “Hold that thought” enshrines a necessity imposed by commercial television, which dictates regular breaks in programming, often of two minutes or even more, well beyond the retention span of most of our fellow citizens. Let’s say an expert guest finally gets going just before the host cuts to a commercial. In such cases, the interviewer needs a polite, encouraging way to ask the speaker to take a break and pick up where she left off, and also to enjoin viewers to keep track of the topic through a volley of detergent ads. “Hold that thought” plays that role admirably, I think. The New York Times (April 26, 1987) put it like this: “Television is not always a great place to explore ideas that are complex, subtle or slippery. Things get in the way: a smart-aleck host, the scarcity of time, ‘hold that thought, here comes a station break.'” Sometimes “hold that thought” appears when there is no pause, as in cases where it means “wait while we introduce a related concept” (this usage is available in prose as well as speech). But most often it portends an interruption or delay. That’s why the alternate sense of this expression — “cling to an idea” — didn’t stay in the running. “Hold that thought” was needed for other things.

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air quotes

(1990’s | journalese?)

I often consider, usually without any definite result, how verbal expressions can make their way from non-existence to prevalence in a few short decades. I continue to stumble over the first cause conundrum: Must there always be an instance in which a single individual utters a new expression at a fixed point in time? Or is a more nebulous origin possible? Whether we can actually pinpoint the moment of origin is irrelevant — all sorts of things are lost to science because the right observer isn’t present at the right moment. Perhaps it is due only to my limited imagination, but it still seems incontrovertible to me that there has to be a distinct event, a tree falling in the forest whether there is anyone to hear it or not. And so it must be for gestures. Somewhere, at some time, someone did what had never been done before: held up the first two fingers on each hand while uttering a word or phrase, either to indicate that they were quoting someone else, or (most often) that the locution so decorated is dubious for some reason.

There are cases, of course, where variant forms of a new expression compete — sometimes for years — before a winner emerges. Shouldn’t gestures have the same freedom? Maybe the first propounder of air quotes held up index finger and pinky, or even clenched fists. Maybe Richard Nixon wasn’t making “V for victory” signs after all; maybe he was putting the next four years’ worth of utterances in quotation marks, notably “I am not a crook” or promises to get to the bottom of dirty tricks played on the Democrats, and democracy itself, by a handful of criminals.

The press started noticing air quotes around 1990; in the early days they were associated with the likes of David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Bret Easton Ellis, and other representatives of the culture of ironic self-consciousness that bloomed in the yuppie era (before there were hipsters, there were yuppies). One tried to demonstrate that one was fully aware that everything one said was subject to questioning and critique, and to forestall it by acknowledging it, not to say wallowing in it, before one’s hearers even had a chance (cf. “what’s your point“). In the arts, one focused obsessively on the act of creating rather than actually creating anything, in the manner of television pioneer Garry Shandling — before Seinfeld but after Letterman — who went to his reward recently. Everyone got tired of this jokey, stagey, heavy-handed irony after a few years, but sincerity has never been the same since, and we must remain aware at all times of the futility of everything we say and do. No wonder no one accomplishes anything any more.

Today, air quotes always signal derision, or at least skepticism, toward the expression they surround. They make a straightforward non-verbal substitute for “so-called” or the now defunct “quote-unquote.” When you get tired of using your words, use your hands.

scare quotes

(1990’s | academese)

Scare quotes may just be the print equivalent of air quotes. But while air quotes may theoretically be innocent, scare quotes by definition cannot be. And while it is normally obvious to everyone watching when a speaker uses air quotes, writers may not get to decide whether their punctuation constitutes scare quotes or not. Someone else — usually someone who feels aggrieved — may declare them such.

Scare quotes may not indicate direct attribution, but they invariably proclaim that the expression within is unfit (or inappropriate, as we say nowadays). Maybe it’s noxious, or discriminatory, or wrong-headed, or simply fails to capture the full import of the situation. Scare quotes bear malice aforethought and provide occasion all by themselves for argument. Never mind what I actually said; how dare you call it into question. From the other side: I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death my right to enclose it in scare quotes.

I encountered the expression first in academic contexts, and LexisNexis concurs; the first instance shows up in a letter to the New York Times written by a philosophy professor in 1983. Professors spend a lot of time examining suspiciously the words of others, and that sort of suspicion is a necessary precondition for the use of scare quotes. If you look hard enough, you can find some objectionable term; with a little practice, you need not look very hard.

To me, the odd thing about both of these expressions is the use of the word “quotes” to mean “quotation marks” rather than simply “quotations.” (My English literature survey professor would blanch at either one, but never mind.) Why shouldn’t “scare quotes” refer to words adopted for the purpose of frightening others, like “scare tactics”? Yet the meaning of “quotes” is invariable in both phrases. There’s no reason for such single-minded usage that I can see. “Air quotes” could mean “citing someone else’s words during a broadcast” or even “prices for commercial flights,” but it doesn’t, just as “scare quotes” isn’t used to talk about another person’s words yanked out of context in order to turn hearers against him. Isn’t that what political campaigns are all about? If I were the militant sort, I would start a campaign to redefine, or at least extend, these expressions. But rest easy, America, I have a blog to write. 323 entries and counting.

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you go, girl

(1990’s | feminese (African-American) | “I love it!,” “be strong,” “do your own thing”)

This expression has punch and verve, a bit of alliteration, and even a certain amount of colloquial charm. And it has a distinctly modern sound; it’s impossible to imagine suffragettes saying it to each other, or even sixties feminists. Partly that comes from the insouciant use of “girl.” (I can imagine a sixties feminist saying “You go, sister,” but I don’t think any actually did.) Enlightened women didn’t address each other that way when men called women girls with impunity. Somewhere in there — “you go, girl” seems to date from the late eighties or early nineties; I found no examples in LexisNexis before 1990 — women grabbed hold of the demeaning, infantilizing epithet and made it a term of empowerment. The more I write this blog, the more I realize how essential such appropriation, nay, co-opting (as we used to say in the ol’ English department) is to the development of our language. I’m not enough of a historian to judge how long oppressed minorities have been turning insults into badges of honor, but since World War II it has developed into an industry.

It wasn’t just women who brought “You go, girl” into the language, it was African-American women. (One of the first uses I saw in print came from BPI Entertainment Wire, April 1994, citing hip-hop duo Tag Team’s new song “U Go Girl” and crediting them with “taking ‘Whoomp! (There It Is)’ from street slang into the mainstream.”) At that time, the simpler “Go, girl” turned up about as frequently, though it seemed to be used much more by white women, not that my sample size is large enough to be reliable. (By now, white women have adopted it, so there is no longer even the appearance of a racial divide.) Adding “you” makes for increased emphasis or ebullience. My memory suggests that “you go” unadorned preceded either girl-phrase, but I’m not really sure; maybe the non-gender-specific formulation actually came later. (There was an imported Eastern-bloc car, too — anybody remember?) There’s no class bias; you can say it to your workout partner at the gym or to the First Lady and it won’t be out of place.

The phrase is all about encouragement and solidarity; to date it has not developed much of an ironic side. The implication is that the woman in question is up to something unconventional, difficult, or maybe just healthy, but anyway, worth applauding. That is still predominantly true, even if derring-do is no longer necessary. “Way to go, girl” also turns up occasionally, but “way to go” was old when I was a boy and seems to have been slowly receding from our everyday vocabulary since.

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(1980’s | athletese | “revenge,” “comeuppance,” “just desserts”)

It seems odd to me that this word came to mean what it does as late as it did. “Pay back” has never been the idiom of choice when it comes to getting back at someone else, but instances of it do turn up in many times and places. Surely it would be entitled to the same shift in part of speech as its financial counterpart, which had several nominal uses in the mid-seventies: at the most literal, “act of repaying,” or “restitution,” but often it meant “return on investment” or “reward” — in other words, “payoff.” A related adjectival use was found in phrases like “payback period,” defined as the amount of time required to make back the money invested. (In other words, how long it will be before the investment pays for itself.) That phrase is important in corporate accounting, and it may be shortened informally to “payback” (as in “payback of three years”).

These uses of the word are still around, but “payback” has taken on the more ominous meaning of “vengeance.” I found but two or three instances of the term before 1980 in LexisNexis in this sense, all in sports-related contexts. Sport is a natural breeding ground for retribution because of its competitive nature and because of how leagues work, organizing schedules that match the same teams against each other over and over. They beat us last year, but this year we’ll get payback. By the end of the eighties, athletes were using “payback time” in such contexts, which until then had been an occasional variant of “payback period.” As late as 2000, “payback” seems to have been mainly an athlete’s word, but now it has spread through the language. It made its mark next in political discourse, not surprisingly; you will hear the phrase “political payback,” which always refers to settling a score. When Donald Trump tells his supporters that it’s payback time, part of what he means is “I’m going to help you get back everything the [fill in the blank] have taken away from you.” It ain’t just money.

It has occurred to me that “payback” ought to mean rendering the service bought with a bribe or similar corruption, influenced by “kickback,” just as it sometimes is influenced by “payoff.” You see that every now and then, but it has never become common. It’s a scenario that arises rather often, so having another word to cover it would be helpful. Yet “payback” never seems to have stepped into those shoes. Odd, I call it.

In sports and especially in politics, “payback” is never neutral. It is almost always used to exult in the defeat or destruction of a rival. Although it appeals to a rough justice, payback need not be proportionate; messing the opponent up more than they messed you up to begin with may be desirable and is in any case part of the game. Winning a round carries with it the risk that you will lose the ground gained and maybe more during the next battle. Sometimes you hear “Payback’s a bitch, ain’t it?” The question is uttered with a sneer, a means of rubbing it in when you have skunked your opponent. But rhetorical flourishes are not required; “payback” in its nature bears meanness and resentment, a sense that one was bested unfairly and has no choice but to stick it to the aggressor. The only way to redress the grievance is to make the victor suffer at least as much as they made you suffer.

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what’s not to like?

(1980’s | journalese (arts) | “what’s wrong with that?,” “that doesn’t sound so bad,” “what could go wrong?,” “everything’s cool”)

Except when used ironically, this expression is more or less synonymous with “it’s all good,” but it came along earlier. One can find on-line reports of sightings going back to Dorothy Kilgallen in 1963; my candidate for the earliest use (given the limitations of Google Books it’s hard to be sure) comes from a 1954 play, The Tender Trap, by Max Shulman and Robert Paul Smith. I haven’t found any sign of an earlier citation, though it sounds like something Groucho would have said. It does not seem to have found its footing in cold print until the seventies, when Amtrak used it in an ad campaign. Volkswagen used “What’s Not to Love?,” presumably influenced by Herbie the Love Bug, around the same time in commercials for the Beetle. In the eighties it got settled, most comfortably among actors and athletes (what’s the difference? I know, I know). In recent weeks, it has become almost a reflex to use the phrase in commentary on Facebook’s new “reaction” indicators, intended to give users more nuance than a simple “like” button. On-line language observers often dismiss it as a cliché, but it doesn’t seem terribly ubiquitous. That’s partly because we have so many ways to say the same thing.

It is also quite common for said observers to emphasize growth in the ironic use of “what’s not to like.” Here again, my ear says that’s not so common, though certainly available. My mental image of the phrase is literal and positive. One offers it with a shrug and a goofy smile after listing two or more amenities, benefits, or what have you. If it doesn’t mean “everything’s jake,” it means “there’s nothing wrong with you.” When the boyfriend is afraid the girlfriend’s parents won’t think well of him, she might respond with “What’s not to like? You’ll do fine.” No doubt, the sarcastic face of this rhetorical question shows more often than it did thirty years ago, when such intonation was rare. I’ve noted expressions that started off upbeat turning darker, like “comfort zone,” but “what’s not to like” hasn’t made it that far yet. That’s not to say it won’t.

Phrase Finder correctly identifies “what’s not to like” as reminiscent of Yiddish (maybe Shulman did invent it). Put “so” in front of it and the resemblance only intensifies, and doesn’t it sound suspiciously natural in a Yiddish-American accent? More fancifully, it may be because the question poses an implicit invitation to an argument, which might be counted a characteristically Jewish stance: What’s not to like? Go ahead, just try to find something wrong with it. The irony is there, but more veiled than when some yobbo prefaces a list of horrors with “what’s not to like?” Of course, one can also offer the phrase with a shrug, another gesture characteristic of the Jews, the French, and everyone else. (Full disclosure: I am a goyishe philo-Semite. Or, as lovely Liz prefers, “Semitophile,” on the grounds that “philo-Semite” ought to refer to the sentiment rather than the actor; that is, “love of Jews” rather than “one who loves Jews.”)

A digression on Max Shulman, since I brought him up. If he is remembered at all today, it’s for high-school charmer Dobie Gillis and his beatnik friend Maynard G. Krebs, whose antics could be viewed on Nick at Nite as late as my early adulthood. Shulman was a satirical novelist whose career began in 1943 with Barefoot Boy with Cheek, a fantasia on college life — he was fresh out of the University of Minnesota — and throughout his career he was known as a compiler and chronicler of campus humor. He was a keen observer of American absurdities and a determined social critic. (A World War II veteran, Shulman devoted a couple of novels to our armed forces. A later novel, Anybody Got a Match?, skewered the tobacco industry.) I just found out he wrote the book for the Broadway musical How Now, Dow Jones (1968). His technique could have been more refined, but he used genre parodies and zany wordplay very effectively and was a master at depicting situations spiraling out of control. We remember the Beats, but Shulman belonged to a much different tradition of non-conformism and social criticism. Sort of a Jewish Mark Twain.

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