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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

regime change

(1980’s | bureaucratese? academese? | “overthrow”)

A phrase that first bobbed up around 1980 in industry publications mainly interested in the business climate in this hotspot or that, or so says LexisNexis (Google Books shows a few examples from the seventies). It grew slowly through the mid-nineties, usually but not always in discussions of foreign policy; Variety used it to talk about boardroom wars in Hollywood, and the business press more generally did the same thing. I even saw it in an article about the weather, deploring a prolonged spell of rain and low pressure. Ronald Reagan used it in 1987 in regard to Libya, but I recalled that a later war or covert action had vaulted the expression into prominence — Iraq (the first one)? Bosnia? Former Soviet Union? Not until 1998 did “regime change” come into its own when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced a revised policy toward Iraq, then led by the much-demonized Saddam Hussein, from containment to “containment plus regime change.” That seemed to give everyone else license to use the phrase more often. The Clinton administration’s strategy of fomenting resistance to Hussein inside Iraq coupled with regular bombings and discreet aiding and abetting from Arab neighbors didn’t do the trick, but the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld axis finished the job a few years later, ultimately handing Iran much greater regional influence and still costing us huge amounts of money. It was heartening to read recently that Trump, like Obama before him, will withdraw most U.S. troops out of Iraq; we’ll see how long he keeps it up.

I tend to think of regime change as imposed from without. One nation (or an alliance) inflicts regime change on another, or at least triggers or sponsors it. But the phrase doesn’t have to be used that way. A regime change may just as well be imposed from within, through an election or coup (either of which may be initiated or influenced by a foreign power, of course). And why does “regime change” have to mean “replacement”? I don’t know, but it does. “Regime change” is never used to refer to an existing government reforming itself. Maybe that should be “regime changes” (as in “going through changes”) — the plural sounds gentler somehow. I’d like to see an expression that gives room for rulers to see the error of their ways and forge a new path.

We do not refer to changes and successions in the U.S. government as “regime change.” That’s because “regime” retains its authoritarian sound, and we do not own up to our authoritarian tendencies, which are not as strong as in many other parts of the world, though they are arguably stronger than they used to be. Trump may covet the power of Putin or Duterte, but he is much more constrained than they. And it’s still hard to imagine any single country, or even several, strong enough to remove the federal government by force. (Taking over Washington would be easy enough, but pacifying Arkansas?) The Russians have had some success recently at undermining it, and, of course, they may have more.

I realized something as I looked through LexisNexis hits from the past month on “regime change.” Throughout the nineties, the results contained a lot of false positives, closely related phrases like “how regimes change” or “if you want the regime to change,” but “regime change” as a compound noun was not common. Now you encounter very few false positives. It made me realize, rather belatedly, that when a new expression takes charge, previous variants get funneled into it. Once “regime change” became the way to say it, the variants all but disappeared, because everyone took to using the new phrase and making whatever grammatical and syntactic adjustments were necessary.

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safe space

(1980’s | therapese | “refuge,” “safe place”)

“Space” has displaced “place,” and it has happened in my lifetime. When I was young, perhaps the relatively advanced used “space” for indoor places, but I still thought of it as an outdoorsy word: “wide open spaces,” “outer space.” And when it went inside, it meant a big area. (e.g., You’ll need a lot of space to set up that home entertainment center.) But by 1985 you might have heard the word with reference to a performing venue, a gallery, possibly even a room in one’s apartment. We still use “space” to denote the rest of the universe, but I don’t think “outer space” sounds as normal as it did, and “wide open spaces” is an anachronism. You might have heard “inner space” in the sixties, though that referred to one’s psyche or whatever passed for it. There has been a change, but why? and how?

By the early eighties, “safe space” had emerged, both as a general term and as a name for institutions serving vulnerable children, particularly victims of physical abuse. By the late eighties, battered women (that expression sounds out of date, doesn’t it?) or LGBTQ people (not that they were known as such then) were developing their own. From the beginning, “safe space” meant a place where one would not be subjected to violence, and the definition grew quickly to encompass other kinds of persecution as well. The phrase is used literally on occasion, even now, about a child’s playground, for example, but in everyday use it’s about more than well-designed swingsets, or even armed guards preventing muggings. A safe space demands a certain attitude or point of view, which means contrary acts and ideas are not welcome. The argument goes that in certain times and places, freedom of expression for some does not outweigh others’ need to feel unthreatened. Sometimes it’s a strong argument, sometimes it isn’t.

A safe space is where you don’t have to defend yourself, or be on the defensive. You don’t have to be particularly empathetic to see why victims of child abuse or gay-bashing would benefit from having somewhere to escape to. But safe spaces, particularly on college campuses, have proliferated in inverse proportion to the actual need for them — the less danger, the more safe spaces. It’s unwise to be glib about this; gays and lesbians remain targets, although younger people are more likely to accept them than in my day, and trans people have no choice but to stay vigilant — partly because they have begun to raise their voices and demand respect from the rest of society. But when I visited a small liberal-arts college in the New York metropolitan area last year with my girlfriend and her daughter, I was struck by the sheer number of safe spaces. Before long, it became clear that the ones who really needed a safe space were the right-wing kids. The traditional scapegoats and targets were amply palisadoed, with safe spaces in every direction — in much better shape than beleaguered College Republicans. (The College Republicans can’t decide if they should proclaim that they have no need for safe spaces or declare themselves victims of left-wing oppression.)

We go on a lot more than we used to about safety and security, with “safety is our number one priority” having become a ritual declaration not just from amusement park operators but from government officials, school superintendents, or hospital administrators. AIDS and terrorism are responsible for a lot of the increased focus on safety; AIDS brought us safe sex and 9/11 brought us Homeland Security. Life generally doesn’t seem more perilous than it was fifty years ago, but we have become accustomed to unctuous reassurance from our officials and leaders and put ourselves in the position of children looking up to our guardians, who protect us without sharing disturbing details about their methods. Now that consumerism has turned us into a nation of three-year-olds, we’re all set to devolve into hero-worship, revering those who protect us even as they take our money and make our day-to-day lives more tenuous. The safe space has had its own little revolution within a much larger one, in which the unattainable goal of absolute safety has replaced our old ideals of freedom and justice. We know there’s no way the government can keep us safe from everything. How hard do we want it to try?

Another chewy expression proposed by Lovely Liz from Queens. C’mon, faithful readers, don’t make her do all the work. Send your suggestions to usagemaven at verizon dot net.

February 5, 2018: Lovely Liz from Queens made a further point on the evolution of “safe space,” which I will make bold to relay: Originally, in therapeutic settings, “safe space” implied freedom to explore one’s emotions, to say what one was not able to say anywhere else — in other words, where it is safe to speak without fear of reprisal. It granted “freedom to.” But now “safe space” grants “freedom from” fear, persecution, violence, etc. It has become a redoubt rather than a field of exploration. What both senses have in common: creating a setting where you can let down your inhibitions and set aside the restraints that make it possible to get through the day in the world at large.

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congestion pricing

(1980’s | bureaucratese)

This week Lex Maniac lops the “e” off “urbane” and goes urban. Congestion pricing is in the news again, at least here in New York, as our solons ready themselves for another push to improve traffic flow. The phrase itself is not new; the first hit I found in LexisNexis dates from 1979. But only a couple of months ago I had to explain it to my father. (No knock on the old man — where he lives the subject doesn’t come up, and besides, we all have expressions that we’ve never heard though they’ve been familiar to everyone else for years.) Congestion pricing involves charging drivers to enter the parts of the city with the highest traffic density (in Manhattan, that usually means below 59th Street, or maybe 96th) at certain times of the day, with the goal of raising money and discouraging people from motoring through the busiest parts of town. The phrase existed before 1980 but remained a specialized term until after 1990, I would say. Even then, it was frequently placed in quotation marks and glossed, but it had become the accepted term for that form of traffic engineering. It remains a technical term without metaphorical implications or traces. It may also be used in reference to regulating airplane traffic — for example, raising landing fees during popular travel times. But normally congestion pricing is more terrestrial.

It’s typically sold as a way to reduce vehicular traffic, prefaced by terrifying statistics, like the average rush-hour speed along 34th Street, or whether a Boy Scout can outrun a crosstown bus. Reduced traffic has other benefits besides getting everyone where they’re going faster. The first time congestion pricing came up in New York, in 1986, the city was in violation of the Clean Air Act and had to find ways to reduce carbon monoxide and ozone. Less traffic means less stress and a healthier environment. What’s so terrible about that?

Officials in charge of high traffic density areas have a ritual of proposing congestion pricing from time to time, only to see it crushed ruthlessly. And that’s probably what will happen this go-round, though the current plan’s backers have tried to address objections made to previous versions. And who knows? Now that “cashless tolling” (another blot on the vocabulary) has settled in, even the skittish have gotten used to the technology. All you need to do is build gantries — so that’s what a gantry is! — at every entry point with a bunch of EZPass readers, just like on the Verrazano Bridge, and watch those virtual dollars pile up.

The principle is as simple as forcing drivers to pay for maintenance of the roads, because without the roads there wouldn’t be any drivers. That makes sense, right? The people who use the thoroughfares should pay for them, and gasoline taxes don’t cover all the costs, certainly not in New York. Road building and maintenance entail significant future costs, so congestion pricing redresses a perennial weak spot of our form of industrial capitalism, which is accounting for future expenditure made inevitable by present actions. Yet there’s little political appetite for infringing the sacred right to drive, so they’re selling the policy as new revenue for the subway. Which will need it if the overcrowded, delay-prone trains are to absorb still more commuters.

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feeling the love

(2000’s | evangelese? new agese? | “do you feel it?”)

Really a complex of expressions here, of which this week’s headword is the most prominent; “not feeling the love” has also earned a spot in our lingo. Then there’s the new way to express discontent, “I’m not loving the . . .” which means “I don’t like it.” The McDonald’s slogan “I’m lovin’ it” has persisted for years and somehow manages to sound friendlier and less fraught than “I love it.” (Never underestimate the power of a good ad writer. But why not “I’m feeling the love”?) And don’t forget “love handles.” My guess is that “feeling the love” has a religious origin, specifically in America’s repetitive history of revivalism and pulpit oratory. It’s so easy to hear in my mind’s ear the braying preacher: “Are ya feelin’ the love of Jesus?” (Which now that I think about it could refer to Jesus’s love for you or your love for Jesus — nice ambiguity there.) It might come from something more new age, too, and it might even be therapese, though I don’t have any evidence. My usual sources don’t provide any clear origin story.

Like the McDonald’s slogan, “feeling the love” adopts the present progressive, combining an auxiliary verb with the present participle to denote current or ongoing action. It is generally used in group situations, whether a church congregation or a concert or Times Square on New Year’s Eve, where everyone present is of the same mind, their hearts of one accord. The crowd may be virtual in these days of social media, but the shared experience must still be heartwarming. In this sense of the phrase, those assembled generate the love themselves, manifested in feelings of warmth and unity. It’s hard to be sure, but the first distinct uses I found in LexisNexis dated from just before 2000. “Not feeling the love” means roughly the opposite; it’s what an isolated individual says when the crowd stands united against him. It really means “feeling the ill will,” or even menace. Both expressions now may come up anent one-on-one events, as in a partner in a relationship “no longer feeling the love,” but such uses have not become the norm yet.

Scrolling through LexisNexis results from the past month has given me the impression that “feeling the love” is starting to degenerate, moving closer to meaning “feeling real good” or just “feeling fine.” There’s still usually some appeal to shared experience invoked when one uses the expression, but my guess is that in ten years, it will be looser and less firmly associated with the defining characteristics limned above. Such a progression is one of the most common stories in linguistic evolution, and it doesn’t have to take a long time. Every now and then a new expression will stake out a narrow band of turf and remain on it through decades and vicissitudes, but slip and spread are much the more common fates. Precision is plowed under through carelessness or inadequate discernment; once an expression has undergone that process, there’s no going back. Sheer growth in use for a new expression doesn’t make up for increasing vagueness and dullness.

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not so much

(2000’s | journalese (arts)? | “less so”)

If I should ever determine the precise features that cause this or that new expression to take off like a rocket, I will be, if not rich, at least pleased with myself. Somewhere between 2005 and 2010, you started to hear “not so much” a lot; it became downright trendy. It reminds us of others; “been there, done that,” “don’t go there,” “glass ceiling,” “tiger mother” all made comets of themselves, boring a brilliant path into everyday language. But “not so much” was not a new expression. The formulation “not so much x as y” was quite common in my youth and for years before that, a verbal means of pointing out that the real culprit wasn’t what you would expect. It wasn’t always followed by an “as” phrase; “but,” “because,” and “whether” were also used. And “not so much” was more idiomatic in such contexts than “not as much.” (“So” often replaces “as” after a negation.) It has acquired a distinctive new use rather than undergone a change in meaning.

There’s no need to spell it out, I suppose, but for the sake of posterity . . . “Not so much” has become a persistent end-of-phrase tag, used to belittle by means of a comparison. (Comparisons are odious, they used to say, and this is why.) A desirable quality is ascribed to Person or Object A, and “not so much” reports the unfortunate fact that Person or Object B does not fare so well in that department. Again, the formula is standard, with only minor variations. While “not so much” may appear before its subject, it usually comes after it and therefore serves as punctuation, appending a bit of extra force and finality. In speech, it is preceded by a no-foolin’ caesura, piling on even more emphasis.

The first hit I found in LexisNexis came from the showbiz magazine Variety in December 2004, but I don’t claim it’s the earliest — the older usage has not disappeared by any means, and I didn’t have time to wade through all the false positives. I don’t remember hearing it before 2000, which means little, and I didn’t find any sign of it in LexisNexis before then either, which doesn’t mean much more. By 2010 it was available, nay, omnipresent, in many different kinds of writing. Gene Collier, who awards the annual Trite Trophy to the most obnoxious sports cliché, wrote in 2009: “‘Moving forward’ would win [the] Trite [Trophy] if I allowed it, and so would ‘not so much.'” Its use has continued to grow since then, but Collier aside it has not brought forth much backlash. It shares a breezy, devil-may-care quality with certain other fast-rising expressions, which may have saved it from the sort of opprobrium attracted by “reference,” “significant other,” or “wellness.”

One expression that was not a synonym but resembled “not so much” was “not so fast,” also normally set off in conversation from the words around it and often standing alone, unless followed by some form of direct address (“Not so fast, buddy.”) There is definitely an echo there, and I persist in believing, with no real evidence, that new meanings or expressions may be helped into the language by phonologically similar existing expressions. “Not so bad” was another one, though it seems less closely related. Of course, “not so . . .” could be used in front of most adjectives, often as a direction or command encouraging moderation, without jelling into fixed phrases. So the skids were greased, as it were, for “not so much” to take its place in our vocabulary.

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uptick

(1970’s | businese (finance) | “slight shift upward,” “(small or modest) increase,” “pick-up”)

What is it about this word? From a semantic standpoint it’s not all that interesting; we had many ways to the same or very similar things. Its spread is unextraordinary, irritatingly but not unusually wide. Its formation offers no surprises; “up-” as a noun prefix has been established for a long time, and “tick” is derived prosaically enough from the stock ticker. Maybe it’s the mere sound; it conjures in me a variety of associations. Savor the words it resembles: optics, Updike, upchuck (I’ve heard “sick up,” but never “upsick,” alas). Quite a range there. Invert the syllables — this is a tick-up! Because it’s stressed on the first syllable, it wants to be heard as “upt-ic,” the adjective form of the noun “upt” (o.k., I made that part upt). “Tick” is rich: blood-sucking parasite, mattress filling, time passing. None of it sounds like much reason for optimism, even with “up” in front of it. But then upticks aren’t always desirable; it can be your retirement savings but it can also be the unemployment rate.

Any given uptick may make us feel better or worse depending on where it occurs, but they are usually hailed as blessings, particularly in bad times. The word acquires an aura of hope when the economy has been contracting, or temperatures are low. Experts huddle hopefully around the first upticks, vying to see who can make them more portentous, or can prove more convincingly that they are meaningless. Under normal circumstances, an uptick is a little thing, nothing to get excited about. But “uptick” may be slipping, used more and more often to refer to moderate or larger increases. Even so, the related expression “spike” generally refers to changes of greater magnitude. Originally, I believe, “spike” was reserved for sharp upward motion followed by a sharp shift downward, forming a characteristic pattern on a graph from which the expression presumably took its new meaning. Upticks carry no expectation of a downward sequel; they can continue for months or even years in a situation where everyone is satisfied with gradual progress.

“Uptick” has its origins in the stock market, meaning the smallest possible upward movement in share price, generally an eighth of a point (an uptick is much smaller than an upswing). “Downtick,” never as common, remains in occasional use. “On (the) uptick” meant “rising slowly.” “Uptick” is also used in the name of an SEC rule governing the short sale of stock. By the seventies, it was in wide use in economic or political reporting; Safire offered a tidy and efficient history of the word in 1984. To this day, it is frequently used to talk about statistics — this rate or that total. I’d say it’s better not to use “uptick” for that which you can’t represent definitively in numbers — civic pride, percentage of the population suffering from mental illness or opiate addiction — though many people do. Even then, there are indirect methods of measurement that provide some statistical basis for detecting an uptick.

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wellness

(1980’s | doctorese | “well-being”)

“Wellness” is not a synonym for “health,” or even “good health.” Most objections to the term assume that it is and so are easily dismissed, not that even the most principled objections would have stood a chance — the term has routed the field and now is heard everywhere. It goes with holistic, or perhaps alternative or preventive medicine (now you hear “integrative medicine”). The point of wellness is to distinguish itself from conventional ideas of bodily soundness, which involve purging microbes, following rigid, one-size-fits-all guidelines for diet and exercise, and ignoring everything else. From the beginning, practitioners of wellness have preached “Mens sana in corpore sano” (or the other way around), paying due attention to one’s emotional and physical gestalt over antibiotics and cholesterol counts, not that a holistic physician would disregard dangerous symptoms and proven treatments. Nowadays, wellness is most often touted as a result of preventive medicine.

Was the word invented in the seventies? No, the book “Dynamics of Wellness,” published in 1970, cites a psychologist named Dunn for inventing it in 1957 (the New York Times provides a detailed history). The expression became much more common after 1980; as early as 1984 Ronald Reagan urged employers to “sponsor wellness programs that reduce smoking, improve eating habits and promote physical fitness as ways of cutting costs and improving workers’ health” (Associated Press, March 13). A recent post on forbes.com notes, “When corporate wellness programs first took off, the focus was primarily on smoking cessation or weight loss goals. Current wellness programs have come a long way since then –- and program offerings have expanded to focus on more than just the physical aspect of health. Employers are . . . combining more traditional well-being efforts with career development efforts.” Such programs continue to grow thicker on the ground every year, as wellness, like mindfulness, has become popular around the workplace recently. They are both cheap ways to show concern for employees while doing as little as possible to improve working conditions or morale and butting further into everyone’s personal life. On the other hand, wellness programs generally dispense reasonable advice and may actually do some good.

The expression looks to be the sort of crude formation that springs so easily from the mind of a technician or bureaucrat. Find an adjective, glue “-ness” to it, and voilà! a noun. Sometimes, as I have noted elsewhere, this approach has the advantage of creating a term both relatively precise and more or less free of connotation. Other times, it’s just one more blot on the language. “Wellness,” clumsy as so many well-intentioned locutions are, does attempt to name a state of soundness that encompasses peace of mind as well as strength of physique, a comprehensive and balanced picture. And wellness has survived on its own terms as it continues to denote a way of looking at a person’s health that stresses a fuller account of it than you’ll get from your standard health-care provider. Though it is closely related to several other new expressions, it doesn’t cover exactly the same ground as any of them and so can’t be deemed entirely redundant.

Lovely Liz from Queens asked me to point out that the eminent poet and critic John Hollander despised “wellness.” Its unidiomatic sound would naturally have displeased an ear as refined as his, but I don’t know if he would have conceded that the word has a certain use-value. I find myself rolling my eyes at the neologism, but I can’t help but acknowledge with a bit of a grudge that it adds to the language in certain ways as it wounds it in others.

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soft money

(1980’s | journalese (politics) | “slush fund,” “dirty money”)

An example of a venerable expression that has seen boom times lately, in this case with a significant change in primary meaning driven by a change in circumstances, always a goad to new expressions. In the nineteenth century, “soft money” meant paper money, as opposed to hard money, which was precious metal formed into coins (sometimes known as “specie”). It took several decades before the now taken for granted consensus emerged that paper money is o.k., still not a universal belief. And it is true that if a government goes belly-up, the money it has issued goes with it, whereas gold is always worth something. Nonetheless, we have proven to most people’s satisfaction that it’s possible to run an economy on paper money, untethered to gold or anything at all except the government’s willingness to print it and the people’s willingness to exchange it, even through some heavy-duty financial disasters. (Print money, in this day and age? Now it’s not even visible — nothing more than numbers on a server somewhere. Oops, hope it didn’t get hacked.) Of course, history hasn’t ended, but we’ve kept it up for more than a century now.

When Lovely Liz from Queens nominated this week’s expression (thanks, baby!), I saw at once that she was offering me an opening for more of my brand of acidulous commentary, and it’s impossible to avoid in the case of this term, drenched as it is in political chicanery and malefaction of great wealth. Before we get there we must continue to trace its history, as we note a growth of use in this near-dormant expression in academic circles in the 1960’s. Following a couple of decades of lavish research grants, both public and private, “soft money” came into use to describe funding from such sources as opposed to funding provided for in university budgets. Soft money, while abundant, was subject to vicissitudes; government funding might be reduced upon a change of administration, or corporate funding might find a more useful target at some other school. By the mid-sixties, college administrators were warning each other against excessive dependence on soft money.

In 1979, an apparently minor change in federal campaign finance law introduced soft money as we know it today. In brief, Congress removed caps and eliminated disclosure requirements on donations to state party organizations, while maintaining limits on direct contributions to candidates. But there was nothing to keep state organizations from helping candidates for federal office, so corporations, unions, and PAC’s (political action committees, a brand-new phenomenon) as well as individuals could pay much more for influence than they had before, just in time for the 1980 election. It took a couple of cycles before the new order became a familiar fact of life, but within a decade everyone knew what soft money was. And the rich, whom we now call the one percent, were able to invest astronomical sums in their preferred candidates — almost always right-wing — and force officeholders into servitude, elected by the people at large but owned by only a vanishingly small number of them. By an unfathomable coincidence, wealth has become concentrated at historic levels since the dawn of the soft money era, but that must be an act of God, or the invisible hand, or something. And it’s true that politics is so awash in private funding that when soft money was outlawed by the McCain-Feingold act in 2002, it took little time and less effort for those torrents of contributions to find new channels. Recent Supreme Court decisions have opened the spigot further, and soft money has recently passed the torch to dark money, whose sources are not required to reveal their identity. Could be the Koch Brothers, could be George Soros, could be the Russians. The justices, or some of them, leap to the defense of our sacred right of freedom of spending secured by the First Amendment, while ignoring the public interest in honest politicians, or, if we can’t have that, our need to know who’s buying our elected officials.

Wealthy donors may, of course, withdraw their support; through all its changes of referent soft money has never lost that sense of impermanence. They can decide that they don’t get enough return on investment, or wish to avoid being tied to someone a majority of voters loathe. Better to pour that money into stock buybacks, dividends, and executive compensation than to spend it on unreliable politicians. Hard to imagine the puppetmasters pulling the plug, but it could happen. Especially if the current Republican tax bill, which massively favors the rich as every across-the-board tax cut must, fails to pass, which would require only two or three senators to undergo a spasm of conscience, or fear reprisal at the ballot box. But the reason they’re pushing so desperately to pass a tax cut in the first place is fear of reprisal from wealthy donors.

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-strong

(2000’s | advertese | “resilient”)

“Strong” as a hashtag suffix has taken firmer hold with every disaster, natural or otherwise, but its progenitors predate Twitter. Even in my youth, “be strong” in the imperative could be comfortably used to mean “stay the course” or “hang tough.” “Stay strong” had the same feel. While “stay strong” most often referred to markets, arsenals, or muscles, by 1980 or so it could be used for emotional or mental states. The gradual transition from brute force to mental toughness had begun. It culminated in the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s phrase “Livestrong,” first used, as near as I can tell, in 2004. The Foundation is dedicated to people living “with, through, or beyond cancer,” and the Livestrong campaign originated as not only a slogan but a fundraising device: those ubiquitous yellow wristbands made for lots of donations. Armstrong has since been disgraced, and the renamed Livestrong Foundation lives on without him, but he remains the grandfather of this hashtag suffix. I’m not certain, but “Livestrong” seems to have been the first example of a compound word made from an active verb plus “strong,” which is now standard. Before that, we had “headstrong” (stubborn), but I can’t think of any other combinations of noun or verb with “strong,” which doesn’t mean there weren’t any. Armstrong’s own stirring history as a cancer survivor and seeming invincibility in bicycle races (later revealed to be at least partly the result of illegal drug use) made him a natural exemplar of resolution and perseverance; the whole idea had more to do with that than with fitness, or weapons stockpiles.

Today, inevitably, “LiveStrong” is a hashtag, along with others — #StayStrong, #HeartStrong, #PlayStrong — and is now appended to the name of every city where something awful happens. #BostonStrong, #HoustonStrong, #LasVegasStrong, now #LAStrong in the face of the latest round of wildfires. (There are a number of “-strength” hashtags as well.) Given our propensities for brutal weather and mass assassinations, it should have a rosy future. I don’t know if victims of sexual harassment and abuse have developed a “#___Strong” hashtag yet, but it would come as no surprise. “-strong” tends to go with terrors one has survived, like a bomb attack, or cancer or rape. That force is still there, though with wider use it is slipping. The expression has not become trivial, but there’s always that risk.

The new formulation commands us to maintain fortitude, with an implied lack of sympathy toward those who merely surrender to the latest misfortune. That’s a way to read it, perhaps unfair. Another unflattering interpretation is that “Livestrong” and its descendants are a substitute for bravery, not an expression of it, a hip way of whistling past the graveyard. If we repeat the mantra often enough, we can fool ourselves into thinking we really do have control over what comes next. Or maybe it is simply a mantra, a displaced form of meditation that allows us to overcome adversity. The “#___strong” mottoes always strike me as fake somehow, ersatz toughness ginned up more for the sake of appearances than for any real thought of overcoming. (Now that I mention it, don’t all hashtags have that quality?) But I’m also aware that it may just be me. I’ve learned not to question too closely the motives and means of those going through hard times, and to give the benefit of the doubt to those in pain or misery.

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laser-focused

(1990’s | journalese? athletese? | “single-minded,” “intent (on)”)

The output of a laser meets a casual definition of “focused”: a light beam formed from many waves, all of the same wavelength, projected through a very narrow opening. There are those who believe that the uniformity of the light waves means that it is incorrect to describe a laser as “focused,” because focusing happens only with light of many different wavelengths, but it’s also true that there are such things as focused lasers. Besides, it’s the uniformity that gives the impression of focus, optics notwithstanding. So it’s not surprising that we took to talk of “laser focus.” I can’t think of any precise noun equivalents from before 1980, except perhaps for “undivided attention,” but we had several closely related concepts, such as “bearing down,” “bound and determined,” “powers of concentration.” It suggests not only purpose but precision, not only concentrating effectively but concentrating on the right thing. “Laser focus” has also done spot duty as a verb for twenty years at least, though it is not used in the imperative, as “focus” by itself is.

The expression seems to have arisen in sportswriting, if you believe LexisNexis (in this case, I’m not sure I do); the first unmistakable instances popped up in articles about boxers in the late eighties (the laser industry trade magazine “Laser Focus” had been around for several years by then). As with “wonk,” Bill Clinton did not invent the expression but helped solidify it in the early nineties when he promised a “laser focus” on the economy. For all that, it does not seem to have become rife until after the turn of the millennium; I don’t recall hearing it until probably after 2010, though it might have crossed my path earlier.

The advent of the CD player, which was for most of us the first practical, everyday use of a laser, helped make this term possible. Lasers were exotic then (they’re still kind of exotic), but there one was in your own home, bringing your favorite tunes to life. There was a vague understanding in the air that a laser was the magical part of the new piece of equipment, much spookier and more advanced than a diamond stylus or magnetic tape. So lasers were ushered into the general consciousness, opening up room for a new figurative expression. A mere thirty years later, “laser-focused” was declared business jargon by Bloomberg News, and it is clearly a term businessmen have picked up, more than politicians, though it is available to anyone now.

We generally hear the term as praise, but calling someone “laser-focused” may just be a nice way of saying they are wearing blinders; that is, it may imply the wrong kind of workaholism or micromanagement. It’s one thing to pour your efforts into reaching a commendable goal, but obsession has its own risks even in the service of a noble cause. I would say the term generally continues to have a positive connotation, but it certainly can suggest something else: an unhealthy involvement in a single pursuit that leads to exclusion or isolation. We don’t hear that when a corporate spokesman boasts of a laser focus on customer service, but when an individual exercises laser focus, we may wonder.

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