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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

chief happiness officer

(2000’s | businese)

How did this expression get started? With a McDonald’s ad campaign, ca. 2004, that’s how. Ronald McDonald was anointed “Chief Happiness Officer,” a fanciful title (and understood to be obviously so) whose holder was in charge of pleasing customers by cutting capers and dispensing his brand of cheer. It was a joke, people.

The office, if not the title, apparently owes much more to Google than McDonald’s; Google was among the first to install a Chief Happiness Officer (known as the Jolly Good Fellow). Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos.com, published a book called Delivering Happiness in 2010, and that gave the expression a big push, though it had been percolating before that.

There is considerable debate over whether there is a genuine need for such executives in the c-suite or not. But the chief happiness officer has joined the ranks of corporate nostrums, and blogs and magazines feature a steady stream of articles on the new phenomenon. The main point is that the CHO is primarily responsible for employee morale, not customer satisfaction. Happy employees are productive employees, and increased productivity brings higher profits. The chief happiness officer’s job is to oversee efforts to keep the staff content, by offering perquisites or helping people over rough patches. Most commentators regard it as a human resources position — the CHO may be head of HR — but customer relations may also play a part. Some CHO’s do monitor employee/customer interaction closely in order to head off problems. That level of surveillance bothers critics. In order to keep employees happy, you have to have a lot of information about how they do their jobs, or deal with co-workers and management. That knowledge can be abused, and it’s unwise to concentrate it in the hands of an unscrupulous executive. The CHO is supposed to be benevolent, but what if your CHO cares more about feathering his own nest than improving the lives of workers?

I have said much about sneaky ways employers have of showing concern for their employees that either increase their own sway or conceal the ways that their actions and policies make workers’ lives more difficult and less certain. On the surface, the chief happiness officer seems like a noble corrective, but it can be part of the same package. They may be as adept as any executive at figuring out ways to shift blame to employees for the misery the bosses are creating, deflecting responsibility away from the higher-ups to the lower-downs. That puts them firmly in management’s camp, regardless of their job description.

Thanks go once again to Will from Paris, wry observer of the corporate jungle, who fed me this phrase months ago. You wouldn’t want me to move too fast and write a hasty, uninformed piece, would you? These things need time to ripen.

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cancel culture

(2010’s | celebritese? journalese? | “dropping,” “shunning”)

An expression so new it is premature to say anything about it, but then I thought of a little joke that harks back to the previous entry, to wit, the silencing of live performing arts and sporting events after the coronavirus outbreak has given “cancel culture” a whole new meaning. Two, actually: so many public events being called off (in which “cancel” acts as a verb), or a society (culture) built on mass elimination of public events (adjective).

The phrase is slightly odd — albeit artfully alliterative — but not hard to understand. “Culture” refers to a general way of living or doing business, that is, organizing the population, or characterizing certain distinct groups within it. That usage is familiar, even sanctioned. It is “cancel” that gives the expression its piquancy, as in “eliminate” or “cross out.” If you’ve been well and truly canceled, you don’t exist any more.

The first uses in LexisNexis date from the first half of 2018, years after the #MeToo movement originated, though the two have become inseparable in the public mind. Cancel culture involves the expunging of offenders in word or deed from the mainstream or respectable media — usually public figures, usually performers of some kind. It may go as far as arrest and conviction, but such cases are rare. Everyone condemns the offender, his gigs get flushed, and his reputation takes a sudden nosedive. If you are an ordinary person who tweets something indiscreet that attracts a lot of notice, there’s a decent chance your life will be ruined. Celebrities have more resilience — some performers have returned to work after being canceled — especially those who cultivate an audience who don’t believe in women’s rights, or even decent behavior toward women.

Much ink has been spilled over the question of whether the bringing down of important men represents the efforts of a mob of rampaging maenads or downtrodden women banding together to defeat the arrogant and powerful. I favor the latter view, though I recognize that any large-scale push to bring the guilty to justice will result in a few unfair if not erroneous verdicts. Unjust pillorying is bad policy, and so is gloating. But seeing a blatant sexual predator like Harvey Weinstein brought to heel gives us hope that some forms of cruelty and violence, even among the privileged, may become much harder to get away with.

There is a strong free-speech case against silencing people, though, and many of us remain uneasy over depriving the accused of any verbal recourse beyond abject apology. Not by denying them the power to speak, but by refusing to listen. Part of the reason the judgments against Cosby and Weinstein are so satisfying is that they were handed down by a court obliged to show some deference to the rights of the defendant. The courts accumulate and weigh evidence better than the rest of us can. When we push judicial (and judicious) restraints aside, we risk turning into an unreasoning, ruthless mob.

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It’s in the air . . . It is still early in our life with coronavirus, but a few emerging language notes may be in order as we’re confronted with all manner of new and repurposed expressions. Prophetically enough, I’ve already covered “abundance of caution,” “lockdown,” “shelter in place,” and “closure” (not to mention “cocooning,” a word that has not re-emerged). But the plague of new expressions rages unabated.

First off, it is “coronavirus” (one word) far more often than a two-word formation. The accompaniment “novel,” seen often a few weeks ago, already appears much less frequently in the layman’s press, because only one coronavirus matters at this point, and it doesn’t need any help. (The definite article is still common, but not invariable.) COVID-19 is the illness caused by the virus, I think, but some people seem to use them interchangeably and I’m not completely confident I have the nomenclature down.

pandemic

Why is it a pandemic and not an epidemic? It’s a pandemic when the disease, or its cause, is previously unknown. It’s not a measure of relative destructiveness; either may be devastating. Somehow “pandemic” sounds scarier, at least to me, perhaps because of the echo of the shepherd god who gave us “panic.” Or an echo of Pandora’s Box? Pandemonium?

social distancing

Is “distance” a verb? (It is a reflexive verb, and as such it is implicit in this expression.) I can’t quite get my mind around “social distancing,” which means “keeping your distance” — the term has been around at least fifteen years — partly because the second word calls up a physical dimension, but the realm of the first is more abstract. I hear an ambiguity in this expression. Is “social” the governing concept, so that we still want to share each other’s space, but in order to do so we must stay a bit farther apart? Or is “distancing” the dominant idea, so that it’s more like expressing disdain, or snubbing the other person (who might, after all, be carrying a deadly virus)? Proponents of the practice will claim the former, but professional advice intended to combat spreading the virus has a distinctly anti-social character.

flatten the curve

“Flatten the curve” is our new rallying cry, and like all rallying cries nowadays it is a hashtag. You are to envision a graph plotting the number of cases of COVID-19 against elapsed time. The steeper the curve, the faster the infection is spreading. The goal is to slow the spread and thereby flatten the curve. Expect to see and hear it often in the next few weeks.

community spread

“Community spread” is when doctors can’t figure out how a new patient got the virus, because there’s no direct connection to anyone known to have brought it from somewhere else. As the first cases reared on the west coast, they were traceable directly to the source; the first clear-cut case of community spread was ominous, marking a new stage of contending with the disease.

distance learning

Why do we keep hearing “distance learning” now instead of “on-line classes”? Another new expression we don’t need but is foisted on us anyway. It could be “remote learning,” too — why not telelearning? — but I’m not hearing that nearly as much. Will this be the next great bureaucratic contribution to American English?

telework

We already had so many words for this, but I swear I’ve seen “telework” — new to me — several times recently to mean “work from home” or “telecommute.” Sometimes new expressions appear to be the result of a malign, well-financed campaign to insinuate pointless novelties into everyday language. Like most conspiracy theories, that’s a bit too elaborate for the real world; it’s more likely that the word dropped carelessly from someone’s lips and has wormed its way into the word-hoard through the linguistic equivalent of capillary action. It remains to be seen whether this word will continue to blossom, or wither in the shade of its synonyms.

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sweet spot

(1980’s | athletese | “happy medium,” “splitting the difference,” “best combination”)

. . . rhymes with “moonshot,” last week’s entry. I haven’t done that before. Got close once, with “comfort zone” and “standalone” falling but two weeks apart. And a couple of off-rhymes.

Down to business. The phrase dates back at least to the thirties in athletese, with reference to pieces of equipment designed to hit things — golf club, tennis racket, baseball bat. (The first reference I encountered involved a putter.) It was the area from which the ball took off with the greatest force with the least effort from the player. All-time baseball great Willie Mays described the sensation thus: “I know when I hit it there, because when I don’t it shakes up my whole body. When I do, it feels like I don’t even have a bat in my hands” (Life magazine, 1964). As of 1980, the term was still most used in that way, but somewhere around there it began to acquire what we might call a less literal meaning. For one thing, it could be used to name an actual place, such as a superior location to prospect for oil or station a satellite. That alley turned blind somewhere in the intervening thirty years, however, for you rarely hear the term so used now.

Now it has a few different meanings. Most simply, it refers to an optimum range, setting, or quantity in almost any type of process. So you could recommend a burner setting by saying, “The sweet spot for cooking oatmeal is medium.” While “sweet spot” is used very occasionally to mean “erogenous zone,” persons do not normally have one (so that it differs from a related word, “wheelhouse“). Most often, the sweet spot is an incorporeal and somewhat mystical yet altogether real place where two categories, often inversely or at least not directly related, intersect for the greatest advantage. So you might talk about the point where maintaining employee morale and high standards hit a sweet spot to generate maximum productivity, or where sales and expenses meet to create the easiest profits. In this sense, it resembles what we used to call the right balance — the most effective combination of two or more attributes for achieving a given goal.

The modern usage of “sweet spot” unquestionably goes back to athletese. My question is why call it that in the first place? I posited that it should be called the “heart,” or maybe “core” of the club, racket, or bat. Not that “sweet spot” sounds completely unnatural or counterintuitive, but it doesn’t seem to get to the heart of the matter (sorry). The clue lies in the word “sweet” as an interjection — think of a frat boy responding to a friend’s good news — where it means utterly satisfying or gratifying. Willie Mays’s definition upholds this interpretation; it’s sweet because it’s about how you feel when you hit the ball there, not a property of the bat.

I wonder if the G-spot, much discussed in the eighties, was influenced by “sweet spot.” No one ever used “sweet spot” to mean “G-spot” that I ever heard. No reason it couldn’t happen that I can see, but it never did. Another road not taken.

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moonshot

(1990’s | journalese? | “herculean or heroic efforts”)

Spelled as two words or one, but not hyphenated. The term was used mostly literally in the seventies to refer to the Apollo mission that landed on the moon and discharged passengers. But it was already a byword denoting a marshaling of exertion and resources in pursuit of a stupendous goal, preferably one that appears unachievable. Historian David McCullough called the Panama Canal “the moon shot of its day,” underscoring the difficulty of the project and the will of those who saw it completed. Moonshots demand a certain derring-do in addition to technical prowess and plenty of perspiration. Joe Biden gave the expression a lift several years ago when he supported a “cancer moonshot,” an acceleration of funding, research, and testing. That phrase would have sounded very strange back in the seventies. There was only one moonshot back then, and you didn’t append another term to it, even if occasionally some other endeavor merited comparison — in addition to the Panama Canal, the Manhattan Project was cited often. But that sort of syntactic shift happens continuously; you never step in the same language twice.

The word does have other meanings: in baseball, it names a long fly ball that goes particularly high. I don’t know that it’s mandatory, but it usually turns up in discussions of home runs. In finance, it names the phenomenon of a stock price continuing to rise after an initial public offering, soaring into the stratosphere. I think “moonshot” should be the name of a drink, but as far as I know it isn’t. (Any ambitious mixologists out there?) It may also take spot duty as a word for photograph of the celestial body.

It never occurred to me until I started working on the post that “moonshot” might be connected with “shot” as in “give it a shot OR your best shot.” On the surface, “shot” is used in two different ways: “moonshot” summons up a cannon hurling a projectile, while “best shot” means “best effort,” though it seems likely that in this sense “shot” ultimately comes from ballistic jargon. Does it recall the maneuver in hearts, shooting the moon, that is, winning by accumulating an entire suit? That’s a venerable term, and one can’t rule it out; I don’t see a direct link. But there is a definite relation between “moonshot” and “best shot,” in that both require putting forth one’s utmost. There ought to be a connection, even if I can’t spot it.

You don’t hear “If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they . . .?” any more; it was commonplace in my youth as a means of lamenting any sort of government ineptitude. How could the organization that put men on the moon fail to pick up the garbage reliably? The moonshot continues to be recognized as an epitome of achievement, one that demanded extraordinary mobilization that by definition cannot be undertaken for every tedious municipal task. But it’s tempting to complain whenever officials and employees fail to go above and beyond. When you do something brilliantly, people expect it every time. If you always phone it in, no one hassles you, because it’s not worth it. It’s not always easy to find the sweet spot between setting the bar too high and performing so badly that you get fired.

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let it go

(1980’s | “forget it,” “give up on it,” “ease off”)

An expression more versatile than I had reckoned. I thought of it as meaning primarily stop dwelling on (or get over) something, and I found traces of such use in the late seventies. It may also mean turn a blind eye (the cop saw him shoplifting but let it go), which may have been available back then, but to tell the truth I don’t remember. Related, it may signify “stop pursuing,” as in a line of questioning, or “stop acting as if it is true,” as in a belief. If you’re talking about a grudge, it means something like forgive and forget. As in the memorable song from “Frozen,” it may mean turn your back on the past and make a new start. Which contrasts oddly with the apparent passivity of letting go of something; yes, you’re relinquishing your old self, but you’re also actively promoting yourself as a whole new person. Despite the ubiquity of the song, I don’t think you hear the expression used exactly that way very often in normal conversation; that definition remains an outlier. “Let it go” does not mean “unleash it” or “let ‘er rip,” although one might say “let it fly.”

That deceptive passivity gives the phrase its ambiguity; is letting it go an action, or the cessation (or suppression) of an action? Is one required to effect the other? It must be a conscious decision, an act in itself, but it may require a resolve to refrain from certain thoughts or deeds. Letting it go often requires persuasion, implying that it’s hard to do on one’s own; we need assurance from others that we’ll be better off if we abandon that festering grievance or disappointment. It is taking a load off your mind, ridding yourself of deleterious baggage, allowing old wounds to heal.

The ancestors of this expression, I take it, were “let yourself go,” which we may trace at least as far back as Cole Porter, and the simpler “let go,” which I remember from youth, or even its elaboration, “let go and let God,” a Christian injunction meaning surrender to God and let him take over. In other words, let your unconscious dictate your actions, or more simply, follow your pastor’s advice. Of course, “let it go” always had a literal sense, as in what one kid says to the other who has hold of a precious object. It also finds an echo in the primal “let me go” from childhood. Then there’s “let it go at that,” which meant “enough said” or “I’ll shut up now.” I doubt there’s any immediate connection, but we do find a number of new expressions that are simply abridged versions of existing ones. As “let it go” has evolved, it has taken on yet another meaning not quite like any that came before, “get on with your life.” These things happen even in the best languages.

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This week I take up several expressions that were familiar and standard in my youth but have metamorphosed more or less subtly. Just a round-up of minor matters, none important enough for a full entry.

under my watch

“On my watch” has become “under my watch.” An old military expression meaning simply “while I’m guarding something,” so by extension, “while I’m in charge.” “Under” actually makes more sense, because the expression is used when still another preposition is in play — watch over. While you’re watching over something, anything that happens will be under your watch. With either preposition, there is a strong tendency to use the expression in the negative — that hasn’t changed.

quite the

“Quite a” has almost disappeared, replaced by “quite the.” Now why did this happen? In my youth, it was possible to say “quite the,” but you used it only on special occasions. “Quite a” already delivers a sense of the extraordinary, and “quite the” intensified it. It’s lost its force, demoted to the function “quite a” used to have, and in fact knocking the older expression out of play. You notice when you hear “quite a” now, because it’s become so unusual.

that being said

“That said” has been long available as a rhetorical flourish, a way of introducing a contrary notion, or of acknowledging an unpleasant truth. That part hasn’t changed. But it’s much more common now to see elaborations: “with that said,” “that being said” (probably the most common), and “all that said.” I say it doesn’t need them, that this is just mindless padding, illustrating the tendency of demotic language to absent-mindedly acquire extraneous syllables, words, or entire phrases, for no other reason than mass sloppiness.

 

Now for a change, let’s skim over a few verbs:

shined

“Shone,” the past tense of “shine” in the intransitive, is disappearing, replaced by “shined,” which has always been the preterite for the transitive. Don’t ask me why. Something similar happened generations ago to “dove,” which hasn’t disappeared but is largely supplanted by “dived.” In the old days, instead of regular and irregular verbs, we talked about weak and strong verbs. Weak verbs go along with the crowd and conjugate like everybody else; strong verbs go their own unpredictable way — though irregular verbs are only sometimes less predictable than regular.

grinded

“Grinded” now shows up often in the sports page as the past tense of “grind” (intransitive); the transitive (“ground,” as in coffee or a blade) will likely be conquered some day too. In fact, I think I’ve seen “grinded down,” as in an opponent. “Grind” is a term of praise in athletese, meaning something like “persist.” No need for appendages like “out” or “up.” The new preterite stands proud on its own.

refute

“Refute” has been disappearing for several years now. I don’t mean disappearing, I mean changing in a stupid way. Now it is often used to mean “deny,” rather than “disprove” or “rebut.” I don’t like it. It’s getting altogether too easy in our culture to gain large followings by pretending that facts aren’t real things that can bite you in the ass. Under the circumstances, we need words with more rigor, not less.

 

Now for the grand finale:

based off of

All it takes to widen the generation gap is a little preposition switch. “Based off of” started bobbing up in the first decade of the century (history here). Today even literate and well-educated kids say “based off of,” no matter how their parents chide them. And Lord knows we do. It just doesn’t make sense, kids. The whole point of a base is that something rests on (or in) it. If it’s off, then it’s not connected with, or relevant to, the base any more. And why two prepositions instead of simply “based off”? (You do hear “based off,” but to my ear “based off of” is more prevalent.) I still haven’t figured out how this mutation happened, but I got a glimmer when I noticed someone using “based out of” a city, instead of “based in.” Well, that rang a bell. Think back to 1960 or so. If someone told you he was “working out of” Phoenix, you would understand that, right? He’s based in Phoenix. Something similar may have happened with “based on.” “Bounced off of,” “jumped off of,” “played off of,” etc. Then “based” slides in there and it’s over before you know it.

More broadly, the exchange of “on” for “off” suggests that the new product is significantly different from the original, that it has gone off in a new direction or just gone beyond. A movie that is based off of a book has taken its source material and created something new out of it. “Off” represents a real change — a different understanding of the process of artistic creation. If it’s based on, it’s mired in the original. If it’s based off of, it has superseded it and become independent in some way. Another blogger made a similar point several years ago, but most observers give the young users of this expression little credit and much grief. I’m guilty myself, but maybe it’s time to let it go.

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opportunity cost

(1980’s | academese (economics) | “missed opportunity,” “road not taken,” “regret(s),” “consequence”)

An economics textbook from 1961 defined “opportunity cost” as “the loss of the possibility (opportunity) of having something else.” Money you spend on one thing cannot be spent on another. The first to lay forth the concept was apparently Frédéric Bastiat in 1850, who distinguished between the visible expense of a shopkeeper paying a glazier to replace a vandalized windowpane and the unseen cost to the shopkeeper, not to mention another tradesman, of going without something else. Bastiat did not invent the expression, which one on-line source credits to Austrian economist Friedrich von Wieser. It does not seem to have emerged from the academic ghetto until the seventies, when it started to turn up in the press. It was generally glossed then — there is something distinctly unintuitive about the term, though I’ve found once you get used to it it kind of makes sense — and it still is, sometimes rather dubiously. This from a blog post on a personal finance site: “I can spend an hour a week mowing my front lawn, or I can spend an hour a week working on marketing my bookkeeping practice through social media. The opportunity cost for mowing my lawn is the loss of a potential client . . .” Um, isn’t that cheating? Your lawn is in better shape after an hour, but that same hour need not yield a client. Seems to me opportunity cost has to be a little more tangible than that.

Even though the phrase has entered mainstream vocabulary, it remains the property of economists somehow. “Opportunity cost” still has that jargony sound; the relative opacity of the expression makes it a means for economists to talk down to the rest of us. As a result, it is rarely used for any medium other than money, though others suggest themselves, time being an obvious example. Yet I’ve never heard anyone discuss the opportunity cost of spending an hour on Facebook.

Here’s the problem with analyzing everything in terms of opportunity cost: it’s too easy to think up different ways you might spend your money, which may lead to paralysis. All those rival expenses also make it easy to exaggerate what you’re giving up; it’s not hard at all to lament several plausible alternatives. Three thousand bucks doesn’t turn into nine thousand just because you can think of three different ways to spend it. Because we never can really know what would have happened had we followed a different course, dwelling on opportunity cost tantalizes us with an endless series of unachievable but better worlds.

These objections have to do not with a concept used profitably by economists, but with its popularized version. Making everyone aware of opportunity cost increases insecurity and self-doubt across the culture; now we are all tempted to think in terms of what we’re missing (a displaced version of FOMO). For the scientifically minded, there is no theoretical disadvantage to expanding the store of popular knowledge, but there may be practical disadvantages if the knowledge, instead of making us smarter, makes us afraid to do what needs to be done. Might it be said that opportunity cost has its own opportunity cost? What we gain from a more refined intellectual and logical grasp of the situation, we lose in decisiveness and a sense of purpose.

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work-life balance

(1990’s | academese (psychology)? therapese? | “personal satisfaction OR fulfillment”)

An expression that settled quietly into the language over at least a decade or two, “work-life balance” was the distillation of years of hand-wringing over work-induced stress and its effect on employees and their home life. Articles about balancing work and life (or family) were showing up here and there in 1980, and by the end of the decade, the first instances of the exact phrase had been sighted. It’s worth a bit of time to map the variants: “work-family balance” also appeared in the eighties but was retired when single and childless employees felt left out. “Life-work balance” showed up a few times but was quickly extinguished, because work must always come first. Sometimes the gerund got into the act: “work-life balancing.” The virgule was used now and then and still is: “work/life balance.” It appears only a couple of times in LexisNexis before 1990 and was well in place by 2000. The expression seems to have arisen among psychologists in the seventies, judging from a few examples found in Google Books, but it didn’t start to show up in force until the nineties. By 2000 most of us had heard it.

Today’s mantra is “work-life integration,” meaning that you work at home and do personal stuff at work, or that you incorporate a certain amount of work into vacations or vice-versa. (A new adjective, “bleisure,” (business + leisure) has arisen to describe such travel. Blecch.) American workers have been doing that for decades; the new phrase seems a bit more forthright and therefore probably a net gain. “Work-life blend(ing),” “work-life harmony,” and “work-life stability” are others. Such expressions acknowledge that office work during off-hours is the not-so-new normal. At least now there seems to be a general understanding that it’s only fair to use a certain amount of work time for personal matters, which was not always considered kosher fifty years ago. Yet workers must remain vigilant, lest “work-life integration” turn into all work and no life.

“Balance,” in its most literal form, suggests half-and-half, as in someone on a tightrope, leaning to one side or the other but remaining upright. “Stability” has some of the same character, though it is even more likely to be heard figuratively; “blending,” “harmony,” and “integration” make no such pretension. If “work-life balance” fades in favor of these others, it will be yet another victory for the bosses over the bossed.

It’s striking how many expressions I’ve covered that have been put to use by executives against employees, promising concern and compassion while actually tightening the screws a little further with each buzzword. I call the roll (part of it, anyway) for the sake of posterity: “emotional intelligence,” “mindfulness,” “side hustle,” “team,” “wellness,” “who moved my cheese?.” Then there are some that don’t belong to the same family but are closely related: “downsize,” “go green,” “human capital,” “interpersonal skills,” “lean in,” “outsource,” “trickle down,” and “win-win.” Probably not invented by consultants, “work-life balance” nonetheless took an honored place in their vocabulary, offering itself to executives eager to look a bit more humane by encouraging employees to enjoy their free time and discouraging them from noticing how much the boss was horning in on it. Increased hours, demands, and pressure from the suites are then thrust back on the employee: your work-life balance is all wrong, but we’ll help you fix it. Whether the employer is sincere or not, it’s just one more way to blame employees for conditions they did not create.

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check all the boxes

(2010’s | “meet our needs,” “cover the ground,” “fill in the gaps”)

An expression without a fixed form, because you can check a single box, several boxes, or all of them. Not only that, but a possessive pronoun may replace the article. To someone of my generation, the phrase recalls paper forms which asked you to add a check mark (or x) to this or that square in order to select an option or indicate a group or category. Standardized tests required you to color in a little circle, and that method started to make inroads; a check or x wasn’t good enough any more. But when checkboxes became part of personal computer interfaces, they more often showed a little square with a check or cross than a filled-in oval, and checking boxes reasserted itself. Paper or no paper, the process hasn’t changed much.

Even in my youth, we used the word “check” often when enumerating. Say you’re getting ready to go camping, and you’re checking to see if you’ve forgotten anything. So you say, “Tent, check.” “Sleeping bag, check.” Camp stove, check.” The word checklist dates back to the nineteenth century, in fact. (I encountered them as a boy in my baseball card collection; each year in addition to the player cards, team photos, league leaders, etc., Topps issued checklists that named every card in numerical order and invited you to check off the ones you had acquired. If you did so, you ruined the card forever, but who was thinking about that back then?) This week’s expression calls up that image, particularly when it is used by sports executives explaining why they spent a hundred million dollars on a player: he checked all our boxes.

It suggests an orderly mind, or a closely followed procedure. You have a list, and it need not be written down or laid out anywhere. You’re looking for this quality in a romantic partner, or that characteristic of a new job. If you find it, you have checked that box. Now broaden your scope and and lengthen the list. Itemize your desires; then go hunting and seize as many favorable traits as you can. Now you’re checking a lot of boxes, or if fortune truly smiles upon you, all of them. You have to be able to formulate the list and keep track of it, but there’s no necessity for meticulousness; the use of the expression implies a fairly small group of general characteristics rather than a long catalogue with many fine distinctions.

“Check all the boxes” could just as easily mean “inspect all the cartons,” but it usually doesn’t. It can also mean something like “phone it in“: do the bare minimum but no more — just enough so you can mark the task finished and go home. I don’t hear it used that way much. If you are actually filling out a form, checking all the boxes is a form of bureaucratic sabotage, claiming membership in every ethnic group, or all possible marital statuses, or multiple genders. But I’ve never heard it used that way, either. Doesn’t it check all your boxes to gum up the IRS?

This week’s expression comes to you courtesy of my sister, who used it a couple of times during a conversation last week, albeit in the form “tick all the boxes,” which is British but also heard over here. Has my sister been sneaking episodes of Downton Abbey when no one is looking?

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