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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 35 years


(2000’s | businese (finance) | “sell,” “make money off of,” “put a price tag on”)

This was a rarefied financial term as late as the nineties, used almost entirely in discussions of gold prices and government debt. Originally, it was even more literal; you monetized gold by making it into coins, thus converting it into legal tender. By the seventies, though, “monetize” basically meant “liquidate.” There’s the kind of money that you can go out and spend, and the kind of money that is otherwise occupied, like the value of your property, a stake in a business, etc. The former is referred to as liquid; more or less what economists used to call “M1” (for all I know they still do). The government is in a unique position when it comes to controlling the money supply, so it’s not much of a stretch to talk about government “monetizing” debt by selling bonds (for example). Or the government might monetize a portion of its gold reserves by selling it off. When gold prices shot up in the late seventies, a process that has continued to this day in fits and starts, banks and nations alike found an easy way to produce ready cash. That made “monetize” something of a dirty word to conservatives, who see disastrous inflation as the inevitable consequence of any expansion of the money supply.

Monetizing has long involved selling, and it still does. Sometimes the sale was indirect, and this notion has grown utterly commonplace, as the term has also come to mean something like “commodify” (convert into a commodity that can be sold — an extra step). Sometimes the sale is more indirect still, as an on-line business selling advertising on the basis of the number of page views it attracts. Only the most hardened cynic would regard this as a literal sale of the customers, but the practice definitely trades on their existence, and “monetize the customers” has a rather sinister sound. There is another meaning I should mention, although it has always been more marginal: assign a value to. You monetize something by figuring out what it is worth; whether you go on to sell it for that price is irrelevant.

For decades this word belonged to governments, corporations, and large financial institutions. It still does, but no longer exclusively. It has taken a popular turn, and nowadays a small business or an individual can indulge just as easily. An artist might monetize her work by selling it on-line, for example. The growth of “monetize” has coincided with the growth of the internet as a marketplace, and that is not a coincidence. Before 2000, anyway, the word had a technical sound that might convince the unwary that the speaker had arcane financial knowledge. For those who wanted to appear cutting-edge, or just edgy, it was an easy to word to adopt. By the time everyone figured out all you meant was “exploit for personal gain,” you’d be sitting pretty in the Caribbean somewhere.

When a term from a certain professional jargon (finance, in this case) slides into general use, it cannot help but broaden its meaning, applying to more areas or simply taking on new definitions. (Examples: ahead of the curve, curate, template.) In one way, the meaning of “monetize” hasn’t really changed, but it is an exotic word that gravitated naturally to an exotic means of commerce: the web used as a means of selling just about anything. “Monetize” represents yet another appropriation of specialized vocabulary by the masses, and in such cases one feels the loss. Our language cries out for terms that fill narrow niches and allow us to describe very particular states, categories, or objects; every word that becomes less precise detracts from our ability to understand what’s going on. As “monetize” has become sloppier, it has become more crass, at least to my ear. I wouldn’t say the word was ever noble, exactly, but it was reserved for relatively grand situations, not the property of any third-rate businessman trying to take advantage of a new market.

I must remember to thank my father, not just for raising me but for suggesting “monetize” many months ago. Sometimes these things take a while to germinate.

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junk science

(1980’s | legalese | “quackery”)

This is an expression with an agenda. We began to hear it regularly a little after 1990; a Washington Post editorial referred to “what some are beginning to call ‘junk science'” in March 1996. Google Books and LexisNexis cough up several instances from the eighties, and even this diamond in the rough from 1903: “But that conceited laugh of junk science, how laughable it is after all” (Peter Burrowes, “What is truth?” in Revolutionary Essays in Socialist Faith and Fancy, Comrade Publishing Co.). Whatever Burrowes may have meant, both the meaning and connotation of this expression were pretty clear when it came into its own at the other end of the century. The term was most often used by lawyers to complain about so-called expert witnesses purveying unsubstantiated theories about harms to plaintiffs and driving up the cost of judgments against well-meaning, God-fearing corporations. The phrase generally reared its head in discussions of tort law, that is, lawsuits filed to obtain compensation for wrongs not covered by criminal law. And it was generally used to assail dubious medical or technical testimony that swayed gullible juries (or judges).

It isn’t always so clear what “good” science is, even in our everyday Newtonian world; practicing scientists with good credentials may disagree vigorously on the interpretation of a piece of evidence even in simple cases. Attacks on junk science often rely on the unstated assumption that proper science is easily defined and recognized, not subject to controversy among scientists. That is true most of the time, but not all the time, and it does foreclose the possibility of finding value in the new or unconventional. The Supreme Court has ruled that scientific evidence should be peer-reviewed but stopped short of setting absolute limits on what can or can’t be presented in the courtroom.

No doubt many verdicts have been influenced by doubtful expert testimony. Peter Huber cited and documented several with relish in “Galileo’s Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom” (Basic Books, 1991); the subtitle probably played a role in popularizing the phrase. His plaintiff-bashing set the tone; it took several years before “junk science” came to be applied regularly to any doubtful theories propounded by big business. In its early days, junk science always had a bleeding heart, causing courts to fall for sob stories bolstered by expert witnesses who were far too sure of themselves. Crazed environmentalists, quack psychiatrists, doctors on the take — they were the ones who relied on junk science to con the scientifically illiterate. Nowadays, the phrase is comfortably used in a much wider variety of contexts, but it still seems to be favored by the right wing, though it is no longer solely their property. (I shudder when I ponder future semantic possibilities given the recent rise of “junk” as a slang term for “genitals.”)

The funny thing is that you would expect the forward-looking lefties to brandish science against the backward righties, but they got in first on this term, which fit neatly into their strategy of attacking people seeking redress for injuries allegedly caused by corporate negligence. The web site Junk Science, opened in 1996, is unabashedly right-wing and contemptuous of the scientific establishment, debunking climate change, solar power, and other usual suspects, particularly government participation in scientific research. (Ironic, because the original definition of “junk science” as propounded by lawyers depends on conformity with scientific consensus.) The phrase allows right-wingers to dismiss a favorite left-wingers’ trump card and beat them at their own game. References to science make you sound serious and learned, and who’s going to make you explain why the object of your scorn violates this or that scientific principle? It has become one more way to say, “Shut up. You’re wrong.” But then, it never really was anything else.

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(2000’s | teenagese | “dangerous,” “creepy,” “uncanny,” “bizarre”)

A new meaning of “sketchy” arose while I wasn’t paying attention, still mainly the property of kids and young adults, though such words invariably become the property of the superannuated fifty years on. Ten years ago, you had to be in college, or younger, to hear it this way. I learned the new meaning from kids within the last three or four years. Last year I asked my niece (then thirteen) if “sketchy” meant “scary” or “disreputable,” and she answered, “Both!” It has taken on a dark shade, and a new set of nouns. “Sketchy” (or simply “sketch”) now describes people or places — very unusual in standard English as late as 2000. (The change seems unrelated to the old use of “sketch” to mean “eccentric person.”) “Sketchy neighborhood” meant nothing thirty years ago, but now it means something very definite: it’s a neighborhood you don’t want to be in. Maybe because it’s ill lit, maybe because it has a bad reputation, maybe because drug deals happen on every corner. An app called SketchFactor encourages users to submit information or impressions about what we used to call bad parts of town; the designers note, “Sketchy means a number of different things. To you, it may mean dangerous. To someone else, it may mean weird.” Just like my niece said.

I have been bedeviled for some time trying to understand how “sketchy” went from inchoate or incomplete to sinister or screwy. But with a little help from lovely Liz from Queens and my own research, I think I get it now. If you search LexisNexis in the seventies or eighties, the overwhelming majority of your results will show the term describing details, statistics, or reports. That usage is quite venerable, and it wasn’t a long step from “inadequate” to “dubious.” But occasionally you would see something a little different, as when “sketchy” modifies accounting practices, or recordkeeping. There are some contexts in which it is not o.k. to be quick and dirty or less than thorough; in such cases to be sketchy is to be unethical or illegal. Another possible contributor is the fact that the word showed up often in early reports on disasters or tragedies, and may have picked up a negative tinge that way. But the truth is “sketchy” has had a bit of an underbelly for decades now; it has been used to mean unsavory or subpar for a long time, as in a sketchy character or reputation. For another example, E.B. White referred to his “sketchy health” in a letter from 1943 cited in the OED. I haven’t tried, but it might even be possible to demonstrate that this aspect of the word has been increasing in frequency for some time and has finally won out among the younger generation.

But maybe more evolution is on the way. “Sketchy” has changed emphasis in the last twenty years, since the dawn of the internet. So we would expect a lot of web sites with “sketchy” in the title to be about scary or disreputable things. There are some; is pretty good, and Sketchy Santas are popular. But Google calls forth a surprising number of sites that confer on “sketchy” still another meaning distinct both from the older and the newer: of or pertaining to drawing. Sketchy Notions and Let’s Get Sketchy are both run by artists. I had high hopes for Sketchy Miami, but right there on the home page it says, “The goal of Sketchy Miami is to create a portrait of every person in Miami.” Sketchy Neighbors? Nope — it’s an artists’ collective in Houston. I don’t have enough examples to determine if this is a new trend or just some silly coincidences, but never doubt the power of earnest artists to change the language.

This is the second, possibly third, week in a row I’ve taken on a recognizably slang expression, which I am supposed to leave to What interests me about “sketchy” is how decisive the change was, and how quick. People under 20, probably even 30, hear some variation on “icky” as the predominant meaning, though most of them also recognize the sense of “dashed off.” I hear kids use the newer sense all the time, the older sense rarely. But “sketchy” was a solid citizen of a word with a decent foundation; “sketch” goes back to the seventeenth century, for Pete’s sake, the adjective almost as far. The old meaning had been standard English for well over a hundred years; the new one most adults would still regard as slang. That distinction, always porous, has become more blurred rather than less over time. There are still arbiters — judges, professors, Associated Press editors — and I wouldn’t say the distinction is dead yet, any more than the distinction between clean and dirty words has disappeared, but the once forbidden, or at least frowned upon, has crept into many more contexts and is getting harder and harder to avoid. The barrier between slang and standard English used to be higher, and it had fewer tunnels undermining it.

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hot mess

(2010’s | journalese | “siren”)

How quickly this phrase has cropped up! It feels that way, but it’s been around for a long time. The phrase dates back to a time when “mess” meant “meal (service),” especially for soldiers. On good days, the troops got a “hot mess.” That hasn’t disappeared entirely, but it’s highly specialized, even in phrases like “mess of victuals” (if any young people are reading this, that word is pronounced “vittles”). At least in American English, “mess” has thoroughly staked out its meaning: state of clutter, filth, or chaos, and even if one refers to a dish or a lunch as a mess, we hear “sloppy” before we hear “meal.” A good history of this phrase on reveals that “hot mess” has been in use for at least a hundred years to mean “unusually bad situation,” and that meaning definitely remains in play.

Somewhere around 2005, you started hearing “hot mess” applied to persons, a mutation that has established itself rapidly and decisively. At first, the phrase was used to denote a very attractive but emotionally unstable person, someone who gets into at least minor trouble and makes life difficult for everyone around. Britney Spears was an early avatar; several sources credit television programs “Project Runway” (ca. 2008) and “Arrested Development” (ca. 2013) with popularizing the term. Today, the predominant meaning seems to be a watered-down version of that: disheveled, attractive woman (usually), attractive either despite or because of the dishevelment. I regard that as the predominant meaning — and so does Urban Dictionary; among 62 definitions, it has by far the most thumbs-ups. But it may also refer to an unattractive and unfashionable person, or someone unkempt without redeeming qualities, in which case one might say “I looked a hot mess” (reminiscent of an older expression, “sweaty mess”). “Hot mess” may apply to anything hazardous (hot as in too hot to handle). It has sexual and excretory uses that I probably don’t need to explain. The sheer number and persistence of competing meanings drives the instability that makes this expression worth watching. My own sense is that television has won, and the fashion-jargon definition — attractive, disheveled person — will win out over time, if it hasn’t already. But I’m not sure which of the other senses will disappear.

The mutation of meaning constitutes another case of an idiom misunderstood because we’ve lost sight of older meanings of words and try to make sense of an expression in terms of modern vocabulary. We hear “hot” to mean attractive (rather than dangerous, although a “hot mess” may be dangerous) and “mess” to mean “disaster”; glue them together and you get either of our recent definitions. In this case, the retreat to the literal seems less damaging than in the case of my favorite example, “beg the question,” or even “dress down” and “ramp up.”

Thanks to Liz and Adam from Queens, two of my most faithful correspondents, who proposed this week’s expression independently in the past month, so its time has come. Hope I did it justice.

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(1990’s | counterculturese? journalese? | “hippie” (adj.), “tree-hugging”)

“Crunchy granola” (adjective or noun) is a common variant. I remember hearing “nutty-crunchy” first around 1990, and I had to have it explained to me. (Even then, your humble maniac was hard at work.) It’s not clear to me when this expression arose, but surely not before 1980. One is expected to suppress mental cross-references to the old sense of “nutty” (crazy), but detractors of the environmental movement cheerfully let them creep in. In fairness, some exponents also emphasize the “nutty” in “nutty-crunchy,” taking pride in their purity. But “crunchy” is the word you have to watch, for its overtones have changed. At first, it referred to environmentalists, with the implication that they lived off the land or at least made their own stuff. Now the implication is a little more rarefied, especially in the term, “crunchy (granola) mom”: someone who gives birth with the aid of a midwife, breastfeeds, uses cloth diapers, makes her own organic baby food (but need not grow the vegetables herself), won’t eat meat, and maybe co-sleeps or refuses vaccinations. Not being a big player in the parenting game, I wasn’t familiar with this phrase until I started looking around, but we may measure its ubiquity by the number of on-line quizzes telling new mothers how crunchy they are.

A digression on “crunchy granola” used as an adjective: It continues to sound strange to me, but you do hear it; it may obliterate “nutty-crunchy,” which I sense has become less common. The short form, “crunchy,” at least sounds like an adjective. The full-length form reflects a certain exuberance — the “I’m weird and proud of it” attitude characteristic of the counterculture, the weirdness extending to the eccentric use of “granola” as an adjective. It not clear to me whether this expression arose from the believers or the mockers, but in practice it may not matter, since the former steal from the latter all the time. The other odd thing about the yoking is the fact that the connection between granola and the counterculture does not hinge on crunchiness. “Organic granola” would make more sense, or even “nutty granola.” “Crunchy” is more evocative than either of these, and “chewy” would be worse, but I haven’t quite figured out why it became the preferred shorthand for one who is environmentally conscious, or fanatical about one’s health or childrearing practices.

Crunchy beliefs and behavior do not belong exclusively to the left or right; they are where both extremes converge. A 2006 book by Rod Dreher, “Crunchy Cons,” points out that many right-wingers do crunchy things, too. The specific manifestations may differ — right-wingers seem to do more home-schooling, for example — but both modalities boil down to rejection of the way most people obtain the necessities of life and raise their children, powered by the middle-of-the-road scientific consensus that tells us how to live our lives in a thousand minute, complicated ways. It’s an old idea in this country, though in some instances it has relied on science rather than keeping it at bay. In the nineteenth century (the word “granola,” originally a trade name, goes back to 1875) we had Graham and Kellogg; before them countercultural ideas about nutrition or lifestyle often stemmed from outlying sects like the Shakers. I’m old enough to remember Euell Gibbons, who shilled for Grape Nuts (there’s that nut again). The sixties gave natural living another boost, and the tradition goes on.

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(1980’s | journalese? therapese? | “unscientific,” “soft-headed,” “frivolous”; also “hands-on”)

“Touchy-feely” is actually a little old for the blog, having arisen in the late sixties or early seventies to talk about Esalen and encounter groups. In its original sense, the term was quite literal; the phrase referred invariably to physical contact, often with the implication that there was something illicit about it. No doubt some of that stuff really was orgies disguised as treatment, but more legitimate forms of therapy also explored the benefits of contact — affectionate, violent, or otherwise. This meaning of “touchy-feely” was always most common but the expression had two other meanings since the seventies that remain available. One is “affectionate” — but “touchy-feely” is often used more specifically to describe someone who subjects students or employees to unwanted touching. The other, less common, is “hands-on,” as in a museum or lesson. So an exhibit where visitors are encouraged to touch the objects on display might be described as touchy-feely. This is not a common usage, but I found examples from the seventies and the teens, so it demonstrates a low-grade persistence. Occasionally, it can even mean “intuitive to use,” as in a smartphone feeling natural under one’s fingers. As far as I can tell, the phrase has nothing to do with “touchy,” meaning irritable or easily offended. Older expressions that may have exercised influence are “namby-pamby” and “lovey-dovey.” A newer one that is used in similar ways is “warm-fuzzy.” (Thanks, Liz!)

The reigning meaning of “touchy-feely” mutated, or grew, rather quickly. By 1980, it was already possible to use it much more loosely to talk about all kinds of human interaction, not just tactile. Anyone who tried to get a group to work, play, or learn together effectively by getting to know each other (or themselves) or talking about feelings rated the term. To this day, it is used to talk about the unquantifiable, the impressionistic, the emotional. Even when “touchy-feely” doesn’t mean touch, it always means feelings.

The expression is generally used with derision, which may be veiled or unconcealed. The state of being “touchy-feely” is the antipode of rigor and analysis, so it is unscientific and its benefits are therefore considered unprovable. But it is also opposed to machismo. Real men do not drag emotions into the conversation, or base their actions on them (which is just as well, because when they do, they tend to turn violent). It is also opposed to law and order; cops and prison guards reserve special venom for those who advocate anything other than forcible and remorseless crackdowns on criminals. The range of people who use the phrase with a sneer is wide: engineers, computer geeks, physicians, businessmen, law enforcement, political conservatives, real men from all walks of life. At its broadest, it becomes a synonym for vague, impractical, effeminate, soft, or weak. Even when it is used jocularly, an undertone of scorn is usually there. When tough-minded executives use the term, they do so to dismiss anything unrelated to the bottom line, and the phrase connotes employees paying too much attention to themselves and not enough to the welfare of the company. The work done, and even the employees themselves, have a dollars-and-cents value, and anything that suggests that they might have other kinds of value, to each other or to the organization, is brushed aside. In extreme cases, human warmth of any kind, even in the briefest manifestations, is considered detrimental to profits.

“Touchy-feely” has come to stand for a wide range of attitudes, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world. In that respect it resembles another sixties word, “holistic,” but it has fewer defenders. You don’t use this term when you’re talking about making the office more productive by creating a collegial and friendly atmosphere, except perhaps with a tone of rueful irony.

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damage control

(1980’s | militarese | “putting out fires,” “keeping things from getting out of hand,” “making the best of a bad situation,” “backing down”)

“Damage control” harks back to “walk back” (q.v.). I skipped a couple of weeks, but I got there.

Before 1975, this phrase came up in two contexts: destruction caused by animals — a federal law was passed in 1931 called the Animal Damage Control Act, and a division of the Department of the Interior is devoted to Animal Damage Control — and repairing problems on board ships (“Damage Control Officer” was a naval title). Somewhere around 1975, it started to turn up in political discourse. When something went wrong with a policy, strategy, or press conference, the politician himself or his staff had to do damage control. In politics, it appears almost exactly contemporaneous with “in the loop” or “out of the loop,” Carter-era terms that became more common after 1980. William Safire, in a 1982 language column, posited a naval origin for the term (he says nothing about harm caused by animals, but that’s obviously a dark-horse etymological candidate, anyway). Because the term sprouted in political journalism, searching “damage control” in LexisNexis during the late seventies and eighties pulls up every blunder, untruth, and scandal of the Carter and Reagan administrations, each of which forced the president’s loyal minions to take steps to make the results look better than they really were. This sort of thing led finally to White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan’s infamous evocation of “a shovel brigade that follow[s] a parade down Main Street cleaning up.” Regan didn’t use the term “damage control,” but a Washington Post headline (November 18, 1986) reporting his comment did. By that time the expression was also available for corporate use, notably in the case of Johnson & Johnson’s response to poisoned Tylenol capsules (1982), widely regarded as a successful damage control effort.

The case of Johnson & Johnson introduces another dichotomy more interesting than the government/corporation dyad (two sides of the same coin at the best of times). “Damage control,” particularly in politics, is often a matter of fixing a self-inflicted problem, as in Regan’s example. The president, or someone, said or did something we’re getting attacked for, so we have to get out there and quell the uprising. But in the case of Johnson & Johnson, the point wasn’t that they could have prevented someone from tampering with bottles of Tylenol; their packaging was no better or worse than anyone else’s. You may lay traps for yourself or be victimized by circumstances beyond your control — either way, sooner or later you will need to do some damage control. In the seventies, when the phrase gained currency, it could be used in a proactive sense to mean addressing a problem before it arose. But that didn’t last long, and “damage control” has held a firmly post hoc meaning for a long time now.

Any institution may need damage control: government at any level and corporations, but also a small business, a sports team, a university, a church. If an individual feels a need to practice damage control, it’s probably a celebrity — it would still sound a little overblown to refer to a husband’s effort to patch up a quarrel by bringing home chocolate and flowers as “damage control.” But you could, because that is primarily what damage control is in practice. It is making the entity you have offended feel better, smoothing ruffled feathers or papering over a disagreement. It’s a way of getting people off your back, whether friends or adversaries, whether it involves a retraction or a new policy to counteract the effects of an old one.

The way an act of damage control is received says much about it and generally demands interpretation. If it isn’t managed well, or if it is required too often, it raises a red flag. It may suggest that you have no principles, or that you are weak and vacillating, because any adverse reaction causes you to change course. Sometimes too much damage control just means you shoot yourself in the foot too often. Yet effective damage control buries the problem and convinces observers that the organization (or employee) is capable and can be trusted to handle whatever comes up.

The term has continued to grow in popularity since the eighties. It still is used most often to talk about institutions getting on top of difficult circumstances, but it is finding a use in medicine: “damage control resuscitation” refers to a way to handle patients in hemorrhagic shock. The treatment relies on large-scale transfusions and preventing further blood loss; restoring blood volume and circulation is the highest priority.

As a bonus for those of you who’ve made it this far, I can’t resist a New York Times summary from May 9, 1974, plagiarized straight from LexisNexis. It contains one of the earliest uses of “damage control” I’ve found, and a lot of other fascinating nuggets. The speaker is now a well-known political journalist: “Dr. John McLaughlin, Jesuit priest who is special assistant to Pres. Nixon, holds extraordinary news conference to deny charges by Sen H. D. Scott and other Republicans that, as Scott put it, the Watergate transcripts portray ‘deplorable, disgusting, shabby, immoral performances’ by Pres. and his aides. . . . McLaughlin, in theological analysis of transcripts, says that any conclusion that they are amoral or immoral ‘is erroneous, unjust and contains elements of hypocrisy.’ Holds Nixon acquitted himself throughout discussions with honor. Holds Nixon’s concern in keeping Watergate scandal from spreading to White House was merely exercise of ‘damage control.’ Says language has ‘no moral meaning’ and use of profanity by Nixon and his aides served as form of ’emotional drainage,’ an understandable ‘form of therapy.'” This is what they teach in seminary?

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