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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

rattle one’s cage

(1970’s | “shake one up,” “stir things up,” “make trouble,” “get under one’s skin”)

yank one’s chain

(1990’s | “jerk one around,” “bust one’s chops,” “pull one’s leg”)

I’ve always linked these two expressions in my head, but they certainly don’t mean the same thing. To rattle someone’s cage is to shake them up; to yank someone’s chain is to jerk them around. Both expressions draw on the animal world. Lexicographer Richard Spears explains that the “chain” refers to a dog’s leash, evoking physical punishment exerted by a trainer. Rattling cages presumably refers to agitating zoo animals, although the way the expression was used before 1980 sometimes suggested that it came from the inside — that the person rattling the cage does so in order to demonstrate their own strength, ambition, etc. That usage has remained infrequent, if it exists at all any more. Cages are rattled by someone outside them — perhaps a change agent — whose job it is to get a person or organization out of a rut. The expression recalls “rattled” (knocked mentally or emotionally off-balance), an older term less used nowadays.

Both expressions have changed meaning, or at least emphasis, over time. Several on-line dictionaries define “rattle one’s cage” simply as “upset or annoy someone,” a far less specific application of the original idea (which, fortunately, has not disappeared by any means). “Yank one’s chain” has at least two distinct meanings — to kid the other person (try to convince them of something that is not true) or harp on a sensitive subject — neither of which is implicit in the original, as far as I can see. Dwelling on a sore point may recall the chafed neck of a dog whose collar is jerked too often. The odd thing is that “rattle one’s cage” has become less pointed and specific, while “yank one’s chain” has acquired more local and evocative meanings covering fewer situations. That is a less common though not unheard-of pattern.

Somewhat to my surprise, “rattle one’s cage” is older, already in occasional use by the late seventies. Jerry Brown was an early adopter, and firebrand politicians still like it, but people outside of politics have always used the expression, too. “Yank one’s chain” or variants appeared occasionally in the press before 1990 but didn’t settle in until somewhat later. Some early examples confirm the dog-leash origin noted above, using the expression to refer directly to an authority figure cracking down on subjects or subordinates.

The key similarity of the two phrases is that they both require deliberate action. You know when you’re rattling someone’s cage or yanking someone’s chain, and they know it, too. It’s personal, hostile. You might rattle someone’s cage in the corporate world simply in order to improve group performance, without animus. But most of the time it implies messing actively with someone. When it comes to yanking your chain, the hostility is overt; there is no suggestion of correction or reproof. Both expressions show force, too, conveying strong action, if not aggression, with intent to be noticed. Rattling cages and yanking chains are what bosses and masters do.

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(1990’s | computerese | “get distracted”)

Determining an origin decade is tricky, because “multitasking” came before “multitask.” At least it sure looks that way in LexisNexis. By the early eighties, a description of a computer — or an entire system — might feature “multiuser, multitasking” to indicate that several different people could run several different programs at the same time. We think of multitasking as something a person does, but back then it was something the computer was. (I suppose even then there was a notional verb lurking behind the adjective, but it does not seem to have been in general use.) In 1981 Olivetti touted a computer system that allowed a single person to print one document and edit another at the same time. (That was back in the days when one megabyte of memory was a lot, remember.) That one person could do two things at once was not the point. The point was that the system made it possible, and that ability was an attribute of the computer. That seems to have been generally true even at the end of the decade.

“Multitasking” was a technical term in computerese in 1980, probably earlier, but somewhere in the nineties it back-formed into a verb (and occasionally an adjective, as in “multitask appliance” or “multitask environment”). First, it was something the computer did; through grammatical attrition, the multitasking computer began to multitask. From there it was a short step soon accomplished to have people rather than computers perform the act, and it became the word for doing two, or five, things at once. In practice, that means turning your attention — most of it, anyway — successively from one action to another, with no necessary connection between one and the next. It is a fretful way to work that in my experience leads readily to inefficiency and mistakes. Yet multitasking seems to be one of those things, like driving, that most people are convinced they are better at than they really are. My personal definition of “multitask” is “do several things badly at the same time.” A few people have such vast powers of concentration that they can simply move the beam from one job to the next without lowering standards, but most of us can’t. The more your attention has to flit around, the more poorly you will perform at least one of the jobs you’re engaged in. Maybe all of them.

I’ve harped on this a lot lately, so forgive me, but “multitask” is another from the rich store of expressions used by employers against employees. By 2000, it was firmly in the pay of the bosses, loading more work onto the staff and requiring more hectic conditions. Multitasking goes inevitably with too much to do and not enough time to do it. It became, in effect, another penalty imposed on workers: an immutable feature of working life, not subject to critique or discussion, that made it harder and more time-consuming to finish the job. Only the word was new; employees had been doing it for years already. The new word was useful because it gave the enterprise a patina of novelty, the credibility afforded the latest thing. Everyone uses it now, because it has remained an inevitable part of the landscape; if there is insufficient talk of its deleterious effects, it’s because we can’t envision any way out of the maze.

She didn’t propose this week’s term directly, but I am indebted to Diana Senechal’s blog for wise commentary on several concepts underlying the discussion.

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(1980’s | athletese | “preferred,” “favored,” “favorite,” “old reliable”)

Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I believe that the present incarnation of “go-to,” whether noun or adjective, can be traced back to a basketball locution, “go-to guy,” which started to spread in the mid-eighties. If anyone finds or remembers earlier examples of the attributive “go-to,” send them in. A go-to player was a star or team leader, the one who wasn’t afraid to shoot in the closing moments of a game. The strong implication was that the player was not only talented but unfazed by pressure. There might be several clutch players on the team, but normally only one go-to guy, and he would demand the ball when the game was on the line.

The phrase was picked up in the corporate world, where the sense of crucial contribution remains, but the emphasis differs. In businese, the go-to guy offers knowledge and efficiency rather than fearlessness. It’s a person who can solve your problem, but without any necessary connotation of urgency — although go-to guys come into play only when there’s something wrong, so there’s usually at least a sense of disquiet. The expression remains current in sports and business writing, having spread far beyond them. “Go-to person” seems to be the non-gendered alternative, but “guy” is still used often on the sports page.

In today’s world, “go-to” modifies many words besides “guy,” and it need not modify anything at all. “Go-to” has become a noun in its own right, and the young may refer to a favorite movie or a regular order at the coffee shop simply as “my go-to.” Two shifts are at work here: the adjective has taken on noun coloration (not unusual); and, more significantly, the adjective has taken on the ability to modify the inanimate. It isn’t only a trusted person who can get you out of a jam, but anything that makes you feel better. When “go-to” modifies a thing rather than a person, it suggests not only something you can rely on but something you really like. Whether person or thing, “go-to” carries the implication that one returns to it again and again, but that feeling is even more pronounced when it modifies a thing. You may need different go-to people at the office depending on your problem, but your favorite song is your favorite song.

The rise of “go-to” does appear to be a case of dumbing down. While “go-to guy” has an alliterative vigor suitable to the sports world, I can’t see why it should have spread so easily in the larger culture. There were already several ways to get the point across. We have produced a society with a strong bias toward the simple and quick; the less time it takes and the easier it is to digest, the better we like it. That might work when all your problems are tractable, but we don’t seem very well equipped to handle the complexities we confront. Insignificant in itself, the growth of “go-to” hints at a larger loss to the culture.

My old buddy Charles gets credit for nominating this expression. Happy new year, Charles!

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asking for a friend

(2000’s | journalese | “I know what you’re thinking,” “can anyone help?”)

When I was little, I asked for a friend, but Santa never brought me one.

Ah, but that’s not what today’s phrase means. It’s a standby of advice columns, a fixed expression that pins down the old convention of attributing one’s embarrassing problem to someone else. Over time, this transparent evasion became a source of amusement, and “asking for [on behalf of] a friend” winks at the old dodge and turns it into a joke. Liza Featherstone of The Nation went so far as to adopt it as the title of her advice column, recently discontinued; the title continues its reign over a column in England’s Daily Telegraph by the “Midults.” The phrase acts as a sly acknowledgment of the identity of the speaker, in the manner of “yours truly.” And like “yours truly” it is also a sign-off, a way of announcing that one is waiting for an answer.

Originally, “asking for a friend” followed a question about a personal hygiene problem, or a potential faux pas, or something illegal; it was a way of deflecting responsibility as well as embarrassment. Now it is more likely to suggest that the speaker is not ashamed of the subject but still would prefer to keep some distance from it. It has become a studied revelation of the speaker’s motives rather than a weak attempt to conceal them. You have to watch the tone of this expression, which ranges from apologetic to sarcastic; it usually has at least a somewhat tongue-in-cheek air. It has evolved from the naive sense of “I hope no one will realize that this is really my problem” to incorporate the assumption that everyone will know that it is. In extreme cases, it may be used to reinforce the effect of a deliberately provocative or incendiary question, promoting revolutionary sentiments while coyly avoiding direct endorsement. It may follow rhetorical questions as readily as serious ones.

“Asking for a friend” seems to have gotten going in hip circles around the middle of the first decade of the century. By 2010 it appeared regularly in the mainstream press and wasn’t hip any more. It occupies a fairly specialized slot and has never become commonplace, exactly, but most of us have learned to hear the knowing smirk that nearly always accompanies the phrase. Early in its life, it may have been necessary to garnish it with “er” or “um” to help put across the irony, but such appendages are no longer necessary. Now that the expression has been taken over utterly by the humorists, there is no straightforward way to say you are seeking information for someone you know. If you want to disavow ownership of a question, you have to find another way to do it.

Lovely Liz from Queens advanced this expression several weeks ago, and it’s been rattling around my head ever since. Thanks, baby!

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deep dive

(2000’s | businese? | “in-depth discussion,” “exploration”)

Is a deep dive nothing more than the result of drilling down? The phrases have obvious affinities; they come from much different places but have converged metaphorically around the notion of uncovering truth by burrowing deeper into details, finding hidden knowledge and connections. While diving is more graceful than drilling, that doesn’t carry over into a deep dive; both expressions have a slightly clodhopping tone, an effort to sound modern that doesn’t quite succeed.

Like “drill down,” “deep dive” has no qualms about acting in an adjectival capacity, where it means “comprehensive”; just as “drill-down” can act as a noun, deep-dive may serve as a verb. (Watch that hyphen.) It probably had corporate origins, but it’s hard to tell. It sounds like academese to me, but I think the professors took it from elsewhere. “Deep dive” takes only one preposition, “into” (that’s not quite true; you may see “on” occasionally). Much simpler than “drill down,” which sneaks several prepositions in under its coat. “Deep dive” may also mean “steep decline,” a survival of an older usage.

It has been possible for a long time to use “dive into” to refer to the same sort of effort: Let’s dive into today’s lecture, or, we’re ready to dive into the main subject. Then as now, the word implied vigorous intellectual activity in which valuable truths, or at least better hypotheses, would be revealed. “Deep dive” is not used disparagingly to imply unnecessary attention to detail, as in a subject too insignificant to merit rigorous observation and analysis, or ironically to imply that the diver cannot deliver what is promised. There is something regenerative about a deep dive; you will learn useful things and emerge improved from the experience.

No diver myself, I am slightly bemused by the phrase and inclined to find levity in it. “Dive” resembles my name rather closely, as in, When Deep Dave takes a deep dive, look out! It seems to me that one possible result of a deep dive ought to be the intellectual bends caused by returning to everyday, surface trivialities too fast, but it’s hard (though not impossible) to imagine a scholar’s or consultant’s effort causing such pain. And because I can never pass up an allusion to Alexander Pope (my great-great-grandfather was named after him), I present “Dive deep, or taste not the Pierian spring!” (Of course, “taste” is the wrong word there, but what are you gonna say, “or plunge not into”?) Suppose you took a deep dive and the pool was empty? You’d look pretty shallow.

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drill down

(1980’s | computerese | “dig deeper,” “bore in,” “focus”)

Somewhere in the late eighties, I believe, “drill down” moved from the petroleum industry to the computer industry. In the former, it referred to boring through rock to reach richer deposits of oil and gas. The connection is easy to see with the computerese usage, where one is in pursuit of more revealing (i.e., remunerative) data, getting past the obvious and ferreting out telling details (cf. “data mining“). In both cases, the surface is an obstacle, and we must look beneath it, perhaps far beneath it, to find real significance (cf. “unpack“). “Drill down” has another meaning in computerese, referring to navigating a complicated web site with multiple levels of menus; so one might say, “I had to drill down pretty far to get to the page I needed.” In either sense, it may be used as noun or adjective, and may appear with or without a preposition.

The idea is uncovering data which can be accurately broken down into useful categories and subjecting it to a more minute analysis (cf. “granular“), often with the implication that the process will make everything clearer without a lot of tedious work (cf. “get into the weeds“). Yet “drill down” is occasionally used to refer to attaining a general truth, getting past distractions and superficies to reach a greater understanding. Here again, the satori you seek must be exhumed from its buried lair. It seems to me, though, that a reference to upward movement would work just as well. Shouldn’t we rise into rarefied realms of knowledge rather than trap ourselves in a suffocating pit? Especially when considering philosophical enlightenment, a more elevated, Olympian perspective is indicated.

As I thought about this expression, I was struck by the number of related words and phrases that Lex Maniac has covered, some of which I have already alluded to. The spread into everyday language of such expressions tells us that we are more dependent than ever on quantitative analysis for guidance in public and private dealings, causing us to produce far more data than we can use. While solid correlations drawn from experience and observation are essential (cf. “data-driven“), we’re not always as careful as we should be in collecting and interpreting them. If you’re going to lionize data, it has to be sound, and making it sound has to be built into the process. Sometimes statistics are quite reliable — medicine has a pretty good track record, for example — and sometimes they aren’t. In a world where dubious surveys are presented as rock-solid fact, we have to be aware of where those numbers come from, how they were gathered, and their limitations. Incomplete or unreliable raw material will lead us astray sooner or later; the longer it takes us to notice, the deeper a hole we will find ourselves in — not a hole to drill farther into, but to haul our way out of.

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move the needle

(1980’s | advertese | “gain ground,” “make headway,” “make a dent,” “move ahead,” “show results”)

I have wandered back into the same ghetto I visited a couple of weeks ago with “change agent,” but, honest, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t realize that “move the needle” is a frequently cited example of corporate argot with a high seed in the Forbes “Annoying Business Jargon” playoff bracket. I thought of it as an innocent enough term that bobs up in the newspaper occasionally and to which everyone has equal access. That’s truer now than it was thirty years ago, when the preponderance of uses occurred in advertising and public relations. Advertisers used it to mean “increase sales” — their version of progress. In the manner of “change agent,” “move the needle” is strongly if not exclusively associated with improvement, specifically of organizations. It is possible to say “move the needle in the right direction,” but it is generally unnecessary, because we hear it without prompting. The expression may be used on its own when context makes it clear which needle is being moved, or it may be followed by various prepositional phrases that spell it out.

The sense has broadened now without changing much. Forbes defined it as “generate a reaction,” widely cited by other on-line commentators. That misses the bias toward improvement noted above. I would define it as “have a favorable or desired effect.” It lies close to “make a difference,” especially when used in social-justice contexts but even when not. To illustrate, consider the phrase used in the negative — “won’t move the needle” — which means “won’t make any difference” or “won’t get the job done.” It tries to sound like “raise the bar” but fails, lexically, at least; “move the needle” assumes an agreed-upon standard for judging success, while raising the bar involves altering that standard. “Move the needle” can also mean “make an impression,” but normally some kind of measurable progress is involved.

There is near-universal agreement (in which I participate) that the expression comes from an analog gauge, like an audio recording meter or a speedometer, where the location of the indicator — within a range from high to low or full to empty — conveys important information. A change in the needle’s position tells you that something noteworthy has happened. Another possible explanation: lifting the tonearm on a record player over a scratch, so as to get beyond the stalemate you’re in and start moving toward the goal again.

In 2020, one has heard “move the needle on diversity” a lot, which threatens to become a set phrase itself. All it means is make our schools, workplaces, governments, etc. less uniformly white. The phrase has seen a recent spike in articles about COVID vaccines, often stated as “Will (or How soon will) the new vaccine move the needle?” (i.e., free us of the plague, or at least get us closer). The pun on “needle” as “syringe” seems irresistible. The range and density of “move the needle” in everyday language remain to be determined; we can safely say that it won’t disappear.

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hot mic

(2000’s | journalese? | “live OR active mike”)

“Hot” as in “electric” — something that looks inert but can hurt you without warning. It’s only a hot mic when someone says something damaging into it. No one’s interested if routine news of the wife and kids goes out over the air (except maybe the wife and kids). The hot-mic moment — it also works as an adjective — is the bane primarily of politicians but can compromise any celebrity. In recent years, we find politicians having an easier time living down such embarrassments; Trump is but one example. Our standards have grown coarser and we expect less from our public figures. Hot mics now provoke jeers instead of tut-tut’s, yet they do less damage. Probably a connection there.

The phrase has another meaning among gamers, something more like “open mike” (before “open-mike nights” became a thing), meaning a player’s mic is picking up a lot of background noise and irritating the others. So says Urban Dictionary. It’s also the name of a platform that allows fans from all over to watch the same sporting event at the same time remotely, so you can see and hear your internet buddies react to this touchdown or that checkered flag. I don’t know if this is a post-pandemic-onset startup, but it sounds like an idea whose time has come.

I’ve covered “mic” replacing “mike” — standard in my childhood — elsewhere. As my loyal engineer readers pointed out, the spelling comes from schematic diagrams of audio arrays. The eye-friendly “mic” has definitively beaten out the ear-friendly “mike.” I hesitate to draw any conclusions from that.

hot take

(2010’s | journalese | “spewing bile”)

Thanks to lovely Liz from Queens for unearthing this hip phrase at a recent family dinner. We stand up for family values around here.

This is an expression ripe for decline, in that on-line sources agree that it has a very refined, precise definition. A hot take is a knee-jerk response in prose, in which the author tosses off a trite, predictable, moralistic denunciation of whatever bobbed up in the news today, more to keep one’s name out there than to say anything meaningful about the issue. It is a journalist’s term par excellence (history and commentary here). Now if you had asked me what it meant, I (not a journalist) would have guessed any off-the-cuff reaction, oral or written, to whatever comes up — instant, unfiltered. That seems to capture the essence without presuming too much. “Take” to mean “opinion” or “summation” is quite well established, after all, and “hot” might mean “quick” or “fresh” (see below). But actually, it has a quite specific, and pejorative, meaning. Expressions like that tend to lose precision over time, lapsing into vaguer and vaguer vagaries of definition. It’s especially sad when it happens to a rich, multifaceted phrase like this one.

Hot takes embody haste and lack of deliberation, thus tiresome recourse to the same platitudes every time. They are often associated with advanced age and whiteness. The primal hot take was composed by a censorious old white guy and delivered against some variety of youthful folly. The youth were not impressed.

“Hot” has to work hard, evoking both a torpid summer afternoon and high intensity and excitement. We’ve looked at two phonetically similar expressions where it has two quite distinct meanings, and that’s only scratching the surface. Burning, haste, enthusiasm, lust, passion (hot-blooded), trouble (hot water), freshness (hot off the presses), anger (hot temper), sensitivity (hot button), attractiveness (hot mess), spreading fast or highly popular (selling like hotcakes). Then there’s “hot and bothered,” meaning worked up, sexually or otherwise (another kind of excitement). Hotly contested (fiercely), hot to trot (lecherous or simply enthusiastic), hotbed (teeming breeding ground), hotlinks (old internet use, meaning “active,” nothing to do with sausages). “Hot” used figuratively is distinctive — always intemperate, fast and furious, unrestrained. Of all the temperature ranges, it is, not surprisingly, the most impetuous.

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change agent

(1970’s | social justice? | “catalyst,” “force for good,” “hired gun”)

Most of us would probably consider “change agent” businese, and its long tenure as a corporate buzzword has not altogether ended. (It covers much of the same ground as “facilitator,” another expression thrown around liberally by businessmen that they did not originate.) The instances I found before 1980 occurred in social justice contexts; change agents sought to reform society, or at least a sizable portion of it. By the end of the eighties it had invaded the business press. I guess it started before then, but it does seem like the eighties saw a great tide of self-help books for businesses and bosses, lagging the personal self-help explosion by a decade or so. Like so many phrases (I’ve covered a few), it was sucked effortlessly into the maws of writers and consultants bent on extracting every possible dollar from beleaguered middle managers. “Change agent” was a lesser example, but it has taken a secure place in the repertoire.

There is no hard and fast rule, but most of the time change agents are brought in from the outside, at least in corporate usage. They may be promoted or transferred within an organization, but that seems to happen less often — presumably because it’s easier for an outsider to shake things up than an insider, who will generally feel more loyalty to the system, or more constraint imposed by it. Along a different axis, loud and brash vs. quiet and collegial, change agents cluster on the loud and brash end of the spectrum, although again, it can go the other way, and there is a school of thought that says quiet and collegial is better.

There are three things about change agents that need to be spelled out, even though we take them for granted. One: a change agent is typically a person, occasionally a new technology, but almost never anything else (such as a new rulebook or an infusion of cash). Non-human change agents are more often labeled “game changers.” Two: the phrase has a pronounced, perhaps exclusive bias toward change for the better. There’s no reason you couldn’t call a person who comes in and screws everything up a change agent, yet for some reason we don’t. But then we mostly use “change agent” prospectively; you’re looking for one in hopes of solving an existing problem. Three: change agents work for organizations, not individuals. Even if your therapist helps make you happier, she would not normally be called a change agent.

You also see “agent of change” frequently, even today. The “adjective + agent” combination is well-established — free agent, double agent, federal agent, cleansing agent — and that has made it easier for “change agent” to land. The formulation might win out over time. It is more effective rhetorically, and you get the bonus of two “j” sounds and two “n” sounds close together. A little consonance never hurts.

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face palm

(2000’s | “smack(ing) one’s forehead,” “bury(ing) one’s face in one’s hands,” “pass(ing) one’s hands over one’s eyes”)

face plant

(1990’s | athletese | “headlong fall”; “fall flat on your face”)

Both expressions are amply defined, etymologized, and annotated in the usual on-line sources, and everybody probably knows what they mean by now. The face palm can range from striking your forehead (“I shoulda known!”) to covering your face in grief (it’s always your own face, by the way). The primary momentum may originate with the palm (as in the former case) or the face, dropping into one’s hand. The range of feelings expressed by a face palm is noteworthy; embarrassment is often cited as the cause, but disbelief and exasperation get frequent mention, too. The face plant has a narrower range — you just fall on your face and that’s that. “Face plant” has a neater origin as a humorous variant of “handplant” — a term skateboarders use to denote a planned part of a maneuver when one’s hand touches the ground — and it got going in sports like skateboarding or skiing, where it’s not unusual to fall face-first. In internet use, the two diverge noticeably: Face palm is an emoji; face plant is a meme.

I find it very difficult to hear “face palm” as a verb; it is much more comfortable as a noun. But “face plant,” while it does duty as both, doesn’t work quite right as a verb either, despite the fact that “plant” goes both ways with ease. Try using it in the past tense, actually any formation except the present indicative. Maybe I’m too fussy, but it never sounds idiomatic. “Face palm” works better as an adjective than “face plant” does (as in “face-palm moment”). Most sources seem to hyphenate the components or run them together; they will end up as single words if they aren’t already. Commonplace associations of the face, such as “confront” (face up to), “surface” (on the face of it), or “frankness” (honest face) are absent. Neither phrase is used figuratively; an actual visage is always involved. Some expressions resist irony remarkably well.

Both expressions traffic in humor and humiliation. Like the old slapstick standby, the pie in the face, face palms and face plants are played for laughs but have a mean side. That’s particularly true of the face plant, of course, where the victim becomes a figure of fun (a pratfall by any other name . . .), even though subject to embarrassment or even serious injury. A face palm isn’t always funny and may even attract sympathy, but it most often conveys at least a modicum of chagrin over making a mistake you shouldn’t have made. Both vulnerable and evocative, the face makes an appealing target for those who wring their comedy from pain and mortification. Its power to transport us is transmuted into permission to enjoy the misfortunes of others.

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