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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

failure is not an option

(1980’s | “we have to get this right,” “we can’t afford to fail, lose, etc.,” “we have no choice”)

This expression remains forceful despite its evident falsehood. As long as Murphy’s Law holds sway, very few prospects are so free of defect that failure is impossible. “Failure is not an option” runs directly counter to that earliest of childhood maxims — everybody makes mistakes — which turns out to be one of the only reliable absolutes we have. If enough people screw up, any enterprise can misfire, and it usually takes only a small percentage of the personnel to bring on downfall. Of course, naïve logic is not all there is. The phrase is effective because it reminds everyone that we really might fall short, and we really, really don’t want to. That’s why the phrasing is crucial; if you say “there’s no way we can fail,” the staff will slack off.

The main thrust of the phrase is inspirational — a signal to all involved that they must exert every effort. The sports cliché “must-win game (or situation)” is quite similar. It’s also a bit like “you can do this” as we use it now, which has replaced “you can do it.” (It is more distantly related to “everything on the table.”) If the boss can convince you, or you can convince yourself, that no other outcome is tolerable, you will do what’s necessary to bring home the prize. The phrase may bear a hint of “no holds barred.” Sometimes it’s no more than false bravado. It would be interesting to figure out how many times a military campaign, business initiative, athletic team, or curriculum has failed after the brass said, “Failure is not an option.” If it’s intended as an incantation to ward off disaster, it doesn’t work a lot of the time.

This expression is one of a small number that have roared into popular consciousness from the movies: “Apollo 13” (1995), a fictionalized account of the safe landing of a badly damaged lunar capsule carrying three astronauts. According to Wikipedia, the exact phrase was invented in the nineties, derived from a longer utterance of a NASA flight controller named Jerry Bostick by screenwriter Bill Broyles, who knew a winner when he encountered it. That is not to say that the full phrase had never appeared before; I found examples as far back as the late eighties, but not very many. The film must take credit for popularizing if not introducing it. Bill Clinton soon picked it up; thereafter it became more common. It is still around today, beloved of all who would sound resolute. But there’s no getting around the fatuity (or futility, if you prefer) of the phrase understood literally. “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley,” said the poet, and sounding resolute doesn’t change that.

Lovely Liz from Queens scores again; she is by far the all-time leader in expressions nominated. Let’s not always see the same hands.

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officer-involved shooting

(1980’s | bureaucratese)

A sobering phrase for sobering times. It may seem obvious, but the expression obfuscates a point better spelled out: It is used only when a police agent shoots someone, not when a cop is shot. It’s really a euphemism for “officer-perpetrated shooting.” The Police Data Initiative defines it as follows: “the discharge of a firearm, which may include accidental and intentional discharges, by a police officer, whether on or off duty.” The definition continues: “In some cases OIS datasets only include instances in which an officer discharged a firearm at a person and may not include discharges directed into or at a vehicle, animal, etc.” The definition is compendious because there are many situations it must cover, yet it is not vague. “Officer-involved shooting,” and its descendant, “officer-involved killing” (to cover cops like Pantaleo and Chauvin, who didn’t need guns) probably arose among investigators charged with probing police shootings, partaking of the bureaucrat’s instinct for the bland and neutral.

Indeed, the term was first sighted in the eighties in LexisNexis among exactly such investigators — teams of lawyers and inspectors who had to evaluate police shootings after the fact and determine whether they were justified or not. The panel might be within the police department, in the district attorney’s office, or an independent commission (it took some will power not to enclose “independent” in scare quotes just now). Such bodies have been around for two generations or longer, but they have rarely penetrated the blue wall of silence and therefore have never satisfied the community they represent. We’ve seen so many of these crises — inexcusable police violence met with commissions and investigations that pressed charges (or even assigned blame) only in the most extreme cases. The brass do the minimum to quiet down the populace and then go back to their old ways. Perhaps there is some measurable improvement here and there over time, but George Floyd is the latest in an abominably long line. Plenty of unarmed white men are killed by cops, and they are just as much victims of police brutality. But you don’t have to have spent much time in the U.S. to understand why cops killing black men touches an especially raw nerve.

The same offenses, the same responses . . . White people like to draw a curtain over our misdeeds of the past — expressing shock at new outrages while repressing memories of old ones — and we have the power and wealth to do it. We are continually surprised at our own racism, perversely grateful for an opportunity to repent and atone, with the understanding that repentance and atonement — as they do in Christianity — give us license to continue to act in the same way. The point of atonement is not that you will never commit the offense again; Christians believe that everyone is always capable of more grievous sins. They may even secretly enjoy the prospect because it offers more chances to atone. Certainly since the 1960’s, and in some circles well before that, we are shocked to discover every decade or two that racism is real and we are practicing it. Those of us who do not revel in it must deplore it, or fight it, but it doesn’t seem to bother us enough. Can it end? How and when? Herbert Stein said, “Things that can’t last forever don’t,” but I don’t see any reason racism can’t last forever, or what passes for it around here. It has so far.

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(2000’s | politese? businese? | “change course,” “turn one’s attention from/to,” “shift,” “crucial point”)

From an Old French word for “hinge” imported into English in the sixteenth century. For a long time, it was nothing more than a special case of “revolve,” denoting movement around a fixed point, not necessarily smooth, or the fixed point itself. I learned the word first from basketball, where it refers to the movement a player is permitted to make when holding the ball and not dribbling. (In this case, the fixed point was called the “pivot foot.” To this day, “pivot” is used in Spanish and French to mean the center on a basketball team.) As the word has evolved, it has lost its connection with revolution and now refers to any change of strategy or objectives. This new sense, now widespread, did not really take hold until after 2010; I found only a few examples before then, primarily in political coverage.

The prominence of the term in politics is easily understood, considering that officials generally have to alter their policies when they butt up against the real world. As old words for this sort of thing grow stale and predictable, new ones arise, and “pivot” has certainly had its fifteen minutes. Often it’s not just a matter of doing something different; the notion of pivoting in politics contains an element of distracting the audience in an effort to make them forget the debacle that caused you to pivot in the first place. The word probably hit its political peak in 2016, when NPR decried it and many observers cited it as a buzzword. But if this looser definition of “pivot” originated in politics, it has come on strong in the business world, particularly in discussion of startups of various kinds; you pivot if your initial business model fails to generate adequate profit. My sense is that it is primarily businese now, but it remains available in other contexts.

The connection with the original meaning shows through in the following definition: “change directions but stay grounded in what [one has] learned” (source). Past experience and lessons learned remain the pivot, and keeping one foot there gives you a firmer foundation from which to launch. When a politician or business owner announces a pivot, part of the point is that they have considered the matter carefully and are making a deliberate change, not flailing around mindlessly. Or at least that’s what they want you to think. (Then again, another commentator remarked that “pivot” is a word used by executives who can’t admit they’ve made a mistake).

“Pivot on,” a substitute for “turn on” (as in “hinge on” or “depend on”), has likewise grown more common in recent years. Compare “pivotal,” meaning “essential.” “Pivot on” often carries that same implication of necessity, even urgency; with “pivot” they are in the background yet not absent. “Pivot” occurs more frequently in contemporary language and has become much less precise. Usually when that happens to an expression I sense that it has been trivialized or cheapened, but not in this case. The word has hung onto a bit of dignity and mystery, even as it has become clichéd.

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(1980’s | “revolutionary”)

It’s tempting to file this word under pandemic vocabulary, and it has certainly gotten a workout lately. It goes back a long way, though it did not become a common word until the 1990’s. The earliest citations in the OED date back to the seventeenth century and have to do with the power of religion (i.e., Christianity) to change lives. Its sibling, “transformational,” does not go back so far and seems to have done more duty as a technical term, notably in Noam Chomsky’s linguistics (“transformational grammar”). Both started to surface regularly in the 1980’s — found in coverage of art and politics, without any clear preponderance of one over the other — and have grown more common since. They are quite interchangeable now, although “transformational” still sounds a little more jargony. Probably both Briticisms originally, they are used comfortably all over the English-speaking world. Both words are in danger of losing force from being tossed around casually and frequently.

And both words mean the same thing: of or pertaining to large-scale, permanent change — more specifically, causing it or bringing it about (cf. game-changer). They may describe moments in history, policies and projects, or achievements, but may also crop up in fields with more concrete manifestations, like medicine or technology, and may even describe an individual, but much less often. You might hear talk of a transformative leader, but it would sound odd to apply the adjective to a particular person. I’ve never heard anyone say, “Jo is really transformative” or even “Jo has done a really transformative job.” That kind of modification may come into play over time. Yet the word may be used at the personal level; one might feel the transformative power of love, for example. Still, I would say it’s used much more often to talk about social and cultural phenomena.

“Transformative” and “transformational” share a powerful property: they betoken a new way of doing things, a break with the past that will lead to better times. In this quality they resemble “reimagine,” and that goes a long way toward explaining why both words have trended recently, as we confront a world unimaginable even six months ago, between the pandemic and the protests. The confluence, or crash, of current events presents activists with a real opportunity; in times like these one reaches naturally for such vocabulary.

“Transform” and its derivatives promise big things, as “revolutionary” did in my youth, when we used it in reference to the same sort of epoch-making change. Why has it fallen out of favor? People who want to work within the system are much less likely to resort to the term than they would have been fifty years ago, when it had already lost a lot of its fervor from forty years before that. Perhaps the moneyed have attained such power that they can bend the language to their will, stifling words that make them shudder. Or maybe the reformers themselves dropped it and its taint of radicalism. “Transformative” doesn’t conjure images of bloody overthrow of the powers that be — it is quieter, but no less far-reaching.

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boot camp

(1990’s | “professional development,” “intensive (or in-depth) seminar”)

Sources agree that this term arose in the twentieth century in the U.S. military, and they agree on its original meaning: a place where rigorous physical conditioning (“basic training”) takes place, or the training itself. The emphasis has always been on toughening raw recruits and instilling obedience and self-control within a limited time. It took me a while to find out why it’s called “boot camp.” Is it where you learn to lace your army boots? Is it where you get kicked (“booted”) in the ass? Oddly, the usual sources had little to say, but at last I found a plausible etymology: “During the Spanish-American War (1898), U.S. sailors wore leggings called boots, which came to mean a Navy or Marine recruit. These recruits trained in boot camps.” The explanation is not overwhelmingly convincing, but sounds reasonable and purports to have the authority of the Naval History and Heritage Command behind it. (We can be glad they were not called “legging camps,” at any rate.) The date is about right: Lighter’s slang dictionary records the earliest citations during World War I; Random House reports that the expression came into common use during World War II.

The original boot camp was Parris Island, which remains the archetype. The expression is still going strong in the armed services, but it has spread quite a bit. By 1980, it was possible, though unusual, to find it in non-military contexts, but it still denoted exactly the same sort of training, as undergone by the likes of aspiring missionaries or wayward kids. That idea flourished during the eighties and nineties when boot camps for young drug offenders became popular, as old, white America once again indulged its fantasy that giving the rebellious a good dose of old-fashioned calisthenics and sir-yes-sir would straighten them out. Such measures did not improve recidivism rates, but they did provide jobs for sadists. As reports of maltreatment of inmates leading to injury or death increased over time, the boot camps became a harder sell. They still exist but are often operated privately.

Today boot camps have stridden (look it up) well beyond the literal grind of ferocious exercise and strict rules, although gyms and fitness centers still use the phrase often. I don’t suppose there are boot camps for everything, but they are advertised to a much more varied clientele now. Some examples courtesy of Google: lawyers, new parents, computer technicians and coders, students, salesmen, entrepreneurs, nurses, political campaigners, non-profit board members (seriously), or anybody out of shape or unsure of what to do with their lives. If you don’t have to drop and give the drill sergeant twenty, eat slop, or make your bed a certain way, what makes it boot camp? The primary resemblance results from urgency and discipline; the point is to learn a lot in a short time (in that sense it’s like an immersion program), and the schedule is designed to keep you from messing around. I’ve never attended boot camp, even a metaphorical one, but I can see the appeal. If you want to succeed, you have to be tough and knowledgeable. Boot camp promises both in a hurry.

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fist bump

(late 1990’s | journalese (sports))

An athletic gesture par excellence that worked its way down to the masses shortly after 2000, as far as I can determine. The fist bump postdates the high five, though it was known as early as the 1970’s; Philadelphia 76ers guard Fred Carter is often cited as an early practitioner, if not the inventor. But the low five — “slap me five” (which is what I remember from childhood, along with a response my cousin taught me: “here’s your change” accompanied by a slap across the face) — and the high five were more the rule back then. Tiger Woods in 1999 gave the first widely reported fist bump (“first bump”?); in 2008, Barack Obama exchanged one with Michelle that excited widespread comment. Time magazine, in discussing the Obamas’ meeting of the hands, listed other terms for it: “‘power five,’ ‘fist pound,’ ‘knuckle bump,’ ‘Quarter Pounder,’ and ‘dap.'” The fist bump encompasses at least two different gestures. One, which involves the upper and lower edges of the fist, is also known by variations on “hammer” or “pound.” You hit the thumb side of your counterpart’s fist with the pinky side of your own; then the counterpart returns the favor. The more familiar form requires knuckle-to-knuckle contact, with the knuckles up and the fist roughly at shoulder level. In 2020, that is how most people would picture it.

What is the difference between a high five and a fist bump? I don’t mean in the act, I mean in their significance. On the surface, the closed fist is more aggressive than the open hand, so it would appear that a high five is more hail-fellow-well-met, while the fist bump might seem more threatening. I have to say I don’t read them that way at all. To me, a fist bump signals restraint and moderation, while the high five exudes exuberance. Partly that’s because the hands are raised higher for a high five; fists have to stay lower for a fist bump to work. But it is also a necessary corrective to the menace inherent in the fist. One must deliberately hold back so as not to appear to be slugging the other person. It’s fine to smack your hands together hard when they’re open, but when they’re closed? Then you have a fight on your hands.

The complex of gestures represented by handshakes, fist bumps, high fives, etc. is indeed complex. There are at least two more in the penumbra that merit mention. One is the Black Power salute from the sixties: a single fist raised high above the head. I’m not sure it’s a direct ancestor, but it lurks in the background of the less militant fist bump. Another is the chest bump, prized among athletes, in which two people leap into the air and bang their rib cages together. It lacks the self-restraint inherent in the fist bump and outstrips even the high five in enthusiasm. Athletes have the extremely difficult task of playing with the utmost intensity until the instant the whistle blows; then they are expected to turn it off completely. Celebratory rituals soak up adrenaline and act as a safety valve, giving all that excess energy somewhere to go.

Although it probably had nothing to do with the original intent, doctors and do-gooders noted long before the coronavirus craze that a fist bump was more hygienic than a handshake. You may remember that in March 2020 the elbow bump took the stage briefly as an even more hygienic alternative, before the six-foot distancing rule became standard. Now we must look to our sports heroes once again; when play resumes, athletes will no doubt concoct new enactments of congratulation and triumph that dispense with physical contact altogether. And we will adopt some of them. Nowadays, even the most sheltered are no longer nonplussed by high fives and fist bumps. It won’t take long to add new elaborations to our non-verbal vocabulary.

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(1990’s | academese | “reconceive,” “recreate,” “start anew”)

Part of a complex with “reinvent,” so let’s start by teasing that out. “Reinvent” came on-line earlier, already fairly common in the seventies, particularly in the idiom “reinvent the wheel.” But that particular cliché refers to unnecessary work that replicates what has already been done. Any other time you use “reinvent,” it suggests imaginative power that produces something new and startling. “Reimagine” has followed in the footsteps of “reinvent” and is used in pretty much the same way. It comes out of philosophy and literary criticism originally. The OED yields citations from the nineteenth century, when it could have a literal shading: you had already imagined something and then had to do it again because you forgot it, or conditions changed, etc. Up until 2000 or so it was found largely in arts journalism and sparingly elsewhere. One did it with Greek mythology, or Hamlet, or the mystery novel, or a historical event, and at bottom it implied a new way of looking at whatever it was — a synonym for “reinterpret.” In the last twenty years, it has moved outward but never abandoned its ancestral ground.

“Reimagine” goes nearly always with abstractions (though sometimes, even before 2000, one might speak of reimagining a building). As of 2000, it could apply to a different class of abstraction, such as politics or government, which have far more immediate impact on our lives than a new staging of Oedipus Rex. Today it goes with even more personally consequential abstractions; we talk comfortably of reimagining ourselves, our way of life, our relationships, our cities, or the organizations we belong to. When you hear the term, you tend to think of large, imposing questions, whether on a personal or social scale; it would sound odd to reimagine your route to the grocery store. But it might not be too grandiose to reimagine your meal planning or the organization of your closet. A word like “reimagine” teaches us to attend to different types and levels of abstraction. Some strike us very near the heart (or wallet), while others operate at more of a remove. Some affect only a small number of individuals, however strongly; other abstractions embrace us all.

“Reimagine” is getting heavy use now thanks to the pandemic; our leaders are convening panels of experts and demanding that everyone put on their thinking caps and start figuring out what life will look like in the new normal. (It’s a favorite of New York’s Governor Cuomo, and he has been leaning on the word pretty hard recently.) Why not remake, reshape, reform, rethink, redesign, re-envision, revolutionize? you ask. “Reimagine” not only partakes of creativity and invention — a necessity in times like these — it also has an optimistic, forward-looking sound in response to challenging circumstances. The world has changed irrevocably, and we must come up with answers that would not have occurred to us before. The same old same old simply won’t suffice. But there is no such thing as neutral when it comes to social organization; one reimagines with biases and favorites, with different ideas about who needs what. While the identities of the winners and losers may change over time, the fact of them apparently never does. Reimagine that!

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(1980’s | businese | “ready-to-use,” “useful”)

When I was a boy, “actionable” was a legal term meaning “subject to sanction or penalty.” A bit more broadly, it meant “subject to any legal process,” as for example something it would be legitimate to sue over, so it could refer to a deed that might be punishable, rather than one that certainly is. It was a lawyer’s or investigator’s term. I could write a book about words that have sacrificed precision to the onrush of modern civilization, which for some reason rests on the axiom that words must mean what they look like, regardless of how we have used them for centuries (cf. “concerning,” “dress down,” “flag.”) It seems to be the fate of words with counterintuitive definitions that at a certain point, a newer meaning that corresponds to the apparent, “literal” meaning of the word (or part of the word) will outstrip the original, which may persist in specialized vocabularies. All non-obvious or confusing definitions must be swept aside, leaving their words free to wallow in the most mind-numbing meanings you can imagine.

Ooh, crabby! But by 1980, “actionable” had started to tread this path. The legal use is still available, but it has been swamped in the business press, and now the mainstream, by the most boring definition possible: “capable of being acted on.” (Why not “actable”?) Oh, Lord, it’s all over the place, modifying data here, insights there, plans, advice, results, and on and on. Most of the time it combines with its noun to mean something like “hot tip,” straight from the experts and ready to use right away. That sense of urgency does seem to be part of it, at least in some fields, like finance or data processing. The idea is that you’d better use that actionable what-have-you right away, with a strong hint that someone will steal a march on you if you don’t.

The watering-down of “actionable” stems from the tone-deafness of the three-quarters literate — the kind of person who has heard more words than he knows and is not shy about throwing words around that he doesn’t quite understand. I’ve covered some of this ground before.

It took some time for the original legal usage to be overshadowed, but the new sense was thoroughly established by 2000. It’s not easy to come up with pre-1980 equivalents that achieve the same combination of value and urgency. How would we have said it? “Hot off the presses.” “News you can use.” “You can plug it right in.” “It’s ready to go.” None of these sounds quite right, and none could replace “actionable” in a sentence. Clumsy and mindless as it is, “actionable” has settled into the language, filling a need we didn’t know we had and creating simpler sentence patterns. If it swells the profit stream, it doesn’t have to be clever.

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(1980’s | advertese? | “ambitious,” “wishful,” “desirable”)

Aim high. Think big. Look beyond yourself to a higher goal, a greater good. It is an odd thing about “aspire” and its derivatives. If you look up “aspiration” in the OED, most of the definitions have to do with breathing. (Any time you see a verb with “spire” in it, that’s where it comes from, even “inspire” or “perspire,” which may not at first call up images of respiration.) Then, right there in the middle of six or seven definitions is “steadfast desire or longing for something above one.” It looks like it must be related to the French “espérance” (hope), yet it too goes back to breathing: the idea is that you long for something so badly you’re panting. It should not be confused with “aspiring,” for it is not a synonym. To illustrate the difference, take the phrases “aspiring customer” and “aspirational customer.” The former is one who is not a customer but wants to be. The latter may already be a customer, specifically one interested in better or more elaborate merchandise. The trick about “aspirational” is that it may modify the consumer or the goods.

Indirectly, “aspire” confused me in a different way when I was young. When I first read the Latin phrase “ad astra per aspera,” I thought “aspera” was related to aspiration, as in “to the stars through lofty aims.” I would have been closer if I had thought of “asperity.” It really means “to the stars through difficulties,” in other words, overcoming obstacles to reach great heights. (It’s the state motto of Kansas, whatever that says about Kansas.)

“Aspirational” actually goes back centuries, but does not show up often before 1980, when apparently a gradual and persistent increase in use began. LexisNexis suggests that in the 1980’s, it was most prevalent in advertising, where the idea was to inveigle people into paying more for the product by convincing them it would confer higher status. In this sense it is closely related to another eighties coinage: upwardly mobile. That usage is still around, but now “aspirational” doesn’t only mean striving for something more or less attainable. Now we often use it to mean hopeful, but in an ineffectual way — or even flat-out delusional. When you do something aspirational, you’re acting on a belief that you wish were true. In effect you are trying to impose your will on the world and force everyone to abide by your cherished theory or desire.

Even in the 1980’s, you could find the word in politics, business management, and ethics. In the last field it had a particularly baneful meaning. One way to let government malefactors off the hook was to rule that certain ethical standards were “aspirational,” meaning that no one was really expected to follow them, so violations were not punishable. One of Reagan’s attorneys general, Edwin Meese, was exonerated of some of his numerous ethical lapses on exactly those grounds. If you want to see where that sort of moral relativism ends up, look around. Republican presidents, at least since Nixon, have reserved special contempt for the office of Attorney General, regularly nominating obviously corrupt hacks who equate their boss with the law and have no taste for equality, justice, or moderation. When Clinton was on the rack, Republicans loved to laud a government of laws, not of men. They don’t say that any more. They’ve fallen in behind Trump’s utter contempt for the law — something to be evaded or used as a weapon against your enemy, but in no case to be respected. Trump ignores the law any time he thinks he can get away with it, and most Republicans — even lawmakers! — profess allegiance. The notion that these power-mad toadies care, or ever cared, about the rule of law or the Constitution is more nauseous than laughable.

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put a ring on it

(2000’s | “tie the knot,” “marry her already”)

My first, persistent thought is why not “her” or “me” instead of “it”? Either would fit about as well in Beyoncé’s hit from 2008, “Single Ladies,” almost certainly the origin of this expression (“If you like it then you should have put a ring on it”). What is “it”? First, of course, the narrator’s finger. What else? Sex appeal? Well, yes: in the song, the narrator is interested in finding other men to get physical with. More to the point, “it” represents eligibility. One way to understand the song is to say that the choice of pronoun exploits a typical male attitude towards women — dehumanizing and unfounded in genuine commitment. To such a man, a woman can be summed up as “it,” and the wedding ring is but an acknowledgment of ownership. The narrator may turn the tables and avoid “me” or “her” to get away from such a conception of marriage; it’s not chaining me up, but earning my fidelity. The overt message of the song is a declaration of independence, not only demanding a single woman’s right to go after other men, but also her right to be treated with respect.

It didn’t take long for the phrase to take wing. It is so well-established after ten years that it can be used jocularly to refer to Saturn’s rings or Wagner’s operas. The mood is not invariably imperative or implicitly imperative; it may be used indicatively (“Joe finally put a ring on it”). That has always been true, even though it tends toward a distinctly imperative note. The expression is uttered as readily by a third party as by the prospective bride or her parents — “put a ring on it” is nearly always directed at the groom — but just as it need not be imperative, it need not be menacing, ranging from light-hearted badinage to an ultimatum.

I’ve been bashing away at this for several days now, on and off, and I’m still having a hard time coming up with marriage-related idioms or set phrases that employ the word “ring.” All I can think of is “With this ring I thee wed,” and it seems like there must be more. “Put a ring on it” actually reminds me more of “tie a string around your finger” (an old-fashioned reminder) or “put your finger on it” (pin down a word or concept). I suppose there’s no real relation to either, but I reserve the right to detect a covert resemblance. There is also “put a ring around it,” typically used literally; I wonder if “put a ring on it” may render that expression extinct. It is striking how many different things “ring” can mean, the number of contexts in which it is at home. Crime, communication, choreography, cash registers, the circus . . . and let’s not forget machinery, mathematics, and marriage.

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