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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years


(1990’s | businese? athletese? | “shaking things up,” “causing a stir”)

A word of long standing, but when did it take on a favorable connotation? Not everywhere, of course, but executives use it approvingly now, unthinkable in the days of Henry Ford or even Lee Iacocca. Successful corporations have traditionally avoided boat-rocking and sought the even keel, but now executives congratulate each other on their disruptive business practices. It is not solely a matter of hobbling the competition; a certain amount of disruption is tolerated within the organization if it keeps employees on their toes, for example, or pushes a complacent division into activity. The buttoned-down set seems to have loosened their vests.

The first occurrences in the press that I found date from the late nineties, a few due to far-sighted business gurus but more from coaches describing the defensive unit, particularly in football and basketball. (Often it applied to a single defensive player.) I couldn’t guess which source influenced the other, but there’s nothing new about businessmen borrowing vocabulary from athletes — in this case, giving it more of an offensive than a defensive cast. By 2010 the word was ordinary in business contexts. Nowadays artificial intelligence and business models or strategies attract the label “disruptive.”

It’s a very forward-looking buzzword, associated with innovation, technology, and improved corporate management. Senior executives sling it around confidently, extolling the virtues of novelty and adroit exploitation of one’s strengths, or just crowing about how they’re going to mess with their competitors. There’s the usual tension between the goal of making the world a better place (if only for p.r. purposes) and simply extracting greater profit from it.

“Disruptive” is close to a newer expression — “game-changing” — and an older one, “revolutionary.” But these are both stronger than “disruptive,” which encompasses lesser shocks to the system. You can be disruptive without altering the playing field permanently or overthrowing an old order. It reminds me of Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of “creative destruction,” a hallmark of capitalism, which requires not just that single enterprises should fall so that better ones might rise, but that the rules of doing business, or other received wisdom, must fall to the new and improved. (Schumpeter believed strongly in innovation and entrepreneurism, by the way.) In today’s world, disruptive tactics are mainly intended to weaken or drive out competitors, but getting rid of rivals was always part of the entrepreneur’s toolbox. The fine talk of less able businesses fertilizing their successors didn’t disguise the fact that Schumpeter was merely peddling social Darwinism dressed up as economic law — yet another instance of trahison des clercs.

We owe this week’s expression to Will from Paris, a first-rate student of the language and a damn fine host to boot. He says, based on recent dealings with the corporate set, that this word will soon take over the world, and Lex Maniac wants nothing more than to get in on the rez-de-chaussée. Merci!


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(1970’s | legalese? | “quarantine”)

A grim word. Before 1970 or so, “lockdown” pertained to hardware, describing a mechanism that held something firmly in place. During the seventies, lawyers and prison wardens began using the term to talk about a way to control prisoners by confining them to their cells, forbidding gatherings, visits from the outside, etc. The usage became standard quickly, commonplace in the mainstream press by the mid-eighties. At some point in the nineties, the word kicked over the traces and spread to other contexts, anywhere there was unrest (just as prison lockdowns were a typical response to riots or smaller-scale violence). Some incidents in the late nineties in particular gave the word a boost — the Columbine High School shootings, the WTO protests in Seattle — each of which drove a spike in sightings of “lockdown.” It was already shifting from something imposed by corrections officers to something enforced by police. At the same time, lockdowns took on the flavor of safety and security rather than punishment.

It was arguably a safety measure even when first discussed. (What was the old word for it? Was there one?) To us, “lockdown” suggests an entire building or at least a wing, but in the seventies, it was not unusual for a single prisoner to be put in lockdown (solitary confinement) if they got a little too crazy. The whole premise of prison is that you get put away in a holding pen, away from society, and that’s just another level — prison squared. But soon lockdown became a much more general affair, imposed on hundreds of prisoners at a time. That does have to do with safety, of the guards if nobody else. But as in the case of a single prisoner, it’s very easy to confuse with retribution. When you lock down a school, a civic building, or a whole neighborhood because there’s a killer roaming loose nearby, we’re all supposed to have a warm feeling, like everyone is doing their job and protecting the kids from harm.

We already used “lockup” as a synonym for “jail” — for some reason, you don’t hear “lockup lockdown” — if we hadn’t, “lockup” might have become the accepted term instead. I don’t know exactly why, but “lockdown” works better somehow. It sounds more drastic, more final than “lockup,” and therefore better suited to widespread danger and panic. (Cf. “shutdown,” “breakdown,” or even “patdown.”)

The spread of “lockdown” to hospitals, hotels, or even entire cities demonstrates two things. One is that lockdown is primarily a response to contagion, whether of violence or disease. That’s why it sounds strange when sportswriters use it to describe an outstanding defensive player; we understand but it sounds a little off somehow. But the continuing creep of the term into other fields (itself a form of contagion) reveals the seductiveness of the concept. Here’s an easy way to prevent harm to the defenseless, and who wouldn’t be for that? The fact that it also represents an expansion of power — of government or administrators of private institutions — doesn’t seem so important against the backdrop of pious evocation of security for all. Pretty much everyone would agree that lockdowns are at least occasionally necessary to prevent dangerous situations from getting completely out of hand at prisons, hospitals, or schools. But how often? Should we carry them out as preventive measures rather than as responses to unfolding crisis? Is it true that the more lockdowns that occur within a society, the more authoritarian it becomes?

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side hustle

(2000’s | African-American | “(little) thing (one does) on the side,” “second job,” “moonlighting”)

Hustle: a rich-hued word with a history. It goes back to the seventeenth century, when it generally meant “shake” or “jostle” (an echo of which survives in the old-fashioned phrase “hustle and bustle”). It comes, in fact, from a Dutch word meaning “to shake.” By the turn of the twentieth century, it bore several of the meanings we recognize today: move hurriedly, act fast and/or cleverly, (as verb) to sell, including one’s own body. According to Lighter’s slang dictionary, it did not start to mean “(do) something underhanded” or “attempt to deceive” until the 1940’s. Among African-Americans, it has meant “side source of income,” legal or otherwise, since the seventeenth century, according to Major’s slang dictionary. You can see how they all fit together, but it’s that African-American usage that has survived in today’s set phrase, “side hustle.”

Since it resolutely fails to earn me a dime, the blog does not count as a side hustle. Lovely Liz from Queens, on the other hand, has one that she’s very good at: helping your book resolve its issues. If you’re having problems writing a book — any kind at all — she works through them with you.

As it began to appear in the press around 2000, “side hustle” sometimes suggested shady or criminal activity but since has become quite respectable. A side hustle involves work for the purpose of getting paid, but it isn’t quite the same as a second job as we used to think of it, with predictable hours and a well-defined work site. The expression’s primary referent has evolved a bit over time; ten years ago, a side hustle most often resulted from a particular talent or interest — music, baking, embroidery — that someone was able to monetize. After the 2008 crash and the explosion of the gig (or freelance) economy, it more often refers to driving an Uber, selling your work on Etsy, starting an on-line business; the whole thing has become quite a bit more prosaic.

I’m afraid “side hustle” has joined the vocabulary of the apologists and cheerleaders, the people who write books in which the first premise is that when employees are getting shafted, it’s not because of the executives. A veritable horde of scribblers counsels employees to accept and deal with whatever the boss throws at them, but not to figure out why it’s happening and how to prevent it. I won’t belabor this, since I already went into it last week, but “side hustle” is one of the rentier class’s favorite responses to downsizing, or forty years of wage stagnation. (The phrase appeared in a Small Business Administration press release last year; even the federal government has gotten into the act.) You could also organize and force the bosses to pay more and offer better conditions, but hardly anyone writes books about that, and they rarely make the best-seller lists.

You ask why I’ve been attacking big business and entrenched wealth lately. What’s the occasion? Are they acting any worse than they did last year, or ten years ago? (Not really.) Well, some things never go out of style, and a laser focus on collusion between government and moneyed interests grows more necessary by the year. Thanks to the latest Republican tax cut, your average American corporation is sitting on a mountain of cash, enriching a few dozen people beyond dreams of avarice and investing precious little of it, certainly not in salaries. Meanwhile, large majorities of hard-working people scrape by as they have for decades now, one mishap away from penury. The elementary failure to redistribute wealth downward cripples our political system, leading to the crude parodies of popular deliberation that our presidential elections have become, and the utter and unremitting failure of government at all levels to do the people’s business, or to act in the public interest at all, from maintaining and building infrastructure to making parental leave an unquestioned right. Now the oligarchs have spat Trump up on the shore of our democracy, daring us to take it. How long?

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emotional intelligence

(1990’s | academese (psychology) | “sympathy,” “empathy”)

First we must pay homage to Daniel Goleman, who adopted this week’s expression for the title of a best-seller in 1995, vaulting it into everyday language. Psychologically speaking, his goal was to cast doubt on the primacy of IQ testing as a method for predicting success in life. He followed in the footsteps of Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, who proposed several different types of intelligence, each playing an important role, of which IQ represented only one. Goleman’s work was a summation of research that had been going on at least a decade among psychologists, neuroscientists, etc., and an unusually effective popular treatment of recent science. He was also concerned with childhood development, attempting to prove empirically that children turn out better if they are taught means to deal with and mitigate their emotional reactions — more likely to avoid major trouble and relate well to their peers. His focus on education tended to disguise a strong self-help tendency in Goleman’s popular writing; he seemed to be trying to start a movement. To some extent, he has: there are now a number of tests that measure “EQ,” and emotional intelligence has become a familiar concept, denoting what we used to think of as skill at reading expressions, gestures, and tone of voice, and a willingness to use it.

But that’s not the whole story of this phrase; it had two other uses in the mid-nineties. One, which turned up most often in reviews of the performing arts, denoted the ability to convey a character’s emotions, credited primarily to actors and singers. (That meaning seems to have lapsed.) The other, closer to Goleman’s, had mainly to do with grasping and responding to the emotions displayed by others; whereas Goleman emphasized understanding and controlling one’s own emotional response, other early adopters of the expression made more of looking outside oneself. This distinction may also be observed by introducing the notion of social intelligence — understanding others — in contradistinction to emotional intelligence — understanding oneself. Actual people who boast one attribute are likely to have the other, it is true, and Goleman argued that the emotionally intelligent (in his sense) did better because they played better with others, suggesting that their sensitivity stretched beyond their personal boundaries.

It seems to me that by now the outer-directed sense of emotional intelligence has won. The term has long since outgrown the psychology ghetto and is common all over the lot, including sportswriting and political reporting. Philosophers of business have made a near-fetish of it (as they did, twenty years ago, with a closely related concept, “interpersonal skills“). Today’s business coaches laud emotional intelligence, meaning roughly “ability to fend off drama queens and divas and make everyone else feel less oppressed.” Buffing up your emotional intelligence will make you a better leader and turn your employees into obedient little gnomes. The business press thrives on this sort of thing; every year a new panacea that will make every lousy boss into a good one. And every year, the preponderance of bosses fail to follow the sensible advice of management gurus, which is a darn shame, except it means the bosses will continue to require their expensive services. It’s the employees who won’t get anything out of it.

Business apologists do glom onto expressions that make the boss look better while doing little to improve actual performance. “Mindfulness” and “wellness” have certainly gone that route, while “who moved my cheese?” also deflects responsibility for major disruptions of employees’ lives. Now “emotional intelligence” takes its turn. The phrase conveys increased sympathy and humane attitudes toward employees, but books are written about emotional intelligence because it benefits employers at their expense. Yes, your employees will be happier — because you have become more adept at manipulating them. When executives turn their attention to the wider world, “downsize,” “go green,” “outsource,” and “win-win” treat the rest of us the same way, using euphemisms or feel-good phrases to avoid or disguise harmful policies and acts.

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emotional baggage

(1970’s | therapese | “emotional scars,” “trauma”)

At least in the seventies, when “emotional baggage” wormed its way into demotic language, it could be the property of persons, as it normally is now, but it might also trail along behind a political issue, analogous to what an older generation would have called “freight.” So certain matters of public policy — abortion, capital punishment, affirmative action, anything a lot of people get worked up about — were said to have emotional baggage. Today I think that such usage would sound rather odd, though the meaning would not be unclear. When pundits rather than therapists resorted to the phrase, it took a patronizing cast, indicating that all those simpletons needed to calm down and let the experts analyze the issue dispassionately. One wished to set it aside or get rid of it entirely. That’s true of emotional baggage bogging down an individual, too, but the tone is usually more sympathetic. One’s demons are presumed difficult, and even unsuccessful efforts to cast them out are deemed worthy. It is dangerously easy to recognize and cluck over others’ emotional baggage even as we go right on tripping over our own.

Other common phrases bearing “baggage”: “personal baggage,” which weighs down politicians in particular — past statements and votes, but more juicily, their peccadillos, magnadillos, or killerdillos — Ted Kennedy had a lot of it, for example. “Mental (or intellectual) baggage” also holds you back, but specifically because it consists of outmoded preconceived notions (cf. Wordsworth’s “creed outworn”). Emotional baggage treads the same path — it gets in your way AND takes its lessons from past experience that need not apply to your present or future — yet you continue to carry it with you.

The common denominator of “baggage” is that which weighs you down, but its earliest figurative uses encompassed other meanings. The earliest seems to have been “prostitute” — from Shakespeare’s time — later it went on to mean “saucy young woman,” which persisted into our era. But it could also mean “worthless man” or “nonsense,” neither of which corresponds very well to how we use it now. “Baggage” meaning “impediment” goes back at least to the late seventeenth century and has an extensive historical pedigree. Its most familiar avatar in the twentieth century was probably “excess baggage,” used to denote whatever people or things slow us down or get in the way: could be family, past history, or whatever you’re unable to cast aside. The word has never lost its negative connotations when used metaphorically, but they became less venomous somewhere back there. “Baggage” has a more complicated history than you might suspect, but by now certain strands have crowded out the others, and most old associations of “baggage” seem unlikely to return.

Further usage note: Something immutable, like genetic heritage, would not generally be called “baggage.” “Baggage” is not exactly voluntary, but the implication persists that we can get rid of it, or at least work around it, if we want to bad enough.

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zero-sum game

(1970’s | academese (mathematics) | “winner take all”)

An expression that’s actually a bit old by Lex Maniac’s standards, “zero-sum game” was well-established by 1980 in political and economic journalism, and it retains a technical or bureaucratic flavor to this day. Its origins lie in mathematics, specifically game theory. In a zero-sum game, the gains of one side must be exactly matched by the losses of the other(s), so when you add the two together, you get zero. It might come up when finite resources are at stake, or to talk about election results or currency trading. A notable feature of this expression: the frequency with which it was glossed when it started to show up in the mainstream press in the 1970’s. As I remarked recently, most new expressions come with explanations some of the time, but virtually every instance of “zero-sum game” yielded by LexisNexis from the seventies included some sort of definition, even if only rough-and-ready. Certain terms draw our attention as they enter the discourse because they are glossed either rarely or nearly always (most new expressions fall somewhere in between, making the extremes noticeable). I can’t divine any shared characteristic that accounts for either state.

Like every economic or social science model, the zero-sum game is a simplification of what goes on in real life — a way of reducing complicated situations to a small number of “essential” characteristics, which makes solving the equations much easier. Sometimes the simplifications clear away irrelevancies and point the way to a clear answer. More often, they leave out significant factors and present a misleading picture of the underlying issues. It is important, in other words, to know how to recognize when the zero-sum game makes a good approximation of the problem at hand, and when it misrepresents it in more or less crucial ways. For the temptation to resort to zero-sum analysis is powerful, particularly among those who take a harsh view of society and human relations. It’s a great tool for social Darwinists — those who see human culture as an arena in which the quick and strong trample the slow and weak, figuratively if not literally — because the zero-sum game demands winners (the fittest) and losers (everyone else). The zero-sum approach is commonly equated with negotiating methods that emphasize imposing losses on the other party, rather than trying to give both sides part of what they want. Donald Trump is often derided, with some justice, for treating certain issues — immigration and trade come instantly to mind — as zero-sum games when both theory and experience show that they are not.

The zero-sum game does best in discussions of athletic or gambling competitions, where the winning and losing sides are easy to discern. (Note, however, that in sports such as golf and auto racing, the concept is less useful, because there are a number of participants in the prize pot, so finishing first does not knock everyone else out of the winners’ circle.) But athletic competition is itself a simplification that creates an arena in which we can sail past the immense complexities of everyday life and root wholeheartedly for our side, without equivocal undercurrents. That makes the zero-sum game a simplification of a simplification — that is, a distortion of a distortion — two removes from what happens in the real world, even when it looks like a good match for the zero-sum model. We need models, but we also need means of measuring their results and recommendations against what’s going on outside. Otherwise it’s easy to make progressively worse decisions until it all ends in catastrophe.

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experiential retail

(1990’s | businese | “something extra for the customer”)

When Lovely Liz from Queens is unfamiliar with an expression, it must be assumed to be generally unfamiliar, so I will define “experiential retail” in simple terms. It’s when the store gives the customer stuff to do besides shop. I’ve only started noticing the phrase in the last few years, but it arose among theorists of selling by the late nineties, though it doesn’t seem to have become ordinary until at least a decade after that. The giant keyboard at FAO Schwarz (installed in 1982, sez Wikipedia) is an example of the phenomenon before there was a word for it; the famed toy store was an early exponent.

The innovation of FAO Schwarz and its followers lay in taking the kind of service that had been available only to the rich and placing it within reach of the middle class. In the old days, only rich people got to shop in stores with fake waterfalls or what have you. (According to Shopping Center World in May 2000, a Nike store offered “celebrity athlete appearances, a motion simulator ride, viewing/listening stations, and a Ticketmaster outlet, along with other intangibles such as its “Stay-in-School” program.” Other oft-cited early exemplars: the Warner Bros. Studio store, the Disney Store, American Girl stores.) An oversize synthesizer you can play tunes on with your feet? Maybe in an exclusive store for people with real money, but no middle-class kid had a shot at such a thing before FAO Schwarz took the plunge. Give the customers something that will cause them to buy more this trip and come back more often. Of course, if nobody wants your stock, all the experiences in the world won’t help.

The most common mode of experiential retail is amusement, normally bearing at least a tenuous relationship to the merchandise. It’s mostly about offering shoppers self-indulgence — though self-improvement is sometimes touted. In the early days it could be as simple as a few television screens; games and other activities were popular ways of livening up the shopping experience. A store like Build-a-Bear turned the product into an activity, giving children and their parents a chance to customize a stuffed animal. The emphasis fell on big, gaudy displays intended to impress as well as influence, and when there was money behind them, the displays could get pretty impressive.

The late nineties was when on-line shopping started to make itself felt. (There had been many ways to buy stuff without leaving home before the internet came along, of course.) Experiential retail was one response; brick-and-mortar stores had to distinguish themselves from their on-line competitors, partly in order to justify higher prices. A fine example of a new term arising in direct connection with a development in the culture.

Twenty years later, as the great middle-class department stores like Sears and J.C. Penney are dying, experiential retail looks like a desperation tactic that failed to stem the on-line tide. The old dinosaurs were probably doomed anyway, but being forced to spend more money to lure shoppers who were spending less and less couldn’t have helped their bottom lines. It makes people like me sad to see those anchors of my suburban youth go. The market has no sentiment, but the little consumers who fuel it do, and the market must make room for our quirks if it wants our money.

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(2010’s | journalese?)

This word has started popping up frequently in New York City, where the government has launched a campaign against this particular urban blight. For those of you fortunate enough to live in rural areas, a fatberg (“berg” as in “iceberg”) is a mass formed of cooking fat and other stuff — baby wipes are common — in the sewers large enough to obstruct the flow (examples here). A Briticism, the expression was pressed into service in 2013 when the things made their presence felt around the United Kingdom, notably in Kingston in August, when a fifteen-ton fatberg the size of a London bus was discovered just in time, before it caused raw sewage to pour out through the manholes. That occasion spread the term all over the English-speaking world and introduced it rather precipitately to the mainstream. It had shown up before in the British press, often in articles about London entrepreneurs who aimed to convert fatbergs into energy with some good old British pluck and ingenuity. The lads intended to salvage the grease, truck it off to the biodiesel plant, and turn it into kilowatt-hours. Makes me glad I have a desk job.

Presumably fatbergs result from changes in our flushing habits along with increased population and antiquated sewers. More products — mainly wipes and cat litter — advertise themselves as flushable nowadays, and disposal of used grease — known in the trade as “FOG,” which stands for “fat, oils, grease” — is the same problem it’s always been. Most municipalities do not have household-level collection of oil and fat, which is laborious and probably would not pay for itself. Which means that as it always seems to be in America, the landfill is the last resort; if you don’t know what else to do with it, throw it away. Even environmentally conscious New York City, which in some areas does actually collect food waste, including bones, grease, etc., must tell residents of other neighborhoods that they should throw used cooking oil away instead of dumping it down the drain. The city has inaugurated an educational campaign (Dave Barry is not making this up, and neither am I) that instructs residents to flush only the four P’s: pee, poop, puke, and paper. They forgot phlegm.

Fatbergs do seem to have caught our imagination. There’s a children’s book and a prospective West End musical (grease is the word); the Museum of London had a piece of a fatberg on display for a while (it was sealed in a plastic container, so you couldn’t smell it.) Two guys in Amsterdam are building a fatberg in the sea. Part of our fascination stems from horror or disgust. Yet there’s also an element of pride in our ability to generate waste and create vast subterranean messes that someone else has to clean up — because there’s no way to get rid of a fatberg except to send people down there to hack away until it no longer clogs the pipe. They are born at the intersection of consumerism and hygiene, the repressed dark side of our unremitting consumption and the waste that goes with it.

“Fatberg,” like “workaholic,” is formed with an affix that is otherwise nonsensical, yet we understand it right away (cf. “Jumbotron,” “McMansion,” and “robocall“). While it was not born at an ascertainable time and place, like “irrational exuberance,” it went from zero to sixty in a hurry.

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(1980’s | enginese? | “expandable,” “flexible”)

You would expect a word like “scalable” to work in two directions, to imply the ability to grow larger or smaller with equal facility. Sometimes it does, as in the case of scalable fonts, or vector graphics. But when applied to hardware or software or systems, in practice it soon came to mean capable of getting bigger, not smaller. At least from the late eighties, geeks, or people trying to make money off them, used “scalable” almost invariably to mean able to take on more capacity, more devices, more bandwidth. The assumption in those early days of the personal computer, which remains today, is that it would all keep getting bigger and faster, and you must take that law of nature into account as you assemble your components. “Scalable” meant you were prepared for the inevitable expansion. There was a bit more optimism back then about how long you could expect your scalable system to last; now we know that whatever we buy will be obsolete in three years or less, drawing barely suppressed sniggers from the Geek Squad guys.

At first it meant something different — “Able to be measured or graded according to a scale.” (I’m quoting the OED; the first citation in this sense dates from 1936. The other definition has to do with cliffs and peaks. The OED is entirely silent on today’s definition.) While using the term to mean “expandable” implies a scale of some sort, it is more nebulous; precise measurement is not directly connected or particularly important. The adjective usage implies a verb: “scale” (make smaller or larger while maintaining proportions); and predictably has spawned the unfortunate noun “scalability.” While the latter is used far too often, the former seems less common than it ought. Or maybe I’m just not reading the right things.

Even before the computer age, this word was techspeak, used in engineering journals and scientific reports. The bureaucrats got hold of it soon enough, and you might sight it occasionally in the mainstream press by 1980, but the term became common with computers and took off later in the decade. It has remained a geek’s expression. We don’t use the word much in everyday conversation, and it doesn’t come up a lot in consumer-level advertising. But everyone in the IT Department has to know what it means.

“Scalable” is one of those expressions that journalists start throwing around casually, generally without defining it. That’s not the rule, by the way. Most new expressions, if there is anything non-obvious about them at all, are offered at first with explanations. Defining an unfamiliar phrase is part of your obligation to your readers. I didn’t look at every search result, and I doubtless missed some things, but I saw very few attempts to define the word in the eighties, and most of them were pretty vague. I have noted a few other expressions like that going by — body wash, caregiver, proactive, reality check, senior moment. It makes me wonder what it is about these expressions that allows them this liberty. I suppose “body wash” and “caregiver” are pretty straightforward, but I wouldn’t describe “proactive,” “reality check,” or “senior moment” as obvious.

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help me out here

(1980’s | journalese (movies)? | “can you explain this to me?”)

This expression is somewhere between a command and a request, which may seem more paradoxical than it is. It is not intoned or phrased as a question, but it also falls short of a demand because of its lightweight character. Fundamentally, it means the same thing as “help me,” but sounds much less desperate, and it sounds more natural than “help me out” used as an imperative. For “help me out here” comes into its own when on its own. While it may be preceded by “can” or “would,” (but seldom “please”) to form a question, it loses some effect that way. Adding “here” adds emphasis but tempers it with casualness, putting the hearer at ease by assuring her that you’re not asking for anything too serious. Just a friendly request for assistance. The tone of voice has to be right — not too peremptory or pleading. We used to call out “little help” on the playground, as when the ball from your game rolled near someone else. It could be uttered with or without an interrogative rise — another expression that couldn’t decide whether it was a request or command.

“Help me out here” started to appear in LexisNexis in the 1980’s but didn’t hit its stride until shortly after 1990; the phrase started swirling thick and fast in the press around then. It probably passed its prime somewhere between 2000 and 2010, but still gets regular airings, no longer primarily among artists, athletes, and movie folk, but among those of all ages or stations. It was associated in its early days with talk show host Phil Donahue.

Phil was a good liberal who believed in working with his guests, and “help me out here” was a way to get past certain defenses. The expression aims ultimately at persuading someone else and has a sneaky Socratic quality. You don’t use it when you’re moving a sofa; you use it during a discussion to signal that the other person just failed to make sense and you are innocently seeking clarification. (The request might be directed at another panelist or even the audience, but it is aimed at your adversary.) Often the not-so-veiled implication is that the other debater is misguided or arguing in bad faith, but you don’t have to come right out and say so. This sort of use comes through most clearly when people are arguing about politics, but the same pattern appears in other fields as well.

Until I started thinking about this phrase, it never occurred to me that there is another place to break it: “help me / out here” (help ME, out HERE) which means “I am outside; please assist me.” I’ve always heard it as “help me out / here” (help me OUT, HERE) where “here” is tacked onto the end of the predicate. “Here” translates as “in this situation.” When you use it to denote a definite location, it sounds a little different. Take this utterance, from Boris Becker (May 25, 1993) talking about a new coach: “I’ve asked him to help me out here and at Wimbledon, and we’ll see how it goes.” The emphasis isn’t the same. “Here” takes much greater stress and loses any jocular quality.

“Help me out here” might be one of those set phrases that’s indistinguishable from ordinary language (see list under “how cool is that?“). But I don’t think it is, because of that pesky “here.” If you ask me, it’s descended from the old comedian’s lament, “I’m dying out here!,” and similar expressions. I just made that up, but doesn’t it sound plausible?

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