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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | “admonition,” “admonishing”)

It looks like this word will supplant “admonition.” I don’t recall seeing or hearing “admonishment” much (ever, really) when I was young, but it seems to have a place on the following terms: if it were used to mean “act of admonishing,” and we kept “admonition” for “the content of the act of admonishing.” (In the sentence, “‘Watch your tongue,’ Dad said irritably,” the admonition would be “Watch your tongue,” and the admonishment would be “Dad said irritably.”) I think we used to use “admonition” in both senses, and it didn’t bother anyone, but “admonition” seems to be on a gradual downslope to disappearance. It remains a common legal term, and it hasn’t disappeared from common usage yet, but “admonishment” has come awfully far awfully fast.

“Admonishment” has an obvious similarity to “astonishment,” a word of long and honorable standing, which has probably influenced its rise — a lot of vocabulary change is influenced by soundalikes. (That’s how “fortuitous” has come to mean “fortunate,” although for centuries the two words had clearly distinct meanings.) I suspect in another generation “admonition” will feel distinctly archaic.


(1990’s | businese (real estate), originally architectural term? | “area”)

The area of the ground floor of a building, or, more generally, the shape and layout. Also used for objects other than buildings: We need to calculate the dresser’s footprint before we rearrange the bedroom furniture. If you look this word up on-line, you’ll find a number of specialized definitions as well. If there was a precise equivalent for this term in common use in or before the 70’s, other than the far more general “area,” I’m not aware of it. Has already spun off into the widespread “carbon footprint,” meaning the volume of greenhouse gases an entity emits — anything from a household to a nation — but with no discernible connection to square footage. I saw it recently used metametaphorically to mean “base,” as in customer base: Brad Adgate (great name for an ad agent), quoted in Newsday, Oct. 18, 2010, in a story about the standoff between cable provider Cablevision and the Fox Network and their parent, News Corp.: “I think [the Cablevision blackout] would hurt the local Fox ratings in New York significantly since their footprint of nearly 3 million homes are there.” Who says there’s no such thing as evolution? This has been a busy word in the last thirty years, and it seems poised to keep growing; it’s a concise and useful term. May its footprint never grow smaller.


(1980’s | therapese | “problem”)

Thirty years ago, the sentence “She has issues” would not have made any sense, unless you were talking about her magazine collection, and even then it would have sounded a little weird. “To have an issue with . . . “? Gibberish. Now “issue” is entrenched as the word you use when you don’t want to say “problem.” (“Problem” has thereby become a stronger word than it used to be, with a bit of conjuring power. Makes people sit up and listen.) It has become so widespread and established that in another ten or twenty years, we’ll have to scare up another euphemism. How commonplace has this word become? I’ve seen it in on-line terms and conditions agreements (“If you have an issue with . . .”); it’s all over Wikipedia (and on similar sites, like “This article has multiple issues.” That’s about as standard as English gets any more. I hear and read it everywhere. It still surprises me how utterly ubiquitous, how ordinary, “issue” in this sense has become.

The usage is almost certainly influenced by the phrase “take issue (with),” which endows the word with a little more hostility than the more common meaning: “question worth debating,” which had already become standard and is still around. It’s a short step from “take issue with” to “have an issue with.”

What I want to see is a patient enter a doctor’s office, blood oozing out of a cut somewhere, and say, “Doc, I have an issue.” I get a kick out of unintentional archaisms.

Update on ubiquity, March 9, 2011: “Issue” has appeared in both the news and sports pages of my daily paper, Newsday, this week. “Cuomo reaches out to bishops,” March 9: “they did not get in to the thornier issues they might have with the governor.” (I suppose you could say that “issue” has the sense of “political or moral question” here, but that “with” is a dead giveaway.) And sports: “It’s just a perfect day,” March 8: “started for the second straight game and had no issues with his right knee.” It bobs up in the entertainment pages fairly regularly, and I can just hear, though I haven’t actually heard, a weather forecaster on television saying, “We may have some flooding issues after these thunderstorms, folks.”

life coach

(1990’s | therapese | “therapist,” “personal assistant”)

Or maybe a combination of therapist and personal assistant. The term seems a little presumptuous, or a little overreaching, but where there are feckless people with spare money, there will be call for life coaches. One grasps the sense not only of someone who provides a wide variety of help and advice (that’s the “life” part) but of someone who tries to make the patient (what is the term for the person that the life coach advises? “Liver”? “Life athlete”?) more productive and happier by teaching him or her lessons in how the world works and how we mess ourselves up, along with strategies to avoid the familiar traps. The word made me smirk the first time I heard it, but it has a bracing simplicity in its all-embracingness.

Because it’s much easier to run someone else’s life than one’s own, most of us would probably make pretty good life coaches. Swap lives with your neighbor for a few weeks and see what happens. As long as your neighbor pays the bills on time, how bad can it be?


(1990’s | enginese | “mike” (short for microphone))

Not sure exactly why this happened, especially since it makes the past tense of the verb so awkward: “mic’ed” is just weird. “Mic” ought to rhyme with “sick” or “wick,” and this may be partly a matter of declining literacy. In the old days, it had to be spelled “mike” so readers would see instantly how to pronounce it, but this generation has a much sketchier grasp of the links between orthography and pronunciation (a bit sketchy in English to begin with) and so they aren’t disturbed by a spelling that suggests the wrong pronunciation. That’s a pretty fatuous explanation, but it could be part of the story. It’s a simpler spelling, more intuitively based on the root word, and that’s significant. Ushered into the language presumably by young audio professionals, or yappies.

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