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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

gentrification

(1980’s | businese (real estate) | “increasing property values,” “white flight (in reverse)”)

This word goes with the advent and rise of yuppies, who moved back into the urban neighborhoods their parents had deserted ten and twenty years earlier. The resulting collapse of property values later became the older generation’s gift to the younger, who could afford to move back in and drive out the residents who had never left. Yes, the baby boomers rose to respectability on the backs of the less privileged, but it’s not like no one had ever done it before. In New York, at least, this word became all the rage in the mid-1980’s — denizens of the Lower East Side will remember the Christodora — when buildings went condo all over the place and yuppies swarmed into them. A bleak time, a dark time that was; fortunately, more than a third of the current U.S. population doesn’t remember it.

Where did it come from exactly? Wolf von Eckardt, writing in the Washington Post, announced confidently on December 30, 1978, “A new word — ‘gentrification’ — entered the language in 1978.” I’m inclined to give credence to an observer so close to the scene, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find an earlier citation of “gentrification” somewhere. Borrowing a quaint old word like “gentry” softens the class-war aspects somewhat. “Gentry” is not quite haughty nobility but certainly superior to slum-dwellers, and the word itself has a mild sound, at least to my ear. Successful real estate agents have a knack for inventing attractive neighborhood names, and whoever woke up in the middle of the night with “gentrification” on his or her lips was probably pretty good at that, too. If the word has an opposite, I don’t know what it is. Indigentrification?

The noun came first: “gentrify” followed “gentrification” and took several years longer to get established, but now both forms are commonplace, along with “gentrifying” and “gentrified.” You can always count on good old predictable English grammar; it just keeps declining.

For the record, I wish the noun were “gentrifaction,” but that battle was over long before I had a chance to hoist a banner.

going forward

(2000’s | businese (banking) | “from now on,” “in the future,” “for the future”)

This phrase was common enough in my childhood, and it meant what it said. “Go forward” was interchangeable with “move ahead” or maybe “get underway.” The participle was always part of a verb phrase, with an auxiliary verb. Now it’s an idiomatic adverb phrase. To see the difference, take this sentence from the Washington Post, August 13, 1979: “In theory, if the state thinks any new development will generate auto traffic that will lead to violation of pollution standards, it can prevent construction from going forward.” Moving ahead, right? If the “from” weren’t there, it wouldn’t have made sense in 1979. But now it does. The meaning hasn’t changed much, but that’s a pretty wild grammar ride.

How did this shift in part of speech occur? We already had a couple of perfectly good expressions that meant the same thing, and neither has disappeared, just as the original sense of “going forward” has stayed put. One possibility is that it’s an abbreviation of “going forward into the future,” which seems like pure redundancy now but wouldn’t have thirty years ago. But the shift may be subtler. One possible transitional form could have been a phrase found in government documents, “going-forward basis,” referring to a change in regulation, for example. It seems to connote “not retroactive,” but it is obviously related to the financial usage. You can see how an adjective construction like that might drift into adverbhood over time.

I had thought that the term came out of militarese, which probably means I first encountered it coming out of the mouth of a general or DoD bureaucrat. But there’s little doubt it filtered into everyday language from the world of banking and finance. I found scattered citations in the financial press as far back as the mid-1970’s — which is as far back as I looked — and it was thoroughly established there by the end of the 1980’s. It didn’t become common in other contexts until after 2000, although it had already been picked up in faster quarters by the late 1990’s. By now it has started to mutate into “moving forward” and even “looking forward,” treading on the toes of a venerable expression (“anticipating”).

I described my idea for this blog during a family visit last fall, and one of my cousins said, “Yeah! When did everybody start saying ‘going forward’ all the time?” Thanks for getting it, Joyce.

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