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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | advertese (marketing and media) | “age group or bracket,” “target audience,” “sub-group,” “characteristics”)

This word was an adjective, meaning “of or pertaining to demographics,” which was the act or study of categorizing populations. “Demographic” frequently modified words like “group” or “profile,” and its transformation into a noun is most likely a simple shortening. Now when we talk about “demographics,” we may still mean “categorizing populations,” or we may mean a simple plural, as in “Advertisers covet some demographics much more than others.” The old sense of “demographics” has undergone a shift as well, I think; back then it meant “figuring out what people like now,” and now it is as likely to mean “figuring out what people will like next year,” which is what marketers have to try to do. Sometimes it means “general characteristics of members of a specific group,” as in an Associated Press story from January 1, 2005: “The demographics of the soldiers have changed somewhat since earlier wars. More women are going to war. More young men and women are leaving spouses and children at home.” This usage actually harks back to the older meaning; part of the demographer’s job was to take an easily defined group of people and determine what they had in common.

The term is ineluctably the property of marketing and media, and it has never shaken that association, even when used by church secretaries or wedding planners. Any group that an advertiser takes an interest in can be considered a “demographic.” And it seems to me that the term is still most often used in the domain of advertising, although it is used often enough in other contexts that there’s no question that the new usage has spread. “Demographic” is commonly used to refer specifically to age groups, and that seems to have been the primary usage when the word was becoming common. (Cf. Anne Hathaway’s remark to James Franco at the 2011 Academy Awards: “You look very appealing to a younger demographic,” meaning people under thirty find you hot.) But dividing people up by age is only one of many ways to do it — you can divide a group of people up in all sorts of ways, and if there might be a buck in it, somebody’s out there doing it.

teachable moment

(late 1990’s | academese | “opportunity to learn,” “moment of special receptiveness”)

I begin with a quotation from the Washington Post, November 21, 1977: “Banned from use by [Superintendent] Brickell in the Virginia Beach school system are such phrases as ‘teachable moments and learning experiences, whatever they are,’ and the words ‘maximize, minimize, finalize and structurize, words that I hate.”’ With the exception of “structurize,” these words have all become mind-numbingly common. You see what good it does to resist the tide of lexical change.

This quotation has the virtue of helping us pin down the origins of the phrase, which would appear to be educational jargon, or “educationese,” as the good superintendent called it. Therapists picked it up early, and some religious figures. All people whose job it is to get you to see things their way, in other words. I’d guess the word caught on mainly through therapists explaining how to talk about sex with your kids. Any event or phenomenon — like a plot point in a sitcom or a pregnant woman in the grocery store, or even, I suppose, primates getting it on at the zoo — that gives you an opening can become a “teachable moment”; you don’t have to laboriously bring the subject up, because it’s presenting itself, and your kid doesn’t have a chance to get defensive.

The phrase had an alternate meaning at first, which disappeared swiftly. It was the idea that instead of waiting around for the right external stimulus to come along, the teacher created a state of excitement in the students that pressed them to learn and retain important lessons. In other words, inspiring teachers produced a lot more “teachable moments” than the uninspiring. That understanding of the term was soon swept aside by the idea of a teacher adept at spotting and taking advantage of what was going on outside the students’ heads, rather than rejiggering what was going on inside them. New expressions frequently take on more than one meaning as they are reinterpreted and adopted in different contexts, but usually a single meaning wins out over time.

The simple variant “teaching moment” became common a few years later and now is almost as widespread. “Teachable moment” has become so ordinary that when Obama used it in conjunction with the “beer summit” in July 2009, we understood immediately what he meant. Problem was, there wasn’t much to teach. The lessons to be derived from Gates and Crowley’s encounter are familiar; we have heard them many times before. It is tiresome to receive instruction in what we already know. True, we haven’t really figured out how to sustain racial harmony, but no surprising discussion or analysis emerged from the meeting that provided any new insight.

I can’t resist another allusion to the Post article, which also cited a Montgomery County, MD bulletin from the superintendent: “The bulletin urged Montgomery school employees to use simple words over complicated ones and never to use two words when one would be sufficient. ‘Assistance means help . . . innovative means new . . . and in the near future means soon.’” We may applaud the emphasis on plain English, but we may also notice that while “assistance” and “help” are pretty much interchangeable, “innovative” is not the same as “new.” Some new words are straightforward substitutes for existing words, and they are hard to justify, especially if they bear a couple of extra syllables or suffixes or get on our nerves for some other reason. But often there is a reason for a new word, which might be needed to emphasize a facet of a situation that hadn’t mattered before, to cover a new shade of meaning previously unavailable, or to denote a new condition or process that didn’t exist.


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