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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

get it

(2000’s | therapese? | “sympathize (be a sympathizer),” “be able to relate to,” “be on one’s side”)

An existing phrase that has gained a new meaning in the last decade. When I was a boy, the sentence “You’re gonna get it,” uttered in a certain tone, struck fear into the hearts of all but the most advanced children. Maybe it still does, but among adults it’s taken on a much more comforting sense, as shorthand for “understand,” or simply “get the point.” For shorthand, it packs a lot of punch and covers a lot of ground — a splendidly vague phrase that allows people to hear what they want to hear, which gives it the potential to become very popular indeed.

“She gets it”: it’s such an elemental sentence — about as simple as you can get grammatically with one of the most common, versatile verbs in English — which may be part of the secret of its power. And it’s a little hard to pin down when you start to think about it, which is another part. From what I’ve seen, this sentence, uttered patiently and with an air of sincerity (“Don’t you see? He gets it!”), will calm down the most fractious room. It offers the sheer relief of knowing that you don’t have to explain yourself to this person, and so offers instant inclusion in “us.”

It sounds a little like therapese to me, if it has a specialized origin at all, but the phrase soon was hijacked by politicians and their hangers-on. It goes by pretty fast and it’s charmingly indefinite, two qualities valuable on the campaign trail. Most of the time the antecedent of “it” is never specified, and it would be considered rude to demand one. (So it’s different from “get that,” which does require a definite antecedent and whose customary accent is exasperation rather than sincerity.) Thus any nod to the people, however feeble, like riding the subway or forgoing an insignificant raise, calls forth a chorus of toadies announcing that the politician “gets it” — our cue to fall all over ourselves in awe and gratitude.

As recently as 2007 in the Wall Street Journal, and 2010 in the Guardian (U.K.), this phrase appeared in quotation marks, so maybe I’m jumping the gun. I’m betting it will become more common, but it may sink into disuse.

my bad

(2000’s | athletese? | “(It was) my fault,” “my mistake”)

There’s something more than a little flippant about this phrase, which always strikes my ear as what one frat boy says to another. (“Oops, did I drop the keg on your foot? My bad.”) It seems to have arisen among athletes, usually in the form “That was my bad” = “That was my fault.” It was a way of taking responsibility for a mistake that had cost the team, whether it happened on or off the field. My rather hazy recollection is that I first heard it in the late 1990’s, and LexisNexis seems to bear that out, although I found a few earlier citations. It didn’t necessarily sound flip then, but now it always does.

The phrase acknowledges a mistake, but it doesn’t generally convey any real contrition or regret, which is why it doesn’t work as an apology. It’s not so much a replacement for “I’m sorry” as a way to avoid saying it. You say it only for minor things, or when you want to convey an impression of insignificance; the freshly convicted defendant at the bar, pleading for clemency, does not use the phrase “my bad.” It goes with “Oops,” not “Holy shit!”

If “my bad,” why not “your bad”? In the streets and subways of New York City, you will sometimes hear an annoyed voice say, “Excuse you!” It means someone just did something rude and didn’t have the good grace to apologize, so the offended party has to do it for them. The victim of such an outrage might just as well say, “Hey, YOUR bad, buddy!” (not to be confused with “you’re bad,” which is too stilted to be unrehearsed speech). Keep your ears peeled.

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