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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

game the system

(1990’s | bureaucratese? | “take advantage of loopholes,” “manipulate the rules,” “beat the system”)

It’s not always about loopholes; sometimes fundamental or structural features of a program or agency offer occasions for gaming the system. It is always about a response to bureaucracy — usually government bureaucracy, although not necessarily — the art of getting what one wants out of a complicated system, by hook or by crook. Did the phrase arise first among bureaucrats themselves or among corporate executives who do business with the government? When it comes to studying the diffusion of this expression, it probably doesn’t matter. (Actually, I found a couple of early uses in engineering and management that had more to do with violating established protocols for handling experimental data, so maybe engineers are the ultimate source.)

My sense is that “game the system” has become more pejorative over time. It could have a relatively innocent meaning, after all. Picture Mr. Smith poring patiently over the fine print of a utility contract or the tax code, finding a provision that works to his advantage, and making sure he gets the benefit of it. When you started to hear the phrase, in the 1980’s, it had that more benign sense sometimes, describing conduct perhaps a little unethical but not notably wicked and probably inevitable. What I read nowadays makes me think that it almost always denotes sharp practice, if not outright illegality, blamed on unscrupulous lawyers and accountants. The kind of thing that probably should be illegal if it isn’t. The OED online definition of “to game” reads, “manipulate (a situation), typically in a way that is unfair or unscrupulous”; MSN Encarta says, “to manipulate and take unfair advantage of loopholes in rules and regulations in order to make that system of rules and regulations work to your own advantage in risky, typically illegal, schemes.” Wikipedia also takes a very dim view of it. It’s akin to stealing, depriving others of what they need for selfish gain.

“To game,” and its gerund, have become much more common in the last thirty or forty years. “Gaming” applies to war games (as in military planning and studying), video games (which barely existed in 1975), and now is becoming a polite word for “gambling,” obviously a pleasant, harmless alternative to a vice that can steal your money and self-respect. No doubt “game the system” has ridden this wave.

My friend Charles used this phrase in all innocence a few days ago and I resolved to tackle it this week. Thanks, Charles!

on the same page

(1990’s | athletese | “in agreement,” “singing from the same hymnbook”)

A week or two ago, the New York sports world witnessed another small tempest brew and subside between Derek Jeter and the Yankees, over Jeter’s defense of another player’s actions. Meetings were held, views were aired, and egos were soothed. Everyone involved emerged and intoned that they were “on the same page.” The Daily News account noted dryly that Jeter used the phrase nine times, surely a little excessive. GM Brian Cashman offered a charming counterpoint, gently urging players and management to “turn the page,” or, as he might have also said, “move on.”

I was a little surprised to find that this phrase — used in this rather specialized sense and not in the boring literal sense (e.g., “the solutions appear on the same page as the problems”) — originated among athletes, and seems to have flowed into the mainstream from them. The first citation I found, not that I made an exhaustive search, was from the Washington Redskins’ John Riggins, a name that will infallibly set the hearts of ‘Skins’ fans of my generation aflutter. Quoted during the 1979 season: “We can’t have anyone releasing [letting up], even on one play. That’s when the breakdowns happen. If we can get enough people thinking on the same page at one time, we’ll be okay” (note active verb rather than linking verb). For a decade or so after that, it was used occasionally by football players but hardly ever by anyone else. It’s probably still most common among athletes, but now politicians, journalists, and businesspeople all use it, too.

One explanation is that it’s short for “on the same page of the playbook,” since football players have to spend a lot of time learning the playbook and occupying their thoughts with it, so it’s a natural resort when you need an expression that binds the team together. But it could be a simple reference to the classroom, as in a teacher making sure everyone is looking at the right place in the textbook.

This phrase seems intuitive, but it’s quite possible, even metaphorically, to be on the same page without reading from the same page, which more surely implies concord. Or suppose everyone is on the same page, but it’s the wrong page? Maybe we were wrong, but we were all wrong together.


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