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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

dress down

(1980’s | “dress informally,” “slum”)

“Dress down” meant “scold harshly” for nigh onto three hundred years. First it meant “beat up” or “thrash”; soon it got watered down to the verbal from the physical but retained the violence of the original sense. It’s recorded both in Grose and in Farmer & Henley, important pre-twentieth-century slang dictionaries. And that’s how I learned it back in the 1970’s — it wasn’t used all that often, but it was considered standard, having lost its colloquial taint.

You still have to know the old meaning if you want to follow the news, especially where British English is spoken. But here, “dress down” has pretty much become the antonym of “dress up,” a process already underway in the 1970’s. There’s some leeway about the usage: it could mean “dress nicely but informally for a formal occasion,” or “dress like a slob,” or “dress like a coal miner.” The phrase is broadening its base now, used in contexts that have little or nothing to with clothes, as in this fragment from Newsday, January 14, 2011: “the wallpaper can be either dressed down or up, depending on the accessories.” Note that it’s also used transitively in this passage, another shift, and a sign that it’s gaining ground.

Occasionally an idiom sheds a more complicated meaning for a more literal one: “beg the question” comes to mind. Most of us breathe a little sigh of relief when it happens, if we notice at all. We can still use the phrase, but now it means what it should have meant all along, and we don’t have to remember a strange, puzzling definition. A once troublesome expression becomes comfortable, and we can take that extra bit of brain space we’ve saved and use it for more important things, like our top video-game scores, or TV trivia.

type a personality

(1990’s | faux-therapese | “workaholic,” “overachiever,” “overbearing jerk”)

First, let’s sort out the meaning of this term, which has a favorable use: “driven,” “hard-charging,” “self-motivated,” or “determined to finish the job” and a derogatory use: “impatient,” “hypercompetitive,” “fanatically punctual,” or “too wrapped up in work.” The term originated with two cardiologists, Michael Friedman and Ray Rosenman, who observed, or thought they did, that people who displayed the second set of traits listed above had a much greater likelihood of heart disease than the general population. They were trying to create a profile of a heart patient rather than describe a personality type; their book, in fact, referred to “type A behavior,” not “personality.” How soon it was generalized; now we almost always use the term to talk about types of people, not types of action. It sounds like therapese, but it was really invented by medical doctors trying to think like therapists.

However you use “type A,” the definition of “type B personality” boils down to little more than its opposite. There’s this other kind of person, see, who doesn’t have as many heart attacks, and look, they’re not like the type A guys at all. Such a lack of precision may explain why more recent research has discounted the link between certain kinds of social behavior and heart disease. These things take on a life of their own, however, and you can find references to type C personality, type D, and even type H. Then there’s the variant I overheard on the bus: “She’s so type A, she’s type A-plus!”

I have no idea what the “A” stands for or how Drs. Friedman and Rosenman arrived at the term. But clinical descriptions of this personality type are not generally flattering, and the originators themselves regarded type A behavior as a disorder that might lead to illness and death. Type A’s are apt to be rude, easily exasperated, bad listeners, and inconsiderate of their friends and loved ones because they’re too busy working. At first, I thought maybe the “A” stood for “aggression,” but after a bit more research I’m beginning to think “asshole” was the word they had in mind.

The reason we all know about type A’s, and the reason so many of them are successful, is that we live in a type A culture. Someone who works too hard and lives strictly by the clock is no more or less than the poster child for Ben Franklin’s maxim, “Remember that time is money,” which immediately and irrevocably became one of America’s founding commandments. Ruthless, unpleasant people who would never dream of taking it easy, even in the middle of a heart attack, have always done very well in the U.S. if they have any talent at all.


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