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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2010’s | “alarming”)

Watch this one. I’ve seen several uses in the last year or two from members of Congress and other wielders of power. If the trend continues for a few years, we’ll all have to absorb a new meaning, although the old one won’t go anywhere for a while. “X is concerning” should mean “X presents cause for concern,” but it’s always used to mean “alarming” — quite a bit stronger. It’s never used about petty matters, always about things we consider large and important, like divided loyalties in the Pakistani military, or Mexican drug lords, or persistent unemployment. Nobody ever says “The parking situation on Elm Street is concerning.” Maybe that’s just because it’s mostly the powerful who use it; the word could weaken over time.

If I’m correct that the use of this expression among politicians is increasing, that’s because it has two features politicians prefer. Not only is it a euphemism, but it abets the politician’s natural desire to gloss over or soft-pedal difficult issues. People hear “alarming” and they get alarmed. They hear “concerning” and they get concerned. I predict that won’t hold up and everyone soon will start to get alarmed when they hear “concerning.” But while it lasts, it’s useful.

So it may not be rank illiteracy after all, or an uninteresting elimination of a grammatical object, as in “Their behavior is concerning me,” an awkward variant of “concerns me” (which ought to mean “pertains to me,” anyway). Maybe the growth in this usage is the result of accumulated speech errors — if ever such a word came into being, this would be it — or maybe there’s a little strategy behind it. It does seem like a certain dumbing down is going on as we lapse more and more often into easy but incorrect usages of longstanding words and phrases. It reminds me of “smartly” used to mean “intelligently,” which I’ve seen a couple of times recently, or “dress down“. Our brains get exercise from remembering odd or difficult definitions, but we’re gradually eliminating such exercise without replacing it.


(2000’s | advertese? | “what we’ve learned,” “main point,” “impression you leave”)

Still has a whiff of the hip about it — I sense it’s mostly used by younger people even now, but it seems to be turning up more often, edging across the threshold into frumpy everyday use. It refers to the main point you want to drive home but shifts the focus to the receiver of the message from the sender. The important thing is not what you say, but what your listeners remember. Which makes sense.

I thought this sense was entirely new since the 1970’s, but I found one citation in American Banker from January 1980 in an article offering advice to marketers: “Before you stop talking, don’t forget the takeaway message: a concise description of what you plan to do and for whom.” An adjective here, it’s true, but unquestionably the same meaning. I don’t recall hearing it until the last decade, but I’ve found a few examples from the 1990’s. I’m guessing that it’s advertese partly on the strength of the American Banker cite, but mostly on the intuitive sense that this is an advertese kind of word. Who is more concerned with the message that hearers take away than advertisers, who have perfected the art of creating texts, or collages of images, whose intended effect cannot be logically or objectively derived from their meanings or referents.

“Takeaway” had other meanings in the 1970’s, including two that it still has. In British English, it means what we would usually call “take-out” food in the U.S. In sports, especially football, it was the complement of “turnover”: the offense that gives up the ball is charged with a turnover, and the defense gets credit for a takeaway (“takeaway” and even “giveaway” are used by NFL mavens now, not to mention “turnover differential”). Then it was used in union circles to mean what we would now call a “giveback” and then would have called a “concession.” That sense is gone, but the others remain.


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