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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

play date

(1990’s | therapese? | “arrangement”)

When I was a kid, we made arrangements to play together all the time, but we didn’t call them “play dates.” I don’t recall there was any name for it other than “I’m going over to Jimmy’s.” The reason those weren’t play dates was that we kids set them up ourselves. It would never have occurred to my mother to call and ask, “Is Jimmy free next Tuesday afternoon?” The reason parents do it now has to do with their convenience, not the kids’. Getting your kid into someone else’s hair for a few hours without paying for it is one of the greatest satisfactions available to the modern parent.

This word came out of the age of parenting (a word that barged irrevocably into the lexicon in the 1970’s) and probably became current first in urban areas. Parents spend less time with the kids because more of them work, and parents are expected to fill every minute of every child with enriching activities that will cause him or her to develop into a healthy, normal Nobel laureate. Play dates come under the heading of providing children with the experience of interacting with their peers, always under close supervision, of course. Heaven forbid two kids should work (or fight) out a problem between themselves; appeal to an adult tribunal is required.

“Play date” was — still is — a showbiz term for “engagement.” Movies have play dates, or the circus, or even a song on the radio. Now that it’s an established word in the vocabulary of child-rearing, we’ll boldly anticipate its orthographical evolution to one word. Usually there’s an orderly progression from two words to hyphenated to one word, which perhaps has begun in this case but hasn’t worked through. The two-word spelling is still going strong.

quality time

(late 1980’s | therapese | “making time,” “making your time count”)

This expression also came out of changes in family life, as many more mothers went to work and the divorce rate went up. Either because they were working all day or living somewhere else, more parents found themselves spending less time with their kids. So when you did have a little time with them, it had to be good. You had to plan ahead and concentrate to make sure the kids enjoyed and profited from it. Being with your kids became another competitive activity, another job — and it’s just like most jobs these days in one crucial respect: you do more work than you used to and feel worse about the results. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the expression almost always pertained to families — usually parent and child, or husband and wife. Still does, I suppose, but it seems to have spread out more and can be used comfortably in a much wider range of contexts, including the jocular and the ironic.

The expression seems relatively straightforward, if not overdetermined. I’d like there to be a connection to the old southernism “quality” meaning “classy or well-bred people,” but it’s unlikely. It was sometimes distinguished from inferior “quantity time,” adapting a well-established pair of opposites to a new expression. Or it was short for “high-quality time,” which was another way to say the same thing. The last reminds us of the rise of “quality” (“excellent,” “outstanding”) as an adjective; the usage had been around for some time but grew more abundant in the seventies and eighties. Once upon a time, “quality” was neutral, meaning simply “feature,” “trait,” or “attribute,” which could be good, bad, or neither; advertisers made “quality” a term of approbation, and the adjective use picked where the advertisers left off. I remember hearing a junior-high classmate use “quality” as an adjective in the late 1970’s and thinking it sounded wrong, but I was simply witnessing diffusion.

One more diffusion note: Among early uses of “quality time” (from the 1970’s) catalogued in Google Books, I found a number in books written by at least mildly evangelical writers. I don’t think the term originated among Christians, but I’ll bet they helped it reach its potential. Evangelicals typically encourage family togetherness, and there are a lot of them out there, so it’s not surprising that they would adopt the term early and give it a push into prominence. It was well-established by the end of the 1980’s.

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