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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

on the bubble

(1990’s | athletese | “in a state of uncertainty,” “(could go) either way”)

The more I looked into this phrase the cloudier it became. Its meaning seemed relatively straightforward, but it is used several different ways, most of which seem to coalesce around a state of uncertainty, of not knowing what’s in and what’s out. In education, “on the bubble” means “a little behind but capable of improving.” In poker, “on the bubble” means “finishing just out of the money,” and “the bubble” refers to something like “crunch time.” Dr. Emmett C. Murphy defines “on-the-bubble behavior” as “any behavior that can compromise the achievement of an organization’s mission,” which is even more specialized, not to say idiosyncratic. Well then, why should “on the bubble” mean “on the threshold” or “on the brink” or “waiting to have one’s fate decided”? Apparently no one knows.

“Bubble,” an interesting word in its own right, has a number of metaphorical senses — we heard it a lot after the start of our latest recession — but “on the bubble” doesn’t seem to have much to do with any of them. I should mention the literal bubble in a spirit level, which could be where “on the bubble” comes from. There was the “gastric bubble,” an early form of weight-reduction surgery. There was a specialized sense in environmental regulatory jargon meaning something like “one power plant’s total output of pollutants” (the regulators looked only at overall emissions, so within that “bubble” you could get away with a sector that produced too much pollution if you could compensate somewhere else). The last two terms were current at the right time, in the 1980’s, but it’s hard to see any connection between them and “on the bubble.” Remember the boy in the bubble? Another unrelated bauble.

The Phrase Finder cites a reference from the 1970 Indianapolis 500, meaning pretty much what we use it for now, and the first uses I found on LexisNexis did in fact come from stories about the fabled auto race, but not until 1985. It was common among sportswriters before any other type of journalist.

Although it’s not a precise synonym, we used to say “borderline” to express the same general idea as “on the bubble.” Sometimes “on the bubble” sounds a lot like “on the edge,” which makes me wonder if the origin of the expression has to do simply with the unreliability of the standard soap bubble. As long as you’re on the bubble, you have a chance, but if it pops, you don’t make the team, or you don’t get elected. It can give way at any moment and leave you flat.


(1990’s | businese | “skyrocket,” “shoot up,” “sudden sharp increase”)

This word starts to show up around 1980 among those concerned with finance. It usually occurred somewhere near words like “interest rates” or “inflation.” I imagine it’s related to the image of a sudden upward slope in a graph or a heart-rate monitor, which raises the question: Does “spike” carry with it the idea of a sharp upward movement followed by a sharp downward movement, or does it encompass only the upward movement? (You don’t see “spike downward” nearly as often as “spike upward.”) I found some sketchy evidence that it was first used for the combination, but I think it has lost that sense and now refers only to an increase. In other words, the idea that a spike must be temporary didn’t catch on.

The phrase “rate hike” was well-established and may have helped “spike” rhyme its way into everyday language. It’s hard to tell if the noun came first or the verb, but there seems to have been little distinction. It is still generally used in financial contexts, but it has gotten around, as in “murder rates spiked last year,” or “a spike in membership.”

“Spike” has been many verbs: “spike the guns” is an old expression, dating back to the beginning of the eighteenth century. It wasn’t the least bit metaphorical, merely an application of the original meaning, drive spikes into something — in this case, a cannon’s vent. Editors spike (kill, opt not to publish) news stories. It has distinct meanings in several sports: baseball, football, volleyball, and probably others. Or “form (the image of) a spike,” as how a flower grows or how one styles one’s hair. It can mean “gore,” as in what a bull does, though it’s not often used that way. I won’t even mention what overeager freshmen do to the punch. And now, a new one, less than thirty years old, probably but not blatantly descended from “be shaped like a spike” — vigorous, gets your attention, and easy to figure out. Check in on English vocabulary every few decades, and you’ll have no choice but to say, “My goodness! I just can’t believe how you’ve grown!”


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