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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

good luck with that

(2000’s | “good luck!,” “yeah, right,” “that’ll never work”)

The expression “good luck” has always had an ironic side. It has always been possible to use it to mean “you’re in trouble,” with or without an explicit object. It could be ironic without being sarcastic: one farm boy might tell another, “Good luck with that mule,” and it’s not derisive; it’s a way of saying, “Watch out.” If you said, “Hey, good LUCK with that,” it wasn’t necessarily ironic; it could be sincere, even congratulatory. But now “Good luck with that” has become an invariable phrase, with emphasis falling most often on “that,” and it’s never innocent, always snide. Not just “what you’re doing won’t work,” but “you’re stupid, too.”

Because of the longstanding ironic potential of “good luck,” it’s hard to pin down the origin of the new idiom. The phrase starts showing up in any quantity in Google Books in the mid- and late 1990’s. David Letterman used it on (then Vice President) Al Gore in 1993, when Gore came on the show to tell Americans that the Clinton administration was determined to get rid of unnecessary regulations. As he left, Letterman said, “Good luck with that government thing,” the implication being that the project was a fool’s errand. The phrases “good luck with that . . .” and “good luck with that” seem to turn up more often thereafter. Letterman is not noted as a phrasemaker, but he may have helped push this one into prominence.

The rise of “good luck with that” has begun to obscure the fact that in the old days, it was more common to use “on” rather than “with,” as in “good luck on the exam” or “good luck on your project.” The use of “on” has dropped significantly and may be headed for the dustbin of history.

I haven’t fathomed it, but I sense a subterranean connection with another sarcastic riposte that has become popular: “How’s that working out for you?” (This one we owe to Dr. Phil.) The message in everyday use is about the same: You’re an idiot to follow that course of action. But “How’s that working out for you?” adopts a guise of concern, whereas “good luck with that” pretends solidarity. They are both expressions that could be (and once were) used sincerely but have become established as insults.


(1990’s? | journalese? | “you’re busted,” “you’ve been set up or bushwhacked,” “entrapping”)

A couple of generations ago, when you said, “Gotcha!,” it generally meant “You are in my power.” Presumably short for “I’ve got you by the balls” or something similarly elegant. Now it generally translates as “I fooled you” or “You’ve been ambushed.” The note of triumph is still there, but the word seems less wholesome now, or maybe just meaner. Of course, gaining control over someone else might involve underhanded tactics or unfair dealing, but it didn’t have to. Now the word almost always carries that idea with it.

“Gotcha” needn’t be an interjection. It has become quite widespread as an adjective, as in “gotcha journalism,” “gotcha politics,” or “gotcha games.” The idea of setting a trap for a victim is very similar. And the adjective is just as unsavory as the interjection — engaging in “gotcha” anything is low-down and disreputable. Then there’s “gotcha moment,” usually the moment when the trick is revealed and the humiliation is complete. But it can also be self-inflicted, as when your kid catches you breaking one of your own rules.

In 1978, the redoubtable Miss Manners described an unpleasant game called “Gotcha!” in which an aggrieved party presents a situation to the etiquette expert, leaving out exculpatory background information, and asks her to certify it as unacceptable behavior. In her definition, deception or false pretenses are essential to the game. It wasn’t the earliest use of this sense that I found, but it does seem to be a harbinger of its growth.

“Gotcha” has also become more common in another sense: “I hear you” or “I understand.” I hear it often from customer service people who are trying to sound informal and reassuring. But it’s important to note that it doesn’t mean “I agree.” They say “gotcha” to make you feel like they’re on your side, but they won’t give you anything they don’t have to. And finally, a note on computer terminology, in which “gotcha” means “glitch” or “pitfall” or “source of problems,” without imputation of malice.


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