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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2000’s | computerese | “sort (out),” “categorize,” “figure out”)

How did this word slip into fashion? The number of results from the search term “parse” in LexisNexis: August 1991: eight. August 2001: 101. August 2011: about 400. If you weed out the duplicates, the raw numbers get smaller, and LexisNexis indexes a lot more blogs than it did ten years ago. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that the term is used much more than formerly.

Only thirty years ago, “parse” was a forbidding grammatical term that meant assign parts of speech to elements of a sentence and show their relations to each other. It went with diagramming sentences, a skill I confess I never acquired. You could use it to mean “anatomize” (or “deconstruct” as we might say today) if you wanted to show off your education, and occasionally someone did. Then computers came along, and creators and teachers of computer languages adopted the term, using it to mean about what it did before, mutatis mutandis. Parts of speech don’t have precise equivalents in computer languages, but the idea of breaking up an expression to figure out how everything fits together is just as important. Thus the computer revolution inserted an existing but uncommon technical term into our everyday vocabulary.

The primary meaning of the term hasn’t changed so much as spread. It still normally involves the idea of taking something apart so you can figure out how it works or fits together, but it need not have anything to do with language. I collected five examples from the last week of August 2011, from news stories on policing practices in England (where it was used to mean “sift,” as in data), tax collection in the U.S. (“separate”), commentary on news reporting (“examine critically”), baseball (“figure out”), and my favorite, an American Chemical Society press release on the energy potential of panda dung: “Until the energy crunch fostered interest in biofuels, however, scientists never thought to parse out exactly what microbes in the giant panda gastrointestinal system were involved in digestion” (“categorize”). And another significant change shows up in the last example: “parse” now may be trailed by “out,” which was non-standard in the old days. The addition of “out” appears to be generating a new meaning for “parse out”: figure out, but not necessarily by taking apart and categorizing. I suspect in ten years this usage will be common.

perfect storm

(2000’s | journalese | “everything going wrong at once,” “falling dominoes,” “utter disaster”)

In honor of a lady named Irene . . .

I had the idea that this phrase arose all at once, ushered into being and prominence first by the title of Sebastian Junger‘s book (1997), then a Hollywood movie (2000), about a terrifying storm created by a meeting of two smaller storms. (If LexisNexis is anything to go by, the book introduced the term, but it didn’t become an everyday expression until after the film came out.) The inventor of the phrase “perfect storm” was almost certainly Junger himself or a meteorologist who acted as a source for the book, Bob Case. There’s a very good article from 2002 on how the term arose and its current uses here. That idea of a combination of storms has been incorporated into the now-common metaphorical use; the term refers to a series of untoward events that feed on each other and add up to the worst possible outcome. A nice, vigorous phrase, newly minted, AND it packs a punch. Love it.

Not so fast. The phrase “perfect storm” has been with us for a long time as a metaphor. It appears in any number of nineteenth-century authors, like Thackeray (in Vanity Fair), John C. Calhoun, General Sherman, Trevelyan, even in Huckleberry Finn. It took an indefinite article and generally went with “of.” There were a couple of particularly commonplace uses that verged on cliché, like “a perfect storm of bullets (shells, shot, etc.)” or “a perfect storm of applause (indignation, catcalls, etc.).” It was not unusual to use “perfect” attributively back then, to mean “ultimate” or “ideal,” although it sounds archaic today. And if you were a writer looking for a quick, punchy way to say “loud, violent, sudden manifestation,” you didn’t have to be Flaubert to come up with “storm.” Perhaps the phrase was not common enough to qualify as an idiom, but it was certainly in the word-hoard in 1991, if only dormant, waiting to be stirred up and used anew.

But wait. If you go back another century, guess what? The phrase existed then, too, but in the very literal sense of “really big storm.” It turns up in explorers’ narratives, ships’ logs, and diaries. I’m a Marylander, so I’ll quote Charles Carroll describing a sea voyage in 1776: “Came to anchor: blew a perfect storm all night and all day the fourth.” True, the eighteenth-century meaning lacks our notion of a combination of disasters adding up to the ultimate disaster. But we see the same progression. In both the eighteenth century and the 1990’s, the phrase starts off as a literal, meteorological term and slides into a metaphorical use that becomes common and eventually overtakes the literal use.

In an age when “perfect” usually means no more than “just what I wanted,” “perfect storm” represents a charming throwback in its construction. That stern, uncompromising, old-time idea of perfection as Platonic ideal, as an absolute, survives in this phrase.


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