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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

end of story

(1990’s | journalese | “period,” “that’s all there is to say,” “stop asking me questions”)

Those who remember Ross Perot’s presidential candidacies will probably recall that this was one of his pet phrases. This article from the Chicago Sun-Times, June 29, 1992, lists three: “Here’s the deal,” “Still with me?,” and “End of story.” That was relatively early in the campaign, before the general election debates, and he is probably best-remembered now for the “giant sucking sound” of American jobs disappearing if NAFTA were enacted. (I loved Ross Perot, but for all the wrong reasons. I called him the “holy terrier” and had a pretty good imitation of him for a while there. And he was basically right about the giant sucking sound.) “End of story” was Perot’s way of saying “there’s nothing more to discuss,” but it also meant “cut the crap.” This phrase was around before Perot, but he made it prominent and contributed to a subtle expansion of its meaning.

In the modern sense, the phrase starts to appear in the late 1980’s on LexisNexis, from different types: athletes, politicians, entertainers (o.k., maybe they’re really all the same type). It appears in Partridge’s Dictionary of Catch Phrases; not in the first U.S. edition (1977), but in the 1986 edition edited by Paul Beale. It is glossed as meaning “the perhaps unexpected end of the story,” giving it an ironic cast, and the origin is given as “prob. journalistic.” I’m a bit dubious about the definition, since I’m not sure that was ever the primary sense, but I do go along with the origin. Generally, when this phrase appears before 1985 or so, it is used by journalists, and it means “that’s all she wrote” or “that’s all, there ain’t no more.” So a book reviewer summing up a plot would use the phrase to indicate that was it, or a political reporter would use it to mean “I don’t know what else to say about this issue.” The phrase didn’t have any zing.

Since 1992, the phrase has enjoyed slow but steady growth largely due to Perot’s popularity. It has acquired some new nuances, again, largely thanks to Perot. For one thing, the expression is much more emphatic than it was; it isn’t just a bland (or blandly ironic) announcement any more. When public figures — whether government officials, athletes, or executives — use “end of story,” they mean “stop asking me questions about this” or “no further comment.” In other words, it’s a defensive maneuver. And it maintains that adversarial aspect as shorthand for “I’ve summed up the situation and there’s nothing for you to say,” stifling further debate. Debate goes on, debate goes on, but maybe if you can just shut everyone up for five minutes, you can gain in the polls.


(2000’s | academese | “version of events,” “big picture,” “my story and I’m sticking to it”)

A recent political buzzword that has found fast favor. Ten years ago, it was not nearly as common in political contexts, but this term has traveled from the arts page to the editorial page with startling swiftness. Columnist Kathleen Parker used it in scare quotes only last week, but I fear she is too late — commentators, especially bloggers, use it liberally, and its versatility should give it considerable staying power.

Narratology was much in vogue twenty and even forty years ago as a scholarly preoccupation, particularly in English departments, where I served an abortive academic apprenticeship. Sometimes “narrative” was just a fancy word for plot, but the study of narrative turned up some interesting conjectures and insights about how stories work. The term became quite popular in the academy, which made it readily available to people with a certain kind of education, the kind enjoyed by nearly all political commentators. (How many bloggers are embittered English majors, anyway? ‘Fess up.)

But in the political sphere, it’s gone from meaning “story about a specific thing” to “story about everything.” Don’t get me wrong — narrative has always meant “story line” and still does; often one’s narrative is no more than a tendentious version of her or his autobiography. But now it also refers to a larger frame, a broader view, in which events and trends are subsumed, defined, and explained within a single story. Your narrative has to encompass every datum, idea, or theme within a larger political issue or even your entire political career. Here’s an example from George Lakoff in January 2011: “For the first two years of his administration, President Obama had no overriding narrative, no frame to define his policymaking, no way to make sense of what he was trying to do” (citation). It is this vast new horizon that makes me wonder if the academic ancestor of this usage isn’t “narrative” but “master narrative,” a lit-crit term that denoted the same kind of all-embracing story that explained everything. Our use of “narrative” in politics isn’t quite that grand, but it has moved decidedly in that direction.


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