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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

everything on the table

(1990’s? | “leaving (all) our options open,” “no holds barred”)

This is one of those phrases that has changed meaning in the last fifty years. It’s a variant of “cards on the table,” borrowed decades ago from poker players by negotiators. To put your cards face-up means to reveal that which has been concealed, and “everything on the table” meant the same thing, holding nothing back, being completely aboveboard with the other party. A businessman named Gilbert Mintz said it this way: “Executives participating in mergers and acquisitions should be completely honest with each other and lay everything on the table at the outset” (quoted in Computer World, November 15, 1976). Another gambling-related use had to do with the idea of risking everything, pushing all your chips into the pot rather than showing your hand. Distinguished editor Michael Korda, in his memoir (Charmed Lives, 1979), used it thus: “Alex had always been a gambler, but he was now launching on the biggest gamble of his life: with the sale of his United Artists shares, he had put everything on the table.”

What does it mean now? It’s similar, but distinct: “everything is on the table” means nothing is off-limits, everything is up for discussion. The idea of holding nothing back persists, but the emphasis has shifted from “I’m not hiding anything” to “I’m not ruling anything out.” Instead of the smoke-wreathed card table in a back room, one imagines a smoke-wreathed table surrounded by grouchy members of Congress. One by one, each sacred cow is brought out for horse trading.

It has become a ritual announcement whenever there’s a contentious issue in Washington. This phrase pops up most often in budget negotiations, designed to conjure up a picture of Congressmen examining every federal program rigorously, without fear or favor, ruthless scalpels at the ready. What with the state of our economy, this phrase has become nearly ubiquitous, as our solons vie to shed the saltiest crocodile tears over the budget deficit or the unemployment rate. In practice, many programs start out on the table only to be whisked away as soon as the serious bargaining starts. One spectacular example is the notion that the federal government should address the budget deficit by raising revenue, which never stays on the table for long in the Republican House of Representatives. Right-wingers like to say government ought to be run like a business, but they’d look very strangely indeed on a business that made no effort to increase its revenue in hard financial times.

Just as most alternatives really aren’t on the table, most of us don’t have a “place at the table,” another phrase beloved of politicians. You need one to decide exactly which parts of everything will be on the table, or be tabled.

under the radar

(1990’s | militarese | “escaping attention,” “out of nowhere,” “stealthily,” “discreetly”)

Like “ahead of the curve” and “flame out,” this is another term from aviation. It’s a richer source of idioms than I would have guessed. You don’t have to be a four-year-old boy for airplanes to have a hold on your psyche, it seems.

Up until 1990 or so, this term was used mostly to talk about missiles and warplanes, with the occasional reference to drug smuggling, although the figurative use had started to drift into the language during the previous decade. It was probably a shortening of “under the radar screen,” commonly used in discussions of evasive flying in the 1970’s and earlier. As with other military contributions to the language, this one spread by way of politicians and businessmen. The military-industrial complex depends on elected officials for survival, and politicians do not shirk their responsibility — so it’s not surprising that they love to adopt military vocabulary. (“Stealth” was not an adjective before the B-2 bomber became the talk of the nation in the mid-1980’s.)

The phrase may carry the implication of deception — being under the radar may be a sneaky attempt to avoid detection. (Like the Florida Parks Division’s quiet effort to sell off public parkland.) Or it may indicate deficiencies in those minding the radar: larger forces of the culture which are supposed to spot worthy new trends and bring them to our attention. (Indian businessman Adi Godrej: “the key is to pick niche products with sizeable local market shares which pass under the radar of big global rivals.”) Or maybe it just suggests insignificance: the “forgotten people” helped by the Under The Radar Foundation. (Or is that just another case of being overlooked by the wider culture?) It might even connote a noble indifference to publicity or attention. As far as I can tell, there’s no predominant or presumptive sense — the first two are the most common — each time you hear the phrase, you have to figure out what is implied.

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