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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

sticker shock

(1980’s | businese)

Not what Brer Rabbit was praying for. The expression rose quickly and effortlessly right at the beginning of the era covered by this blog; the first occurrence in LexisNexis dates from 1981, billed as “the latest auto term to be coined in this revolutionary period” (Industry Week, March 23). And an auto term it was: LexisNexis yields thirty-odd uses of the phrase in 1981, all in the context of car sales. Chrysler savior and capitalist folk hero Lee Iacocca used it that very year (“we’re declaring war on sticker shock”). Treasury Secretary Paul Volcker used it in 1982 (“‘sticker shock’ still seems to be the major deterrent to new car sales”), which probably gave it a boost, since most of the country listened when Volcker spoke up about the economy in 1982. By the mid-80’s, it had started to creep into other contexts.

Back then, only cars had a “sticker price,” as I recall, even though adhesive price tags were in widespread use. So people grasped right away that “sticker shock” was about auto prices in particular. Nowadays other things — like a new computer, or a college education — have a sticker price, too, and may induce sticker shock. Car dealers seem to have moved on to “MSRP,” which sounds like an early seventies band or a really scary food additive.

I have not come up with a pre-1980’s equivalent for this phrase. The reason it caught on so quickly, like senior moment, is that it provided an attractive locution for a common occurrence. It is short, sharp, and consonant. It captures that moment when we see a price higher than we expect and can’t hold back: What!? I can’t afford that! (According to, the term may also be used for the sick feeling of realizing how much something costs after you’ve agreed to buy it, whereas traditional use denotes one’s reaction on first seeing the price, before you sign anything.) “Sticker shock” has never developed much of a metaphorical life, and it has never become particularly widespread, but it has become a term everyone has to know. And it’s refreshing to encounter an expression that modestly keeps to itself instead of absent-mindedly acquiring a new meaning every year or two.

You don’t have to be a historian to see why 1981 was a propitious time for “sticker shock” to make its debut. Prices had been rising rapidly, both by historical standards and today’s standards, for nearly a decade. Unemployment up, basic necessities harder to afford. The whole mess was blamed on government regulation, greedy unions, and pampered workers (sound familiar?), as if the energy crisis and stagflation had been some sort of collective delusion. It’s easy to see in retrospect: The seventies marked the end of postwar prosperity and gave us the first taste of the chancier economic times that have since become the norm. Americans were starting to confront the idea that our standard of living wouldn’t just keep going up, and we didn’t like it. “Sticker shock” was an early manifestation of that sea change.


(2000’s | athletese | “broadside”)

The standard term for this kind of wreck is “side collision,” clear but lacking in verve. Presumably “side collision” includes sideswipes, whereas “t-bone” or “broadside” refers specifically to the front of one car hitting the side of another, usually near the front door on the driver’s or passenger’s side. “Broadside collision” packs a bit more punch, and it has been in modest use for a long time. “T-bone collision” you really don’t see before 1990. I had thought it applied only to cars, motorcycles, or other road vehicles, but apparently sailors also use it. Here’s an example from the New York Times, December 26, 1994: “In what is known in yacht racing parlance as a T-bone collision, the bow of Ville de Paris slammed broadside into the midship section of Spirit of Unum.” Whether the phrase ultimately came from drivers or boaters, it seems to have been used first by competitive racers. Now it appears regularly in accident reports and small-town newspaper stories about local highway mayhem.

“T-bone” shows up most often as a verb or an adjective. If you mentioned “a t-bone” in conversation, I think most people would think of a steak rather than a car accident. But nobody would envision a “t-bone collision” taking place inside a steakhouse, either. There doesn’t seem to be much danger of confusing the different senses.

“T-bone” is more evocative than “broadside,” which sounds a touch old-fashioned and highfalutin. It may also suggest more precisely what happens in this kind of collision; at any rate, it seems to be displacing the older term.


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