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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

do the math

(2000’s | “figure it out,” “put two and two together,” “get it?”)

Unlike “Grease (is the word),” this term has got mood; it’s got meaning — which is noteworthy because both have changed in the last forty years. Formerly available only as an unexceptional, slightly informal, component of a verb phrase, it has become an invariable expression in the imperative mood. And the meaning? That’s changed, too, from the mere literal to a figurative sense far removed from any arithmetical context. An early example: The great Nathan Lane on his sexual orientation, quoted in The Advocate, March 3, 1998: “Look, I’m forty, I’m single, and I work in the musical theater — you do the math. What do you need, flash cards?”

What exactly does “do the math” mean? Does it mean “do your own calculations so no one puts one over on you”? Does it mean, “This is tricky, so check your work”? Does it mean “This is so simple even an idiot like you can do it”? Does it mean, “I understand this and you don’t”? Any of the above, I think. When speakers started to use this as a set phrase, they did so almost invariably in arithmetical contexts. Want to know what the mortgage payments will be? Do the math. What do the census figures say about future demographics? Do the math. Based on my own recollection and research — both rather insubstantial — the phrase bobbed up right after the writer presented you with a simplified or pared down set of statistics. “Do the math” meant “you see what I’m getting at.” It invited the reader to share your specialized knowledge. But the phrase is short for “You do the math” as well as the friendlier “Let’s do the math,” so it came to smack of the peremptory, and you don’t have to listen too hard these days to discern a touch of scorn: the shift from “See how easy this is?” to “Even a dingbat like you can follow this.”

I have come across some resistance to this phrase from the restless blogosphere on the grounds that it is (gasp!) used when no actual numbers are under discussion. Exhibit A, exhibit B. (Here’s an opposing view in the interests of objectivity.) Oh, honestly. Most expressions change meaning over time, quite often by taking root in new contexts. It’s the rule, not the exception. Keep moving, folks, nothing to see here.

massage the numbers

(2000’s | businese? | “manipulate statistics,” “play with the numbers a little”)

The interesting question about this expression, say I, is must it imply deception? In the last decade, I would say yes, it almost invariably evokes self-serving manipulation of statistics. Massaging the numbers doesn’t rise to the level of criminality, but it’s not entirely innocent, either. You shift things around a little, alter a category here and there, goose a revenue projection — gimmickry, not fraud. A little weaker than “fudge the numbers.”

But in the 1980’s, “massage the numbers” could have a more favorable resonance: compensating for the limits inherent in gathering and interpreting statistics. Manipulation of data was involved, but it could be an educated, conscientious exercise, not just a calculated method of getting what you want. In this example from O’Dwyer’s Business Report (March 1989), it seems to mean “make the most of”: “Over the past year, B-M has also improved its ability to massage the numbers to provide greater insight on what institutions are likely to buy the client’s stock and help increase its price.” It’s improving the usefulness of your set of statistics based on your knowledge of its weaknesses. That’s not all that different from “find ways to make the numbers look better,” so maybe I’m making too much of this. Another example comes from a U.S. House Committee on Appropriations report, 1985: “This gives us a good deal more flexibility to massage the numbers, to respond to the unanticipated, rather than having a very rigid system.” Here the term offers a positive acknowledgment that we get things wrong once in a while and we should have the ability to compensate. But by now, this phrase has lost even the possibility of a praiseworthy connotation, like “game the system.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t expound this word, since it hasn’t overrun the language the way so many others have. But it was hardly used before 1980, and it’s an expression you have to know to understand the news. Both LexisNexis and Google Books show a gradual but definite increase in use since 1980.

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