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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

first responder

(1990’s | bureaucratese? | “emergency worker or personnel, “paramedic,” “police officer,” etc.)

The phrase was becoming common in the 1990’s, but it boomed after 9/11, when we needed a term that encompassed all the different kinds of personnel on the scene that day: police, firefighters, paramedics, and more — the people trained to go into action when disaster strikes, no matter how big the disaster is. I don’t know if such a collective term existed in the 1970’s; I think “emergency worker” and “rescue worker” were established by then, but maybe not. Now you hear “first responder” all the time.

By 2000, “first responder” was always taken to denote a person, but that wasn’t always so. It could also refer to an institution, nearly always a government body. Used that way, “first” meant “first in command” more than “first to arrive.” (Notably, the phrase has not taken the broader sense of “first person on the scene of an accident.”) If the first responder to a radiation leak were the fire department, for example, they would tell other agencies and their people what to do, whether first on the scene or not. The first responder might be a local police department, or even a division or department within it, but it could also be much bigger, as in this example from the Washington Times (November 10, 1989): “Congress never empowered FEMA to be the ‘first responder’ to emergencies like [Hurricane] Hugo and Loma Prieta [earthquake]. The agency is not equipped to supply food, clothing and medicine, although it did find ways to do so when asked by state officials.”

This expression goes with crises and emergencies, yet it strikes me as oddly slow and pokey. It can’t be said quickly, because of the proximity of “st” and “sp,” and the last two syllables do make it ponderous. “Worst-case scenario” doesn’t roll trippingly off the tongue, either, but that’s more of an armchair phrase. First responders are out there when someone really needs help; they have to get there fast, and they have to act with speed and precision. “EMT,” or even “paramedic,” goes much faster than “first responder,” which has no dash, no urgency.

worst-case scenario

(1980’s | militarese? | “the worst imaginable,” “the worst that can happen,” “fate worse than death”)

We started to hear this in the 1970’s and became both common and widespread in the 1980’s — that is, frequently used in the press, but also seen in a variety of contexts beyond the military-corporate in which it seems to have arisen: at first, it was used most often among military men, but it soon penetrated economic and political discourse. The following quotation from National Journal (1979) offers an early definition: “It is always the tendency of someone who is thinking in strategic terms to consider what the soldiers call ‘the worst case scenario.’ In other words, what happens if everything goes wrong?” Soon such definitions were no longer needed.

Popular use has made this term rather sloppy, as in Wikipedia’s gloss: “situation where everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong.” It’s not the worst possible situation; it’s the worst possible situation we can conceive under particular circumstances at a certain time and place. Lots of things may go wrong that no one foresees. (As points out, it’s used when you’re talking about planning or projections — trying to predict the future.) When used to mean simply “unfathomable disaster,” it bears a close semantic relationship to “perfect storm,” which is more often used to talk about things that have already happened. Still, the two terms can often be exchanged with little distinction. “Nightmare scenario,” a more exact equivalent, rode the coattails of the older term.

Both phrases depend on “scenario” as used to mean “possible future sequence of events.” Google Books suggests that this rather novel usage moved in during the sixties, probably also in military circles. “Scenario” was first used in the arts to refer to a story composed to be rendered as a ballet or film. The evolution of the term from sequence of known (usually fictional) events to possible sequence of future events is now complete, although the older sense remains firmly established. It’s worth asking whether the fictional flavor inherent in today’s sense of “scenario” is a vestige of the original use or just an inevitable product of the prediction business.

Sometimes the phrase is intended to reassure (we know this is safe because the worst-case scenario isn’t bad), but it is a term of ill omen, of crisis and catastrophe. Its rapid rise in the last thirty years serves as an index of our taste for the apocalyptic. It’s enough to make one nostalgic for the old all-purpose worst-case scenario, all-out nuclear war — which is still terrifying, but now seems much less likely than several others: global economic depression, catastrophic climate change, breakdown of society caused by the infamy and incompetence of our politicians, waves of revolution around the globe. Well, maybe the last one isn’t so bad. If the politicos and strongmen had been doing their job, we wouldn’t be in this mess. When the times cry out for turnover, it behooves us to respond.

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