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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

hot button

(late 1980’s | businese (sales) | “sore spot,” “controversial”)

I’m no etymologist, and quite possibly I’m wrong about this. But “hot button” looks to be traceable not just to a single event or movement (or movie), but to a single man, one Jack Lacy, a salesman who specialized in figuring out what would get the customer excited and using that as the main selling point. (His sales philosophy has been stated in different ways.) Lacy and his followers trained thousands of salesmen starting in 1937 — he even made a record in 1961 called Hot-Button Salesmanship — although it’s not clear that he was using the term “hot button” from the beginning. I didn’t find any figurative uses of “hot button” before Lacy; it took a few decades for the term to make it into the mainstream.

Fast forward to the eighties. The word is used by two kinds of people, salesmen and politicians (o.k., maybe they’re the same kind), mostly the former. But politicians used it about like we do now, except it was invariably a noun. A hot button was something that got people excited, usually angry or upset, but it could also make people motivated or enthusiastic. Merriam-Webster Online defines it thus: “an emotional and usually controversial issue or concern that triggers immediate intense reaction.” The word has evolved from “what makes the sale” to “what gets people riled up,” but the undertone of excitement or passion is still there. By the end of the eighties, “hot button” acquired a hyphen and was pressed into service as an adjective on occasion, and the term was well-established by the early 1990’s. Now the adjectival use is much more common than the nominal, and phrases like “hot-button issue” roll blithely off our tongues.

“Hot button” has a secondary, more specific meaning: what makes you angry, or what we used to call a pet peeve. Here, too, the hot button is the thing that sets you off or gets you worked up, but it has lost all connection with selling. When politicians exploit hot-button issues, it’s all about selling; saying what you need to say to get votes is conceptually pretty similar to saying what you need to say to get a housewife to buy a Fuller Brush.


(1990’s | “lost cause,” “failure”)

A Briticism, like “queue,” “vet” (verb), “spot-on” or “take a decision,” all of which Americans say far more often than they used to. The term arises from horse racing, a “non-starter” logically enough being what is also called a “scratch,” a horse that doesn’t appear in a scheduled race for some reason. That evolved into a proposal or idea that is completely unrealistic, or can’t be taken seriously, perhaps through a phase in which it is used mainly of persons (as in a candidate for a job who can’t possibly get it). “Non-starter” in its modern sense was already turning up in Commonwealth publications at midcentury, and I found a few examples, mostly in political journalism, in the U.S. press before 1980. (It was used in sportswriting to mean team members that aren’t in the starting line-up, and it still is. That kind of “non-starter” may play an important role in the game, however.) It got a small boost during the 1984 presidential campaign, when Mondale attacked Reagan’s plan to share “Star Wars” technology with the Soviets once it had been perfected as a “non-starter” (a somewhat covert pun on Reagan’s arms-control initiative, START, which replaced SALT). It has never spread far beyond political contexts in the U.S.; even today it used most often with reference to matters of negotiation or policy.

Today the meaning can be expressed in several closely related ways: something not worth considering, something that cannot take place or get anywhere, something dismissed out of hand, a doomed proposition; “non-starter” has held onto a relatively narrow and well-defined meaning and realm. Its part of speech hasn’t changed, either; it remains solidly a noun, and has steadfastly avoided any shift toward the adjectival (except in technical terms like “non-starter bacteria”). Furthermore, the word has successfully avoided a connotation that it might have been expected to accrete by now: disingenuousness or bad-faith bargaining. True, “non-starter” is sometimes used with such an imputation, but it isn’t automatic. It can be a well-intended and reasonable idea that can’t be implemented (in the current political atmosphere, say) just as easily as a deliberate attempt to score political points with an impossible or unworkable proposal.

There don’t seem to have been many nouns with precisely this meaning in my youth. You could say a proposal was “dead on arrival,” or that it “wouldn’t fly.” But I’ve had a hard time coming up with noun equivalents. In other words, there are lots of older equivalents for “That’s a non-starter” — “that’s not a serious proposal,” “that’ll go over like a lead balloon,” “I won’t dignify that with a response” — but hardly any for “non-starter” itself. That’s one explanation for the increasing popularity of the word. Another is the growth of intransigence in national politics. When anyone offers up a piece of legislation, “That’s a non-starter” makes it so easy for the opposition — acres of complex policy dismissed, no explanation required, no wavering occasioned by the fatal acknowledgment that the other side might have a legitimate point. Keep that stuff up for thirty years, and you get a Congress with a 10% approval rating.

Special thanks to Liz, who slipped me both of this week’s expressions!


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