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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

gut check

(2000’s | athletese | “finding out what you’re made of,” “trial by fire,” “assessment”)

Indulge me as I resort to the inexperienced writer’s most telltale opening gambit: citing a dictionary definition. Two, to be exact:

  • a test or assessment of courage, character, or determination (citation)
  • a pause to assess the state, progress, or condition of something such as an enterprise or institution (citation)

The second meaning probably would not have occurred to me if you asked me to define the word last week, before I did some research, and it seems to have dropped out of the race in favor of the first, but it was current in the 1980’s.

The phrase seems to have been closely associated with legendary football coach Bear Bryant, who used it in the first sense given above, actually closer to “ordeal”: pushing unproven players through exhausting practices to see if they would give up or collapse. Several sources attest that Bryant used the phrase, apparently as far back as the 1960’s. A fairly straightforward reference to the idea of courage and perseverance popularly called “guts,” yes, but why not “guts check”? I don’t know how the second definition above arose, but it’s pretty clear that the athletic use came first.

The funny thing is, “gut check” was a term the Weathermen used, too, in the early 1970’s. It meant something like “ordeal to prove one’s loyalty,” which isn’t that much different. In order to purge the organization of the half-hearted, they subjected members or potential members to harsh sessions of verbal abuse or searching questions about what they’d be willing to give up to remain in the Weather Underground. Other radicals used the word around the same time. Usually when a new expression has two different groups using it, they have a little more in common than Bernardine Dohrn and Bear Bryant. I can’t explain the connection, if any.

In a recent Seattle Weekly, the astrologer used the phrase to mean something like “evaluating your course of action according to your intuition or instincts.” This kind of use suggests this expression is about to become a lot more common. The shift from guts meaning “courage” to “gut” meaning “seat of instincts” is a harbinger of diffusion; the expression is enlarging its field and taking on a new definition based on misunderstanding or ignorance of the original meaning. That’s how vocabulary spreads. Not one, but two, bloggers call themselves “Gut Check,” a resturant reviewer in St. Louis and a human interest columnist in Erie, PA. Msnbc.com has a feature called “Gut Check America,” which “asks you, our readers, to tell us what matters most to you and how it affects you, your loved ones and neighbors. Then we use your responses to help inform our coverage of the topic.” In other words, they’re checking everybody’s guts, not their own or their team’s — it’s closer to taking the pulse of the electorate than finding out what we’re made of (it does recall the more general sense of “pause to assess” noted above). And it’s been all over the airwaves in the last week because Rick Santorum used it in a campaign appearance. Here are all the signs of an expression trembling on the brink of fadhood. I have a bad feeling about this.

reality check

(1990’s | therapese? | “the (sobering) truth,” “good dose of reality”)

It’s a funny thing about this expression. Two funny things. For starters, it doesn’t really seem to have come from any specific sub-culture. At least, I haven’t figured out what, and the on-line evidence doesn’t point in any particular direction. My best guess, which is really my girlfriend’s best guess, is that it comes out of psychological jargon, but it’s not clear. That’s not so strange, actually. More surprising is that when you first saw it in the 1970’s and 1980’s, it was rarely put in quotation marks and never glossed. That’s unusual; “senior moment” and “caregiver” were somewhat like that, but most new (or newly popular) expressions go through an incubation period when they are treated suspiciously, as befits invaders.

Maybe there was truly no need. The phrase seems to be based simply on the notion of “checking reality” — comparing a theory or plan to whatever real-world data you could scrape up to decide if it made sense or could work. That seems to have been the predominant sense before 1990, and the order was invariable; you didn’t say “Let’s check reality.” (“Fact check” may be an ancestor, even though it’s a verb.) Here the idea is comparing to or measuring against an external, independent, supposedly objective standard. Reality might be as permanent as physical laws or fickle as economic or political trends, but the idea is to take what we know about prevailing conditions and see if the proposal makes sense within it.

You can use the expression to talk about private matters as well. An example might be a younger sibling asking an older sibling about their childhood, pulling up memories and getting a more reliable or informed perspective on their upbringing. Here the standard is not objective in the same way as census data or economic statistics, but the idea of comparing what’s in your head to what others know or remember remains.

The term does have other meanings. The next most common, I’d guess, is something like “reminder of what matters.” It’s the same idea but with a different emphasis; not statistics and patterns but the eternal verities. A recent example from LexisNexis: actress Tiffany Haas, returning to her home town in a touring Broadway show, says, “I’m completely thrilled to play in my hometown. It’s just so special for me . . . It’s been a great reality check.” She’s made good on Broadway, not known for its downhome sincerity, but she is reminded of the important things when she returns to her youthful stomping grounds. More crudely, “reality check” can mean “reminder of who’s boss.” Here’s a nice example from the Washington Post (January 1, 1991): “‘I was resented by the deputy of the department, who didn’t think I belonged there,’ [Fairfax County Executive J. Hamilton] Lambert said. ‘So they got a desk for me, painted it red, and put it in the middle of the floor. I guess you could say I had a reality check my first day there.'” Here, the sense of “bar” or “hindrance” peers out from behind the word “check.”

We used to express the underlying meaning that binds all these nuances as a negative: “Don’t get carried away” or “Don’t lose your head.” Whether you need, do, get, or are (but never write or bounce) a reality check, the lowest common denominator seems to be “stay grounded,” as we would say nowadays, or “stop and think,” as we might have said back then. It’s an old idea; the first institutionalized reality check goes back at least to ancient Rome: the servant who walked behind a triumphant general and reminded him that he was mortal and would not be emperor forever. Tear down that castle in the air; get your head out of the clouds.

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