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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

lose it

(1990’s | athletese | “lose control,” “go berserk,” “break down,” “snap”)

When I first considered this phrase, I thought of it primarily as indicating fits of rage. Now that I’ve looked around on LexisNexis, I’d say that the phrase refers to grief and rage about equally often, and occasionally laughter. The “it” lost is self-restraint or inhibitions, but implicitly, it seems to me, you’re really talking about consciousness, or sanity. A temporary but complete failure of all the usual rules and strictures that hold us back. (The whole point of the phrase is that no antecedent is required; it’s a set expression that permits you to avoid being specific. The experience is too powerful to classify, and only the ultimate abstraction, the impersonal third-person pronoun, will suffice.) When you lose it, you lapse into despair, or yell and scream and say taboo things, or even batter or kill another person. When you use it to talk about rage, it lasts only a few moments, but when it’s grief, it can unspool over a longer period, as in Ben Vereen’s statement from 1989: “After I lost my daughter in December [1987] I lost it completely and I got really bad.” The idea that the process begins with a single event remains, but here “losing it” goes on and on, as grief-induced depression makes it impossible to maintain even a semblance of normal life. Part of the point, too, is that the experience is baffling or indescribable in retrospect. When you lose it, all you can say afterwards is “I lost it,” and even if there was a proximate cause for the outburst or collapse, it still seems unaccountable, inexplicable.

Most of the earliest instances I found, from the 1980’s, were uttered by athletes, especially tennis players and golfers — two high-pressure, tantrum-prone sports. “Lose it” sounds to me like it belongs to the vigorous but simplistic strain of athletese, like “man up” or “my bad.” (There’s a more poetic group of athletes’ additions to our language over the last forty years, which includes “on the bubble” and “on the same page.”) Outfielders and goaltenders have long had “I lost it” in their vocabulary, meaning “lost sight of the ball, puck, etc.,” as when a baseball player says, “I lost it in the sun.” That well-established phrase may have made it a bit easier for the new usage to horn in, although there’s no obvious connection between the two, except that they are both specific cases of the very general phenomenon of “losing control” or “losing track.” As far as I can tell, the phrase bears no relation to “use it or lose it,” another locution from the world of sport.

If you’ll excuse a digression, my favorite linguistic innovation among athletes is what I call the second-person first person. That’s when tonight’s hero meets reporters after the game and describes the big home run: “You’re waiting on a fastball, and you watch the spin coming out of the pitcher’s hand, and you’re just trying to get a good swing . . .” (A recent example from New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, quoted in Newsday, May 12, 2012: “That all comes with the territory, and if you can’t handle that, I shouldn’t be in this position.” The awkward shift in person points up how unnatural this construction is.) This grammatical formation is quite common among athletes; I haven’t researched the question but I suspect it evolved to allow sports stars to talk about themselves without sounding self-centered and egotistical. Or maybe it’s a modern version of the old convention of using “one” for “I.” The present tense is also characteristic, presumably just the old storyteller’s trick for imparting tension and atmosphere to something that has already happened.

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