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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

deal breaker

(1990’s | legalese?, businese? | “unacceptable proposition,” “land mine,” “matter of principle,” “line in the sand”)

A term that came into use among lawyers and businessmen in the 1970’s and was firmly established in the vocabulary of negotiation by 1990. In early usage, it was generally confined to the fields of business, politics, or diplomacy — where negotiation is the only way things get done. In its most general sense, “deal breaker” means “that which causes negotiations to break off.” When writers felt a need to gloss the term in the early days, they usually paired it with an adjective, “non-negotiable.” The main question was whether it was a matter of honest principle or an impossible demand designed to undermine negotiations.

Nowadays the expression has fanned out much more widely, appearing in many fields that have little or nothing to do with negotiation. With respect to relationships, we use it to describe the qualities that make another person unfit to be a lover or spouse. In another vein, here’s a nice recent example from “. . . I’m wary of certain ingredients. While not deal breakers, items containing high fructose corn syrup, chemical dyes, and trans fats are not things I want [in] my pantry.” There’s no question of negotiation; “deal breaker” is used simply to mean “that which is unacceptable.” (True, if you don’t make the purchase, the deal is canceled, so the phrase retains a literal plausibility.) Of course, it’s still very common in commercial contexts; the blog covers the “personalities and culture that shape the financial industry.” It remains a staple of political discourse, but even there, the newer, more general meaning creeps in, as in this example from the blog The Moderate Voice (June 15, 2012): “Both Reagan and Bush and for that matter even Barry Goldwater would be accused of violating a number of litmus tests currently considered deal-breakers by conservatives.” Here again, the “deal breaker” is simply what makes the candidate unacceptable.

This is one of those expressions, like “no-brainer,” where some arguably more plausible meanings have been passed over. Here are two candidates: “one who goes back on his word” and “one who breaks up a deal (as a regulator, judge, etc.).” One finds in Google Books examples of both senses, but “sporadic” is too kind a word for frequency of such uses. If you want to get intuitive about it, it makes as much sense to call a person a deal breaker as a principle or negotiating point, probably more. Yet there was never even a minor groundswell for either meaning; certainly no one would hear the phrase to mean either of those things now.

game changer

(2000’s | athletese | “watershed,” “step up,” “leap forward”)

Before 1995, if you saw this phrase at all, it was probably in sports journalism. Noted sportswriter Thomas Boswell used it in 1982 to refer to a decisive two-run triple struck by Ken Singleton of the Baltimore Orioles, which was by far the earliest instance I found on LexisNexis. After 1995, business people and marketers began using the term, presumably drawn direct from athletese. Now the term is used comfortably nearly anywhere, in politics and even in arts journalism. (The New Republic cited it as a favorite expression of George W. Bush in 2004.) It’s used about products a lot, especially among marketers of computers and handheld devices, but humble Clorox used it about a new toilet cleaner in a 2004 ad campaign. We once used verb phrases to get the point across: “takes to another level” or “kicks into a higher gear” or “adds a new dimension.”

Among athletes and sportswriters, a “game changer” could be a play or referee’s call or other event, but could just as well be a player. It was not unusual for a scout to refer to a young player as a “game changer”: somebody who can turn a game around single-handed. Also called an “impact player.” You still hear that in sports talk, but businese discarded the idea of a person being a game changer. A decision, a product line, a strategy, an innovation — always an object or event. Maybe that’s just because in the corporate world, there’s never just one person responsible for the next big thing.

A “game changer” can change the game itself — the rules, how the score is kept, etc. — but it can also change the conditions under which the game is played — not just the rules but the playing field. When Apple announces a new product and it’s called a game changer, that’s closer to what it means. A successful new product forces competitors to adopt the new features and promise even better results on the landscape created by the new product. The iPad isn’t just a more portable or versatile device that makes it easier to do the same old things; it changes the meaning of the internet. Or so Apple would have you believe.

For the moment, both “deal breaker” and “game changer” remain commonly spelled as two words and are less often hyphenated or given as a single word. If they make the usual, but not invariable, metamorphosis to single words, they will join the ranks of nouns without corresponding verbs, like “whistleblower.” One minor oddity: “game-changing” has entered the language as an adjective, but not “deal-breaking.”

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