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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2000’s? | “excuse me!,” “are you crazy?,” “what the hell are you doing?”)

Oh, hell, I don’t know where this came from. Or when, though I recall hearing it in the 1990’s, after I moved to New York. It’s something you hear more often in the city, I would guess. Was it someone’s catch phrase? Another obstacle: I’m not sure how it should be punctuated. It rises at the end, like a question, but it always bears considerable emphasis, so it seems like it should take an exclamation point. The only solution is the old comic-strip stand-by, “?!”

When used in this way, “hello” covers a lot of ground. It always has some edge to it, so it’s never perfectly anodyne, but at the weak end of the spectrum, it’s not much more than an irritated “excuse me.” Its shades go on from there all the way to “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” (Here’s another blogger’s comment on the range of meanings the word may have.) The bottom line, when this expression is used, is something like, “pay attention.” (“Hello?! Anybody there?”) You did something dumb and got in my way, so I need to call out to you across the wide moat of your self-absorption. What better way to do so than with a friendly greeting, only lightly tinged with the exasperation your conduct has occasioned? It’s related to the wake-up call, but on a humbler scale. At least, when we use the word in direct address, that’s a fair summary. But it’s also commonly used in recounting conversations, as in the following hypothetical example: “and he said, ‘That’s not important.’ Hello?! He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” The point is not that the speaker is saying “hello?!” to the jerk, but that she is using the word to comment on his obtuseness to a third party.

Whenever I hear “hello?!” used this way, I flash back to the scene from almost any 1930’s movie in which a harried man in a telephone booth struggles to talk to someone over a bad connection. The intonation is pretty much the same, rising at the end (but a little less interrogative in the telephone booth), and exasperation colors both the old scene and our modern usage. The echo is aural, not semantic, since “hello” means something entirely different as used now. But the phonetic resemblance is so strong that I always expect to hear the victim of an annoyance to say, “Hello?! Operator?”

wake-up call

(late 1980’s | journalese? | “warning (to us all),” “shot across the bow,” “(sobering) reminder,” “attention-getter”)

The transition from a boring, literal term used only in hotels to a flourishing one available in almost any context took place rapidly in the late 1980’s, driven mostly by political journalists, as far as I can tell. I found two quotations from 1984 that likely helped change the course of this word forever, both from men named George. First, an oblique instance: Secretary of State George Shultz (reported in the Washington Post, November 7, 1984) “actually shouting his insistence that we ‘wake up’ to terrorism as ‘an international form of warfare . . . directed largely against us and our way of life.’” The article goes on to refer to Shultz’s “wake-up call,” without attributing the expression to Shultz. Maybe that doesn’t convince you, but here’s a beautiful transitional form from George F. Will’s critique of Ronald Reagan’s debate performance (October 9, 1984): “Rrrrriiiiiinnnnnggggg. ‘Good morning, Mr. President, this is your wake-up call. The time is October and the temperature is colder than you think.’” It is set up as a literal telephone call, but in context clearly denotes “means of pointing out a problem,” as we use it now. Before the fall of 1984, the phrase was almost never used figuratively; afterwards, such use increased greatly until it was quite common by the end of the decade. We must always give credit where it’s due, even to George Will.

This was one of those words that people didn’t bother to define and doubtless didn’t have to. When we need to be roused from our civic slumbers, whether the crisis arises from local zoning conflicts or the international banking system, events have a way of conspiring to do it for us. (Of course, we use the term for private matters, too.) Wake-up calls are invariably delivered by misfortune and alert us only to difficulties and disasters. You’ll never hear, “Gee, the potluck dinner was a big success. That was a real wake-up call. We need to have more potluck dinners.” It’s strictly a term of ill omen.

I recall that this expression got a big workout right after 9/11, and LexisNexis shows a spike in use during September and October 2001, but it didn’t persist. The phrase was already well-established, and in fact almost any crisis will elicit more instances for a while, until we doze off again.

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