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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

take a chill pill

(1990’s | teenagese | “cool it,” “take it easy,” “pop a downer”)

Maybe this still counts as slang. All the citations in LexisNexis before 1990 cite the phrase as an excrescence of teen lingo, whose purpose, as we all know, is to baffle any adults within earshot. At this the expression seems to have failed resoundingly; even at its origin, it doesn’t seem likely to have mystified anyone. The older generation back then was already thoroughly familiar with “cool it,” and the idea of cold temperatures for slowed-down or relaxed behavior is right out of Chemistry 101.

“Chill pill” used as a noun may refer to a pharmaceutical that calms you down, like Valium or Xanax (that’s what we took in the good old days, anyway). But the full formulation is fully metaphorical, depending as it does on the substitution of “chill out” for “relax.” (You didn’t hear “chillax” back then; I never heard it before the new millennium, but maybe I wasn’t hangin’ in the right circles.) I recall another emphasis, though; “take a chill pill” could be used to mean “don’t be uptight” rather than “don’t be manic.” In other words, you may have a problem with what we’re doing here, but you need to get over it. Squelch your qualms. Rather than applying to actions at a particular moment, it took aim at a larger set of attitudes.

I had the sense that this phrase had pretty well disappeared, but LexisNexis shows a rate of increase over the last two decades that appears to reflect something more than a proliferation of indexed sources. While it hasn’t penetrated formal discourse much (Mr. Secretary, I strongly suggest that you consider ingesting a chill pill), human-interest writers use it all the time. And the august New York Times (January 1, 2010) used it in a review of a book about the evils of prescriptive grammar: “the grammatical doomsayers had better find themselves some chill pills fast.” That is, they’d better take a deep breath and calm down, and get off their high horse while they’re at it. That, is seems to me, is how we use the phrase today; the definition given above (“downer” or “trank”) has pretty much disappeared, eclipsed by the metaphorical. (And while I can imagine a desperate astronaut in a 1950’s science-fiction movie popping “chill pills” as his out-of-control craft barreled toward the sun, that definition has never been in play.)

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