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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

on message

(late 1990’s | journalese, governese | “following the script,” “sticking to the point,” “keeping it simple”)

This idiom seems to have wormed its way into the language during the 1992 presidential campaign, when Bill Clinton’s staffers used it to describe the candidate’s strategy. It was all a matter of “staying on message” — harping on the same issues again and again and saying the same things about them. If it didn’t work or Clinton didn’t do it right, there was “getting back on message.” It bobbed up again during the 1996 campaign and gained a permanent foothold in political discourse. There’s no doubt this expression was the property of politicians before the PR industry. (What’s the difference? I know, I know.)

Now it can be heard in business, too, or anywhere people need to manage the impression others have of them. A charity, an athletic team, the local PTA, or a lawyer trying a case all need to keep a careful eye on how they are seen by others, so everybody involved has to remain on message. But if LexisNexis is anything to go by, this phrase is still used most freely in political journalism.

Politicians who stray off message may be their handlers’ despair, but they are much more valuable to voters. The point of staying on message is not to engage voters but to subject them to Orwellian repetition of a small number of themes, prescriptions, and phrases. Debate is ruled out of court — opposing positions are not acknowledged and questions are not entertained. Politicians have always behaved this way, but it seems to happen on a grander scale now. Every cog in the machinery of national political campaigns does its part to suppress the lively debate always claimed to be at the heart of our system of democracy. It’s a little sinister, if you ask me.

on task

1990’s | academese (education) | “diligent,” “businesslike,” “disciplined”)

This phrase comes from educational jargon, says an Associated Press story from 1988, and Google Books affirms resoundingly. “On task” arose in the late 1970’s in studies of student performance, shortly after the phrase “time on task” became important to educational researchers. “Time on task” was a measurement of how much of a given class period a student spent doing work that contributed to his or her education. (Or, less commonly, how much time a teacher spent instructing the students in the subject at hand.) “On task” turned up now and then in the mainstream press in the late eighties and early nineties, nearly always in discussions of education. The phrase got a lot of play right after the Columbine shootings in 1999 because a court officer had used it in an earlier report on shooter Eric Harris. It didn’t emerge as a word commonly applied to adults (or non-students) until after 2000.

It hadn’t occurred to me that “on task” might mean anything other than it does — applying oneself to the work at hand — but here’s a road not taken from the pages of Nuclear News (December 1989): “One of the problems encountered during the earlier . . . project at San Onofre was ‘getting people to stay on task’ because of the tendency to ‘throw humanity’ at plant problems as they occurred.” In other words, if you keep running new people at a problem, no one will learn how to solve it properly. Keeping your people on task isn’t about making sure they don’t goof off at work, but making sure someone gets enough experience to do the job right. That usage seems never to have caught on.

“On task” even today is most likely to be used in talking about students and learning, but it has moved outward and can refer to any of us. It doesn’t have to retain a patronizing tinge, but I think it normally does. Being complimented for “staying on task” is the verbal equivalent of being patted on the head. The phrase may be becoming more neutral and shedding its supercilious side as we watch, but it’s not surprising that it persists, considering the expression has from its beginnings been used of pupils.


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