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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

at the end of the day

(1990’s | governese? | “when all is said and done,” “here’s the bottom line”)

The first American I remember hearing use this phrase was my brother-in-law in the mid-1990’s (hope you’re reading this, Joel). I had encountered it earlier in the English sitcom, “Yes, Minister,” which I watched in the 1980’s on public television; I even had a book of the published scripts. I continue to believe this phrase is a Briticism, but I don’t know how long it’s been around over there. As far as LexisNexis knows, it started to turn up in the U.S. around 1985 and was common ten years later. It appears in my NTC Dictionary of Idioms (1994 — hmm, I need to replace that), but not in the 1986 Dictionary of Catch Phrases.

The phrase retains a literal use, of course. Mitt Romney used it literally only last week at a campaign stop: “How many single moms these days are scrimping and saving so they can put a good meal on the table at the end of the day for their kids?” But there’s no doubt the figurative use has established itself since 1980. There are times when it’s hard to tell them apart. Here’s a nice example from The Guardian, November 16, 1984: “The White House moved swiftly yesterday to send yet another assurance to the Soviet Union that it is anxious to progress on arms control. At the end of the day, however, the precise meaning of its message remained as enigmatic as the Soviet response.” It certainly sounds like it’s referring to something more portentous than a simple chronological marker, but since the sentence starts with “yesterday,” we have to leave the possibility open. Nowadays the phrase normally has a wider horizon, boiling down events that may take weeks or even years to unfold.

I usually hear a note of pompousness or condescension in this phrase. It seems to roll most easily off the tongues of government officials charged with misleading the people in order to keep us calm, or at least confused. All kinds of people use it now, in all kinds of contexts, so I’m probably out of date as usual.

back in the day

(2000’s | journalese (music) | “in the (good) old days,” “back then,” “in old(en) times”)

The origins of this phrase are uncomplicated, I think. My searches (not as inconclusive as all that) show that it started to turn up between 1995 and 2000, almost invariably among African-Americans, often pertaining to rap or hip-hop. By 2005, it was appearing more frequently in more places, and by 2010 it was used unself-consciously in news stories, advice columns, and restaurant reviews. The gestation and spread of this expression have been unusually quick. It sounds hip and brisk, and it seems be capable of conjuring up different sentiments. I’ve been trying to decide whether this expression evokes a particular way of remembering the past, or if it encompasses any old invocation of days gone by.

Does “back in the day” lean more toward nostalgia or contempt? I have seen a few cases where it is used scornfully to connote “hokey” or “old-fashioned,” but that usage seems firmly secondary. Mostly there’s at least a tinge of warmth, recalling a time when the world seemed more hopeful, or at least simpler, because we were young. It doesn’t have to be a long time ago, either. In the nineties, people were using it to talk about the eighties, that is, the early days of hip-hop culture. (If you need to make it clear you mean a long time ago, you can add “way” to the beginning of the phrase.) Rappers used it to talk specifically about the early days of their art form, and for a spell “back in the day” carried a more specific connotation: “at the outset of the phenomenon under discussion.” I think.

It’s probably pointless to try to pin down connotations. The phrase is no more than a shortening of “back in the day(s) of . . .”, and the useful thing about it is that it doesn’t require qualification: none of that “of yore” or “when we were young” business. “Back in the day” is too cool and breezy to get loaded down with such baggage, so you can be as delightfully vague as you want.

Why is it singular? Most of the older equivalents I can think of used “days” rather than day — although “in my day,” once used commonly by grandfathers to belabor their grandchildren, is an exception. It wasn’t unusual, in the old days, to see phrases like “back in the day of horse-drawn wagons,” but wouldn’t “days” be more idiomatic? “In day of old” sure sounds funny. But so does “back in the days” with no preposition after it. Maybe the “s” got shorn away along with everything else.

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