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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(early 1990’s | “up to the minute,” “avant-garde,” “most advanced”)

Maybe there’s no more to the evolution of this term than the adoption of a new part of speech, a hyphenated adjective. It has commonly been used as a noun for ages, often quite literally; the “cutting edge” was what a knife or guillotine has; the idea was that it was sharp and designed to slice, not that it was at the head of the pack. When it was used figuratively, same thing — the tenor of the metaphor was the keen, whetted blade; the sense of leading the way was secondary at best. There is an obvious overlap, and it’s not hard to see how one sense might have given way to the other. As the eighties wore on, the noun phrase referred more and more often to the “leading edge,” and this meaning had taken precedence by 1990 or so. At that time, the noun probably occurred more often the adjective; now I would venture to say the situation is reversed, although phrases like “on the cutting edge” are not unusual even today.

Unlike “state of the art,” “cutting-edge” can apply comfortably to almost any field of endeavor. Technology, research, science, yes, yes, and yes. But also in the arts and social sciences. “Cutting-edge sculpture” or “cutting-edge fashion” is a meaningful concept. In the arts, it’s whatever the avant-garde is doing this year. In the social sciences, it’s the newest theory about abnormal psychology or macroeconomics. The latest thing, in other words, in any field that relies on a sense of some sort of development.

There’s a cute paradox in the use of the term “state of the art” being restricted to technology while “cutting edge,” which sounds industrial or mechanical, can be used to talk about art, social movements, or almost anything. “Art” could refer to lots of things with a technical aspect (is shop class still called “industrial arts”?), but “cutting edge” just doesn’t go the other way. Yet it has resisted being funneled into one single niche much more effectively than “state of the art.”

state of the art

(1980’s | enginese? | “very latest,” “top of the line,” “most advanced”)

Not a new expression by any means, but its use as an adjective phrase was just getting going in the late 1970’s and now I think has taken over. It’s hard to hear this phrase as a noun any more. The “state of the art” means simply “where we are now” in a particular field or area of knowledge — how far we have advanced. The funny thing about it is that it’s rarely used in reference to one of the arts. You don’t hear about state-of-the-art sculpture, music, or blown glass. While it’s true that the arts do not evolve in the same purposeful way that engineering does, they do undergo technological innovation and evolution just like any other field of human endeavor. (If you talk about a “state-of-the-art film studio,” for example, it doesn’t mean the most advanced films are made there, but that it boasts all the latest equipment.) There’s a mild irony in the use of the word “art” in an expression habitually applied to science, technology, or business.

The phrase now has taken on a gee-whiz quality that wasn’t necessary in the old days. Sometimes the state of the art was deficient; a scientist would lament that we couldn’t do what we needed to do because the technology just wasn’t there. Now it serves always as a compliment, part of an effort to puff up whatever innovation happens to be under discussion. It’s as good as it gets; it’s the most advanced technology available, even if it’s merely the best we can do until something better comes along. But the phrase does seem to have acquired a relentless optimism in the last thirty years, which suggests that we’re less critical than we used to be about the power of technology to solve our problems. And it’s not just for nuclear physics any more. A new umbrella promises “state of the art protection from sun, wind, and rain.”

The adjective phrase had started to turn up in the late 1970’s, and it became a favorite of the promoters of the personal computer revolution. It was well-established by the time Circuit City (now defunct) adopted it in the early 1990’s: “Welcome to Circuit City, where service is state of the art.” It took advantage of the persistent association of the phrase with technological advances and made for a memorable, long-lived slogan. But in this case, the advertiser followed rather than led. The phrase used after the verb rather than before the noun may have cemented the adjectival usage in the public ear, but it wasn’t genuinely new.

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