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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

get with the program

(1990’s | athletese? | “get on board,” “do what you’re told,” “follow the rules,” “wise up,” “go along to get along”)

I will admit I don’t know how this expression entered the language or where it came from. My best guess is it’s athletese. Why do I think so? One of the earliest instances I found on LexisNexis was uttered by Redskins’ general manager Bobby Beathard in 1979; another early one fell from the lips of Reggie Jackson (1984). That’s about it, that and my sense that it’s the sort of phrase coaches use a lot, and it reminds me of other athletese expressions that sound like they ought to come from somewhere else (e.g., “on the same page”). I can easily imagine an athletic origin: an exercise and training regimen undertaken in training camp after a slothful off-season, perhaps. When I try to envision the most idiomatic use of this phrase, I picture an assistant coach barking at a balky football player, “Get with the program!” Or maybe it goes with another use of “program” common in sports talk, meaning the totality of operations of a particular team, as in the football program of a university. (That was the way Beathard used it, although the word normally goes with college sports, not professional.)

The last reason is none of the other likely sources sounds plausible. It has nothing to do with computers or television, arguably the two most common settings in which the word “program” occurs. What are the other possibilities? AA’s twelve-step variety? (Thanks, Liz!) Government, or military, expenditures with a stated goal? A course of study? Any organized effort? The word has a number of common meanings and a wide range of use. What do they all have in common? The word “program” implies some sort of advance planning and orderly procedure directed to a certain end. That fundamental sense is retained in “get with the program.” But the phrase invokes the kind of program that is imposed from above.

“Get with the program” has a distinctly coercive quality, or at least used to. You say it to the unruly and disobedient, or to those who refuse to go along. Although less bald, it bears some similarities to “my way or the highway,” a sentiment which first came to my attention during Frank Kush’s reign as head coach of the Baltimore Colts in the early 1980’s. (I told you that’s the way coaches think.) It’s a lot like “straighten up and fly right,” which was probably a little elderly by my childhood, but my parents used it. I sense that “get with the program” is not so harsh any more, and now can mean “get up to date,” “join the party,” or just “be reasonable.” It retains a snippy or exasperated overtone, but now it carries more exhortation and less bullying than it used to. We’ll see how it evolves.

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