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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

shake out

(1990’s | businese? | “work out,” “turn out,” “pan out,” “come out”)

Now normally a verb, the phrase was more common as a noun or adjective in my youth, used thus almost exclusively, in fact. It meant something similar but had much different force. A “shake-out” (it’s still used this way) was an active process that meant rough times for at least some participants (cf. “shake up,” “shake down,” “shake loose”; phrasal verbs derived from “shake” generally connote violence). Now the phrase has more of a “que sera, sera” feel to it. It conveys a sense of standing back and seeing what happens — you don’t use it when you know the outcome in advance. It’s another expression that has lost its muscle, like “tweak.”

In the 1970’s, “shake out,” when it didn’t refer to tablecloths and so forth, had two predominant meanings. One was akin to “break out” or “shake off,” as in a baseball team “shaking out” of a slump, like someone waking up in a hurry (it could be used transitively in the same way). The other meant something more like “enforced reorganizing” or “cleaning out deadwood.” It was used primarily in the corporate press, especially during tough times in a particular industry. In this sense, it was generally a noun, though it showed up as an adjective occasionally (as in “shake-out period”) or even a verb. You might ask how a “shake-out” in such cases differs from a “shake-up,” and the answer is not much. A “shake-out” implies something a little more permanent — not just rearranging the pieces but jettisoning some of them. In a shake-out, some companies are going to go under. These old senses have not disappeared, but they have been outstripped by the new one.

The latter meaning above seems the more likely ancestor of our everyday usage now. “We’ll see how it all shakes out” means “We’ll see what the results are” or “We’ll see how things look when the dust settles.” Often used with an indefinite subject like “it” or “things,” the phrase now is more likely to be used with slightly more concrete nouns: story, discussion, plan. Usage note: “How” is the only word it goes with; you don’t hear “when/where/if it all shakes out.”

I found a couple of examples of a still newer meaning of the phrase that may be creeping into the language, as in the following example from the Frederick (MD) News-Post (December 22, 2012): “That shakes out to $123 for each home in the town” in a report on the cost of a lawsuit against the local government. Here again, “work out” is a precise replacement; “come out” works, too (but not “turn out”). I don’t know if this meaning will catch on or not; if it does, it will be one more small, sidewise step in the evolution of this slippery, deceptively simple phrase — whose history boasts a series of small, sidewise steps that continue to nudge its meaning a little further each generation from the primal tablecloth.


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