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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

didn’t get the memo

(2000’s | journalese? | “didn’t find out,” “didn’t hear about it,” “didn’t get word”)

This expression, as a rueful or jocular metaphor, seems to have come from television journalism. I will go further: LexisNexis suggests that a particular program, CBS This Morning (Paula Zahn, Mark McEwen, if that helps), spawned the phrase. All of the earliest uses I found dated from the early 1990’s on this show, almost invariably in the context of what the newscasters were wearing. If the anchors wore similar clothes, and the weatherman didn’t, one or the other would make a joke about not having gotten the memo. As the term spread into sports and entertainment reporting, it retained the association with clothing for a little while, although that has not persisted. The first time I recall using the expression, in the late 1990’s, I was remarking on the fact that damn near every scarf, umbrella, handbag, skirt (but never kilt!) in Manhattan bore the Burberry plaid pattern, and I said I felt like I didn’t get the memo.

Most of the time, the one who doesn’t get the memo is considered clueless; it’s your own fault. Maybe to be pitied, maybe censured, but the bottom line is: everyone else knew about this, why not you? The phrase marks its target as the odd one out. The expression rarely, if ever, connotes that someone concealed an important policy or piece of information from you. But once in a while it is used to suggest a brave or stubborn refusal to conform, even a deliberate refusal to respect a foolish or illegal order. I know perfectly well what they expect me to do, and I’m damned if I’ll do it. But the norm remains: if you don’t get the memo, it means you look like a fool, and ridicule, whether ritual or real, must follow. Maybe you’ll even get a “hello?!

If it’s necessary to specify exactly which memo was missed, you can add “that” or “about” to the end of the phrase and follow it up with a more precise statement. And the words are not invariable; it is quite possible to substitute “that” for “the,” which raises the possibility of multiple instances of ignorance, but seems more often to endow the phrase with a certain defiance. I didn’t get THAT memo may mean I’m not following your stupid rules. The use of “that” seems more common than it did; let’s see if it develops its own set of implications.

The phrase itself may not be invariable, but the tense is. Here is something everyone else already knew that you weren’t told. While it is possible to imagine circumstances in which you could adopt the future tense, neither the present nor the imperfect could possibly sound plausible. It’s a single instance — you failed to learn about a particular thing — so the imperfect (“wasn’t getting the memo”) sounds wrong. And when you walk into the office and realize you’re the only one in casual dress, you can’t say “I’m not getting the memo here,” because it’s too late; you’ve already embarrassed yourself. The words may change slightly, but the tense must be mired in the past.

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