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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

been there, done that

(1990’s | “(I’ve) been there before,” “that’s old hat,” “seen the elephant”)

Definitely a nineties expression. I heard it first early in the decade, and boy, did it have legs. It took over our aural landscape for a few years, then became slightly less omnipresent, although it has definitively entered the language and may leap from almost anyone’s lips. The ease with which it is alluded to, adapted, and parodied reflects its status as a more or less instant cliché — a phrase already slightly painful to hear and repeat after only a few years’ hard use, but so much a part of our vocabulary that we have no choice. (Here is a definition of “instant cliché.” Another one here. I wish the expression were original with me.)

There are a few cites before 1990, and an emerging on-line consensus holds that the idiom originated in Australia. Mountain Dew used the phrase in an ad campaign in 1994, which helped it take off, but it was around at least a few years before then. It has been used in several song titles — the earliest, as far as I know, in 1990 (John Cale and Brian Eno). It may come with numerous elaborations, the most common of which is probably the addition of “got the t-shirt.” A number of web sites and blogs now have variations on the phrase as part of a title or URL, notably a video game site for combat veterans and an organization devoted to helping prostitutes and victims of sex trafficking (we used to call them “white slaves,” although “white slavery” was the more common phrase). “BTDT” has settled into its inevitable role as texting shorthand.

The meaning is simple and hasn’t changed much: I’ve been through this and don’t want to do it again. Whether the tone is world-weary, disdainful, dismissive, or matter-of-fact, the ground meaning has stayed pretty stable. There are several more than reasonable treatments of this phrase on-line already. Safire gave it its very own column in 1996; Phrase Finder, wordorigins.org, and Wisegeek also cover it very well.

Why did it catch on and take root so fast? We could talk about the compactness or simplicity of the phrase, or how it breezily blends sarcasm and dismissal, how flatly it puts you in your place. All those factors contribute, but the greatest driving force is our restless hankering after the new. Just as many people must have the latest gadgets, many people like to latch onto new expressions. You hear it on television, in a movie, from your neighbor: hey, there’s a new one! I like it! “Been there, done that” has the benefit of expressing a sentiment most of us feel from time to time. New AND useful is hard to beat, and such a phrase may spread incontinently. Even if its ear-numbing frequency tails off after a few years, it has bored into the language. New words and phrases catch on because enough people want them to, for better and worse: it’s a democratic process.

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