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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

trend

(1990’s | businese (finance), advertese? | “drift (up or down),” “move or go (in a certain direction),” “peak”)

In 1980, “trend” was used as a verb in two contexts: geology and topography, and finance and economics. The same was still true in 1990. The verb as we think of it now doesn’t seem to have spread beyond those fields until after 2000, although the informed reader had to be familiar with the financial use by the mid-nineties. Truth is, the OED finds recognizable uses of the verb (defined as “to turn in some direction, to have a general tendency”) as far back as 1863; none of the three citations it lists has anything to do with numbers or statistics, which is overwhelmingly how we use it today. The topographical use, as in a mountain range “trending east” or a streambed “trending down a slope,” has its roots in an older use of the verb that sounds obsolete now, as in “trending along the coast” (i.e., sailing along a coastline without trying to make landfall). Pollsters discovered the verb, naturally enough, but not until ten or fifteen years ago, long after the bankers; advertisers had picked it up before then.

For a long time, the word was used primarily to talk about prices, interest rates, sales — and it still is most of the time, although it turns up now and then on the sports or entertainment pages. Is the average going up, or going down? What’s the pattern? What do the numbers show? We’ve been talking about upward trends and downward trends for a long time; in fact, it’s not unusual to see the phrase “trend up” or “trend down,” where “trend” is used as a noun with the adjective following rather than preceding. But now “trend up” and “trend down” may be readily construed as verbs, which was more of a wrench thirty years ago and all but unknown fifty years ago.

The onslaught of web-based news, blogs, and social media has given a new, if predictable, twist to the verb; now it means something like “hot” or “riding a wave,” almost always used as a present participle. When Yahoo or Facebook calls your attention to what’s “trending now,” they want you to think it’s the latest thing, hot off the wire. Even if it’s old or recycled (how many times have the Kardashians “trended” over the last five years?), it’s what people are talking about today (i.e., which hashtags are getting the fiercest workout). In the case of a search engine, when a word or phrase is trending it means that more people are searching it than yesterday or last week. Today’s fad is tomorrow’s has-been, as always, so even when we use “trend” in a way that suggests the only possible direction is up, the downward trend is always lurking there in the background, but we prefer that it remain unspoken. When the cyberaudience loses interest in one story, another invariably comes along to take its place. (Le trend est mort, vive le trend!)

If you ask me, this more recent use goes straight back to the adjective “trendy,” already well established in my boyhood. “Trendy,” even when used contemptuously, meant popular, hip, with it — not following a path along with everyone else, but leading the crowd (although in order to be truly trendy you did have to be part of the pack). The use of “trend” to mean “peak” has now taken precedence over the intermediate meaning, as in “to trend up” or “to trend down.”

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