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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2000’s | bureaucratese | “fast-track”)

New administrations bring new vocabulary with them, in the form of catch-phrases and more fundamental concepts. We got many new expressions from Reagan; Clinton had a few, Kennedy, Nixon . . . FDR was probably the champ. One way to judge a president is to measure the volume of enduring vocabulary he leaves behind. Obama gave us “shovel-ready,” which swung into the spotlight right after he took office. It has always been a word beloved of politicians and bureaucrats. The first usage in LexisNexis (1999) came from the fevered brain of a New Jersey state official. Governor Pataki of New York was an early adopter; indeed, the phrase seems to have had a definite Northeast origin. Most of the early uses I found (before 2005) came from New York, New Jersey, or New England. Obama certainly did not invent the term, as one writer speculated. At any rate, we all have to know what it means now, even though most of don’t use it much in everyday conversation. (Say, is that plot of land where the new bank’s gonna go shovel-ready yet?)

What it means: free of obstacles to construction or repair. The only thing left to do is start building that bank, a road, a senior center, a power plant. All regulations — zoning, environmental, etc. — have been satisfied, reports issued, utilities hooked up; all we need is some money and off we go. As Obama and many others have pointed out, it’s rarely that simple, and the scenario of money today, digging tomorrow doesn’t happen very often in real life. But it’s also true that some things are more nearly shovel-ready than others, and being able to tell them apart is very helpful when you want to put people to work in a hurry.

The word has not changed meaning in its short life, but it has seen a shift in emphasis. In the beginning, “shovel-ready” almost always referred to land. One pictured a piece of property just waiting for the right builder to come along. That’s still common, but now you’re more likely to hear about a “shovel-ready project,” and the first word that pops into your head is “infrastructure.” (It’s almost Pavlovian.) I think this shift is due to Obama, even if he didn’t create it personally. Roads, bridges, sewers, rail lines, etc. don’t go with specific parcels of land, and Obama tried to focus on them as a target of economic stimulus, not an illogical plan given the state of U.S. infrastructure and the number of people looking for jobs early in 2009. More recently, Republicans have seized on the term to champion the Keystone pipeline.

It is pointed out ad nauseam in the press that businesses looking to invest want to have everything laid out for them. Our governments’ preference for catering to commercial interests has not wavered over the centuries, and “shovel-ready” is but its latest manifestation. Let’s make it as easy as possible for companies who want to open up a plant or store here. Why all the solicitude? Why, businesses create jobs, of course! They do, but often not as many as trumpeted, and the jobs may or may not hang around. They are only part of the story, of course. Tax breaks come into being ex nihilo whenever a large company drops coquettish hints about moving to the area, and all kinds of other rules get bent as well. As a result, the company never has a stake in the community. Its only responsibility is accumulating as much profit as possible without any obligation to the locals beyond employing some of them, and even that part won’t get checked too closely. No respect for local rules or customs required, or even expected. You’d think the role of supplicant would be distasteful to our towns and counties, but hardly anyone seems to mind. It’s one more version of the race to the bottom. The local government that imposes the fewest conditions and shows the least regard for the public good wins.


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