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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

how I roll

(2000’s | journalese? | “my way or thing,” “what I like,” “how I do things”)

I learned this expression from my girlfriend’s daughter. It had its day in our household last year and has since receded, although it will undoubtedly rear its head again. The kids didn’t invent it, though. The earliest large-scale media event I found that employed the phrase was a Pepsi commercial during the 2005 Super Bowl. I came across some older examples, but it seems safe to say that the expression gained a lot of ground after that. By the end of 2009, a writer on slate.com dismissed the phrase as out of date, but that was probably true only among the avant-garde; most of us were just getting started. The pronoun varies; any combination of persons and numbers is possible, but I, we, and they seem to predominate. Oddly, one finds relatively few examples of the the third-person singular, but the others all make their presences felt. It can also be used in the negative to decry an action that one does not condone.

“How I roll” or “the way I roll” has an invariable meaning. It follows the statement of a habit, preference, or wish that the speaker thinks might raise eyebrows, and pre-empts any doubts or objections. The phrase is not defensive; in fact, it implies pride in the behavior or belief, underlain by a healthy dose of “whether you like it or not.” Raise all the eyebrows you want; I don’t care. It’s supposed to feel insouciant or devil-may-care rather than emphatic or truculent, and as far as I can tell it usually does.

I don’t know which of the many meanings of “roll” deserves to be honored as the true ancestor of this expression. Dice? Dough? Drums? Cigarettes? Eyes? Tape? Bandages? Along? Over? Out? Up? On the river? With the punches? Rock and? Does it go back to driving somehow? I like the idea of a defiant French student defending her pronunciation of the letter r with a swift “That’s how I roll!” Or maybe a mugger explaining his technique for relieving drunken sailors of their money. Some of these possibilities are sillier than others, but none of them seems absurd on its face.

roll with it

(1990’s | athletese? | “take it as it comes,” “go with the flow,” “make the best of it”)

A phrase betokening resignation but not despair, suggesting the will to carry on amid adversity. It indicates relaxation rather than passivity. The origin of the expression is not as clear-cut as I thought. It seems most likely to descend from the old boxing exhortation, “roll with the punches”; another possible parent is martial arts, rather than the sweet science. But it could also come from sailing (as in rolling with the waves, but that’s not as idiomatic), or even something more cosmic (as the earth rolls around the sun, we have no choice but to roll with it). I still think the first is most likely, mostly because the phrase goes invariably with unpleasant or frustrating circumstances. Nobody ever rolls with winning the lottery; it has to be something that makes your life more difficult. And it usually is a change in conditions imposed from the outside, like bad weather, a legal verdict, or other people’s mistakes. The phrase may be used in response to a change in oneself, as in the diagnosis of an incurable disease, but only when the obstacle is presumed to be beyond our control. If you can’t make it better, you roll with it; if you can improve by applying yourself, it is assumed in our self-help culture that you will.

The expression is popular among athletes and has been for a long time, but I found examples from therapy, education, music, and popular culture as far back as 1970. That’s why I’m skeptical of a tidy origin myth for this term. “Roll with it” can be read as a distillation of the first part of the Serenity Prayer, which is closely associated with Alcoholics Anonymous: “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Rolling with it means not getting wrought up about things you can’t do anything about. Just deal with it and keep moving, because resistance makes it worse. We need the stock phrase, because it’s something we have to remind ourselves to do — it feels counterintuitive, like steering into a skid. And yet it’s certainly a handy rule for a species as adaptable as ours.

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