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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

24/7

(1990’s | teenagese (African-American)? | “around the clock,” “always on or up,” “constantly,” “non-stop”)

I had assumed that this expression came out of stodgy corporatese, shortly after (perhaps even before) the ubiquity of ATM’s and all-night shopping or possibly the tech support call center, but now I think it’s more likely that it arose in African-American youth culture, especially rap. The earliest instance I found in LexisNexis, from 1993, came up in a glossary of rap terms printed in the Straits Times of Singapore. I didn’t do an exhaustive search, and it may have appeared earlier, but African-Americans do seem to have been early adopters. Actually, the first allusion may date from 1986: an all-black band named 24-7 Spyz. They were “known for mixing soul, funk, reggae, and R&B with heavy metal and hardcore punk” (Wikipedia), so they weren’t rappers. It’s not clear to me that “24-7” meant the same thing in the band name as it does now, but if it did it was ahead of its time. Hardly anyone uses the hyphen any more; the virgule has become standard, as if it were a fraction, but it isn’t. (I was bedeviled as a child by this brain-teaser: Where do you commonly see the fraction 24/31? The answer? On a calendar.) Fact is, the hyphen makes more sense, but history will not be denied.

Before our use of the expression crept into the language in the early nineties, you found numerous examples of this sequence of numbers, particularly in football scores and stock quotes, representing America’s favorite spectator sports. That made it more difficult than usual to figure out when this term really began to appear. By 2000, “24/7” was widely understood in hipper circles, and it didn’t generally require a gloss by then. Whether out of African-American culture or not, this is a phrase that bubbled up from below, definitely not forced down our throats by corporate headquarters or celebrity central. Early uses of the expression were typically ordinary people talking about their lives, not executives bragging about all-night grocery stores. Now the expression may be used metaphorically to indicate something closer to “full-time,” rather than “available at any moment, day or night, including holidays (as in “24/7/365”). Like many new terms, it has become less rigorous over time. Exclusively an adverb at first, its part of speech has drifted so that now it can serve almost as easily as an adjective.

There’s no doubt that commercial forces have latched onto “24/7,” which sounds like a descendant of 7-Eleven (the name dates back to 1946). America’s favorite convenience store was named for its sixteen-hour day, and the first 7-Eleven stayed open all night in 1963. Before then, the only places open all night were hospitals, cheap restaurants, and a few factories that employed multiple shifts. The idea that you should be able to order a hamburger or buy milk at any hour barely existed outside of major cities. You closed the store at a decent hour and went home to your family. Nobody worked on national holidays. And hardly anyone was expected to be reachable at any time. The pager and the cell phone made us subject to summonses from the office at all hours; the funny thing was, hardly anyone seemed to mind.

It’s tempting for everyone on the political spectrum to see such changes as due to declines in some moral value or another, but I’m more inclined to blame this one on the curse of capitalism. In its purest form, the curse of capitalism says, “If one guy works harder, everyone has to work harder. If one guy stays open late, everyone has to stay open late.” Etc. We always look at competition from the point of view of the consumer — and to be sure, competition benefits customers, at least up to a point (having too many choices becomes confusing and onerous). But from the other point of view, competition places every producer at the mercy of every other. Thousands of eyes on the main chance, endlessly scheming, out to make a buck and the rest of ‘em be damned. Every time one person or firm comes up with a profitable innovation — of any kind — everyone else has to match it, if not surpass it (this is particularly true if stockholders are involved). The exception would be an innovation that reduces the expenditure of time or capital, but even a true labor-saving device just opens up more time for work of other kinds. It doesn’t matter who first had the idea to staff a 24-hour hotline to help you fix your computer. If you want to start or stay in business, you have to offer it now.

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