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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | doctorese | “give out,” “die,” “flatten out”)

Perhaps I should list this in its nominal form, since “flatliner” was the first to burst into general consciousness thanks to Joel Schumacher’s 1990 film, a title that introduced the concept to most of us. Nevertheless, “flatline” (verb) turned up as early as 1980 in Safire’s language column (I have only LexisNexis’s word that it was there; I didn’t find it searching the Times archives), not to mention a year earlier in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (in the phrase “gone flatline,” either noun or adjective). But the word lay largely dormant for another ten years before showing signs of life. It didn’t vault into ubiquity as some words do, but by 1990, we had all seen enough hospital shows to grasp the idea readily and fold it into our vocabulary, I guess. There’s no doubt it’s a compelling image. A line punctuated by little jagged peaks goes horizontal as the heart and wind fail. Time for emergency treatment, or last rites. A couple of frantic first responders always add drama to a scene, of course.

I shouldn’t give short shrift to the question of part of speech. “Flatline” is common both as a verb and adjective, slightly less so as a noun. You may even see it used transitively when a verb, as in this snippet from an article on Billy Squier: “the music video [“Rock Me Tonite”] that would flatline his career” (New York Post, November 17, 2013). I think of it as one word; the two-word and hyphenated versions, common twenty years ago, have all but disappeared. The term has an ambiguity built in. In the emergency room, it is the lowest point, beyond which medicine can do no more for you (except try to restore the jagged peaks). But when profits flatline, that just means you aren’t making money this quarter, not necessarily that you’re defunct. The word has lost some urgency as it has worked its way into common use. Now it’s associated particularly with financial discussions and sportswriting. The expression has taken on a few metaphorical possibilities but has never strayed far from its medical roots, always conveying passivity, stasis, inanition. If not death, then an absence of movement and progress. In color terms, monotone. In emotional terms, unresponsive. In physical terms, what effortless might mean but doesn’t.

The term has other meanings, including one that appears also to date from after 1980: in bureaucratese, a “flatline budget” calls for no spending increases (unless mandated by law). Chronologically, I believe this usage comes after the medical one, so it was probably a descendant of some kind. If you view a government budget as a living thing, always straining to grow and gobble up more and more, then the idea of eliminating all discretionary spending is roughly analogous to a cessation of vital signs, although you can’t get rid of a government that easily, as any libertarian will tell you. Sports scribes use “flatliner” to refer to an undemonstrative athlete, the kind of guy who has ice water in his veins, as we used to say. Just go out and play the game; never mind the shouting and chest-beating. Urban Dictonary defines the term more harshly: “Someone severely lacking in personality; a person who kills any festive mood with their utter dullness.”

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