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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | businese | “on the low side,” “sneaky,” “under-“)

The point about this word was that it implies deception; it goes with a word like “underhanded,” even though it is not a synonym. Space is opening up to use the word in a more neutral way, as in this recent pronouncement: “Official NOAA Climate Prediction Center estimates peg the odds of El Niño’s return at 50 percent, but many climate scientists think that is a lowball estimate.” No accusation of hanky-panky there. But the term does retain a strong association with deliberate deception on the one hand, and with financial transactions on the other. It can be a verb or even a noun (as in, “If she offers you a hundred dollars, don’t take it. That’s a lowball.”), yet it is most often encountered in an adjective mood, modifying things like offers, bids, budget projections, or sales prices. Sometimes it is designed to cheat, sometimes merely to lower expectations; either way, it partakes of deliberately misleading the audience. Even in a sentence like ” . . . the loss of physical bookstores, buckling under the weight of Amazon’s lowball prices” (International Business Times News, December 20, 2013), the feeling remains that Amazon’s prices are somehow illegitimate or unfair, even if they are not deceptive in the usual sense.

I’m not sure why “lowball” came to mean what it means. I learned it first as a baseball term, an adjective applied to pitchers and hitters alike. In that sense, it doesn’t imply deception; there are intentionally deceptive pitches, like the changeup or the spitball, but a low fastball doesn’t have to fool the batter in order to work. A “lowball glass” is a kind of liquor vessel, a short, round, wide glass used for a single spirit on the rocks or mixed with water. The drinks themselves are sometimes referred to as “lowballs.” And it’s a type of poker, a game in which the worst hand wins. That at least contains an element of misdirection that might qualify it as an ancestor, but there’s no obvious connection. I would guess that the old word “lowdown” (meaning “reprehensible”) had an influence, possibly a decisive one; sometimes “lowball” is used as a straight synonym for “lowdown,” or at least it was.

Lighter records the first use of “lowball” — as a verb — in 1957; it appeared in the New York Times on June 16: “‘low balling’: In effect this is quoting a low price initially and then reneging” or piling on extra costs after the contract is signed. The reporter attributed the then two-word verb to auto dealers. The first citation as an adjective dates from 1970, the latest part of speech to join the bandwagon. Lighter adduces a distinct definition: “operating at a low profit margin,” applied to organizations rather than activities. That sense appears to have disappeared since the seventies.

To some degree, “lowball” has lost its negative connotation, or at least it has become possible to use it without one. Of the expressions I’ve covered, not many have gone in that direction. “Factoid” is the only example I can think of, and it’s not a very good analogy. “Thanks for sharing” is no longer automatically sarcastic, but that’s another imprecise resemblance. Terms like “massage the numbers” and “game the system” have gone the other way, losing the possibility of a positive connotation over the last few decades.


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