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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

get a life

(1990’s | teenagese? (Valley Girl) | “you jerk!,” “grow up,” “deal with reality”)

An impressive number of on-line sources trace this expression to Valley Girl slang. Actually, that isn’t quite true. One or two somewhat dubious but frequently cited pages give the impression that an impressive number of sources agree on the origin of “get a life.” The Jargon File credits hackers and early Usenet users with diffusion, although it also says the term comes out of ol’ San Fernand. For what it’s worth, I didn’t find “get a life” in any on-line sources from the early eighties (the OED shows one, from 1983), or compendia of eighties slang. The script of the film Valley Girl (1983) contains the expression “In another life,” meaning something like “in your dreams” or maybe “not here, now, or with you.” “Get a life” doesn’t appear in Moon Unit Zappa’s famous song that made us all experts in 1982, either. It’s possible that the phrase arose somewhere else and Valley Girls got the credit — if you weren’t there, it’s hard to understand how pervasive it all was back then, when we all said nothing but “grody” and “gag me with a spoon” for a few months there.

A key event seems to have pushed this phrase into the limelight, which is rather unusual. Most new expressions trickle into the language, establishing themselves quietly before they become widespread. But in this case, we have a pretty clear starting point. In December 1986, William Shatner hosted Saturday Night Live. Playing himself in a sketch, he chewed out a Trekkie convention, telling his ardent fans to “Get a life!” There were a few earlier citations, but it blossomed only after Shatner. People still refer to this moment as a watershed in the annals of celebrities revolting against their fans. In 1990, “Get a Life” was adopted as the title of a short-lived sitcom, and there was no stopping it after that.

“Get a life” is a reproof for people who spend too much time and energy on trivialities, like Trekkie conventions, or it may be addressed to someone who spends too much time at work and not enough time at play. (Wikipedia is surprisingly good on the range of settings in which the phrase may be used.) It always implies inadequacy, and it’s always said with a sneer. It has lost some of its point in the last thirty years and worn down in some cases to “stop being a jerk.” In such cases it may be weary rather than peremptory. It can also mean cut your mother’s apron strings — stop depending on your parents (as we might have said “get your own life” a few decades ago).

The alt.English.usage Usenet group has a very good thread on “get a life.” The authors point to two precursors, “get a job” (which also means “do something to make yourself worthy of respect”) and “have no life,” meaning you are a sorry loser who goes home alone every night to watch reruns and wallow in self-pity. If you have no life, you need to get one, right? Seems simple enough.

Thanks to lovely Liz from Queens for promoting this expression. Keep ’em coming, baby!

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