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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

you’re history

(1990’s | athletese | “you’re finished,” “you’re out or gone,” “your time is past,” “it’s over”)

It bubbled up first in sports and showbiz, says LexisNexis. Google Books shows a couple of hits from auto racing even before 1980, then it spent the first part of the decade diffusing through sports and entertainment writing. David Letterman used it in early in 1987, and George Bush gave it a boost when he accepted the Republican nomination in 1988: “‘Zero tolerance’ isn’t just a policy, it’s an attitude. . . . my administration will be telling the [drug] dealers: whatever we have to do we’ll do, but your day is over; you’re history.” It definitely started trickling into the mainstream after that. By the mid-nineties, old-timers and kids were both using it. I wonder if it might have southern roots. I learned it in college in 1983 from southern kids, and the early association with auto racing is also suggestive. One apparent misattribution: In 1988, the august Times of London attributed the line to “Dirty Harry,” but if that’s correct, no one else has noticed.

If you are part of the past, no longer significant in our everyday world, then you must perforce be history. The doggedly literal-minded might understand history to encompass only the dead, but imagine a one-shot wonder from the old days, still alive, whose name turns up occasionally but whom no one interviews or quotes any more. You talk about such a person only with reference to the past — no longer significant, but faded and distant. Leonardo DiCaprio is current; Jim Nabors is not. The expression puts you in your place (or time), yet it hangs onto a certain academic, even high-toned, quality.

It can be a very literal death threat, of course, as in a prison guard talking to an inmate, or a gang member to an informer. But usually it means something a little less drastic. The range of meaning is not wide: anything from “dead” or “done for” to “your time is up” or “get the hell out of here.” It puts an end to things, sometimes tinged with rue, sometimes with violence; it can also be used in humorous ways. As I noted last week, it sounds most comfortable in the second person, but third person (especially singular) and first person (especially plural) are also quite possible. We used to say “that’s ancient history,” but not to refer to persons — the new formulation insists on a particular person or group, not a concept or event.

you’re toast

(1990’s | athletese? | “you’re done for”)

The little variation or flexibility possessed by “you’re history” is denied to “you’re toast,” which has an even more restricted and invariable meaning. A quick and violent cessation of life, literal or metaphorical, is almost always present. One pictures not a big fork or a small oven but a flamethrower. One columnist (1996) traced the line to “Ghostbusters” in the form “this chick is toast” — the on-line script doesn’t show it, but my sister-in-law, who oughta know, says the line does appear in the movie. (In a different scene, the script instructs Venkman (Bill Murray) to say “turn him into toast.” Maybe it was an ad-lib.) The first hit on LexisNexis dates from 1987 — three years after the film’s release — attributed to a luger on New Zealand’s Olympic team, describing the effects of moving your head during a run. A swift, gruesome end. Like “you’re history,” it can occur with any pronoun, although the second person and third-person singular occur most commonly. (The second person is generally used a substitute for the third-person indefinite “one,” anyway, so maybe the third-person actually predominates. I’ve never heard or read “one is toast,” and the only way it might sound remotely idiomatic is in a British accent.)

“You’re toast” came along a little later than “you’re history” and has never been quite as popular or widespread, but it compensates by being more edgy and hip. Because it has a stronger connotation, it is reserved for fewer situations, or maybe it’s the other way around. “You’re toast” also became popular first among athletes. Here’s a nice variation from a football player who hoped to catch on in the NFL (1991): “I know that one minute you’re white bread and the next you’re toast.” Ted Turner attracted a lot of attention in 1995 when he told his son, “You’re toast,” after the young man made the mistake of asking if his job would survive the latest reorganization. William Safire wrote about both expressions back in 1997 with his usual acuity.

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