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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

don’t even think about it

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “let’s nip this in the bud,” “don’t be a fool,” “forget it,” “watch it!”)

I’m often left wondering how reliable LexisNexis really is, and the question is particularly pertinent to this week’s inquiry. It appears to be remarkably reliable about transcribing text. Now and then you run across an OCR error, but they are pretty minor and pretty infrequent. The dating is also reliable (unlike, say, Google Books, my other on-line primary source). The chief limitation probably arises from the selection — the publications indexed and how representative they prove to be. Most major newspapers and a sprinkling of minor ones, a bias toward print and the establishment business press despite a pretty fair number of blogs and other odds and ends. On the other hand, that sort of publication still has the most reach and influence, so the bias toward wealth and power may be just what is needed to understand the diffusion, or transformation, of English expressions.

Take the exact phrase “don’t even think about it.” It comes in two moods, the indicative and the imperative. In 1980, and even 1990, the indicative was much more common, saith LexisNexis. Most frequently spotted in athletese, generally preceded by “I.” It doesn’t matter to me, because . . . it’s no big deal, or it’s ancient history, or I’ve gotten used to it, or I have more important things to worry about; the phrase conveys resilience or bravado, perhaps defiance. Athletes and others still use the phrase this way, but — again, according to LexisNexis — it has fallen in comparison to the imperative use, which has increased dramatically since 1980, so that now it occurs much more often than the indicative. In the process, it has become a fixed phrase and probably achieved concurrently the coveted status of cliché.

So how reliable is LexisNexis? How far can we trust them to deliver a fair snapshot of usage patterns over the entire population? I do sense that the imperative is used much more often than it was, which doesn’t mean that the indicative is used less — it’s not a zero-sum game. It may be a rising line crossing a steady one, but there’s no doubt the imperative is getting more imperative. The first hit in LexisNexis dates from 1980; almost always in political contexts for the first few years. The New York Times noted in 1987 that “Don’t even think about it” was popular on signs drivers put in their cars to deter thieves, an elaboration on “no radio.” It sounds like an urban legend, but I pass it along anyway.

“Don’t even think about it”: Anything from finger-wagging to a blunt threat, in the imperative it’s always a warning, a reminder that what you are about to do is a mistake. There are plenty of possible reasons, just like there are plenty of reasons you might have dismissed something from your mind. Because . . . it’s illegal, it won’t give you what you want, it will lead you into temptation, it ain’t happening . . . whatever. In this sense, it’s pretty close to another newish expression, “don’t go there.” (I’m surprised I haven’t done this one yet. Oops, now I have).

When I was a kid we said, “Don’t EVEN . . .” Here’s an example: At a baseball game, a fan yells to the batter, “Don’t EVEN strike out, Bob!” It meant “you of all people must not screw this up,” or, more simply, “This would be a particularly bad time to screw up.” “Don’t even think about it” doesn’t have the same scansion, of course, and there’s probably no connection. But I’d like to think my generation influenced the language even in our collective childhood. Children of the seventies rule!

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