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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

don’t go there

(2000’s | “don’t you dare,” “don’t start (that again),” “don’t bring that up,” “don’t open that can of worms,” “let’s not talk about that”)

It’s emphatic. Throw in an “even” and it’s even more emphatic. Always pre-emptive, like “don’t even think about it,” but less literal. “Don’t go there” once would invariably have conjured a physical place, but now it forestalls a particular subject, or means to an end, that the speaker considers a sore spot. It’s a way of putting the other person on notice: Just stop now, before we both regret it. Maybe because you feel strongly about it; maybe because you’re tired of hearing about it. Sometimes it’s playful, but that’s not its ground state. It means “don’t say it” more often than “don’t do it,” but both are common.

The expression seems to have come along in the mid-nineties, and its origins are murky, at least to me. I found early examples recorded by a television reviewer, an athlete, a teenager, and “Dating for Dummies” (published in 1997). All hip sources often in the vanguard of linguistic innovation. In 1999, Mike Myers used it in “Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me,” and that seems to have made the phrase more popular. He counted as hip, too, I guess, although it makes me shudder. (I never understood why the Austin Powers movies were so popular, I must admit. Or Wayne’s World, for that matter. But then, I don’t care about espionage movies very much, and I have my own preferred forms of sophomoric humor.) My memories are vague but lean toward the conclusion that this phrase did not engulf the culture until after 2000. It has become less hip over time, but not as quickly as some other expressions I could name. Now that advice columnists have gotten hold of it, its day is done. Everybody’s going there.

I haven’t exerted much taxonomic effort in this blog, but I’m prepared to state that “don’t go there” fits readily into not one, but two different categories. One you might call the “didn’t we have already have enough ways to say that” category. (Examples: “unpack,” “prior,” “phone it in,” “wiggle room.”) The other category is harder to define, but it contains the notion of hipness that I appealed to rather carelessly above. Expressions that originate in a distinct subgroup of the population (kids, African-Americans, sports stars, Hollywood) that we pay attention to because they are rich, dangerous, exciting, or all three — and enter the language with some zing. Such expressions come with a touch of the transgressive at first, before they settle in. “Don’t go there” had that exotic cast when it started to show up, even if it’s not quite as archetypal an example as “shoutout” or “twerk” in recent years, or “get a life” and “take a chill pill” in an earlier generation. In the U.S., a disproportionate number of new expressions seem to come from money — business and banking, or their eternal allies, the government and the military — or this or that trendy underclass. Hipness is one of the ways wealth hedges its bets.

Last week I discoursed on the strengths and weaknesses of LexisNexis, but there’s one point I left out. It doesn’t bear on accuracy, but on the limitations of its search capabilities. For some reason, LexisNexis ignores “there” when part of a search term. That left me with a forbidding mass of false positive results from this week’s expression — which I had to amend to “don’t even go there” to produce manageable search results to begin with. Any phrase containing “don’t even go” was swept up in the search, and that calls into question the reliability of my chronological conclusions, although Google Books also indicates that “don’t go there” in the figurative way we use it today didn’t exist before 1995. I’ll put my money on the nineties, anyway.

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