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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

same old same old

(1980’s | “business as usual,” “more of the same,” “same old stuff, etc.”)

Is this expression so uninteresting that there’s really nothing to say about it? Didn’t Safire already say it, anyway? Is this expression as dreary as it appears? As tawdrily chic as “back atcha” or as tiresomely hip as “don’t go there“? Is it extracted from the “same mold same mold”? It certainly doesn’t express anything new, and, given its definition, it would be jarring if it did. New expressions normally show at least a hint of novelty or cleverness, but this one survives on brute repetition. Its sheer stultifaction dramatizes its denotation perfectly. Repetitive? Check. Tedious? Ditto. It is what it has to say for itself.

This phrase often modifies a noun (e.g., people, attitudes), in which case it serves as an intensified version of “same old,” that is, an ordinary, if rather cluttered, attributive adjective. I think it’s more effective when used on its own, usually as a reply to “What’s up?” or as a description of the rut one is stuck in. It carries a whiff of grammatical mystery, partly generated by punctuation, which is surprisingly variable. You see anywhere from zero to three hyphens when this expression appears and sometimes quotation marks sneak in, but you really have to keep your eye on the commas. If there’s no comma, it’s noun-adjective. Is it the new “same old”? No, it’s the same old . . . But if there is a comma, then you have a compound noun that sets new standards for redundancy. Not just the same thing again but the same thing that means “the same thing” and even has the word “same” in it. It’s too tiring to explain . . . (Here the blogger waves a limp hand from a recumbent position on the sofa.)

The first instance I uncovered was a song title for Montego Joe, a cut on a 1965 album called “Warm and Wild.” For the next ten years, Google Books found scattered references, mostly in sources by or about African-Americans. It first turned up in LexisNexis in 1979, in a political context. Ten years later it was clearly out there, if not entirely ordinary, but by the mid-nineties, it was fully established. “Same old same old” never connotes anything nice or pleasant. It never means “comfortingly familiar” or “old reliable.” The phrase generally carries more than a hint of resignation; indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone using it militantly.

And let me count the ways we already had to get the point across. “The usual.” “Just like always.” “Just what you’d expect.” “Old familiar places.” When a voter uses it about a politician, it means “Promises, promises.” My all-time favorite is “same shit, different day,” but that may be newer. These expressions are not always perfectly interchangeable, but they are all pretty close together on the ol’ cladogram. By now “same old same old” has doubtless lost its aura of hipness, but it maintains a healthy presence in everyday language.

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