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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

play well with others

(1990’s | academese (education) | “cooperate (be cooperative),” “get along well,” “work well with others”)

This expression got my attention when Allan Gurganus published his similarly titled novel in 1997. LexisNexis shows pretty clearly that the phrase, while going back a couple of decades in educational parlance and even political reporting, hadn’t been widespread for more than a few years. In the early nineties, it started popping up in a variety of sources, notably computer magazines and arts writing. In 1982, political columnist Richard Cohen attributed the phrase — in its expanded form “work and play well with others” — to the “education biz.” (In case you were wondering, he was referring to Muammar Gaddafi and using the phrase in the negative, as it so often is.) Cohen was an early adopter, but it turned up occasionally in political journalism throughout the 1980’s. There is little doubt that the expression goes back to that American scholarly institution, the report card. It’s one of the criteria used to evaluate how well small children deal with other kids, so that the self-centered, sulky, or withdrawn ones might be spotted early. With adults, the phrase takes on a more general coloring, so that it denotes someone who is easy to work with, affable, unselfish, responsible, and able to contribute to group efforts, light or serious, without making the rest wish he or she hadn’t. Playing well with others requires good interpersonal skills, to use a term of the same vintage. If you’re not good at those things, then you don’t play well with others. You may be any of a thousand things, but you are always difficult. Prickly, idiosyncratic, egotistical, sullen, whatever — failing to play well with others never connotes commendable individualism. It’s all about orneriness.

A slightly older word for such a person is “team player,” the same verb used in more of an athletic and less of an educational context. Before that, you might have said that a person “pulled her weight,” or that he was a “good scout,” though that was a more general compliment. The phrase has for years frequently been used in businese, most often in articles about how to keep your employees happy, or just how to keep your employees. I’m not sure when or why we started using “play” to talk about what used to be known as work. Elementary irony aside, the shift takes advantage of the original connotation of “play well with others.” Like “on task,” its origins in teachers’ dialect forced on it a patronizing character even after it came into general use. Particularly when used in the negative, the phrase tends to sound snarky, and there is often more than a hint that the target is not just unreasonable, but downright childish. On the other hand, when used unadorned, it seems to have shed most of that tinge by now. By and large, “plays well with others” has evolved into a compliment. The negation has retained its original patronizing inflection, but the affirmative has lost it and become positive over time. At least that’s how I hear it.

You would think the phrase “play well with others” would fall naturally from the lips of musicians, and occasionally you run across a book about ensemble playing or being a good accompanist that uses it in the title. But it still has the air of a play on words rather than a straightforward, literal phrase.

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