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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

lighten up

(1980’s | journalese | “don’t be (so) uptight,” “get off your high horse,” “take it easy,” “stop and smell the roses,” “cool it”)

“Lighten up” signals that someone is overdoing it. Which means it’s basically an insult — patronizing or sneering or exasperated. This is a fixed phrase now, used intransitively (unusual before 1980) and imperatively (likewise), and directed at a specific person or group. In the old days, “lighten up” meant simply “make lighter,” in weight or color or mood, and it was usually transitive, often used as a substitute for “brighten up.” When it was used imperatively, it was much more literal; it meant “lay off,” that is, exert less pressure or throw less weight around. The new meaning revolves around mood or demeanor: don’t be so sensitive, or angry, or humorless, or obsessive, so it’s closer to “chill out” than “stop busting my chops.” It’s clear that our expression is descended from the older meaning and not that much different from it. But “lighten up” before 1980 almost always meant “brighten,” or “loosen,” or “abate,” not “take yourself less seriously.”

The origins of our specialized form of the phrasal verb probably lie in the sixties, among either hippies or African-Americans, who didn’t overlap much. Early mainstream uses occurred mostly in reporting on entertainment. Articles about pop stars and movie personalities contained the earliest examples I found; Oliver Stone and Louis Gossett, Jr. both were quoted using the expression in the early eighties, and it made the script of Bill Murray’s film “Stripes” (1981). Johnny Carson used it on the air in 1986; in 1987, Washington Post television critic Tom Shales remarked, “If this odd little decade has a credo, it is probably ‘Lighten up.’” Infrequent in 1980, the phrase had arrived by 1990.

It’s worth asking why Shales chose “lighten up” as the motto for the eighties. I blame everything on Reagan, who definitely had a light-hearted, or perhaps light-brained, quality about him. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to go for the wisecrack, or to admit that you don’t understand everything that’s going on. Hey, it’s morning in America, and we don’t have to sweat the details — David Stockman will take care of that. More generally, the eighties does seem to have been an unusually superficial decade, to the extent that such generalizations mean anything. The sixties were terribly earnest all across the political spectrum, and it took twenty years to shake all that off and decide that what really matters is partying and acquiring worldly goods rather than inner, or even outer, peace. In the sixties, we were self-centered in order to improve, or save, our world; in the eighties we were self-centered because it was easy and fun. Telling someone to lighten up may mean telling them to be less concerned about solving the world’s problems, but it’s also a way to say, “stop gazing at your navel.” Get out more, have some fun, live it up. And while you’re taking everything else less seriously, take yourself less seriously, too.

Google suggests that “lighten up” has become increasingly popular, almost standard, as a way of naming or referring to weight loss programs. Gyms, bloggers, government agencies all use it to encourage the rest of us slobs to slim down. The vocabulary of fitness continues to evolve. “Losing weight” has shrunk to “losing,” and “loser” is carving out space for itself as a compliment. There’s something inspiring about the way Americans fight back against obesity — one television show, or one slogan, at a time. Speaking of slogans, November 14 is “Loosen Up, Lighten Up Day,” a reminder to relieve stress through exercise and humor. “Lighten up” has loosened up. It may mean as little as “have a good laugh,” and it seems to be heading for “relax and unwind.” How wide can it glide?

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