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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

max out

(1990’s | enginese? bureaucratese? | top out, use (or fill) up, reach one’s peak, maximize)

A term that has grown in many directions since it came into existence around 1970 — Google Books and Lighter both find no examples before then. “Max out” may have arisen in prison slang, where it meant “serve the maximum sentence.” By 1980, it could mean “reach a limit,” still a very common way to use the expression. An employee might max out with respect to salary or vacation time, or a weightlifter might max out at 200 pounds. A less-used sense probably comes from militarese: “attain the best possible score on an exam.” These were all current by 1985, around the time when yet another meaning started to show up persistently in political reporting: “max out” is what donors do when they contribute as much as the law allows to a campaign. (This meaning is also still going strong, surprise, surprise.) Two more meanings: “get the most out of a situation” or “put forth utmost effort.” Occasionally it is used to mean “make the most of,” although I wouldn’t consider that a canonical definition. The common feature I would ask you to observe about these variants is that they are all intransitive. In order to smuggle in an object you have to use a preposition, so a reporter might have said, “The donor maxed out on campaign contributions.”

Some time after 1990 a transitive usage gained a foothold and by now has probably surpassed the older uses, though they maintain a robust business at the old stand. The history of the word “overthink” shows a similar pattern; “lighten up” went the other way. By 2000, the expression was often used in conjunction with one’s credit cards or retirement account contributions, and these remain among the most popular objects. Another, lesser, transitive use: now “max out” can serve as a substitute for “limit,” as in an Internet form maxing out the number of words or characters one can type.

Such a shift from intransitive to transitive is not uncommon, as even fundamental grammatical categories carry less and less force. “Max out” belongs in a group of verbs that swing both ways: ramp up, downsize, upsell. It’s not that the distinction has become insignificant; even rookie English speakers recognize that some verbs just can’t take an object, while others just can’t stop. But only the beleaguered few care enough to preserve even simple grammatical distinctions, especially with new additions to the vocabulary. It’s easier just to let it all slosh around, and most of your hearers or readers can figure out most of what you’re trying to say most of the time, anyway. It’s like a cell phone conversation in which every third word is inaudible, yet somehow we manage to communicate. Or at least get close.

Another member of the “maximum” family is “to the max,” which Lighter says arose at about the same time but which entered the mainstream a few years earlier. We were all throwing this around during the Valley Girl craze of the early eighties (grody to the max!), but the expression was in use before then. (Assuredly I am being fanciful in hearing the old oath “By the mass” in the background.) “Max out” was just evolving a little more slowly, but it has lasted better; “to the max” sounds distinctly archaic in 2015, but “max out” has plenty of vigor.


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