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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

be careful out there

(1980’s | journalese (television) | “watch yourself,” “stay alert,” “pay attention”)

Now here is a phrase brought to us by television — or at least propelled into our vocabulary by television. In its full form, “Let’s roll, and hey, let’s be careful out there,” it was delivered near the beginning of each episode of Hill Street Blues by Sgt. Esterhaus, played by Michael Conrad. The drama debuted in 1981, and it seems to have been one of those rare instances of an offering of the popular arts that survived on sheer critical acclaim for a long time before it found a loyal audience. There was a lag of a year or two before the phrase began to appear regularly in the press, but its upward progress was swift. By the time President Reagan used it in May 1983, reporters cited Hill Street Blues knowingly, and there was no doubt about what had made it a household word. Of course the phrase, at least in its condensed form, is not catchy, an utterance utterly ordinary semantically and syntactically and a poor candidate for a cliché, yet it has gone from tag line to stock phrase. People who use the expression today may not know they are quoting Hill Street Blues, but they know they are quoting something. According to the New York Times (June 8, 1986), the writers of Hill Street Blues probably adapted the expression from The Police Tapes, a series of cinema vérité documentaries on police work shot in the South Bronx, where the sergeant ended roll call with a similar injunction.

The expression is as self-explanatory as any, I suppose, but it has one distinctive feature: as far as I can tell it is rarely used jocularly. Telling a person or group to be careful out there is not to be taken trivially. You say it when there is genuine danger, whether physical or financial. We have become more preoccupied with safety and security in the last thirty years, which may account partly for the spread of the expression.

There was a time when cop shows were a fertile source of catch phrases. “Who loves ya, baby?” (Kojak), “Book ’em, Danno” (Hawaii Five-O), “I pity the fool” (The A-Team). (The grandaddy of them all, “Just the facts, ma’am” from Dragnet, never appeared on the show in any of its incarnations, according to multiple on-line sources, although Friday did say “All we want are the facts, ma’am” once.) That era appears to have ended in the mid-eighties. Maybe I’ve missed something, but cop shows of the last thirty years or so don’t seem to have spawned any linguistic fads. Did Homicide or The Wire lend any expressions to the language? Miami Vice? NYPD Blue? Cops? I wouldn’t know, but I did come across several lists of cop-show catch phrases on the web, and none of them had anything later than Hill Street Blues or The A-Team. If this is so, can anyone explain why? Faithful readers?

I don’t think I ever watched Hill Street Blues back when it was new, but I watched an episode (o.k., half an episode) on Hulu to hear Sgt. Esterhaus for myself. More or less at random, I chose the first episode from the third season (1983), in which a nun has been raped and murdered and a man has gotten his head wedged immovably between a filthy toilet bowl and the wall. (That’s only two of the story lines, and the others were also pretty lurid.) The intent seemed to be to extort the most raw and violent emotional response from viewers by assaulting them at every turn. If we do not respond viscerally, the producers have failed the advertisers. I had the same sensations about ten years ago, when I watched Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy back-to-back one fraught night. In each program, all of the half-dozen or so plot lines were grotesque, or nauseating, or perverse to the point of absurdity, almost as if the writers were challenging each other to make each plot twist more appalling than the last. I watch almost no television drama, and maybe I just have a knack for tuning in on the most excessive evenings. But if this sort of bombardment, or anything like it, is the norm, I don’t see how regular viewers can be anything other than numb. After weeks and years of this, how can pity and terror make themselves known? How can stories pushed far beyond anything like everyday experience — even the everyday experience of cops and emergency room doctors — tell us anything?

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