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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

has left the building

(1990’s | journalese (sports)? | “it’s all over,” “isn’t coming back”)

As every schoolboy knows, we owe this phrase to Elvis, or rather to a promoter at that fabled Louisiana Hayride concert in Shreveport. See the one and only Straight Dope (if you read the entire article you’ll be treated to a virtuoso catalogue of synonyms at the end). Hell, it’s even on Youtube. The phrase dates back to 1956, and several on-line sources, some of them reliable, agree that it became a conventional way of announcing the end of Elvis concerts in the sixties and seventies, though even after reading several accounts of the origin of the phrase it isn’t clear to me how often it was actually used. I think — I hope — nearly everyone agrees by now that Elvis passed on in 1977, but if the tag line came into anything like general use then, there’s no trace of it in my usual sources (lovely Liz from Queens recalls that it was used in news coverage of his death, which was prolonged, not to say obsessive). A song written in Elvis’s memory used it for a title — J.D. Sumner had a minor hit — but one reference in the January 1978 Stereo Review aside (“a perfect metaphor for [Elvis’s] passing”), it did not push the phrase into the lexicon.

Used literally, “has left the building” arises often in reporting on fires or hostage situations, and in such contexts it means something closer to “don’t have to worry about that person any more.” The figurative meaning of the phrase has not changed much (see above). Despite the early association with Elvis’s death, it is unusual, though not unheard of, to encounter “has left the building” used to mean “has died.” There’s a note of finality, but it’s not as final as that, more like “quit” or “moved on.” It has the same force and finality as “stick a fork in him, he’s done,” but isn’t used in the same way. Even when the expression refers to someone else entirely, it conveys a quiet homage to the King, evoking if not invoking his name. It allows us to talk about him in the present tense without acknowledging his death.

It shows up only once in LexisNexis or Google Books before 1980: a description of a David Bowie show after which the crowd was told, “Bowie has left the building,” presumably a knowing reference to Elvis’s announcer. The first use I found in LexisNexis was due to George Vecsey, the mildly legendary sports columnist for the New York Times, in 1983. He referred explicitly to Presley’s concerts in an article about the St. John’s basketball team losing a tournament game to get across the point that they were finished — a not unreasonable transposition of the original idea that Elvis was not around to give encores or meet worshipful fans. It interests me that Vecsey was a sportswriter, because this expression reminds me a little of “it’s not over until the fat lady sings” (invented ca. 1980 by a Washington scribe in reference to my beloved hometown Bullets) or even “that’s all she wrote.” In 1987, David Letterman, or one of his writers, used “Elvis has left the building” to describe a home run, presumably as in “It’s gone!” Sports lingo has a way of inventing or absorbing expressions whose literal sense is more literary or artistic; “on the same page” is another example. Sports jockeys have a yen for the colorful and memorable, and they don’t turn up their noses at a big, splashy phrase.

There was an incubation period of twenty years or so between the time Elvis fans knew all about “Elvis has left the building,” and the time it became a necessary part of everyone’s vocabulary. By 2000 it was often cited as an example of a cliché, and it was possible by then to substitute someone else’s name. Today we use it with other names or even inanimate objects. Most people probably still know that Elvis was the first one to leave the building, but that may not be common knowledge in a generation or two. Who knows? Maybe someone will unearth this post from the dim and dusty (as opposed to the dark) web and learn the truth.

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