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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

love handles

(1980’s | teenagese? | “spare tire,” “middle-age spread”)

I remember from late childhood or early adolescence a tableau on the Special K cereal box: a waist-length photo of a woman with a faintly accusing expression asking, “Can you pinch more than an inch?” If you took a firm grip on the outermost part of your belly fat, was the resulting wad more than an inch high? Those were the days before the great fitness craze of the eighties, before liposuction became popular. Exercise and a healthy diet were the only ways to keep from getting disgustingly fat, and those were the values Kellogg’s was trying to promote, or give the appearance of promoting. (Special K has always been pitched to believers in fitness and healthy diet. It continues to strike me as an inexplicable brand name for a cereal, but not as ominous as “Product 19.”)

This week’s expression owes nothing to Kellogg’s, but it did come into its own at the same time as aerobics (“six-pack abs” and “no pain, no gain” are other new fitness-related expressions). Not long after the lady left the cereal box, “love handles” became an accepted term for that very specific variety of belly fat on one’s sides at the waist. Not to be confused with the beer belly, or saddlebags, deposits of adipose depending from the hips and thighs. Hip fat may be called “love handles” (do you notice? it’s never singular), but that usage is imprecise. For the last ten years or so, hip fat has also been referred to as “muffin tops,” but that conjures up an even more specific picture: rolls of hip and waist fat pushed upward and outward by tight jeans, forming a distinctive muffin-type silhouette. (Here is a fun list of other fat-related anatomical features, and another.) We delight in vocabulary that makes fun of our anatomical deficiencies, but most such expressions don’t spread far or have much staying power. The poetic “grab of flab,” another way to say “love handles,” never seems to have made the big time. Why has “love handles” lasted so well? It names a very common anatomical feature, for one thing; we need a word for those particular rolls of belly because nearly everyone over thirty has them. It sounds pleasingly warm and fuzzy and has a jocular quality that probably has helped make it attractive. “Muffin tops” will probably also persist, but it is more dependent on fashion; there is less need for the expression when tight jeans go out of style.

The origin of “love handles” is obscure; according to Lighter and Google Books, it was first recorded in the late sixties in glossaries of college slang. The phrase stayed mainly in the shadows throughout the seventies but began to dip its toes into the mainstream by the end of that decade. Well into the eighties it was placed delicately in quotation marks and frequently glossed; such niceties were not necessary by 1990, although you may see the phrase in quotation marks to this day, a sign that it still sounds slangy and not quite reputable. There’s a reason for that: Richard Spears’s Slang and Euphemism (1981) defines “love handles” as “fat on the sides of a man or woman held onto during copulation.” It took thirty years, but the sowers of quotation marks have pretty well lost the battle and the term has become respectable, used indiscriminately by doctors, advice columnists, and stuffy professors. As the phrase has become familiar, the prurient connotation has worn away, causing many to wonder why they’re called “love handles” when no one loves, or even wants, them; as a result, you see “hate handles” occasionally used as a synonym, in the manner of “slim chance” and “fat chance.”

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