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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2000’s | journalese (music) | “reference,” “acknowledgment”; “name-drop,” “mention”)

Compare “shoutout.” Both expressions arose in or around the music biz; they are pretty close lexically, and they can be used in many of the same contexts. There are some differences: “shoutout” usually addresses a person or group; name-checks can consist of product names or places, as well as other people. Both terms can be treated as noun or verb, but “name-check” became a verb much more quickly and easily than “shoutout.” Name checking may be regarded as tiresome (as in the case of excessive name-dropping) or ethically dubious (as in a sponsor getting prolonged exposure in a film or television show), but a shoutout is always pleasing. Logically speaking, a shoutout is always a name-check, but the reverse isn’t true; “name-check” has a wider range of referents.

According to LexisNexis, the phrase showed up first in the British music press in the late eighties. Before that, “name check” was another word for “background check.” (It still is; “name check” also commonly refers to the act of determining whether a proposed business name or domain name has already been claimed.) It was something the police did to find out whether a suspect was already wanted for something else, or a spy agency would do to avoid security risks. In that sense, it goes back to J. Edgar Hoover and the old FBI. Up until the late nineties, that remained the meaning of the expression in the U.S., whereas in England it was at least as likely to be used in our more contemporary way — and almost always as a noun. The earliest unmistakable uses in the U.S. are verbs, which had not been true ten years earlier in England. In both countries, “name-check” showed up first in the music press, then wormed its way into other discourses. It is supposed to be hip and slightly advanced.

Most compounds use “check” to mean “verify”: double-check, fact-check, sound-check, even reality check. What sort of check is “name-check”? It seems to have little to do with reviewing and confirming, or anyway I can’t discern a connection. You have to be sure who you’re talking about before you can offer a name-check in the first place; “ol’ What’s-his-name” would not have the desired effect. The law enforcement sense of the term doesn’t seem relevant, either. Name-checks aren’t generally associated with suspicion; they’re usually compliments, not intimations of criminality. Likewise, “check” used to mean “restraint” seems extraneous; a name-check turns loose a name rather than reining it in. I would vote for two other possible origins before any of these: the bank instrument, especially when a name check has actual financial value, or, less literally, when alluding favorably to someone else gives that person greater credibility or marketability. When an established band calls the name of a less popular musician, it can boost record sales. But if the term is a Briticism — and it almost certainly is — shouldn’t it be spelled “name cheque”? My intuition, weak though it is, says that the root concept here is that of the checklist: a name-check is a matter of marking a task completed, checking it off, as it were. That explanation does not satisfy me, but it seems more plausible than those adduced above.


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