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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

wrong on so many levels

(2000’s | journalese (arts) | “really bad,” “deeply troubling,” “appalling,” “crazy”)

The story of this expression is a two-parter, so get comfortable. Once upon a time, there was a nice little phrase that went “works on so many levels.” It got going in the sixties and seventies and was used by arts journalists to talk about a joke, or a concept, or a play, something along those lines. It was the kind of thing movie reviewers said. The phrase was established, if not entirely common, by 1990. I don’t know if it was the first time I heard it, but it made a memorable appearance in a Simpsons episode in 1995, uttered by Homer, cast in the unlikely role of film festival judge. The simpler phrase “works on many levels” started to appear earlier in Google Books, but “so” adds an extra kick and makes the whole thing more exciting.

“Works on so many levels” is almost always praise, an homage to the depth and breadth of someone’s imagination. Perhaps partly because of its favorable bias, “wrong on so many levels” began to poke its head out in the 1990’s (“bad” or “sucks” may on occasion be substituted for “wrong”; “right on so many levels” is not nearly as common). Nowadays it is the most frequently encountered of the family by a pretty good margin, according to LexisNexis and my own ear. “Wrong on so many levels” has taken root in the unlikely soil of the Internet, so that it might appear as today’s trending meme or as the title of a board on Pinterest. TVTropes.org offers a good range of definition. It is possible, of course, to use the phrase jokingly, but that is not the norm. It’s strong language; when people resort to it there’s usually some genuine outrage underneath. It’s the verbal equivalent of throwing up your hands.

A few points about this family of phrases: I always think that “so many levels” should precede a detailed anatomy of the subject; surely the speaker will identify at least three. But it’s unusual to see more than one or maybe one-and-a-half features spelled out. “Levels” itself promises more than it can deliver; it is rarely more than an impressive way to say “aspects” or “ways” with no hierarchical connection to each other. (In the same manner, “works on so many levels” means simply “has a lot going on.”) “Works . . . ” was primarily used in esthetic contexts; “Wrong . . . ” shades more and more toward the ethical. Now the phrase generally has a noticeable moralizing quality about it; often it is little more than a colorful way of calling something offensive, or just plain stupid. No hint of analysis or critique.

I hear in my mind’s ear a variant on this expression that should exist but as far as I know doesn’t. Insert “only” before the first word — or, for greater precision, after “on” — and you get an entirely different feel. “On so many levels,” regardless of the word that precedes it, always suggests abundance. It’s not just a little bit wrong, or a little bit effective. Drop an “only” in there and it turns vastness into a limitation — in the spirit of “You can only get away with so much.” It’s easy to imagine it used in conversation: “I’m using ‘Star Wars’ as a model for my new script.” “Oh, that can only work on so many levels.” Or “I don’t like reality TV, but I’m tired of complaining about it.” “Well, it can only be wrong on so many levels.” Sounds like a worthy addition to the language to me.

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