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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

no pressure

(2010’s | teenagese? | “(there’s) no hurry,” “take your time,” “don’t be alarmed”)

This has become a fixed phrase recently, within the last ten years, I’d say. I learned it from teenagers, who probably picked it up from one song lyric or another, if Google is anything to go by. It’s been a hit recently for Justin Bieber, but as I understand it, all of his songs are hits. The phrase has become an interjection, most often used to comment on a pending proposal or assignment. It is related to “pressures” (“identifiable sources of stress”), but it is bound more closely to a more general kind of pressure (see below). It no longer needs the structure supplied by verb or modifier; “no pressure” stands on its own.

Even though some athletes and other performing artists thrive on it, pressure is nearly always unwelcome. It involves coercion and/or stress, and it’s hard to resist when it comes from above. “Pressure” used this way goes back several generations in discussions of salesmen; there was an old joke about the low-pressure salesman who rang the doorbell and said to himself, “Nobody home, I hope.” That joke made sense because high-pressure sales tactics were well established and thoroughly resented. Other fields in which “pressure” was routinely used to refer to wielding influence in order to get one’s way were diplomacy and sports; the word had been common for years to talk about situations where the game was on the line. Or there were just the boss’s demands that a job be done on time, or a teacher constantly reminding students that they need to push themselves harder to get into a good college. “No pressure” — in its simple form — attempts to relieve the hearer by assuring them that they will not be hurried, chivvied, or bullied. Unless, of course, it’s used ironically to mean “This is a daunting project,” or “It’s all riding on you,” or “The fate of our relationship hinges on your answer.” That usage will become more common over time, as the stress economy continues to take more out of workers while paying them less, but the forgiving form is still there when you want to convey “I’m not making any demands,” or “Make the decision at your own pace.”

Just for fun, I reviewed the alphabetical entry list to find expressions of similar tone and meaning — intended to soothe or relax the hearer — and didn’t find any good analogues. “No harm, no foul” has the same general tone but is used in much different contexts. “Lighten up” or “take a chill pill” have related meanings, but they are insults, not a soft answer. Plenty of terms go the other way: “burnout,” “gut check,” “hype,” “race to the bottom,” “zero tolerance.” We are producing more expressions to report on the ways we grind down our fellow human beings than expressions that ease their minds. That’s an ominous sign.

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