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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

in it to win it

(1980’s | advertese | “playing for keeps,” “playing to win,” “in the game”)

My limited investigations suggest that this expression was born of the fizzing brains of the New York State lottery’s advertising agents (specifically Lerner King Associates), but LexisNexis does show a surprisingly large number of Australian instances in the eighties. Did a forward-looking Aussie get wind of it early and cause it to catch on quicker over there? Or did it originate independently down under? There were lotteries in Australia then, but I haven’t found any connection with local publicity. Two New York lottery commercials, on the other hand, one from 1982 and the next from 1983, suggest an origin story. In the first, a group of Lotto players sings a catchy jingle that includes “to win it, you gotta get in it.” In 1983, the expression appears in its present form, spoken, to close another Lotto commercial. In Maryland where I grew up, the state lottery adopted “You gotta play to win,” which meant the same thing: in order to have any chance at all of taking a prize, you have to participate. So get out there and buy a ticket.

And that’s what the phrase meant then. Now it is more likely to mean “determined to win,” which still acknowledges the need to get in the game in the first place but conveys something much stronger than a tiny, notional chance of winning. (There’s an intermediate stage, which connotes being not just good enough to have reached the finals but to have a genuine chance of defeating the other team — “in the hunt,” as it were.) The newer meaning may also be signaled by adding “only” at the beginning of the phrase. It’s the difference between the subjunctive and the imperative, between recognizing what you have to do and actually doing it. The change was well underway in the nineties; athletes, politicians, entrepreneurs, and others who live by competition all used the expression in its “bound for victory” sense, while the older sense of merely being eligible to win was still in play. And that is still the case today, though my sense is that the latter meaning has become less common. In 1999, John McCain used a variant à propos our intervention in the Balkans that was frequently quoted: “we’re in it, and we have to win it.” A BBC television show about the National Lottery that debuted in 2002 borrowed the expression for its title.

The phrase has not become a cliché, exactly, but perhaps a catchphrase, a fitting fate for an advertising slogan. The little feminine rhyme gets your attention, and the scansion relies heavily on stressed syllables — four out of five, to be exact. “In” and “it” don’t usually bear a lot of weight in poetry or everyday speech, yet here they do, which may be one factor in the relative success of the phrase. True connoisseurs will catch the resemblance to the opening of a double dactyl, only one syllable shy.

“In it to win it” has taken on a distinct hortatory character since the eighties, and now it is often used to whip up the troops involved in group efforts. No question the expression has more intensity than it used to — it’s not about taking a light-hearted flyer any more. When used in the past tense, it’s usually triumphal; it would be odd to hear “we were in it to win it, and then we lost.” Most of the time, all the competitors are playing to win (note the difference from “play to win” as cited in the first paragraph), but only the ultimate victor is permitted to say so.

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