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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

not so much

(2000’s | journalese (arts)? | “less so”)

If I should ever determine the precise features that cause this or that new expression to take off like a rocket, I will be, if not rich, at least pleased with myself. Somewhere between 2005 and 2010, you started to hear “not so much” a lot; it became downright trendy. It reminds us of others; “been there, done that,” “don’t go there,” “glass ceiling,” “tiger mother” all made comets of themselves, boring a brilliant path into everyday language. But “not so much” was not a new expression. The formulation “not so much x as y” was quite common in my youth and for years before that, a verbal means of pointing out that the real culprit wasn’t what you would expect. It wasn’t always followed by an “as” phrase; “but,” “because,” and “whether” were also used. And “not so much” was more idiomatic in such contexts than “not as much.” (“So” often replaces “as” after a negation.) It has acquired a distinctive new use rather than undergone a change in meaning.

There’s no need to spell it out, I suppose, but for the sake of posterity . . . “Not so much” has become a persistent end-of-phrase tag, used to belittle by means of a comparison. (Comparisons are odious, they used to say, and this is why.) A desirable quality is ascribed to Person or Object A, and “not so much” reports the unfortunate fact that Person or Object B does not fare so well in that department. Again, the formula is standard, with only minor variations. While “not so much” may appear before its subject, it usually comes after it and therefore serves as punctuation, appending a bit of extra force and finality. In speech, it is preceded by a no-foolin’ caesura, piling on even more emphasis.

The first hit I found in LexisNexis came from the showbiz magazine Variety in December 2004, but I don’t claim it’s the earliest — the older usage has not disappeared by any means, and I didn’t have time to wade through all the false positives. I don’t remember hearing it before 2000, which means little, and I didn’t find any sign of it in LexisNexis before then either, which doesn’t mean much more. By 2010 it was available, nay, omnipresent, in many different kinds of writing. Gene Collier, who awards the annual Trite Trophy to the most obnoxious sports cliché, wrote in 2009: “‘Moving forward’ would win [the] Trite [Trophy] if I allowed it, and so would ‘not so much.'” Its use has continued to grow since then, but Collier aside it has not brought forth much backlash. It shares a breezy, devil-may-care quality with certain other fast-rising expressions, which may have saved it from the sort of opprobrium attracted by “reference,” “significant other,” or “wellness.”

One expression that was not a synonym but resembled “not so much” was “not so fast,” also normally set off in conversation from the words around it and often standing alone, unless followed by some form of direct address (“Not so fast, buddy.”) There is definitely an echo there, and I persist in believing, with no real evidence, that new meanings or expressions may be helped into the language by phonologically similar existing expressions. “Not so bad” was another one, though it seems less closely related. Of course, “not so . . .” could be used in front of most adjectives, often as a direction or command encouraging moderation, without jelling into fixed phrases. So the skids were greased, as it were, for “not so much” to take its place in our vocabulary.

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