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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

ratchet up

(1980’s | journalese? | “turn up the heat, etc.,” “increase (gradually)”)

I first became acquainted with the noble ratchet in my father’s toolbox, and I understood it to be a special type of socket wrench that made it easy to loosen or tighten bolts in narrow places. If you could only move your handle a quarter turn, the ratchet made it possible to keep making that same quarter turn over and over again; each time you returned the handle to its initial position, the socket, and therefore the bolt, didn’t move. Plus, it made a satisfying fast clicking sound when you moved the handle back preparatory to making the next turn in the desired direction. The noble bumper jack uses the same mechanism, or mountain-climbing gear.

“Ratchet” until my youth was a mechanical, industrial term, encountered in patent filings and hardware catalogues. It was used but rarely in a figurative way, though one can certainly find examples during the seventies, and probably before with better corpora. It sneaked first into everyday language through economics, I think, as in the phrase “inflation ratchet,” which denotes the principle that inflation only goes up and can’t reverse direction, closely related to its meaning in the mechanic’s vocabulary. (Inflation did keep going up through the seventies, so the phrase got some use.) The word had then, and continues to convey, a gradual quality; you wouldn’t use “ratchet” in the context of runaway inflation. Economists and political reporters would occasionally use “ratchet” as a verb — it could go before “up,” “down,” or “tighter” — but more often intransitively. Now we use it habitually in the transitive, and “tighter” rarely appears; “up” seems to be the preferred adverbial accompaniment. “Ratchet down” has always complemented “ratchet up” but at a lower frequency.

Funny thing about this phrase: while “ratchet up” may be used, transitively or intransitively, with a wide range of nouns, there are a few that it goes with regularly: pressure, tensions, rhetoric. It’s not invariable or inherent, but I think “ratchet” often has an inexorable quality that becomes aggressive or coercive when used transitively. When a general wants to threaten another nation, or a football coach wants to inspire the defense, or a diplomat aims to use strong language, they reach for “ratchet.” Perhaps because of the phonetic similarity to “rack,” I envision ratcheting up pressure as a kind of slow torture, testing the victim’s ability to endure ever-increasing strain. Maybe the fact that “ratchet” has a mechanical origin contributes to the association with instruments of torture. Intransitively, the verb is less sinister; when no overt agent is doing the tormenting, it can be an impersonal process. “Tensions are ratcheting up between North and South Korea” doesn’t bear the same animus as “North Korea ratchets up tensions with South Korea.”

“Ratchet” has a couple other meanings worthy of note. “Ratchet-jawed” in CB radio slang described a person who talked a lot and talked fast. (It is possible to talk fast but not very much; y’all remember Boomhauer on King of the Hill?) That sense is probably obsolete now. Why not “power jaw” or “rapid-fire jaw”? It’s not an intuitive extension of the normal uses of “ratchet”; neither is the African-American slang use, derived from “wretched,” which doesn’t have to do with misery and privation but disgust and revulsion. I’m not sure there’s semantic relationship with “ratchet up”; if so, it’s not obvious. While “ratchet” has loosened its meaning so that it often is no more than a synonym for “increase,” it has maintained a foothold in our language. I hope it can hang onto traces of its original specificities over time.

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