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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1970’s | militarese | “(friendly) warning,” “word to the wise,” “alert”)

The coupling of this phrase with the indefinite article is a relatively new phenomenon, first becoming noticeable in the late seventies. (One of the problems with my research methods is that they give me no way of estimating how long a given expression has been in oral circulation before the press gets wind of it.) As far as I can tell, we owe it to the military-intelligence complex, with the earliest instances I found of “heads-up” or elaborations like “heads up alert” — attributed to intelligence agents in a 1979 Washington Post article — all invoking that sort of source. LexisNexis suggests that it did not become ordinary until after 2000; my memory is uncertain, but that seems right. “Heads-up” (not everyone hyphenates) struck me recently as I was composing an e-mail to my boss, with whom I typically use fairly formal language and tone. But under the circumstances, “heads-up” was the only expression that fit, which caused me to realize that it has filled, or possibly created, a niche in our speech. That is not true of every expression I cover.

Baseball players have been using “heads up!” as an imperative, or interjection, for over a hundred years, and it has always meant something closely related: look alive, or be ready for anything. Or as an adjective: “heads-up play(er),” for example. Only the noun is new, and it seems such a logical extension that it’s hard to cavil at. (The verb, when one accompanies the noun phrase, is invariably “give” or “is.”) One of the defining characteristics of the heads-up is that it be informal; not quite defining but pretty standard is the idea that it comes from an ally and that it is given quietly, without fanfare. Like its cousin “wake-up call,” it portends bad or at least sobering news; something’s about to happen that you have to deal with, like it or not. (A “wake-up call” is a heads-up on a mass scale, only unfriendly and very public.)

“Heads Up” gets used fairly often as a name. Google dug up the following examples, hardly an exhaustive list: a 1929 Broadway musical, a marketing firm in Atlanta, a New York Times travel section column, a “child development center” in the Bay Area, a bicycle safety program in New York City, and several beauty salons. (Shouldn’t they be called “Heads Back”?) A long-lived blog called “HeadsUp” critiques mainly right-wing political journalism. And it’s a game made popular by the Ellen DeGeneres Show, which resembles the game show “Password” from my youth, except you have to guess celebrities instead of plain old words. If you ask me, the components of this gallimaufry have very little in common, and little reason to use such a potent expression as “heads-up” in their titles. Because the phrase effectively orders the audience to pay attention to what happens next, using it is a cheap trick — when you hear it, you can’t help but listen for a minute, until you realize you’re being manipulated. No doubt forgivable in an ancient Broadway show, but shouldn’t we be above it now?


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