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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

lay down a marker

(1980’s | militarese? bureaucratese? | “draw a line (in the sand),” “make a statement,” “establish a position,” “set a standard”)

William Safire, in his comprehensive way, listed a number of meanings of “marker” in a 1990 column before suggesting that the military practice of indicating boundaries or targets with colored powder or dye is the most likely progenitor of this week’s expression. The phrase has an insidious quality which makes it sound at first very natural, but the more you think about it the odder it seems. Why “lay down” rather than “put up”? And why a “marker”? None of those meanings Safire adduced makes much of a match with this expression — except perhaps its uses in surveying — and the word fails to strike the ear as particularly apt. To me, “lay down a marker” conjures up a dog pissing on a lamppost, probably due to the phrase’s political associations. It actually goes back to the Carter administration, Carter himself, in fact, according to Safire, and Reagan administration officials also adopted the expression. Politicians and bureaucrats took it up first, which, given their yen for generals’ jargon, supports Safire’s suggestion of a military origin.

In politics, the expression almost always boils down to “send a message,” but beyond that it also has a necessary preliminary quality. It’s something you do before a vote, summit, negotiation, or just some undefined future moment when your point of view might get some consideration — you announce a stance or position that puts your adversaries on notice. (The mere act of laying down a marker implies an adversarial relationship.) Safire again: “ranges in meaning from ‘send a signal’ to ‘announce a presence’ to ‘issue a warning of “this far, no farther.”’” Nixon said, “Let me make one thing perfectly clear.” Reagan often spoke of “sending a signal” (again, in adversarial contexts). “Lay down a marker” partakes of both.

The beauty of sending signals is that you’re not bound to anything. You’re free to abandon the position quietly later if it becomes inconvenient; it’s a matter of talk, not action. Laying down a marker serves the same function in the same way, with an active verb. In a recent post, I commented on the sneaky habit of giving words the force of deeds by equating laudable sentiments with real action. “Laying down a marker” very definitely does that; the more definite it is, the more it sounds like the statement enunciated is actually taking effect rather than merely setting the stage for later maneuvering.

While political reporters continue to turn to this phrase regularly, it seems clear both from LexisNexis and Google that nowadays it occurs most often in sportswriting, where it means “earn respect from other players or teams,” generally by winning convincingly or showing that a perceived weakness is not as debilitating as it seems. Politicians, of course, often lay claim to athletic locutions, seeking to skim off their vigor and certitude. Here is an instance that has gone the other way: a politicians’ term taken over by athletes. Perhaps the frequent sporting use lends the expression a virile quality that might have leached out of it had it remained the exclusive property of our solons. Another note from the corpora: the phrase is now more frequently used in British English than American, even though its origin on these shores appears indisputable.

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