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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

in a heartbeat

(1980’s | militarese? | “without hesitation,” “right away,” “in a flash”)

The sources of this phrase appear to be two: southern pop music — it’s not all country, you know — and the military. There’s probably a connection there. The earliest instance I found in LexisNexis was a song title from Carlene Carter (daughter of June) in 1979, “I’d Do it in a Heartbeat.” But most examples from the early eighties stem from military sources. By the end of the decade, all the cool people were using the phrase; I remember hearing it, as a novelty, in college. It’s a fine dramatic phrase, redolent of medical wizardry and life-and-death heroics. In some early uses I saw, the phrase did entail high risk that had to be handled immediately. (As in: When you’re flying a plane, everything can change in a heartbeat.) But it was more often used to express alacrity, that is, quickness infused with enthusiasm. “I’d do it in a heartbeat” usually means “I’m very eager to do it.” (How about a love song titled, “Anything Can Happen in a Heartbeat”?)

Vice President Mike Pence used “in a heartbeat” recently to declare his willingness to take a lie-detector test to prove he did not write the New York Times op-ed that says pretty much the same thing as everyone else who has spent any time observing the Trump White House. (It’s hardly news that Trump is intemperate and ill-informed; New Yorkers have known that for decades, and everyone else had eighteen months — more than enough time — to figure it out before the 2016 election.) In the old days, when we brought up the Vice President at all, we used a different expression that had a more solemn tone: “a heartbeat away from the presidency.” If the president dies suddenly, it’s the vice president’s job to assume the office, so it was a recasting of “the king is dead, long live the king.” It was an oddly ritualistic phrase, and while it is still used regularly in such contexts, it hasn’t spread around that much.

Heartbeats have other connotations, such as intimacy or simply proximity. Rapid heartbeat signifies excitement of some sort (hearts aflutter), when it doesn’t mean it’s time to go to the emergency room. Sometimes the heartbeat suggests that which is fundamental or essential. It makes a different sort of metaphor from “pulse,” as in the old expression “finger on the pulse,” which has more to do with gauging a mood or zeitgeist. It seems a little strange to me that “in a heartbeat” would have settled into a meaning that disregards the word’s metaphorical riches in favor of mere speed, but the phrase suggests a decision made so quickly that it does not require any thought, related to Macbeth’s vow, “the very firstlings of my heart shall be the firstlings of my hand.” That, of course, appeals to other common associations of the heart: unreasoning passion and gore.

(in a) New York minute

(1980’s | journalese? | “no time at all,” “instant”; “just like that,” “immediately if not sooner”)

Another southern expression that emerged around the same time is “New York minute,” according to Safire (October 19, 1986). This expresses the same sense of haste as “in a heartbeat,” but not necessarily the same enthusiasm. The mood is usually closer to “if you snooze, you lose,” though you might hear “do it in a New York minute” to mean the same thing as “do it in a heartbeat.” “New York minute” requires no preposition to get its effect, but “heartbeat” does. The ideas are similar but have slightly different fields.

“New York” often modifies food, but not much else, as far as I can tell. Fashion, maybe. In the hinterlands, bagels or pizza, or the deli they’re sold in, may bear the appellation, and certain characteristic preparations, like egg creams, Reuben sandwiches, and pastrami might also take the adjective for explanatory reasons. (If New York has its own cuisine, it surely is kosher deli, whether meat or dairy.) I’ve read in mid-century novels about diners ordering a “New York cut” at the steakhouse, but I don’t know what that would be called now.

Among many other things, New York epitomizes hustle and bustle, which is why “New York minute” has entered the language. This (justified) popular image of the city gives rise to the (unjustified) perception that New Yorkers are always brusque and rude. Sometimes we are, but only when someone ahead of us commits the cardinal sin of getting in the way — taking up too much room on the subway stairs or clogging a narrow passageway. This sort of situation occurs vastly more often here than elsewhere because the population density — and tourist density — is much higher. Now it’s understandable when people unfamiliar with the city’s ways get confused, but that doesn’t give them the right to hold up everyone else. Stop obstructing the flow and you’ll discover that New Yorkers can be very nice.


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