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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

off the grid

(1990’s | counterculturese | “in the boonies”)

Living off the grid started as a left-wing hippie dream but became more of a right-wing thing; I’m not sure why. Partly because the number of hippies has dropped dramatically while the number of passionate right-wingers hasn’t. Almost by definition, being off the grid means fending for yourself, or taking part in a very small community, and that cranky individualism is more attractive on the right wing than the left. Distrust of the government remains a popular pastime on every side of the aisle, but back in the seventies the nation still felt a hangover from the radical sixties, when rebellion came most noticeably from the left (the right got off to a good start but fizzled badly after Goldwater). By now, right-wing rebellion has been the norm for a generation, and revulsion for the official and the approved has moved to the right, too. People who want to be off the grid may not even experience it as rebellion; they seek independence and self-sufficiency, and relying on the local electric company to keep things going does not achieve the goal.

In this day and age, “off the grid” evokes alternative energy as often as remote cabins. Solar panels on your roof probably won’t give you enough current over the long haul to deliver consistent, dependable power, but they might be part of a larger home-based system that does. You still have to be kinda out there to want to go off the grid, but it is becoming more of a middle-class thing, as white-bread enviro-warriors contemplate roofs covered in solar panels and windmills in the back yard. Energy independence is very difficult to achieve if you want to maintain an on-the-grid standard of living, and more and more such people do. It’s also possible to use the phrase loosely to denote a temporary state. If you have a big enough generator and the power goes out, you can be “off the grid” for a few hours until the power comes back on. The expression is not normally used that way, but it may become more common — such loss of rigor is not unusual. Usage note: the shortened form “off-grid” has also become standard. “Go off the grid” may be used to mean “go to ground” or “disappear for a while.” I don’t know if that’s the result of carelessness or the beginnings of a new definition.

The phrase doesn’t show up before 1990 in LexisNexis, though it seems it must have been around before then, at least in specialized circles. (I don’t remember when I heard it first.) “Grid” meaning “electricity supply network” dates back at least to the seventies, when it was usually prefaced by “power” or “electric.” A few blackouts later, we have all learned to respect the occasional unpredictability of our supply lines, and the word by itself has become second nature. In the eighties mainstream press, “off the grid” meant “from the grid,” as in “taking power off the grid.” By now it has acquired, and to some degree already lost, political and moral freight. Our dependence on electricity makes a fine synecdoche for civilization. A common force that binds us all — mysterious power leaking out of our walls that we can all use and benefit from. Abjuring it requires wealth or willpower, and a desire to get away from your fellows. Or just stop being fleeced by the electric company.


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