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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

lean in

(2010’s | athletese? | “give your all”)

I sense the need for an anatomy of this odd expression, changed forever by Google and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. The first fork in the family tree branch generates “lean in” and “lean into.” The latter has been used for some time by sportscasters to denote exerting extra force in a certain direction (as a batter leaning into a pitch), or shifting weight on a skateboard or in a car to assist the steering (leaning into a curve). “Lean in” is more complicated. At the simplest level, it denotes a motion or posture understood to express attention, interest, or excitement. That is, it’s another way to say “lean toward.” Some time after 2000, the phrase became an adjective current among advertisers and entertainment executives, as in “lean-in experience” or “lean-in factor.” The latter was typically used in connection with exciting moments on television, conjuring the image of audience members on the edge of their seats, breathlessly awaiting the next utterance. “Lean in” has another application as well, as an antonym of “lean back” or “back away” — that is, as the opposite of taking it easy or retreating. In such contexts, leaning in is a sign of toughness and resolve. That would seem to be the most direct ancestor of Sandberg, but I don’t think it’s much older. The earlier athletic usage has a claim as well.

Sheryl Sandberg published her book in 2013, though she was quoted using the phrase before that. She preached ambition and assertiveness for women in the work force, or, as Lovely Liz from Queens summarized: women need to act more like men. Sandberg’s dicta have permeated the culture and spawned a women’s empowerment movement; the Lean In Foundation is a big organization, helping women all over the world learn from each other and move up the ladder. Yet a Washington Post writer declared the Lean In movement dead at the end of last year, after Michelle Obama drove a stake through its heart. More recently, Marissa Orr published a critique of Sandberg called “Lean Out.” Will “lean out” take its place alongside “lean in”? Will Sandberg’s addition to the lexicon lose momentum? Stay tuned . . .

It all starts with “lean,” which is tricky because it may suggest both a casual or relaxed tendency and much more concentrated force, as in the cases of “lean in” and “lean into.” “Lean” strictly speaking denotes any departure from the vertical in a normally upright object, and at least when people and animals do it, we usually have a specific purpose; we lean toward something or someone. “Lean in” has always shared that sense of purposefulness. To reach its present eminence, it had to lose its appendages, a step in the evolution of several expressions, including “give back” (other examples here). “Leaning in” once was invariably followed by “a certain direction,” “favor,” etc. Now it is a set phrase all on its own. In most similar cases, this slimming process results from a distillation of a number of competing longer phrases into a single shorter one. But in this case, the casting off seems to have come with the establishment of a new definition, imbuing the phrase with attributes of superior dedication and willpower. Not boiling down, but striding forth in a new direction.

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