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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

This week I take up several expressions that were familiar and standard in my youth but have metamorphosed more or less subtly. Just a round-up of minor matters, none important enough for a full entry.

under my watch

“On my watch” has become “under my watch.” An old military expression meaning simply “while I’m guarding something,” so by extension, “while I’m in charge.” “Under” actually makes more sense, because the expression is used when still another preposition is in play — watch over. While you’re watching over something, anything that happens will be under your watch. With either preposition, there is a strong tendency to use the expression in the negative — that hasn’t changed.

quite the

“Quite a” has almost disappeared, replaced by “quite the.” Now why did this happen? In my youth, it was possible to say “quite the,” but you used it only on special occasions. “Quite a” already delivers a sense of the extraordinary, and “quite the” intensified it. It’s lost its force, demoted to the function “quite a” used to have, and in fact knocking the older expression out of play. You notice when you hear “quite a” now, because it’s become so unusual.

that being said

“That said” has been long available as a rhetorical flourish, a way of introducing a contrary notion, or of acknowledging an unpleasant truth. That part hasn’t changed. But it’s much more common now to see elaborations: “with that said,” “that being said” (probably the most common), and “all that said.” I say it doesn’t need them, that this is just mindless padding, illustrating the tendency of demotic language to absent-mindedly acquire extraneous syllables, words, or entire phrases, for no other reason than mass sloppiness.


Now for a change, let’s skim over a few verbs:


“Shone,” the past tense of “shine” in the intransitive, is disappearing, replaced by “shined,” which has always been the preterite for the transitive. Don’t ask me why. Something similar happened generations ago to “dove,” which hasn’t disappeared but is largely supplanted by “dived.” In the old days, instead of regular and irregular verbs, we talked about weak and strong verbs. Weak verbs go along with the crowd and conjugate like everybody else; strong verbs go their own unpredictable way — though irregular verbs are only sometimes less predictable than regular.


“Grinded” now shows up often in the sports page as the past tense of “grind” (intransitive); the transitive (“ground,” as in coffee or a blade) will likely be conquered some day too. In fact, I think I’ve seen “grinded down,” as in an opponent. “Grind” is a term of praise in athletese, meaning something like “persist.” No need for appendages like “out” or “up.” The new preterite stands proud on its own.


“Refute” has been disappearing for several years now. I don’t mean disappearing, I mean changing in a stupid way. Now it is often used to mean “deny,” rather than “disprove” or “rebut.” I don’t like it. It’s getting altogether too easy in our culture to gain large followings by pretending that facts aren’t real things that can bite you in the ass. Under the circumstances, we need words with more rigor, not less.


Now for the grand finale:

based off of

All it takes to widen the generation gap is a little preposition switch. “Based off of” started bobbing up in the first decade of the century (history here). Today even literate and well-educated kids say “based off of,” no matter how their parents chide them. And Lord knows we do. It just doesn’t make sense, kids. The whole point of a base is that something rests on (or in) it. If it’s off, then it’s not connected with, or relevant to, the base any more. And why two prepositions instead of simply “based off”? (You do hear “based off,” but to my ear “based off of” is more prevalent.) I still haven’t figured out how this mutation happened, but I got a glimmer when I noticed someone using “based out of” a city, instead of “based in.” Well, that rang a bell. Think back to 1960 or so. If someone told you he was “working out of” Phoenix, you would understand that, right? He’s based in Phoenix. Something similar may have happened with “based on.” “Bounced off of,” “jumped off of,” “played off of,” etc. Then “based” slides in there and it’s over before you know it.

More broadly, the exchange of “on” for “off” suggests that the new product is significantly different from the original, that it has gone off in a new direction or just gone beyond. A movie that is based off of a book has taken its source material and created something new out of it. “Off” represents a real change — a different understanding of the process of artistic creation. If it’s based on, it’s mired in the original. If it’s based off of, it has superseded it and become independent in some way. Another blogger made a similar point several years ago, but most observers give the young users of this expression little credit and much grief. I’m guilty myself, but maybe it’s time to let it go.

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