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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

baked in

(2000’s | financese? | “built in”)

In a literal sense, we use “baked in” to refer to an ingredient incorporated before cooking, meaning that it is inseparable from the other ingredients and inextricable from the dish as a whole (as “baked-in flavor”). When we use it figuratively, it means something more like “inevitable.” It seems to have originated among financial types in the seventies and eighties (LexisNexis records the great banker Walter Wriston dropping it in 1979), generally in the form “(already) baked in the cake,” i.e., predetermined because macroeconomic conditions now in place (not necessarily because we planned it that way) must result in certain consequences no matter what we do.

Nowadays “baked in” retains that air of inevitability, but an alternate connotation has arisen: there from the start (also inherent in the literal). It is unreasonable to expect to get rid of it because it was always there, and everything around it has changed to reflect its presence. Any strongly held tenet of a political stance, a social movement, a scientific process, or a hunch can be baked in — and the phrase is still used often to talk about markets and marketing. Take a sentence like “In America, racism is baked in,” a proposition obvious to anyone with a glancing knowledge of our history. It was there from the beginning, it’s impossible (so far) to get rid of, and it continues to loom over contemporary politics and events.

“Baked in” doesn’t have to refer to a flaw, but it usually does. Here are two in the same ballpark: “hard-wired” and “overdetermined.” They are all generally used to explain after the fact why something happened and to tell us we should have seen it coming. The relation to the older “built in” — which “baked in” has not to date displaced — is obvious; the connection to “half-baked” is more subtle. “Steeped in” is another old culinary metaphor that works the same crowd.

Even now, “baked in” usually comes after the (linking) verb and spends little time acting as verb itself. (You do see it occasionally, especially among techie writers.) It doesn’t act as adjective often before a noun, either, but it could. It seems noteworthy that it is much more common in a passive mood than an active, a significant trait that may change over time. Poetic justice favors its use in discussions of climate change, but that turn does not seem to have been fully taken.

The descent from “baked in the cake” to “baked in” reminds us how many new expressions arrive at their final form simply by having pieces lopped off, usually at the end. An elaboration deemed necessary when an expression sounds new and daring grows tiresome over time, and we retreat gratefully to the shortened version. As with “lean in” and others, the process has yielded a new phrasal verb, or rather made an old one more common, operating over a much wider field.

Lovely Liz from Queens has ventured “baked in” more than once, which means she considers it a good candidate for the blog. Dead-on as usual, ba-bee! I know you will set me right if I have erred.

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