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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

crunch the numbers

(1980’s | computerese? enginese? | “wade through OR digest the figures”)

Some new expressions engulf the landscape, washing over us all and forcing themselves on every ear, if not every lip. When we talk about common expressions, those are usually the kind we mean. There is another kind, though, not so ubiquitous, but unavoidable because the preferred, or only, way to refer to a particular action, process, or concept. So it likewise forces itself on every ear, but without the same unrelenting insistence. “Crunch the numbers” is one of those. It has become inevitable, in a culture devoted to amassing vast reservoirs of data, that we have a word for getting something useful out of all those statistics — once you collect all those numbers, you have to do something with them. There’s really no other word for it, and the phrase has become invariably associated with statistical distillation. The commonplace is formed not only from sheer frequency; if you have no choice but to reach for the same expression every time, it makes its presence felt.

The point of “crunching” the numbers, I think, is that they are reduced in size and complexity, like a mouthful of bran flakes turning into easily swallowed mush. The computer — number-crunching is almost invariably associated with computers, occasionally with calculators — takes a huge, indigestible mass of data and breaks it down. The expression seems to have arisen in the engineering community in the sixties and moved beyond it by the early eighties. It gained ground quickly, and soon no longer required quotation marks or glosses (actually, it was never generally glossed). Some expressions, though slangy and therefore not reproduced in mainstream publications until well after they’ve become ordinary, at least in their field, take hold quickly once they do because they’re easy to grasp and enjoy.

“Crunch the numbers” was at one time sole property of engineers and programmers; a few more professions may try it on now — accountants and statisticians primarily. The function of the computer, as envisioned in the post-war world, was to do many, many calculations per minute by brute force, placing vast amounts of computing power in one place and letting ‘er rip. I haven’t done the research to determine the no doubt lively expressions the tech boys used in the decade or two before “crunch the numbers” came along, or maybe it arose earlier than I think. It seems likely that there was no predictable expression before we started using this one, because we so rarely needed to talk about that volume and density of computation.

“Crunch the numbers” doesn’t share the taint of “massage the numbers,” or “game the system” or “fuzzy math.” A ground-level, first-resort expression must remain neutral, and the phrase is not generally used to question the motives or competence of those doing the crunching. “Run the numbers” is a little different, meaning “execute the formula and get the answer.” It likewise lacks any dubious connotation, despite a superficial resemblance to that staple of urban gambling, “running numbers” (or “playing the numbers”).


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sounds like a plan

(1990’s | “good idea,” “I like it,” “makes sense,” “agreed”)

I’ve thought it over for, y’know, like, five or ten minutes, and I’ve concluded that what’s notable about this expression is how invariably it is used in an encouraging, affirming, or favorable way. Nearly always, it betokens assent, even pleasure, in another’s proposal. Occasionally it partakes of subtle irony, but rarely is it used in flat-out sarcasm in the manner of “my work here is done.” But it easily could be. Starting the phrase with “sounds like” invites the rejoinder “but it isn’t!” And then there’s that plan — not much to hang your hat on. (Forget the plan; let’s see some results!) But despite the snark signals, the expression connotes approval; when used interrogatively, same thing — you’re making a proposal that you expect to be accepted. Even though the phrase is still available in normal discourse, as in “sounds like a plan to/for/that . . .,” it has become a fixed expression, with well-established usage patterns and spoken intonation (accent on “sounds,” with “plan” taking the secondary emphasis and “like a” an appoggiatura between them).

It started to show up in LexisNexis around 1990, with no obvious origin; it may have been most common among sportswriters at first. It crept in over the course of the decade and was generally available by 2000, though it seemed relatively new even then. Now it’s not unusual for a new expression to lack a plain, satisfying etiology, and the ones that do are generally more striking semantically than this one, which can’t even really be considered an idiom. If it has a story, I haven’t found it.

The acronym is SLAP, which I didn’t notice until I googled the expression and discovered a company called “Sounds Like a Plan Promotions,” or SLAP Promo. Not bad, but SLAP has not made its way into the ranks of texting abbreviations, as far as I know (again, there’s no reason it shouldn’t have). There is also a board game titled “Sounds Like a Plan,” but apparently it’s out of print. The expression may have passed its peak; LexisNexis didn’t turn up many examples from the past year. I still hear people say it now and then, but it doesn’t have the cachet it used to. It’s possible that in a generation kids will not understand it. And what will they make of it if they come across it on Maybe they will understand it as ironic and push it in the direction it always wanted to go (according to me, anyway) but never did.

A prize to lovely Liz from Queens for nominating this expression! And for putting up with me these ten years.

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(2010’s | journalese (politics) | “bigots,” “extremists”)

Hillary Clinton took an old adjective and refashioned it as a noun in her effort to smoke out some of Trump’s less savory supporters — mainly white or male supremacists of one kind or another. The word (more memorable as the full phrase, “basket of deplorables”) and the tactic backfired; Hillary was pilloried for insulting upright middle Americans. The world, liberal media included, promptly forgot the rest of her statement, in which she took pains to distinguish the least respectable of Trump’s supporters from those same upright middle Americans:

“that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. . . . Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

It didn’t do any good, and “deplorables” quickly became emblematic of a campaign rife with missteps.

Last week, I referred to a few of the new expressions Bill Clinton’s administration gave us. Some of the phrases most closely associated with him — “It’s the economy, stupid” or “I feel your pain” — never have made it into everyday language. They remain Clinton’s property somehow, and we use them mainly with reference, ironic or otherwise, to the man himself. It is quite possible that “deplorables” will suffer the same fate: a word everyone grasps but which will never shake free of its origin.


(2010’s | journalese (politics) | “crybaby,” “weakling,” “snotnose kid”)

I don’t recall hearing this term before the election, but it has been making the right-wing rounds for several years — the earliest use I found came from 2011 — often in the expanded form “special snowflake” or “God’s special little snowflake.” Trump’s victory gave gleeful right-wing commentators ample opportunity to advise “snowflakes” to stop whining and admit Trump won. (Bear in mind that many of these commentators still don’t accept the outcome of the Civil War.) I’m no Trump supporter, but I too found a lot of the post-election hyperventilating tiresome. For the first few weeks, we saw a lot of cocooned, inexperienced larvae throwing tantrums ’cause Trump was so darn mean. By my recollection, most of that dissipated by the end of the year, and the word “snowflake” declined in frequency — I haven’t heard it nearly so much in 2017. Maybe it will sink back into relative obscurity. But I think “snowflake” has a much better chance of sticking in everyday language than “deplorables.” It is less closely associated with Trump than “deplorables” is with Clinton, so it’s less likely to be shunted off into the ghetto of expressions we recognize but don’t use outside certain narrow contexts. More decisively, the gusto with which some Trump partisans used “snowflake” suggests that they will continue to reach for it at every opportunity.

It’s an effective insult because it attacks from three different directions. The most obvious, perhaps, is the fragility of the snowflake, so easily dissolved and destroyed. Or if it doesn’t melt, it is entirely subsumed into an inglorious icy mass in which no single flake can be distinguished from the others. Thus, the snowflake is both frail and conformist. Another defining trait of snowflakes is that they are unique, so the term takes a swipe at the self-esteem builders who emphasize the uniqueness (which they equate with wonderfulness) of each child. Maybe it’s not mandatory any more, but “snowflake” still seems to refer most readily to the young and whiny.

There were two earlier usages of “snowflake” that may have had some influence: Donald Rumsfeld’s unofficial memos written as Secretary of Defense, which he recalled “grew in number from mere flurries to a veritable blizzard,” were called “snowflakes.” The practice of implanting “unused” (that is, created for purposes of in vitro fertilization but ultimately not needed) frozen embryos, allowing infertile women to bear children, gave rise to the term “snowflake babies.” While Rumsfeld’s memos were so called because of their sheer volume (and perhaps because they were printed on white paper), and “snowflake babies” probably had mainly to do with the fact that the embryos were frozen, in the latter case there may also have been an appeal to the fragile, precious nature of the single snowflake. Now the expression has taken a derisive turn from which it may never recover.

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(1980’s | journalese (politics) | “bookworm,” “grind,” “nerd,” “whiz,” “expert”)

No one seems to know where the word comes from. It is “know” spelled backwards, but that may be a coincidence. It has nothing visible to do with “wonky” (wobbly or unreliable), British slang that gets an occasional airing in the U.S. In the eighties, most people who speculated on the subject were pretty sure it was college slang, which still makes the big jump into grown-up language from time to time — “love handles,” “go commando,” possibly “power nap.” In 1992, the great Russell Baker called it “a terrible, ugly word.” Wonks are detail-oriented, passionate about acquiring knowledge but not necessarily about using it in humane ways, and have poor social skills. The roughly equivalent “nerd” was around when I was a kid, though to my recollection that word didn’t necessarily imply excess intelligence or hunger for data; “dweeb” is newer, and “geek” didn’t generally have that connotation in my youth, though we may have used it it that way sometimes. (I first understood “geek” to refer to the guy who bites heads off chickens at the carnival.)

“Wonk” was in circulation before Bill Clinton came along, but for some reason the expression chose his coattails to ride into everyday language. Before 1992, it turned up infrequently, often in discussions of college slang (it was a particular favorite of William Safire, who explicated it as early as 1980); late in 1992 it became the word du jour to describe Clinton and his associates, all of them brimming with arcane knowledge. This despite the fact that Gary Hart in 1988 called himself a wonk; he seems to have been the first presidential candidate to adopt the term. Yet the credit goes to Clinton. I have commented before on new expressions due to presidents or arising within their administrations. I haven’t covered many of Clinton’s so far — “boots on the ground,” “on message,” maybe “race to the bottom” — and this is one of the best-known. By 2000, the word had advanced beyond political reporting, and other sorts of people might merit the label, such as programmers, scientists, financial advisors, or football coaches.

Clinton aside, most policy wonks are more or less inhuman, and don’t generally combine, as Clinton did, an intelligent mastery of issues with a folksy, empathetic demeanor. The expression may apply alike to someone with a broad or a narrow range of interests, as in a chess wonk or security wonk — not a recognized authority necessarily, but someone who knows everything worth knowing about a particular subject. In politics, single-issue focus isn’t necessary; it’s obsessive interest in policy details, to the exclusion of normal political preoccupations like graft and adultery. (Here again, Clinton was an exception.)

“Wonk” usually attaches itself to Democrats in national politics: Gore, Kerry, and Obama also attracted the opprobrium at one time or other. (On the GOP side, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is reputed to be a wonk.) Since Nixon, only highly educated Democrats with an encyclopedic grasp of the issues have been elected president, while Republicans must not only be dumb, but proudly and aggressively dumb. (George H.W. Bush was an exception, but no one ever called him a wonk, and before his son came along he was not regarded as particularly bright.) Populism need not imply hostility to scholarship and study, but now it does, and with a vengeance. Our pleasure in sneering at savants does mean we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again; Santayana was right about that. But it gets worse. For fifty years and more, the Republican message to the base has boiled down to “follow your resentment wherever it leads” and “if you disagree with the experts, they’re wrong.” With voters like that, small wonder bullies, meanies, and pinheads are the only ones who can win.

Thanks to my father for nominating “wonk” several years ago. Sorry for the delay, Dad, not that you lost any sleep over it. Rest assured, Lex Maniac never forgets.

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if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

(1970’s | journalese (politics) | “leave well enough alone,” “don’t rock the boat,” “let sleeping dogs lie”)

So is this phrase proverbial or not? It sure sounds it, and there’s no shortage of people ready to claim it as a fine old example of down-home southern wisdom. (One early citation claimed it came from descendants of Swedes in Minnesota, also pretty down-home.) I’m not saying it isn’t, but there are precious few examples of it in print before 1977, when it emerged from the mouth of Bert Lance, Jimmy Carter’s budget director, and quickly became a bromide. (Here‘s a good history of the phrase.) Sure, Lance probably was not the first person to utter it, and if you scroll down enough discussion boards you can find folks who remember hearing it as far back as the fifties, and if you press them, they will brandish a newspaper clipping from oh, say, 1976, that den of antiquity. Why can’t it just be a new expression, people? Why can’t we just give Bert Lance the credit? Well, it sounds proverbial — a complete sentence, words of one syllable, down-to-earth advice about everyday nuisances that achieves a wider scope, and that strategic “ain’t,” which assures us of the speaker’s sincerity. I’ve covered other instant proverbs in this vein: no pain, no gain; no harm, no foul; pick your battles; be careful out there; listen to your body, think outside the box.

The expression counsels restraint and even a bit of humility (in embarrassingly short supply these days), but it is also a great hymn to inertia; critics have a point when they warn against complacency. There are several elaborations on the phrase, many of which have to do with seeing problems coming and correcting them before they get out of hand. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” will come back to haunt you if you ignore dangers on the horizon. The expression is effective in debate because the only way to top it is with a quick and convincing reply: “It IS broke, and here’s why.” We want to believe it’s true; in its short(?) life the phrase has risen to the level almost of an axiom, or a law of nature. We prefer to think of such rules to live by as the result of centuries of refinement, because they seem less debatable that way — part of the appeal of an anonymous or group pedigree.

Thanks to Lance, this particular adage has generally been considered a member of the sub-species dixieii (I heard it first from my Tarheel mother, who used it with relish). Meddlers who want to change things that are working perfectly fine have assorted names in the South, all of them bad: carpetbaggers, busybodies, reformers (which, if you back off the first syllable a bit can sound a lot like “foreigners”), progressives. In the South as elsewhere, politicians cozy up to local prejudices with dog whistles, double meanings, and high-flown rhetoric — because they work — and it’s my guess that southerners are more vulnerable to such things per capita than people from the rest of the country, but not a lot. Of course, very few Americans of any region welcome uninvited visitors who aim to mess with their way of life.

Both Reagan and Bush used the phrase around the time of the 1980 election, lending it a right-wing flavor that to my ear, at least, it still has (cf. nothing-burger, truly needy, junk science, zero tolerance). It is indeed conservative wisdom — a direct descendant of the Hippocratic Oath, which ought be enough of a pedigree for anyone. Conservatives do have a reputation for sitting on the status quo, not to be confused with modern-day right-wingers ripping society apart to take us back to the idyllic (for whom?) eighteenth century, or fourteenth, or whatever. But it suits today’s right-wingers to clothe themselves in conservative garb on occasion, and this expression is one of many that rings the right changes with their loyal voters.

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wand (v.)

(1990’s | enginese? bureaucratese?)

I don’t believe “wand” ever did duty as a verb in a Harry Potter book, but I never read one and I could be wrong. That part of speech had been available for some time by the time J.K. Rowling rocked the world in 1997. The first cites in LexisNexis date from the late eighties and have to do with stocking shelves with the help of a bar code scanner. An employee “wands” the bar code (actually, the verb was almost always used passively, as in “the bar code is wanded”) at the shelf or the cash register, and the central warehouse sends over another hundred units. Bar code readers are not generally called “wands” now, but hand-held metal (or explosives) detectors have borne the name since at least 1980, and it is there we turn for the evolution of the verb. In 1991, two sporting events provoked writers to use it, the Super Bowl (long a favored occasion for introducing stricter security measures) and the monarch of Great Britain’s visit to a baseball game in Baltimore (long known as the queen city of the Patapsco drainage basin). At Memorial Stadium, not only spectators but even the popcorn had been wanded. Time marches on, and now every spectator must be wanded at every major-league game. No one has tried to blow up a stadium since the policy was put in place a few years ago, which proves it works and has to be kept. Not that anyone had tried to blow up a stadium before the new regulations took effect.

I would venture that now most of us associate wanding with airport checkpoints, and the practice became more popular, or at least tolerated, after 9/11. As the equipment and procedure became enshrined in TSA parlance and practice, the use of the verb grew and it began to sound more normal. “Wander” and “wandee” don’t seem to have become words yet, but these things can change quickly. The pomposity of bureaucracy works against such locutions nosing into the language, of course; what agent or specialist would want to be known as a nine-days wander?

The apparatus of security is immune to whimsy, and the humorous potential of wanding has not been exploited. How about some good old-fashioned male wanding at the ol’ ballpark? Next time you get pulled aside for extra screening at the airport, try telling the friendly agent, “I wand-a be alone.” Maybe the agent will don a conical wizard’s hat and will throw in an incantation or two with your wanding. The practice is oddly egalitarian; all us normal people who fly or go to ballgames undergo it, but the rich and famous — even Henry Kissinger — must also submit to it when attending soirées thrown by, or in honor of, heads of state or billionaires. Presumably the wanders for big celebrity events are better trained and more deferential than the brusque shlubs at the ballpark.

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(1980’s | journalese (politics) | “much ado about nothing,” “tempest in a teapot,” “big fat zero,” “empty suit”)

Chalk up one more for the Reagan administration, by far the most prolific presidential source of new vocabulary since Kennedy or possibly FDR. Actually, Reagan’s EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch Burford, made it famous in 1984, by which time she was his former EPA administrator, having resigned rather than turn over subpoenaed documents to Congressional committees. She used “nothing-burger” to describe the next post to which she had been nominated: head of the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere. (Antiquarians like myself will observe that it happened the same year as the “Where’s the beef” ad campaign.) I must add that Google Books yielded one instance before Burford: none other than Helen Gurley Brown in Sex and the Office (1964), who tossed it off in a discussion of dressing for success (i.e., attracting a man) at work. I quote: “Wearing one great pin four days in a row is better than changing to nothing-burger clinkers.” An adjective, it’s true, but easily turned into a noun. Apparently gossip columnist Louella Parsons used the expression even earlier, though my sources are all second-hand.

The point of “nothing-burger” is that it denotes a statement, event, or (sometimes) person that promises more than it delivers, or doesn’t live up to its hype. Or maybe a small solution to a big problem. (Good exposition here.) By now the term has broadened so that it denotes any non-entity, regardless of advance publicity. It’s always an insult, a quick dismissal of a policy statement, an opponent’s sally, or even sworn testimony. Therefore, it may be used defensively, as a means of suggesting that the very telling blow one has just absorbed had absolutely no effect. To this day, it is used overwhelmingly by politicians and political commentators, though one stumbles across it now and then in movie reviews or sportswriting.

The use of “burger” as a suffix is not all that widespread, despite America’s obsession with the hamburger and its many variants. Lighter’s slang dictionary lists only two examples (of course, that was over twenty years ago), and the only one I could think of was “slutburger,” which was pressed into service to discuss salacious commercials for the fast-food chain Carl’s Jr., although it was the name of an underground comic book drawn by Rip Off Press regular Mary Fleener before that. Even now, most “-burger” words are strictly food-related.

Though it’s used now by politicians of all persuasions, “nothing-burger” has always been more prominent among right-wingers, befitting its first popularizer. Burford was an early right-wing martyr, head of an agency whose mission she opposed, like so many of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries. She sold simple obstruction of justice — stonewalling the people’s representatives for the sake of a profoundly dubious assertion of executive privilege — as principled resistance to intrusive, pettifogging gummint bureaucracy. Of course, she had a willing audience, and the same third of the country that cheered her on has just put Trump in the White House. He has repaid them by placing her son on the supreme bench. We may well wonder how many of her notions about the law and the Constitution he has absorbed.

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full disclosure

(1990’s | legalese | “telling the whole story,” “full accounting,” “clean breast”)

It’s a formula now, a ritual. The reporter states affiliations, preferences, or beliefs closely related to the topic at hand, prefaced invariably by “Full disclosure,” or “In the interest of full disclosure” for the orotund. Fair enough; journalists remain essential channels of information even when no one believes them, and we have as much need to know what commentators might be hiding as what politicians are. The expression has been around a long time, after all. It shows up often in Google Books often between 1800 and 1840, usually in bankruptcy cases or parliamentary debates, but it could crop up anywhere; one might make a full disclosure of feelings or past exploits as well as assets. For what it’s worth, Google Ngrams shows a noticeable increase in use after 1980, after a long period of relative neglect.

A bit more history: William Safire titled his 1977 novel “Full Disclosure.” In the eighties “full disclosure” turned up often in political reporting, as officials were asked to lay bare their financial dealings so voters could hold them to account for conflicts of interest. Since then, the phrase has made itself at home in other contexts, especially discussions of relationships. Journalists began to use it in the nineties, as far as I can tell, and within ten years it was everywhere. (Despite a few showy successes, efforts to drive money and influence out of government at any level have been notable failures; now Congress is populated largely by millionaires who get away with revealing little about who’s paying them for what, particularly when campaigning, now a permanent activity. And it turns out most voters don’t care. If a guy is smart enough to represent us, he’s smart enough to get around ethics rules.)

There’s nothing new about compelling people to make a complete accounting of assets or donors, but whereas journalists used to be the ones demanding such transparency, now they feel compelled to assure skeptical readers that they are clean themselves. It’s easier to force ink-stained wretches to show their hands than wealthy elites, and public distrust of “the media” has been increasing for decades, so they have become targets. And of course it’s true that reporters, like anyone else, may use the phrase deceptively. It’s easy to disguise a partial disclosure as a full disclosure, leaving out material facts; the very solemnity of the expression may make us reluctant to scrutinize the revelations offered. Deceptive or not, journalists use the phrase as a pre-emptive strike; it means “you don’t have to pry this information out of me; I’m going to tell you up front.” Which may also increase its effectiveness as a tool for misleading others. I’m not suggesting that newshounds are more likely than anyone else to use the term deceptively, by the way, probably less. The real movers and shakers will always have more to hide, and have greater means to hide it from the rest of us.

“Full” makes it sound like you’re spilling every last bean, but in legal and financial circles full disclosure requires only that relevant facts be adduced; it must pertain to the question at hand, whether it’s the materials and processes embodied in a patent, possible influence on a legislator, or anything a bankrupt is able to liquidate. When the principle of full disclosure justifies revealing anything a public figure would rather conceal, the investigation turns into a witch hunt. Maybe we should rename it “pertinent disclosure.” It might make the phrase less ubiquitous, if nothing else.

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word salad

(2000’s | journalese (politics) | “gibberish,” “incoherent speech,” “obfuscation”)

This expression recently underwent a significant change after a hundred stable years. The first citation I found dates from a psychiatric handbook of 1907, where it occurs in a discussion of dementia precox, the old name for schizophrenia, more or less (they weren’t exactly the same, but that’s the closest term in modern mental health vocabulary). It hasn’t changed meaning in that context; a textbook published in 1970 gave the following: “A jumbled, unintelligible mixture of words, usually containing both real words or phrases and neologisms. This disturbance in verbal communication is most frequently found in advanced schizophrenic reactions.” By 1980, arts writers used it now and then to talk about writers like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, both of whom were considerably more artful than your average schizo, but somewhat less syntactically or semantically forthright than Mickey Spillane, say. It took thirty more years before the expression came to characterize political speeches; the first consistent victim was Sarah Palin in 2008, but in 2016, both Trump and Clinton, widely different speaking styles notwithstanding, were accused of producing word salad. (Somehow this expression doesn’t take to the plural.) The older uses are still found, but in ten short years the phrase has become quite common in political commentary, in which it was never used before Sarah Palin took the national stage. Merriam-Webster On-line provides a history with plenty of examples.

Like “hive mind,” “word salad” has become a favored term of abuse, but it need not be an insult. When used to refer to the ramblings of the mentally ill, it probably was always implicitly insulting — and that origin continues to be felt as we use the phrase today — but literary critics may treat it as a neutral descriptor. Not long before the move into political discourse, “word salad” took on two new uses: one referred to a technique of creating spam e-mails that used blocks of unconnected words in order to fool the filters; more significantly, it started to imply deception, pointing the way to politics. The crucial difference has to do with volition; the schizophrenic babbles uncontrollably, but the purveyor of catch-phrases strung together so as to defeat interpretation is doing it on purpose. In political discourse, it may take either shading, and they’re equally insulting — a variation on the old Reagan cleft stick: if he knows what’s going on, he’s a criminal; if he doesn’t, he’s too out of it to be president. Whether you think Trump just doesn’t know any better or is deliberately snowing us, you probably think he shouldn’t have the job.

Now that “word salad” is firmly enmeshed in political journalism, it is anyone’s guess whether psychiatrists will continue to use it; they may be forced to find a new phrase if the old one changes connotation for good. As late as the nineties, it was pressed into service as the title of a computer game and an on-line poetry magazine, suggesting that it might yet be considered favorable, or at least eye-catching. Those days appear to be over.

Why salad, anyway? The idea of several heterogeneous ingredients, mixed but not blended together, seems to be at the bottom of it, though the expression probably hails from German or French originally, and I’m not certain “salad” carries the same mental picture in those languages. I’ve seen “word hash” offered as a synonym, but if there ever was a contest, “word salad” has won. It’s more memorable than “jumble” or “logorrhea,” that’s for sure (personally, I’d like to see “word avalanche”). And I like the idea of pouring oil (and vinegar) on troubled word salad.

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who moved my cheese?

(late 1990’s | businese | “what the hell just happened?,” “now what?,” “now what do I do?”)

I was surprised to learn that the insubstantial book whose title gave us this week’s expression spent ten years on the business best-seller lists. Management guru Spencer Johnson published it in 1998, and soon it became immensely popular among bosses, who bought it in bulk for their employees — one commentator wryly noted that if your boss leaves a copy of “Who Moved My Cheese?” on your desk, you are about to be laid off. References in the press were ubiquitous from 1999 until 2005 or so, at which point hits in LexisNexis began a noticeable decline that has continued to this day. Such a decline is unusual. I can’t think of many locutions that have gone from widely used to infrequent: “cocooning” is one, “bobbitt” another. It seems plausible that expressions that arise from short-lived trends or specific people or events would be more prone to obsolescence. You don’t hear “peace dividend” or “Where’s the beef?” much any more. But there must be other factors; “truly needy” has pretty well died off, and we have as many poor people as ever. One continues to encounter “who moved my cheese?” almost invariably as a direct reference to the book, which most people regard as either a life-changing parable or an insult to our intelligence; it’s too popular to inspire indifference.

It was a skinny book with large type and lots of illustrations. The standard blurb read, “A management expert offers techniques for dealing with change in the workplace and in life,” although the titular cheese actually referred to your primary goal, toward which your path is strewn with obstacles. So the title might be translated as “I was making progress in the right direction, and then something changed and made everything harder.” Or, more simply, “Who messed me up?” Johnson’s moral: people who expect new circumstances, recognize them, and adapt to them are winners in the game of life. They get all the cheese they want. (Full disclosure: I detest any kind of runny or smelly cheese, so I have a personal antipathy to this particular book that goes beyond my usual resistance to feel-good corporate nostrums.)

Since the book is intended to persuade people to manage their lives and make the best of things, it comes under the broad umbrella of self-help; more than one observer places it in a distinguished lineage that began with Dale Carnegie (“How to Win Friends and Influence People”). The business world, contrary to its crusty, hard-boiled reputation, now goes in for touchy-feely — or pretends to — and “Who Moved My Cheese?” is a relatively painless, soft-soap way to tell employees to get with the program, to accept whatever the bosses throw at them, no matter how unfair. Like mindfulness training, business self-help books offer executives a way to avoid making the office a better place. Give away this little book, and you can be as callous, arbitrary, and profit-mad as you want.

The most important question is the most basic: Is this phrase an expression or just a title? “Who moved my cheese?” doesn’t have a discernible definition, and reviews of the book rarely explained the title in detail, beyond pointing out that the cheese stands for whatever is most important to you; it doesn’t even have to work-related. We don’t use it in conversation and never did; how many people say “Geez, who moved my cheese?” when they find out they’re fired? And yet everyone who was sentient learned it back around 2000 and had at least a vague idea what it meant. Actually, the less you understand what the title means the more effective it is; that air of mystery rescues it from stultifying banality.

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