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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1970’s | businese (finance) | “slight shift upward,” “(small or modest) increase,” “pick-up”)

What is it about this word? From a semantic standpoint it’s not all that interesting; we had many ways to the same or very similar things. Its spread is unextraordinary, irritatingly but not unusually wide. Its formation offers no surprises; “up-” as a noun prefix has been established for a long time, and “tick” is derived prosaically enough from the stock ticker. Maybe it’s the mere sound; it conjures in me a variety of associations. Savor the words it resembles: optics, Updike, upchuck (I’ve heard “sick up,” but never “upsick,” alas). Quite a range there. Invert the syllables — this is a tick-up! Because it’s stressed on the first syllable, it wants to be heard as “upt-ic,” the adjective form of the noun “upt” (o.k., I made that part upt). “Tick” is rich: blood-sucking parasite, mattress filling, time passing. None of it sounds like much reason for optimism, even with “up” in front of it. But then upticks aren’t always desirable; it can be your retirement savings but it can also be the unemployment rate.

Any given uptick may make us feel better or worse depending on where it occurs, but they are usually hailed as blessings, particularly in bad times. The word acquires an aura of hope when the economy has been contracting, or temperatures are low. Experts huddle hopefully around the first upticks, vying to see who can make them more portentous, or can prove more convincingly that they are meaningless. Under normal circumstances, an uptick is a little thing, nothing to get excited about. But “uptick” may be slipping, used more and more often to refer to moderate or larger increases. Even so, the related expression “spike” generally refers to changes of greater magnitude. Originally, I believe, “spike” was reserved for sharp upward motion followed by a sharp shift downward, forming a characteristic pattern on a graph from which the expression presumably took its new meaning. Upticks carry no expectation of a downward sequel; they can continue for months or even years in a situation where everyone is satisfied with gradual progress.

“Uptick” has its origins in the stock market, meaning the smallest possible upward movement in share price, generally an eighth of a point (an uptick is much smaller than an upswing). “Downtick,” never as common, remains in occasional use. “On (the) uptick” meant “rising slowly.” “Uptick” is also used in the name of an SEC rule governing the short sale of stock. By the seventies, it was in wide use in economic or political reporting; Safire offered a tidy and efficient history of the word in 1984. To this day, it is frequently used to talk about statistics — this rate or that total. I’d say it’s better not to use “uptick” for that which you can’t represent definitively in numbers — civic pride, percentage of the population suffering from mental illness or opiate addiction — though many people do. Even then, there are indirect methods of measurement that provide some statistical basis for detecting an uptick.


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(1980’s | doctorese | “well-being”)

“Wellness” is not a synonym for “health,” or even “good health.” Most objections to the term assume that it is and so are easily dismissed, not that even the most principled objections would have stood a chance — the term has routed the field and now is heard everywhere. It goes with holistic, or perhaps alternative or preventive medicine (now you hear “integrative medicine”). The point of wellness is to distinguish itself from conventional ideas of bodily soundness, which involve purging microbes, following rigid, one-size-fits-all guidelines for diet and exercise, and ignoring everything else. From the beginning, practitioners of wellness have preached “Mens sana in corpore sano” (or the other way around), paying due attention to one’s emotional and physical gestalt over antibiotics and cholesterol counts, not that a holistic physician would disregard dangerous symptoms and proven treatments. Nowadays, wellness is most often touted as a result of preventive medicine.

Was the word invented in the seventies? No, the book “Dynamics of Wellness,” published in 1970, cites a psychologist named Dunn for inventing it in 1957 (the New York Times provides a detailed history). The expression became much more common after 1980; as early as 1984 Ronald Reagan urged employers to “sponsor wellness programs that reduce smoking, improve eating habits and promote physical fitness as ways of cutting costs and improving workers’ health” (Associated Press, March 13). A recent post on notes, “When corporate wellness programs first took off, the focus was primarily on smoking cessation or weight loss goals. Current wellness programs have come a long way since then –- and program offerings have expanded to focus on more than just the physical aspect of health. Employers are . . . combining more traditional well-being efforts with career development efforts.” Such programs continue to grow thicker on the ground every year, as wellness, like mindfulness, has become popular around the workplace recently. They are both cheap ways to show concern for employees while doing as little as possible to improve working conditions or morale and butting further into everyone’s personal life. On the other hand, wellness programs generally dispense reasonable advice and may actually do some good.

The expression looks to be the sort of crude formation that springs so easily from the mind of a technician or bureaucrat. Find an adjective, glue “-ness” to it, and voilà! a noun. Sometimes, as I have noted elsewhere, this approach has the advantage of creating a term both relatively precise and more or less free of connotation. Other times, it’s just one more blot on the language. “Wellness,” clumsy as so many well-intentioned locutions are, does attempt to name a state of soundness that encompasses peace of mind as well as strength of physique, a comprehensive and balanced picture. And wellness has survived on its own terms as it continues to denote a way of looking at a person’s health that stresses a fuller account of it than you’ll get from your standard health-care provider. Though it is closely related to several other new expressions, it doesn’t cover exactly the same ground as any of them and so can’t be deemed entirely redundant.

Lovely Liz from Queens asked me to point out that the eminent poet and critic John Hollander despised “wellness.” Its unidiomatic sound would naturally have displeased an ear as refined as his, but I don’t know if he would have conceded that the word has a certain use-value. I find myself rolling my eyes at the neologism, but I can’t help but acknowledge with a bit of a grudge that it adds to the language in certain ways as it wounds it in others.

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soft money

(1980’s | journalese (politics) | “slush fund,” “dirty money”)

An example of a venerable expression that has seen boom times lately, in this case with a significant change in primary meaning driven by a change in circumstances, always a goad to new expressions. In the nineteenth century, “soft money” meant paper money, as opposed to hard money, which was precious metal formed into coins (sometimes known as “specie”). It took several decades before the now taken for granted consensus emerged that paper money is o.k., still not a universal belief. And it is true that if a government goes belly-up, the money it has issued goes with it, whereas gold is always worth something. Nonetheless, we have proven to most people’s satisfaction that it’s possible to run an economy on paper money, untethered to gold or anything at all except the government’s willingness to print it and the people’s willingness to exchange it, even through some heavy-duty financial disasters. (Print money, in this day and age? Now it’s not even visible — nothing more than numbers on a server somewhere. Oops, hope it didn’t get hacked.) Of course, history hasn’t ended, but we’ve kept it up for more than a century now.

When Lovely Liz from Queens nominated this week’s expression (thanks, baby!), I saw at once that she was offering me an opening for more of my brand of acidulous commentary, and it’s impossible to avoid in the case of this term, drenched as it is in political chicanery and malefaction of great wealth. Before we get there we must continue to trace its history, as we note a growth of use in this near-dormant expression in academic circles in the 1960’s. Following a couple of decades of lavish research grants, both public and private, “soft money” came into use to describe funding from such sources as opposed to funding provided for in university budgets. Soft money, while abundant, was subject to vicissitudes; government funding might be reduced upon a change of administration, or corporate funding might find a more useful target at some other school. By the mid-sixties, college administrators were warning each other against excessive dependence on soft money.

In 1979, an apparently minor change in federal campaign finance law introduced soft money as we know it today. In brief, Congress removed caps and eliminated disclosure requirements on donations to state party organizations, while maintaining limits on direct contributions to candidates. But there was nothing to keep state organizations from helping candidates for federal office, so corporations, unions, and PAC’s (political action committees, a brand-new phenomenon) as well as individuals could pay much more for influence than they had before, just in time for the 1980 election. It took a couple of cycles before the new order became a familiar fact of life, but within a decade everyone knew what soft money was. And the rich, whom we now call the one percent, were able to invest astronomical sums in their preferred candidates — almost always right-wing — and force officeholders into servitude, elected by the people at large but owned by only a vanishingly small number of them. By an unfathomable coincidence, wealth has become concentrated at historic levels since the dawn of the soft money era, but that must be an act of God, or the invisible hand, or something. And it’s true that politics is so awash in private funding that when soft money was outlawed by the McCain-Feingold act in 2002, it took little time and less effort for those torrents of contributions to find new channels. Recent Supreme Court decisions have opened the spigot further, and soft money has recently passed the torch to dark money, whose sources are not required to reveal their identity. Could be the Koch Brothers, could be George Soros, could be the Russians. The justices, or some of them, leap to the defense of our sacred right of freedom of spending secured by the First Amendment, while ignoring the public interest in honest politicians, or, if we can’t have that, our need to know who’s buying our elected officials.

Wealthy donors may, of course, withdraw their support; through all its changes of referent soft money has never lost that sense of impermanence. They can decide that they don’t get enough return on investment, or wish to avoid being tied to someone a majority of voters loathe. Better to pour that money into stock buybacks, dividends, and executive compensation than to spend it on unreliable politicians. Hard to imagine the puppetmasters pulling the plug, but it could happen. Especially if the current Republican tax bill, which massively favors the rich as every across-the-board tax cut must, fails to pass, which would require only two or three senators to undergo a spasm of conscience, or fear reprisal at the ballot box. But the reason they’re pushing so desperately to pass a tax cut in the first place is fear of reprisal from wealthy donors.

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(2000’s | advertese | “resilient”)

“Strong” as a hashtag suffix has taken firmer hold with every disaster, natural or otherwise, but its progenitors predate Twitter. Even in my youth, “be strong” in the imperative could be comfortably used to mean “stay the course” or “hang tough.” “Stay strong” had the same feel. While “stay strong” most often referred to markets, arsenals, or muscles, by 1980 or so it could be used for emotional or mental states. The gradual transition from brute force to mental toughness had begun. It culminated in the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s phrase “Livestrong,” first used, as near as I can tell, in 2004. The Foundation is dedicated to people living “with, through, or beyond cancer,” and the Livestrong campaign originated as not only a slogan but a fundraising device: those ubiquitous yellow wristbands made for lots of donations. Armstrong has since been disgraced, and the renamed Livestrong Foundation lives on without him, but he remains the grandfather of this hashtag suffix. I’m not certain, but “Livestrong” seems to have been the first example of a compound word made from an active verb plus “strong,” which is now standard. Before that, we had “headstrong” (stubborn), but I can’t think of any other combinations of noun or verb with “strong,” which doesn’t mean there weren’t any. Armstrong’s own stirring history as a cancer survivor and seeming invincibility in bicycle races (later revealed to be at least partly the result of illegal drug use) made him a natural exemplar of resolution and perseverance; the whole idea had more to do with that than with fitness, or weapons stockpiles.

Today, inevitably, “LiveStrong” is a hashtag, along with others — #StayStrong, #HeartStrong, #PlayStrong — and is now appended to the name of every city where something awful happens. #BostonStrong, #HoustonStrong, #LasVegasStrong, now #LAStrong in the face of the latest round of wildfires. (There are a number of “-strength” hashtags as well.) Given our propensities for brutal weather and mass assassinations, it should have a rosy future. I don’t know if victims of sexual harassment and abuse have developed a “#___Strong” hashtag yet, but it would come as no surprise. “-strong” tends to go with terrors one has survived, like a bomb attack, or cancer or rape. That force is still there, though with wider use it is slipping. The expression has not become trivial, but there’s always that risk.

The new formulation commands us to maintain fortitude, with an implied lack of sympathy toward those who merely surrender to the latest misfortune. That’s a way to read it, perhaps unfair. Another unflattering interpretation is that “Livestrong” and its descendants are a substitute for bravery, not an expression of it, a hip way of whistling past the graveyard. If we repeat the mantra often enough, we can fool ourselves into thinking we really do have control over what comes next. Or maybe it is simply a mantra, a displaced form of meditation that allows us to overcome adversity. The “#___strong” mottoes always strike me as fake somehow, ersatz toughness ginned up more for the sake of appearances than for any real thought of overcoming. (Now that I mention it, don’t all hashtags have that quality?) But I’m also aware that it may just be me. I’ve learned not to question too closely the motives and means of those going through hard times, and to give the benefit of the doubt to those in pain or misery.

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(1990’s | journalese? athletese? | “single-minded,” “intent (on)”)

The output of a laser meets a casual definition of “focused”: a light beam formed from many waves, all of the same wavelength, projected through a very narrow opening. There are those who believe that the uniformity of the light waves means that it is incorrect to describe a laser as “focused,” because focusing happens only with light of many different wavelengths, but it’s also true that there are such things as focused lasers. Besides, it’s the uniformity that gives the impression of focus, optics notwithstanding. So it’s not surprising that we took to talk of “laser focus.” I can’t think of any precise noun equivalents from before 1980, except perhaps for “undivided attention,” but we had several closely related concepts, such as “bearing down,” “bound and determined,” “powers of concentration.” It suggests not only purpose but precision, not only concentrating effectively but concentrating on the right thing. “Laser focus” has also done spot duty as a verb for twenty years at least, though it is not used in the imperative, as “focus” by itself is.

The expression seems to have arisen in sportswriting, if you believe LexisNexis (in this case, I’m not sure I do); the first unmistakable instances popped up in articles about boxers in the late eighties (the laser industry trade magazine “Laser Focus” had been around for several years by then). As with “wonk,” Bill Clinton did not invent the expression but helped solidify it in the early nineties when he promised a “laser focus” on the economy. For all that, it does not seem to have become rife until after the turn of the millennium; I don’t recall hearing it until probably after 2010, though it might have crossed my path earlier.

The advent of the CD player, which was for most of us the first practical, everyday use of a laser, helped make this term possible. Lasers were exotic then (they’re still kind of exotic), but there one was in your own home, bringing your favorite tunes to life. There was a vague understanding in the air that a laser was the magical part of the new piece of equipment, much spookier and more advanced than a diamond stylus or magnetic tape. So lasers were ushered into the general consciousness, opening up room for a new figurative expression. A mere thirty years later, “laser-focused” was declared business jargon by Bloomberg News, and it is clearly a term businessmen have picked up, more than politicians, though it is available to anyone now.

We generally hear the term as praise, but calling someone “laser-focused” may just be a nice way of saying they are wearing blinders; that is, it may imply the wrong kind of workaholism or micromanagement. It’s one thing to pour your efforts into reaching a commendable goal, but obsession has its own risks even in the service of a noble cause. I would say the term generally continues to have a positive connotation, but it certainly can suggest something else: an unhealthy involvement in a single pursuit that leads to exclusion or isolation. We don’t hear that when a corporate spokesman boasts of a laser focus on customer service, but when an individual exercises laser focus, we may wonder.

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in it to win it

(1980’s | advertese | “playing for keeps,” “playing to win,” “in the game”)

My limited investigations suggest that this expression was born of the fizzing brains of the New York State lottery’s advertising agents (specifically Lerner King Associates), but LexisNexis does show a surprisingly large number of Australian instances in the eighties. Did a forward-looking Aussie get wind of it early and cause it to catch on quicker over there? Or did it originate independently down under? There were lotteries in Australia then, but I haven’t found any connection with local publicity. Two New York lottery commercials, on the other hand, one from 1982 and the next from 1983, suggest an origin story. In the first, a group of Lotto players sings a catchy jingle that includes “to win it, you gotta get in it.” In 1983, the expression appears in its present form, spoken, to close another Lotto commercial. In Maryland where I grew up, the state lottery adopted “You gotta play to win,” which meant the same thing: in order to have any chance at all of taking a prize, you have to participate. So get out there and buy a ticket.

And that’s what the phrase meant then. Now it is more likely to mean “determined to win,” which still acknowledges the need to get in the game in the first place but conveys something much stronger than a tiny, notional chance of winning. (There’s an intermediate stage, which connotes being not just good enough to have reached the finals but to have a genuine chance of defeating the other team — “in the hunt,” as it were.) The newer meaning may also be signaled by adding “only” at the beginning of the phrase. It’s the difference between the subjunctive and the imperative, between recognizing what you have to do and actually doing it. The change was well underway in the nineties; athletes, politicians, entrepreneurs, and others who live by competition all used the expression in its “bound for victory” sense, while the older sense of merely being eligible to win was still in play. And that is still the case today, though my sense is that the latter meaning has become less common. In 1999, John McCain used a variant à propos our intervention in the Balkans that was frequently quoted: “we’re in it, and we have to win it.” A BBC television show about the National Lottery that debuted in 2002 borrowed the expression for its title.

The phrase has not become a cliché, exactly, but perhaps a catchphrase, a fitting fate for an advertising slogan. The little feminine rhyme gets your attention, and the scansion relies heavily on stressed syllables — four out of five, to be exact. “In” and “it” don’t usually bear a lot of weight in poetry or everyday speech, yet here they do, which may be one factor in the relative success of the phrase. True connoisseurs will catch the resemblance to the opening of a double dactyl, only one syllable shy.

“In it to win it” has taken on a distinct hortatory character since the eighties, and now it is often used to whip up the troops involved in group efforts. No question the expression has more intensity than it used to — it’s not about taking a light-hearted flyer any more. When used in the past tense, it’s usually triumphal; it would be odd to hear “we were in it to win it, and then we lost.” Most of the time, all the competitors are playing to win (note the difference from “play to win” as cited in the first paragraph), but only the ultimate victor is permitted to say so.

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know the drill

(1980’s | journalese? | “know the routine,” “know how it’s done,” “know one’s way around,” “heard it before”)

I wish I had more confidence that this expression falls within my chronological limits. There are very few examples of it in LexisNexis or Google Books before 1980, but it’s never treated as a new expression — i.e., glossed or remarked on — which ought to mean it was already out there. That would make more sense if the phrase is, as I suspect, a Briticism, because “drill” in British English is much more comfortable referring to martial exercises, or any sort of procedure, repeated in the same way time after time. So “know the drill” isn’t as remarkable in British English as in American. But Americans seized on it quickly enough as the eighties wore on, and by 1990, the phrase was common in all sorts of writing. But I can’t shake the feeling that it was already common in the seventies (and before?), and my sources in this instance aren’t very reliable.

Originally the phrase hewed close to sports or politics, where we strive to make procedures and consequences predictable. But it has spread quickly, both in terms of sheer frequency of use and of breadth of connotation. Nowadays, “you know the drill” often means little more than “you know how it is” — a vague and general feeling that doesn’t have to be defined — far from a specific series of steps or exercises that must be followed in the same order every time. The drift is noteworthy because this expression had some potential to retain its integrity, but it’s not easy standing up to the sloppiness brought on by everyday use. Especially when the expression sounds cool, hip, or new, as I contend “know the drill” did in the eighties and nineties.

One knows the drill only if one has been through the experience in question. Usually it wasn’t very pleasant, and usually you’ve been through it more than once. A number of new expressions wear the mantle not just of experience, but bitter experience. “Lesson learned” is like that. “New normal” is always bad news. “Been there, done that” rarely bears a positive tinge. “Blowback.” “Do the math.” “Harvest.” “Optics.” There’s a whole family of otherwise unrelated expressions that nearly always leave a sour taste, although there’s nothing in the bare words that makes it so. In this case, the quality may arise from a distant echo of the dentist’s drill, or the old British military adage, “No names, no pack drill,” which translates loosely as “if they can’t figure out who did it, they won’t punish any of us.”

I assign the origin of the expression somewhat doubtfully to journalese, but except in a few cases, journalists act as conduits rather than as originators. It’s really just an acknowledgment that most new expressions are spread by members of the press when you get right down to it; maybe you got the latest locution from your best friend, but she or he probably found it on-line. If you don’t really know how the expression came to be, you can always blame the press. “Know the drill” ought to have a military origin, or athletic, right? And it probably does (most early uses that I found had to do with one or the other), but I haven’t found much satisfying evidence, so journalese it is.

Update, Nov. 25, 2017: An e-mail from Target, of all things, recalled to me another phrase with “drill” in it, “(This is) not a drill.” In other words, the unfolding emergency (Black Friday sales, in this case) is not to be taken lightly. Related to “you know the drill” but not closely, it has a different portent (more ominous, less weary).

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real MVP

(2000’s | athletese | “unsung hero”)

The Most Valuable Player Award was invented in 1931 by the Baseball Writers Association of America (majestically abbreviated BBWAA). I have not been able to determine when the abbreviation “MVP” slipped out of its baseball backwater and into the mainstream of the language. I recall hearing it as a boy and knowing what it meant (I was a baseball fan) and assuming that the adults around me understood it, too. That’s a gap of forty-plus years; how many of those years went by before most people grasped the expression?

Although the formal name of the award might lead you to believe otherwise, baseball’s MVP is loosely considered synonymous with the best player (often on the pennant winner), or at least the one with the gaudiest statistics. There are many ways a player can be valuable to the team that don’t attract much attention, and such traits almost never get considered when it’s time to vote for the MVP. The expression “real MVP” takes that a step further by acknowledging directly someone heretofore unrecognized. Arguably, the real MVP is the person who should have been the MVP all along, but wasn’t because most of us fall for the cheap and flashy. Thus, “real MVP” implies that the nominal winner did not deserve the award. The more valuable player either was truly better in some way, or provided essential support.

A fine example of the latter came from Kevin Durant, in an acceptance speech that has done more than anything else to push “real MVP” into non-athletic contexts. While the word was available for such uses before Durant came along, it had remained primarily an athlete’s term for decades, mostly used to refer to another player, but possibly to a coach, the fans, or even a handicapped kid that inspired the team. Durant cited his mother as “the real MVP” upon being presented with the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award because without her devotion, work, and self-denial, he never would have reached the pinnacle. The fact that the internet soon swallowed the phrase and vomited it back as a series of memes each more trivial than the last in no way diminishes Durant’s sincerity or character, or his powers of propulsion; the phrase has become much more common since he gave a shout-out to his mother in 2014.

My sense is that “real MVP” was little used outside sports talk before 2000, and probably for a while after it, too. It spread quietly during the first decade of the millennium, but it came more naturally to refer to a designated driver, or your sainted mother, or anyone who gets you out of a jam that way in 2010 than in 2000. In everyday speech, “real MVP” need not imply injustice or misunderstanding. It names anyone who performs a valuable service for one person or a number of people. The sense that the real MVP is laudable, even essential, remains, but not the notion that a less deserving person gets all the publicity.

For the sake of completeness I note that MVP also stands for “minimum viable product,” a barebones version of whatever your big idea is that allows you to test its feasibility or popularity. Such use of the abbreviation seems unlikely to overtake the established phrase within the next millennium, but if it does, I’ll take credit.

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date night

(1990’s | therapese)

One of those expressions that has evolved a distinct new shade of meaning in the last forty years. Before 1990 or so, it was a loose, carefree expression that applied mainly to single people. As often as not, it was a shorthand way of referring to Friday or Saturday evening. Movie theaters and sports teams held promotional date nights to encourage under-25’s to come out and spend money. These uses have not disappeared by any means, but what has changed? Now date nights are the province primarily of the married, more specifically the married who sense that their relationship needs a boost. So you and your spouse ditch the kids and go out on the town and spend money. The custom has a bit more range now; you might go to a class together on date night, or church. The main consequence of the change? Date nights aren’t only for the young and frivolous any more. Now mature adults with responsibilities and work ethics are enjoined to enjoy them, too. The shift started in the nineties — I found only a few isolated incidences before then.

Date nights are urged particularly on parents, but sources of stress and separation besides kids may trigger a date-night deficit. (The “daddy/daughter date night” is an occasional non-marital variation, which likewise marks an effort to improve or deepen a relationship.) Couples need to reconnect and rekindle sometimes, and many well-meaning busybodies have issued extensive guidelines for doing so. I have hinted before at the meticulously planned architecture of relationships patiently builded by swarms of counselors, therapists, journalists, et al., et al., from coffee date to date night, or as you might say, from dates to nuts. They even advise periodic spontaneity, but if you have to plan it . . . oh, never mind. It’s not the decline in spontaneity that bothers me (most people aren’t that good at it, anyway) so much as the depressing uniformity of it all. An endless stream of like-minded relationship advice, however well-meant, must dull our romantic powers. Even if it works most of the time, sometimes ya gotta throw away the playbook.

After a brief and unscientific survey of LexisNexis results over the past month or so, I’d say that while date nights are urged upon all of us by the romance industry, the date nights of celebrities are reported endlessly, creating the impression that no one else ever takes one. Why not turn that around? Report on local couples’ nights out as if they were celebrities — what she wore, where they went, how close they danced, which base they got to, that sort of thing. I wonder how many people would enjoy that, and how many would hate it. We feel for celebrities who have to fend off paparazzi, and some of us would be all the more fervent if we had to go through it ourselves. But I’ll bet a lot of people would get a kick out of such oppressive attention. After all, it would mean you are worthy, it would mean you’re as important as . . . whoever you favor. The gossip page brought to life — from vicarious to visceral.

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lesson learned

(2000’s? | bureaucratese? | “I’ve learned my lesson,” “I’ll do better next time,” “I get the point”)

Now available as a pronouncement. Used to punctuate a conversation, it seems to come out of bureaucracy, especially the technological or military variety. NASA and the U.S. Army both have “Lessons Learned” databases that record and disseminate even quite small and apparently insignificant, but reliable, bits of practice gleaned mostly from previous failures. A lesson learned is something you ignore at your peril. They are empirical, and thus may soon become best practices. They could have to do with anything from peeling potatoes to preventing malfunctions in electrical circuitry to choosing material that will withstand re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. In everyday journalism, lessons learned follow from disasters, such as a big hurricane, fast-moving computer virus, or financial crash. The phrase is often used by individuals, of course; even then, it has a peremptory tone, carrying a firm note of finality with more than an overtone of “never again.” The emphatic final syllable contributes to that, as in “promise kept,” “problem solved,” or even “slam dunk” (a spondee). Ending the utterance with extra oomph has a way of stopping the conversation. I haven’t heard “lesson learned” used jokingly much; it has retained its force and magnitude so far. That can change quickly. If some comedian picks it up as a tagline, we’ll start saying it in all sorts of trivial contexts.

The phrase “lesson learned” is intended to convey rue or determination. The actual lesson you learn is what we now call the takeaway, another new expression. “Takeaway” is not as portentous as “lesson learned,” but the two are closely related, with little daylight between them. Lessons learned are painful somehow, as the new normal is worse than what came before, even though there’s nothing in the wording of either phrase that requires that it be so. Here’s a little rhyme to help you remember:

Experience is a teacher,
But here’s what makes me burn.
It’s always teaching me the things
I do not care to learn.

As one supplicant asked on Stack Exchange, why not “learned lesson”? Partly because it invites confusion with “learned” (two syllables), which is used before the noun, but you see that fine old scholarly term less and less. There’s something about fixed word pairs where the adjective follows the noun. I remember how weird it sounded when Bill Clinton used the expression “date certain.” What is this, the Middle Ages? (He was actually speaking legalese at the time, which accounts for the medieval flavor.) “Siege Perilous,” “paradise lost,” “penny saved.” (Does “code red” fit the pattern? I can’t decide.) The past participle doing duty as an adjective adds a dash of verb flavor, a hint of resolute action. More generally, the noun-adjective construction is probably a remnant of the baneful French influence on English (particularly in matters of law), but it does lend an elusive, poetic quality, striking the ear and compelling attention.

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