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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: 1970s

crunch time

(1980’s | journalese? | “when the chips are down,” “time to get down to brass tacks”)

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to notice the great “crunch” cluster. The word unadorned denotes an abdominal exercise. Then ya got “crunchy,” ya got “crunch the numbers,” and “crunch time,” derived from the sense of “shortage” or “crisis,” or, ideally, crisis caused by shortage. In my boyhood, “energy crunch,” which would have translated either as shortage or crisis, became common. (“Crunch” has had that sense for decades, but why? I’m not sure, but it may have to do with feeling crunched, that is, constrained and uncomfortable. See below.) The first examples I found of “crunch time” date from the late sixties, but use didn’t really pick up until after 1980, or so says LexisNexis. During the eighties, it entered sports slang decisively, but it didn’t originate there. The word has become less specific over time, as often happens; now “crunch time” need have nothing to do with shortages but still evokes crisis. It’s time to get serious and give it everything you’ve got — an impending disaster, a looming deadline, the end of a close game. The expression may be used in lighthearted ways, as the name of an apple festival, for example, but the more foreboding use predominates.

The root word calls up a certain sound or texture and pertains originally to chewing, and this sense underlies at least two of the expressions noted above. The fitness term is noteworthy because it abandons the sound that used to be a necessary part of the concept, while retaining the idea of grinding things together. As for the second, used of hippies and tree-huggers, the path back to the root meaning is pretty clear; those who live off the land eat crunchy (unprocessed) food, and the word goes well with both nuts and granola, foodstuffs long associated with the natural set. As I speculated earlier, “crunch the numbers” may go back to the idea of chewing up a big mouthful of cereal, reducing it to swallowable mush — thus, digesting reams and reams of raw numbers into a few useful trends or principles. I have an equally fanciful etymology for “crunch time.” I think of workers caught in the gears of a giant machine, constantly in danger of being crushed between metal teeth (wait, that reminds me of a movie). Or metal plates, if you prefer the garbage compactor in Star Wars. Crunch time is when if you don’t exert yourself and get the job done, you get crunched. Or scrunched. Or crushed.

It’s unusual to see so many different meanings in widely divergent fields sprung from the same root. It’s not like “crunch” has been around all that long — invented in the first half of the nineteenth century, says the OED — and just in the last fifty years it has produced a fine litter of idioms. I’m impressed.

“Crunch time” recalls an older concept, the moment of truth — also a crisis, but of a kind that reveals, or forms, character. Is it just something you have to push through and get past, or is it a more portentous test? Everyday usage doesn’t make much of a distinction. Any crisis might derail the operation, after all; any failure to come through in the clutch may sink the project and ruin a career. In a game, at the office . . . crunch time always carries the potential for heroism. We’re knights enduring ordeals or matadors preparing for death in the afternoon as we hunch over our keyboards, bathed in the stale sweat of stress.

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