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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: 2016 presidential campaign


(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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blank on

(1990’s | journalese (arts? politics?) | “forget (temporarily),” “(have it and) lose it”)

I’m not very rigorous about it, but in everyday conversation I try to avoid using the kind of new expressions I write about here, just as I try to avoid using such new expressions in posts except to refer to them directly. But this one is an exception, and I catch myself using it fairly often. It has a host of predecessors. Probably descended directly from “draw a blank on” (be unable to remember whatever it is), it also recalls “blank look” and “let your mind go blank” (or the more involuntary “my mind is a blank”). The word implies a temporary but vertiginous mnemonic malfunction, a moment of vacuity that may lead to a deer-in-the-headlights look. A related verb is “blank out” in its intransitive sense, though that may cover a longer time span. “Blank on” means forget something and then recover it, a short-term lapse, more like a senior moment. It may also mean, on occasion, “fail to respond.” (“Shooting blanks” means something entirely different. “To blank” in sports lingo normally refers to holding the opposing team scoreless. Then there’s that charming if now unnecessary euphemism, “blankety-blank.” It is one of those linguistic oddities that “blank,” descended from the French word meaning “white,” looks and sounds much more like “black.”) “Blank on” has so many ancestors that some don’t even involve the word “blank”; doesn’t the phrase “(totally) blanked on it” remind you of “bank on it”? I continue to maintain, without proof, that such phonological resemblances influence new entries into the language.

One does hear occasional variations in meaning when this expression is used, but they never seem to catch on or persist. I saw this sentence recently in a food column in the Dayton Daily News: “Pasta is always a conundrum as a side dish. I want to pencil it into my weekly meal plan, but then I blank on how to sauce it: Cream? Tomato? Lots of cheese?” Here the emphasis falls on inability to choose among alternatives rather than failing to remember them. This usage may prove a solitary exception to the rule, but the contretemps is one we find ourselves in often enough that another word for it may be welcome.

The verb really did not exist before 1980, as far as I can tell. It started to turn up occasionally afterwards; in one of the first uses I found Reagan was the subject of the verb, and this may be yet another expression to which his presidency gave a boost, on the strength of his well-known absent-mindedness rather than policy initiatives. It had entered the language pretty definitively by 1995, often used by politicians and press secretaries, but actors also use it a lot. During the latest presidential campaign, it quickly became the standard verb to denote Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson’s inability to address the significance of Aleppo. As is often the case when a new phrase resembles an old one, or several old ones, the trail into everyday language is not well-blazed and it may be impossible to determine, even in retrospect, how it wormed its way in.

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(1980’s | athletese | “revenge,” “comeuppance,” “just desserts”)

It seems odd to me that this word came to mean what it does as late as it did. “Pay back” has never been the idiom of choice when it comes to getting back at someone else, but instances of it do turn up in many times and places. Surely it would be entitled to the same shift in part of speech as its financial counterpart, which had several nominal uses in the mid-seventies: at the most literal, “act of repaying,” or “restitution,” but often it meant “return on investment” or “reward” — in other words, “payoff.” A related adjectival use was found in phrases like “payback period,” defined as the amount of time required to make back the money invested. (In other words, how long it will be before the investment pays for itself.) That phrase is important in corporate accounting, and it may be shortened informally to “payback” (as in “payback of three years”).

These uses of the word are still around, but “payback” has taken on the more ominous meaning of “vengeance.” I found but two or three instances of the term before 1980 in LexisNexis in this sense, all in sports-related contexts. Sport is a natural breeding ground for retribution because of its competitive nature and because of how leagues work, organizing schedules that match the same teams against each other over and over. They beat us last year, but this year we’ll get payback. By the end of the eighties, athletes were using “payback time” in such contexts, which until then had been an occasional variant of “payback period.” As late as 2000, “payback” seems to have been mainly an athlete’s word, but now it has spread through the language. It made its mark next in political discourse, not surprisingly; you will hear the phrase “political payback,” which always refers to settling a score. When Donald Trump tells his supporters that it’s payback time, part of what he means is “I’m going to help you get back everything the [fill in the blank] have taken away from you.” It ain’t just money.

It has occurred to me that “payback” ought to mean rendering the service bought with a bribe or similar corruption, influenced by “kickback,” just as it sometimes is influenced by “payoff.” You see that every now and then, but it has never become common. It’s a scenario that arises rather often, so having another word to cover it would be helpful. Yet “payback” never seems to have stepped into those shoes. Odd, I call it.

In sports and especially in politics, “payback” is never neutral. It is almost always used to exult in the defeat or destruction of a rival. Although it appeals to a rough justice, payback need not be proportionate; messing the opponent up more than they messed you up to begin with may be desirable and is in any case part of the game. Winning a round carries with it the risk that you will lose the ground gained and maybe more during the next battle. Sometimes you hear “Payback’s a bitch, ain’t it?” The question is uttered with a sneer, a means of rubbing it in when you have skunked your opponent. But rhetorical flourishes are not required; “payback” in its nature bears meanness and resentment, a sense that one was bested unfairly and has no choice but to stick it to the aggressor. The only way to redress the grievance is to make the victor suffer at least as much as they made you suffer.

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