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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: american culture

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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(1990’s | journalese (arts))

It may surprise you to learn that there are some who don’t like hipsters. The concept seems too familiar to require summary, but I encourage everyone to spend an hour Googling “hipster definition” or something similar. Once you see through the fog of animus, you encounter amazingly precise definitions of the term, with detailed and occasionally exquisite catalogues of preferences in fashion, the arts, diet, transportation, grooming, and who knows what all else. Oh, and then there’s the attitude, thoroughly annoying to upstanding citizens everywhere. Pretentious. Hypocritical. Self-righteous. Suckers for fads. Even card-carrying hipsters deny membership in the group; that too is an oft-cited trait of hipsterism, one of the odder ones, it seems to me. There must be some hipster out there who will own up, for Pete’s sake. Diogenes, get busy and start searching for an honest hipster. (In our day, that would be a reality show, and it probably wouldn’t last a season.)

Now “hipster” goes back at least to the 1940’s, when it was a straightforward variation on “hip” or “hip (hep) cat.” Back then, “hipster” was a compliment, used mostly within a particular, and fairly small, subculture. The word was applied to devotees of the latest jazz, or more generally the language, habits, and attitude that went with it. By the mid-1950’s, it was a synonym for “beatnik”; Norman Mailer used it to talk about white people who wanted to be black (which was thought to be the same as being hip). The emphasis fell on expert knowledge and awareness of your cultural surroundings, but anyone considered to be in the know or up to date rated the term. And with that went “cool” and other affectations: avoidance of strong emotion or expression, lack of interest in the world outside the club, etc. Does any of that sound familiar? The connoisseurship, the detachment, the lassitude, the obsessions? “Hipster” was overtaken by “hippie” in the 1960’s, which drove every other derivative of “hip” out of the language for twenty years. (It lives on today as an insult, which is what it was in the first place. “Hippie” is another example of a derogatory term adopted and embraced by its target.) When “hipster” jostled its way back into common speech, it brought quite a bit of its former meaning with it.

At least up until the mid-1980’s, one encountered “hipster” generally in articles about jazz musicians of a previous generation. It’s not clear to me when the changeover happened, but as early as the late 1980’s, I found some citations that made me suspect that today’s meaning was in play by then. But nothing really unambiguous until the early 1990’s. By 1995 the word was used as we use it now, though not universally. It went along with the rise of luxury coffee and Quentin Tarantino. And in those halcyon days the word often had a nostalgic tinge, a sense of rediscovering a hipper past. That shading seems to be gone. Another change: “Hipster” now almost always carries opprobrium, which was not true when it was an in-group term sixty, or even thirty, years ago. Is it just because hipsters are more obnoxious than they were back then? Maybe they’re just more ubiquitous; so much ink has been spilled over the phenomenon that everyone got tired of it (including the hipsters themselves), and ennui became the only possible response. Urban Dictionary affords over 500 definitions, and the web abounds with takedowns of hipsterism. One clever deconstruction from Adbusters (2008) suffers only slightly from the rather feverish suggestion that the hipsters will be the ones to bring down Western civilization once and for all.

One thing generally associated with hipsters all along is youth, or at least the ability to fake it. When do you cross the boundary and get too old to be a hipster? You wake up one morning and the wrinkles are just a little too deep. OMG! We have to move to the suburbs! Briefcases and bow ties for everyone! You probably have to stop wearing tight jeans and cycling when you turn into a hipster emeritus, but let us hope the poor dears can hang onto their obscure bands and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. The sense of superiority will be the last thing to go.

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Usually in this space I explore an expression that has come into being or undergone a significant change in the last forty years or so. This week I’d like to do something similar, but with malice aforethought. I have strong feelings about four fine old idioms that have been hijacked in recent decades, from a minor alteration that happens to get on my nerves to a significant and entirely unnecessary change in definition wrought by rank illiteracy. (All you antiquarians out there, what is “wrought” the past tense of? Hint: It’s not “wright.”) Of all my numerous pet peeves, these are some of the pettiest, although one phrase (the last) constitutes a real loss.

hark back

More and more I see this rendered as “harken back” or even “hearken back.” I don’t quibble with the spelling, but the superfluous syllable. It’s a natural confusion; “hark” and “harken” mean the same thing (“listen up”), even if we use them a little differently. “Hark back to” doesn’t pertain directly to listening, though — more like “bring to mind something that happened in the past.” So if the alteration is insignificant and inevitable, why does it stick in my craw? Because it’s a small but telling symptom of cultural decline. Why do I know, with obnoxious certainty, that there is a correct form of the phrase? Because I’ve read a lot, and therefore both my eye and ear told me right away the first time I saw the phrase misrendered, and they continue to curl my lip at each recurrence.

out of kilter

Which has mutated into “off-kilter,” probably influenced by “off-center” and possibly “off-color.” I’m not sure if this is a failure of literacy or not. It certainly looks like it, but the fact is, “out of kilter” had pretty well disappeared before “off-kilter” started getting tossed around. “Out of kilter” is old, and at bottom it meant something like “not working right,” comparable to the later “out of whack.” Used of tools or engines, not people. “Off-kilter” is similar but distinct; it implies something out of alignment, eccentric, or perhaps just unexpected. A rock band’s characteristic sound might be described as off-kilter, or a fictional world, but a person might be, too. Brits and Americans alike use it. There must be other examples of dead phrases returning in new guises. “Ramp up” comes to mind.

under duress

As this expression has become more common its meaning has begun to shift. What did “under duress” always and everywhere mean? Under compulsion or threat of force. You were acting under duress if you were forced to do something against your will; grievous harm would follow if you didn’t obey. It was primarily a legal term and is still used the same way in the law. Now there is a growing tendency to confuse “duress” with “stress” or “pressure” (but think hard day at the office, not Guantanamo). Here’s a recent example: “In addition, distributed critical infrastructure is often located in places that are physically inaccessible, lack connectivity, subject to intemperate climate or otherwise constrained by limited space. As a result, traditional security solutions intended for indoor environments are often ill-equipped to operate under duress or in harsh conditions.” In the old days, there was no such thing as an inanimate object under duress. If we could get computers to behave by threatening them with violence, I would have the best-behaved computer in the world. Here’s another: “[The coaches] don’t trust [Jets’ quarterback Geno Smith] to make the right decisions under duress.” Now this sounds like it means simply “under stress,” but quarterbacks do have to act under immediate physical menace, so it could also partake of the old definition. It’s a transitional form, but it shows a definite trend toward equating “duress” with “stress,” an unnecessary simplification. The old meaning is still predominant. In twenty or thirty years? I’ll bet it will have largely disappeared from general use.

beg the question

“Beg the question” does not does not DOES NOT mean “raise the question.” O.k., I’m done hyperventilating now; here’s a more measured view. It is a time-honored logical term that means “make a circular argument,” which in turn means one of your premises is the same as your conclusion (it’s customary to disguise that fact). So you’re not proving anything, merely restating a position you assumed without any proof. It is a common informal logical fallacy, with a nice Latin name, “petitio principii.”

You will smile indulgently at my outrage and remind me that it’s no use railing against linguistic change. But why this venerable and useful expression? It had a very specific meaning that cannot be stated so elegantly otherwise, and while perhaps not often needed, it’s most definitely useful. What we didn’t need was another way to say “raise the question.” Yet another distressing example of our fellow citizens misusing expressions they don’t understand, or half-understand, wiping away specific, well-defined meanings or shades of meaning like a Muslim fanatic destroying a centuries-old sculpture, but without the passion or even any particular awareness of the destruction. “Duress” reminds people of “stress,” or “beg the question” kinda sounds like a fancy way to say “raise the question,” so that’s good enough, right? When one word reminds you of another, they ought to mean the same thing, and what do complexity and precision matter, anyway?

These crippled expressions all result from a certain kind of illiteracy. The decline in our ear for language isn’t caused by a flat-out inability to read, but by insufficient reading. The more you read, the firmer a grasp you develop of how others use the language, and used to use it. If you don’t have that accumulation of absorbed text, well, a little learning is a dangerous thing, said Pope, and these expressions illustrate part of the reason why. You get overconfident. You develop too much faith in your intuition, your vocabulary, and your ability to deduce meaning from context, and when enough people do that, the language suffers, and our communication suffers with it. I don’t want to sound like a mandarin, but when it comes to language, I have strong tendencies that way. Sure, I’m abnormally sensitive because I’ve spent my life reading and burrowing into dictionaries. I can’t really make the case that we’re going to hell in a handbasket because everyone started misusing “beg the question.” But we do seem to have a harder time talking to each other as we huddle in our like-minded enclaves and wall ourselves off from those who disagree with us, and everyday language does seem to get more meager, constrained, and sloppy every decade. Maybe there’s a connection.

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(1980’s | journalese)

An unregistered trademark, this word probably isn’t eligible for the blog, but it’s part of the zeitgeist, so what the hell. It is a nickname for USA Today and has existed almost as long as that journalistic institution. First recorded use in the New York Times, October 17, 1982, only a month after the very first issue hit the stands: “Some dismiss the newspaper, with its flood of short articles, as journalistic junk food, or ‘McPaper’.” I’ve never seen an individual credited with the coinage, but we may imagine a chain-smoking hack, with loosened tie and rumpled hair, coming out with it during a clinical dissection of the upstart rival, with its color graphics and short, uninformative articles. It was flashy, broad-brush, an easy read for the man on the go. Lots of sports news and celebrity gossip. You see where I’m going with this: They are all McPapers now.

It was easy to dismiss USA Today back then, and their journalistic reputation has improved since. The term “McPaper” has never become especially widespread and generally seems to have been kept alive by media critics. It was current by 1990; everybody knew what it meant. It held more contempt than it does now, though I suppose it still bears a shade of scorn.

I was in high school in 1982, and I remember walking up to the main drag in my home town to see if an inaugural USA Today remained in the curbside box (a white not-quite cube with the logo painted in blue on the side, meant to evoke a television set). It was a real novelty at first, and it became very successful — financially, at least. But the standards that seemed dangerously low to veteran journalists in 1982 don’t look so bad today.


(1990’s | corporatese? academese? | “dead-end job”)

Although McDonald’s tried to get Merriam Webster to remove “McJob” from the dictionary in 2003, it invented the term itself in 1984. From PR Newswire (May 24, 1984): “McDonald’s will also utilize a new training and employment program called ‘McJobs’ as a source for recruiting some of the new employees.” By the end of the eighties, the derisive sense we know today was established, although the term often referred specifically to a job in a fast-food restaurant. The McDonalds training program persisted for several years, but I haven’t found a recent reference to it, although reported last year on a worker morale campaign called “I love my McJob” that invited McDonalds’ employees to videotape a paean to their employment (and, presumably, employer).

In fact, McDonalds lost control of this one years ago. As early as 1988, it sued Quality Inn, which was trying to trademark a chain called McSleep Inns. Lawyers came up with “a list of more than sixty ‘”mc” words.’ None were trademarked by McDonald’s. . . . Besides McFashion and McPaper, the list included McArt, McFuneral, McTelevision, McNews, McLaw and McWhatever” (New York Times July 22, 1988). Wikipedia and others credit sociologist Amitai Etzioni with first using “McJob” to denote low-wage, dead-end, service-sector employment.

“McJob” has clearly grown beyond its fast-food origins to take on a more general meaning. It’s the kind of job minority teenagers get — the kind of job you either overcome or languish in, the kind of job you recall ruefully years later or you acknowledge as having taught you how to work. Economists argue about the extent to which our economy is being overcome by such unpromising jobs and what effect it will have on our future. I never worked in a fast-food restaurant, but I knew a girl in high school with scars on her arms from grease burns. When she worked her shift at McDonald’s, she wore a button that said “Eat McShit and Die.”


(2000’s | journalese | “oversized suburban house”)

First use in LexisNexis: Henry Allen in the Washington Post, July 14, 1991: “those big Reagan-era McMansions.” He didn’t bother with quotation marks or a gloss, but as late as 2000, you still often saw the term in quotation marks. A few years later they had disappeared.

Of the three “Mc” words considered here, McMansion got the latest start but has spread the farthest. The trend of using “Mc” as a derisive prefix denoting cheapness and standardization took hold in the eighties. Some time during my childhood McDonalds became ubiquitous (I’m old enough to remember when the signs had actual numbers on them, rather than simply “Billions and billions served”), a business success story on a huge scale that inevitably became an object of scorn. In the seventies, we called it “Mickey D’s” and understood dimly that eating or socializing there wasn’t altogether good for one’s character, but that never kept us from doing it.

“McMansion” represents an evolution, I think. “McPaper” and “McJobs” were devoid of substance, paltry, inadequate. But there’s nothing inadequate about a McMansion — they’re opulent, even gross, the proud property of those who equate crass flaunting of wealth with the American dream. The element of standardization persists in “McMansion,” perhaps, but the cheapness evoked has nothing to do with money. It’s an absence of heart and soul. When you build a McMansion, you substitute brute fiscal force for old-fashioned values of respect for tradition (not to mention your neighbors’ privacy), moderation, or wisdom. You’re just a machine, taking money in and spitting it out.

There seems to be a shadowy connection between the ratio of the McMansion’s footprint to the size of the lot it’s built on. While it can mean a large house on a large lot or on a small lot, most people reserve their venom for a large house that takes up an entire lot, encroaching on everyone else’s space. I have a notion that “McMansion” is now used often in that narrow sense.

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Joe Sixpack

(early 1990’s | advertese?, journalese? | “John Q. Public,” “the average joe or American,” “working stiff,” “man in the street”)

The mythical yet representative Homo sapiens (sub-species Americanus) may have been born in the febrile brain of an anonymous ad man. If it was, he was probably thinking of his brewery client and ginning up a word to refer to the average beer purchaser, probably with a snicker or sneer. Neither Google Books nor LexisNexis yields any citations before 1977 or so, and some of the earliest ones do have to do with beer advertising. Forbes magazine (1978) offered this commentary: “Anheuser had always concentrated its marketing fire on Joe Sixpack: male, a heavy beer-user, blue collar.” William Safire helped cement that link with this taxonomy (December 19, 1982): “Thus, today we have John Q. Public wearing respectable spectacles; Joe Sixpack is sitting in his undershirt looking like Archie Bunker.” But even that early, the phrase could be used in a less loaded way. The use of the phrase spread in the 1980’s, but the number of hits returned by LexisNexis doesn’t go up sharply until after 1990. As early as the mid-1980’s, LexisNexis found uses of the phrase in major foreign publications in French, Italian, German, and English, suggesting that the name appealed to the rest of the world as a colorful, evocative, and none too flattering personification of Americans.

Politicians soon picked this one up, I’m afraid, and so did their journalist camp followers. The expression was invented and perpetuated by elites, in other words, the advertisers and elected officials who tell us what to wear and what to think. So here was a term for “average joe” that came from those who get rich by manipulating average joes one way and another. Now politicians must walk a fine line, as every schoolboy knows. In terms of status and power, they travel in circles far above the vast majority of their constituents, even in the wealthiest districts. A certain amount of talking down is necessary, and you can’t be too obvious about it. Politicians often use “Joe Sixpack” to signal, “I understand you folks, and I’m prepared to use my political power to do your bidding.” Thus the name can be used approvingly, to imply down-home virtues and a salt-of-the-earth quality. Yet it is inevitable, perhaps, that the phrase when used by the powerful always bears an undercurrent of condescension if not active disdain.

But something else again happens when others use it. “Joe Sixpack” is generally used to refer to the average American by everyone except the elites without the least apparent irony. When non-elites use this expression, as far as I can tell, it is much more likely to be neutral or laudatory, except when a writer objects to the term because it sounds demeaning. A valid point, but it raises a question: Could this be an example of the masses taking over a contemptuous label and turning it into a term of solidarity, like gay men calling themselves “queer”?

Here is an expression, like “inner child,” “type A personality,” and “whistleblower,” that leads a persistent double life. Is it the average guy, or the average uncultured beer-swilling slob? Or is it nobler: an honest citizen working hard, paying taxes, raising the kids, and living in peace with the neighbors? Maybe we should not be surprised that an expression beloved of politicians is steeped in ambiguity and duplicity.

six-pack abs

(2000’s | athletese? | “well-defined stomach muscles”)

A popular on-line dictionary reports that the term arose in the early eighties, but I haven’t found anything before 1995 in LexisNexis or Google Books, except one reference in the Herald Sun of Sydney, Australia in 1994. Does the expression come from abroad? I doubt it, but I don’t know, and my usual Internet sources don’t offer much help. You’d think it was a bodybuilder’s term, and I wouldn’t argue with you. “Abs” for the rectus abdominis muscle seems to be a little older, dating back to the eighties; the elaboration came along later. A plural word to refer to a single muscle? That’s just how we do things around here.

Many have noted the irony of describing well-defined and developed stomach muscles in such terms, since just about anything that comes in a six-pack is likely to be fattening. records fifty-odd variations — but not a definition of “six-pack abs” itself, oddly enough — many of them involving the word “keg” or other sarcastic references to beer bellies. But the phrase caught on quickly; Charles Atlas himself had adopted it in his advertising by 2000. It’s punchy, easy to envision, and I doubt anyone ever needed to have it defined — a photo from a body-building magazine is all you need. (In this case, one picture nets you only three words.) The phrase built muscle quickly and now is showing enviable stamina. In a culture where physical fitness is extolled, admired, and occasionally even practiced, “six-pack abs” will have no trouble maintaining its supremacy in the weight room of words.

It’s strange that only abs get this treatment: you never hear about “crystal-ball biceps” or “boxing-glove pecs.” Then again, maybe it’s not so strange.

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