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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: american culture


(1980’s | “from OR of the old school” “classic,” “old-time(y),” “traditional”)

It’s a nice way to say “old-fashioned.” The point is it’s nice; “old-school” is a compliment. It’s not just the old-fashioned way; it’s the right way. It may be used to mean blinkered or backward-looking, but that is unusual; one encounters it much more often in an admiring tone. Some expressions turn sour over time and develop a harsher side (examples: aspirational, comfort zone, game the system, lone wolf), and this one might, but not so far.

Almost certainly a Briticism, the adjective phrase developed from things like the old school tie, where it means something a little different. In that phrase, the main unit is the compound noun “school tie.” (We should also remember the older adjective-noun combination, which usually had a sentimental cast but might also be uttered with regret or mockery.) Now the link lies between “old” and “school,” a compound adjective with or without hyphen. During the eighties it started appearing regularly in the American press in that form, in political and art journalism and no doubt elsewhere as well. Sportswriters and music critics took to it readily to talk about athletes or musicians who emulated performers of previous generations. But it has never settled in one neighborhood of the language; “old-school” can come at you from any side.

Smith Barney commercials from the 1980’s featured John Houseman intoning, “They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it.” The commercial demonstrates why we needed the phrase, even though “old-school” doesn’t actually appear in it. There was no one more old-school than John Houseman. (Though he might be scouted by other old-school types for using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular entity. Then again, if you hear it as “Smith [and] Barney,” it’s plural after all.)

While Americans regularly show a preference for forgetting the past, there is a countervailing tendency to respect achievements and personalities that came before — because they paved the way or had an auspicious effect on later work. It arises from a yearning for a time when we were wiser and more sensible; we look to the past to provide standards and guidance, not just a way to measure our own accomplishments. When it comes to moral superiority, our past has a spotty record at best; some old ways have passed on and cannot be revived. If old-school exemplars want to be successful in today’s world, they have to choose the right practices, customs, and forms of address to hang onto. If you do it well, it still pays off.

Lex Maniac has covered a few other expressions that evoke old times: artisanal, back in the day, epic, retro. They all have the same admiring quality as “old-school,” or at least they did when they started out. I’ll have to come up with some that look back in anger.

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note to self

(1990’s | journalese? | “mental note”)

You tied a string around your finger in order to remember something important, and it worked because every time you looked at your finger, it reminded you of whatever it was — generally a specific task. In truth, you didn’t really see people walking around with strings around their fingers cutting off circulation, but the concept was still current in my youth, if only figurative, at least among older people. Now it has gone the way of so many colorful expressions of our forebears.

Never fear, we rustled up a verbal equivalent. “Note to self” appears to be a Briticism; the first hit in LexisNexis in the U.S. dates from 1994, by which time it had become familiar in the U.K. and Canada. From the start, it was the property of lifestyle columnists, book reviewers, and the like — writers whose stock in trade is hipness. The phrase had and retains a humorous or ironic quality, making it easy prey for comedians. Most of all, it is rueful; if everything goes fine, there’s no need for a note to self. Normally the phrase introduces an observation that is either obvious or has recently impressed itself upon the speaker, with the implication that the reminder should not have been necessary. When it is used to set up a more far-fetched piece of advice, it adds an extra layer of irony. It nearly always is used to introduce a sentence, though it may appear on its own, as a response to oneself or to another speaker.

“Note to self” is commonly associated with recording one’s own voice, as with a dictaphone or mp3 recorder; picture a high-powered executive muttering a reminder to acquire a smaller company or buy chocolate for the spouse. That scene owes its ancestry in turn to spy movies and their parodies. (I don’t think Maxwell Smart ever said “note to self,” but it’s easy to imagine him doing it.) Yet the voice recorder was never essential even in early uses of the expression, which has always been available as a purely written flourish. Because the phrase prods us to useful accomplishments or at least to avoid pitfalls — no one ever says, “Note to self: alienate friends and ruin life” — it forms a twig on the great tree of self-improvement and self-help, which has overshadowed American culture. The note to self is both an admission that one continues to need to do better and a path to the goal. The phrase met quick acceptance partly because it fit in readily with one of our national obsessions.

We owe this week’s expression to lovely Lenny from Houston, who impressed it on my ear several years ago. It has been rattling around all this time, surprisingly long considering how fruitful it is.

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not o.k.

(1980’s | journalese? | “not (all) right,” “not so hot,” “serious,” “unacceptable”)

I encountered this expression first in the early nineties in the form of a reprimand, uttered by the supervisor when a co-worker and I were goofing off a little too obviously (part of growing up is learning how to goof off unobtrusively). There it ran “it’s not o.k. to . . .” with an impersonal subject. Instead of saying “Cut it out,” the boss said it’s not o.k. Seems like a bit of a retreat, doesn’t it? In this case, he didn’t have direct control over us — we were hired by the university, not by him — so maybe he didn’t feel like he could boss us around, or maybe he just didn’t have the nerve to tell a couple of giggling students to get back to work.

It stuck in my head, because it seemed so banal, yet it had a certain power. “O.k.” has reached a plateau of ubiquity higher than even culture-blanketing expressions like “iconic” or “don’t go there.” We all use it endlessly, here and around the world; you don’t have to speak English. It has had a lot of time to spread — “o.k.” was born right here in America in the late 1830’s as an abbreviation for “oll korrect,” an example of the “phunny spelling” that was a staple of nineteenth-century American humor. It appears in countless contexts, mostly to signify some sort of approval or acceptance, but not necessarily. (For example, if used to respond to verbal resistance, by drawing out the first syllable and cutting short the second while adding a rising intonation, it suggests the situation will cause more trouble than expected.) We use “o.k.” the same way we use “fine,” to convey a sense of contentment, or at least no trouble worth mentioning. When a person is o.k., everything is acceptable or better in his or her life. When a thing is o.k., there is nothing objectionable about it. “Not o.k.” is the opposite. Something is wrong, and it can’t be denied, papered over, or justified — even if all looks well on the surface.

More recently, “not o.k.” has taken a personal turn, normally the first person, as in “I’m not o.k.” That phrasing evokes disquiet or worse, especially in one’s mental or emotional state. Yet it might sound odd for a terminal cancer patient to say “I’m not o.k.” It’s for real problems, but not that serious. Uncertainty or suffering can bring on discomfort and anxiety; trauma may do greater damage, and one might use the expression in either case. Needless to say, “not o.k.” has profited from our collective misfortune over the past year, and a new manifestation has taken root: “it’s o.k. to be not o.k.,” meaning that you have good reason to be miserable or uneasy or disoriented. Then there’s “I’m not o.k. with . . .” (I don’t condone, support, or agree with . . .), which takes us right back to “it’s not o.k. to . . . .”

LexisNexis shows a few instances in the seventies, when it usually took the form of a rejoinder. One’s foil had described an act or policy as o.k. (meaning anything from adequate to great), to which one thundered, “No, it is not o.k.!” In other words, don’t try to palm this crap off on us. But it could have another shading, as when Pope John Paul II remarked, after some trouble with the microphone during his visit to Philadelphia in 1979, “I see, also in the United States, something might be not o.k.” — that it might not work properly. It sounds strange now to hear it in the context of an object like a microphone, rather than an action, an idea, or someone’s sense of well-being. But the pope was twitting our stereotypical national characteristics: can-do optimism, confidence in technology, and a preference for not acknowledging problems. We talk big, but we don’t always get it right. The American expression typified an American attitude.

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(1990’s | “grand,” “great,” “wonderful,” “incredible,” “memorable”)

When I was young, I knew all about “epic.” Noun or adjective, it referred to a long, heroic poem that explained how a nation came to be, or laid out legends of deeds lost to history. In the Greco-Roman West, we have Homer and Virgil, but the Mahabharata or the Kalevala also qualify, and dozens of others. (Nobody ever called Exodus an epic, as far as I can remember, but my scholarly readers may correct me.) When I got older, I found out about “epic theater,” as espoused by Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht, which had nothing to do with Homer but plenty to do with Aristotle, as these German young Turks demanded new forms and purposes for the drama — less catharsis, more social criticism — and set about writing and producing their own exemplars.

Those are both literary definitions because “epic” was a literary term. It was available for metaphorical use even as an adjective in the 1970’s, but only on special occasions. The word indicated that the hearer was to imagine the story on the scale of Odysseus’s journey to Ithaca. So you might recount the epic saga of getting home after the car broke down, or an epic tale of a controversial bill worming its way through Congress. But mostly it described films and stories, according them the sweep and scope of the ancient poets singing still more ancient feats of arms and guile. Not just long and complicated, but stirring and uplifting as well.

You can probably guess what’s next. “Epic” has not lost all of its mojo, but it is used to describe many, many things that can’t reasonably be compared to the old poems, or even old Brecht. Resort visits, automotive performance, hamburger stands, t-shirts, a sports rivalry. Almost anything can attract the name, though it helps if it can claim a modicum of longevity and tradition. The change has occurred largely since 1990, and mostly on the adjective side; the noun has fared a little better. As the adjective has overrun the language, it has generated its own fixed phrases. A favorite example of mine has become familiar to ears of all ages but falls primarily from younger lips: “epic fail,” a punchy and rather appealing evocation of at least minor disaster caused by human action. When a kid rolls her eyes and says, “It was an epic fail!,” you can be sure it didn’t go well. From the world of commerce: I had not known that there is a cryptocurrency called “Epic Cash.”

There is an obvious connection to “iconic,” but I’m more inclined to compare “epic” to “awesome.” “Awe” had real power once, not that long ago, and “awesome” had replaced “awful” as its adjective. An awesome thing was magnificent, colossal, humbling. As everyone knows, that’s all over now. “Awesome” has become threadbare and reduced, mouthed a propos of anything cool or nifty (has that word died? It was better than “neat-o”) — all it says is that the speaker likes the thing in question. “Epic” has so far held onto more of its power, but who’s to say that will last? Another decade or two, it may be just as attenuated as “awesome.”

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(1980’s | athletese | “preferred,” “favored,” “favorite,” “first choice,” “old reliable”)

Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I believe that the present incarnation of “go-to,” whether noun or adjective, can be traced back to a basketball locution, “go-to guy,” which started to spread in the mid-eighties. If anyone finds or remembers earlier examples of the attributive “go-to,” send them in. A go-to player was a star or team leader, the one who wasn’t afraid to shoot in the closing moments of a game. The strong implication was that the player was not only talented but unfazed by pressure. There might be several clutch players on the team, but normally only one go-to guy, and he would demand the ball when the game was on the line.

The phrase was picked up in the corporate world, where the sense of crucial contribution remains, but the emphasis differs. In businese, the go-to guy offers knowledge and efficiency rather than fearlessness. It’s a person who can solve your problem, but without any necessary connotation of urgency — although go-to guys come into play only when there’s something wrong, so there’s usually at least a sense of disquiet. The expression remains current in sports and business writing, having spread far beyond them. “Go-to person” seems to be the non-gendered alternative, but “guy” is still used often on the sports page.

In today’s world, “go-to” modifies many words besides “guy,” and it need not modify anything at all. “Go-to” has become a noun in its own right, and the young may refer to a favorite movie or a regular order at the coffee shop simply as “my go-to.” Two shifts are at work here: the adjective has taken on noun coloration (not unusual); and, more significantly, the adjective has taken on the ability to modify the inanimate. It isn’t only a trusted person who can get you out of a jam, but anything that makes you feel better. When “go-to” modifies a thing rather than a person, it suggests not only something you can rely on but something you really like. Whether person or thing, “go-to” carries the implication that one returns to it again and again, but that feeling is even more pronounced when it modifies a thing. You may need different go-to people at the office depending on your problem, but your favorite song is your favorite song.

The rise of “go-to” does appear to be a case of dumbing down. While “go-to guy” has an alliterative vigor suitable to the sports world, I can’t see why it should have spread so easily in the larger culture. There were already several ways to get the point across. We have produced a society with a strong bias toward the simple and quick; the less time it takes and the easier it is to digest, the better we like it. That might work when all your problems are tractable, but we don’t seem very well equipped to handle the complexities we confront. Insignificant in itself, the growth of “go-to” hints at a larger loss to the culture.

My old buddy Charles gets credit for nominating this expression. Happy new year, Charles!

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abundance of caution

(legalese, bureaucratese | “uncertainty,” “fear”)

A venerable lawyerly expression, I grant you, which also does duty as a financial term. Hasn’t it become much more abundant in recent decades? LexisNexis shows steady growth since 1980, when the phrase was uttered occasionally by a sonorous bureaucrat explaining why his office would do nothing whatever about the problem. Those were quieter times. Let’s go ahead and blame a litigious society and a world governed by actuaries for creating conditions in which this phrase must become more common. If something goes wrong, there will be liability, so let’s make sure nothing can go wrong, even if in doing so we prevent anything from going right. When in doubt and determined to avoid risk, this is the phrase you reach for.

I have remarked before on a shift in the culture toward playing up safety and security as the primary function of government in all its forms, and in the private sector, too. There are grounds for skepticism that we are less safe than we used to be; it may simply be that the oligarchy plays this card more often, having discovered its effectiveness. New menaces arise all the time — Ebola (which sparked an increase in use of the phrase “abundance of caution”), or mass school shootings. Some events are so undesirable that we go to great lengths to forestall them; if there’s even a chance something cataclysmic will occur, we take unusual measures to prevent it. And so the phrase is subject to the usual abuses, which a fellow blogger has anatomized.

In effect, this expression is a backdoor way to say, “there’s really no problem here; we’re just so concerned for your welfare that we’re taking this drastic step.” The phrase has become de rigueur in product recalls, for example. The auto manufacturer or the produce supplier, upon learning of a fire here or an illness there, hauls the whole lot back out of an abundance of caution, that is, more than is truly required by the circumstances. Only a short step to a superfluity of caution. The suggestion of a private company acting in the public interest, even at some cost, may help explain the appeal of this phrase. As regulations have gotten tighter (thank heavens!), suppliers have been compelled to take action when it becomes clear that their product is unsafe. When that stops being generally true, we are all in trouble.

One slightly odd point about this expression is that it is used with “out of,” not “with.” Which is to say it points a way to avoid something, not a way to do something. You don’t defuse a bomb with an abundance of caution, or back away from a wild animal, or cross a raging river. You act with an abundance of caution to prevent a problem from occurring, or keep it from getting worse. I can’t think of any linguistic reason that should be so, but it is.

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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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(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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