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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: anthropology


(1970’s | therapese | “exchange-based”)

First there was transactional immunity, a legal concept having to do with grand jury testimony, where a witness may be compelled to testify about a crime he was involved in with a promise that he won’t face prosecution. Traditionally, the witness was assured that no prosecution would follow for a crime described in testimony, and that was known as “transactional immunity.” Congress changed the law so that a witness could be prosecuted for such crimes, but the witness’s grand jury testimony could not be used as part of the prosecution (“use immunity”). A complicated distinction with big ramifications.

In the seventies, along came transactional analysis, encapsulated in the book “I’m OK, You’re OK” by Thomas Harris, which led a fad in the middle of the decade. I don’t remember being aware of the term at the time (though I was aware of the book), and the definition seems to have been rather vague, but the idea was to examine how you dealt with other people in order to improve such encounters (transaction = interaction). In practice, that meant you did role-playing exercises to help you deal more pleasantly with others and learn more reliable methods of engaging with them. Transactional management, which emphasized maintaining an existing system through rewards and punishments, invoked a related concept in businese.

Today the catch-phrase is transactional data, which is what Google and Amazon want: detailed records of your purchases, on-line or otherwise, so they can wring more money out of you. Here we have a straightforward adjective formation meaning “of or pertaining to a transaction,” which has been around a long time and represents what is probably still the most common guise of “transactional.” In the seventies it was not used often; it’s much more common now.

Despite the continuing prevalence of the business usage, the real story here is the shift from the legal and financial to the human, which began with Harris. The word is often used now to talk about the ways we treat each other, related to the older concept of “keeping score” in a relationship. A connection between two people, like any other kind, does require some scorekeeping. Any relationship I’ve ever seen, healthy and successful or otherwise, involves a certain amount of paying attention to who has done what for whom lately and making adjustments accordingly. But a predominantly or purely transactional bond doesn’t last very long, because it forces you to focus on the wrong things. Instead of making the most of your partner’s pleasing or compatible traits, you wonder whether you’re getting enough for what you’re giving, and that line of thought leads to dissatisfaction and resentment.

A recent example from the wider world of politics: several commentators described as “transactional” Michael Bloomberg’s apology for excessive stop-and-frisks by the NYPD during his term as mayor. The word conveys the idea that the apology was insincere, a kind of bribe offered without any real reflection or concern about the effects of the policy. It’s safe to say that Bloomberg’s move asked for a quid pro quo; he was in effect asking African-Americans to reconsider him and even give him their votes. In larger social contexts as in smaller personal contexts, the transactional requires an ongoing series of exchanges, which must involve calculation and record-keeping (writing, humanity’s pre-eminent means of keeping records, developed out of commerce, after all). Now that the term has moved into social science jargon to talk about the interpersonal, it is firmly anchored in two realms and seems unlikely to budge from either.

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people of color

(1980’s | officialese? academese? | “non-whites,” “non-white persons,” “dark-skinned people OR races”)

The expression feels old because it is. “Free people of color” was ordinary in the first half of the nineteenth century to denote descendants of white Europeans and Africans, particularly around the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. (As opposed to descendants of white Americans and Africans, who were enslaved people of color, but no one called them that.) The phrase did not disappear altogether after a sharp decline in the mid-nineteenth century, but it needed well over a hundred years to regain, and surpass, its former strength, according to Google Ngrams. Although the phrase was not used generally (as far as I know) under apartheid in South Africa, it recalled the racial designation “colored” — of mixed race, somewhere between white and black. “Colored” was a respectable term in the U.S. well into the twentieth century — almost always referring to African-Americans — but lost legitimacy during the civil rights movement.

When late twentieth-century Americans finally adopted “people of color” — which took a while because “colored” had become a thoroughly retrograde word — they took a concept intended to do harm and turned it into an honorific or at least neutral term, a common enough process, as I have noted elsewhere. According to Safire in 1988, the phrase received a definitive boost from Martin Luther King in a 1963 speech; the corpora offers little doubt that the first to use the term regularly and revive it were, in fact, people of color (“person/persons of color” is not used nearly as often). Jerry Brown said it in 1979, by which time more advanced white people had begun dropping it into speeches. It has been and remains a polite term, acknowledging the sort of difference we can’t help noticing while avoiding insidious older expressions, and it is intended to cover everyone who does not count as white in U.S. culture.

The boundaries of whiteness have changed quite a bit over time. (For some purposes, the category now includes those of East Asian descent, which would have unthinkable 150 or even 50 years ago, when Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid might still be encountered in anthropological texts.) They still matter because we have not freed ourselves of the framework of white vs. everyone else here in America, which makes it useful to have a single term that covers everyone else. That seems to be the primary purpose of “people of color,” which at least does not include the word “white.” The phrase betokens resignation in the face of racism that persists regardless of all the cogent and powerful arguments against it. Maybe because of them; one response to proof that you are an idiot is to press the idiocy harder than ever. It may be a luxury we cannot afford much longer. If China keeps growing and Russia keeps threatening, even our most benighted white-ists may conclude that we need contributions from everyone, and may go so far as to admit that people of color are needed to keep the nation afloat. If so, that would be a historically unusual though not unprecedented development, one that runs counter to current trends.

I did a little experiment in LexisNexis, searching the phrases “men of color” and “women of color” at roughly ten-year intervals starting with 1989-1990 and ending with the past year. In each of the four searches, “women of color” outnumbered “men of color” by convincing margins, usually four or five to one. That agrees with my own observation; I’m quite sure that “women of color” is more common. To me that suggests that we use “of color” (I distinctly remember Jimmy Breslin’s striking use of the phrase with no noun in front of it, back in the nineties) when we are focusing on discrimination and its victims. In one sense it is a neutral term and applies perfectly well in stories of uplift or empowerment. But “people of color” are people who suffer because they are not white, and women of color suffer more because they are neither white nor male. Fairly or not, “of color” harbors a touch of victimhood; the more oppressed a group is, the easier it is to use “of color” when talking about their non-white members.

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(1980’s | businese | “recruiter,” “matchmaker”)

Forget Borneo. Headhunters today thrive in the corporate jungle, a much less straightforward place. The businese meaning crept into the mainstream press in the mid-seventies, when the word already had two definitions: the familiar anthropological, and the athletic. In the latter context, “headhunter” denoted a player who deliberately tried to hurt opposing players — especially a pitcher who throws at batters’ heads or a defensive player in football who resorts to dirty tricks. These usages have not disappeared, although the term sounds decidedly archaic now in an anthropological setting. The first corporate use I found anywhere was a book published by Alan J. Cox, “Confessions of a Corporate Headhunter” (Trident Press, 1973) — I suspect the word was already pretty well established in business jargon by then. “Headhunter” began to show up in redoubts of conventional wisdom like the Washington Post and Newsweek by the end of the decade, sometimes in bashful quotation marks, and bearing the usual wobbly word division — two words, hyphenated, or one — characteristic of compounds. The term has undergone one significant change in the last forty years: now, it applies as readily to a firm as to an individual. Back then, executive search firms were not known as “headhunters,” but today it’s quite common.

Headhunters search for attractive candidates for high-level positions in corporations, law firms, and government, often by prying them away from other companies, but that’s all part of the game. The catalyst who delivers just the right power player, or the pirate who makes off with our best talent. One supposes that “headhunter” in this sense is simply “head [man]” + “hunter,” but some of the stronger animus used in referring to South Pacific islanders or malicious athletes may rub off. The use of the adjective in Cox’s book title brings to mind a later phrase, “corporate raider,” and the implicit violence of “headhunter” is perpetuated there as well.

More recently, dating services have begun to use the expression to refer to what we might once have called “relationship counselors,” or, more innocently, “yentas” — real, live people who sift through thousands of profiles to find the exact custom-made helpmeet for your spousal needs. Any computer can spit out some compatible names, but a romantic headhunter who really knows his or her business makes all the difference. The dating game can be quite predatory, so the use of the term seems as appropriate here as in a business context.

Why isn’t the one who finds your new boss a “bounty hunter”? It’s just as plausible metaphorically, and just as violent. But what’s odd about “headhunter” is its mildness in everyday usage; it does not have rapacious connotations, in spite of its lurid roots. Such a suggestive term, such a banal occupation. They’re not painted cannibals or even defensive backs spearing wide receivers; they sit in an office all day and go home to their spouses at night. Somehow all the danger has leached out of this word, and it’s become just one more cog in the corporate machine. Bounty hunter? In your dreams. How about switchboard operator, travel agent, psychopomp?

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(1980’s | legalese? | “honcho,” “wheeler-dealer,” “big cheese,” “macher”)

“Rainmaker” seems to have developed a specific meaning, or maybe two closely related ones, during the 1960’s and ’70’s. (Evans and Novak used it in the Washington Post in January 1969, and I have not found an earlier instance.) Primarily, it was legal slang for a lawyer who brings in a lot of clients and/or revenue for the firm, but it might also refer to a government official who knows how to get results. William Safire used the term to refer to lobbyists — an unholy combination of the two. But whether used of lawyers or senators, it meant power and influence, the ability to get things done for those with the means to pay. Now it can refer to Hollywood executives and Wall Street brokers, but also movie stars and athletes. Someone who attracts money or prestige, or gets others to do her bidding. The specifically legal reference predominated at first, according to LexisNexis, but the other meaning has been available all along and by now has pulled even or even forged ahead.

“Rainmaker” used literally, or fancifully, is much older. The magician who makes rain fall in a dry season in Africa or the American Southwest (presumably their services are otiose in the Pacific Northwest or the British Isles) was known to anthropologists and everyone else as the rainmaker. So was the scientific practitioner, conjuring up precipitation by chemical, electrical, or explosive means. For many years, “rainmaker” in its literal sense led an uncomfortable double life, evoking both the miracle worker and the con man. The eponymous play and film told the story of an attractive mountebank (a little like Harold Hill in The Music Man) hired by a drought-stricken town that just happens to contain a feisty woman verging on old-maidhood, with predictable results. John Grisham’s equally eponymous legal thriller, made into a film in 1997, used the word more as we use it today. In sportswriting, “rainmaker” is used occasionally to denote a high-arching shot (as in tennis, basketball, or golf). “Rainmaker” is also popular as a brand name and trademark.

You know what I can’t figure out? How did “rainmaker” wind up meaning “one who brings in business”? As in the case of “bells and whistles” last week, we have a common yet non-intuitive expression whose original meanings bear no obvious relation to the way we use it today. I see the point that a rainmaker brings in money (“rainmaker” = “moneymaker”), and money makes the business grow and makes everything nice and green. Maybe I’m being fussy, but that’s not a very satisfying explanation. Bringing prosperity and showering the firm with cash? Then why not a “chieftain” (if we must have such anthropological terms) throwing a potlatch for his subjects? Why not a snake charmer, lulling the client with murmurs of competence and connections? Why not the witch doctor or shaman, brimming with mysterious power, driving away bad fortune and bringing forth good spirits? Any of these are at least as plausible and more readily available. The miracle worker/con-man dichotomy mentioned above may have played a role — arguably also characteristic of the snake charmer and witch doctor — but beyond that I can’t think of any reason “rainmaker” should have won out.

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alpha male

(1980’s | academese | “leader of the pack,” “take-charge guy,” “macho man,” “dominant male”)

This expression takes advantage of the fact that we are animals and there is something very satisfying about showing direct analogies between human and animal behavior. “Alpha male,” along with “alpha female,” goes back at least to the sixties (the thirties, says William Safire), used first to talk about pack animals, especially wolves and primates. Explanations of social organization generally centered on the the top dog (or whatever), who made all the decisions, got the females he wanted, and scared his inferiors into submission. The typical alpha male had won his place by defeating, perhaps even killing, the previous alpha male; in those days, it was understood purely as a matter of physical domination. The phrase seems to have been applied to humans first in the eighties, generally meaning some combination of “leader,” “the one who gives orders,” and “the one who gets his way.” Sometimes brawn and aggressiveness alone defined the human alpha male, but more often it was a matter of wielding power over others through sexual attractiveness, overweening wealth, political clout. Not infrequently the phrase is used as a straight synonym for a man who has a lot of sex with a lot of women. In the nineties, the phrase was used sometimes of Bill Clinton, apparently reflecting both his executive primacy and his prowess. In 1999, Al Gore hired Naomi Wolf as an advisor, whose role was widely reported at the time as teaching Gore to be an “alpha male,” though Wolf denied that’s what she was actually doing. Anyway, use of the phrase went up sharply in 1999, according to LexisNexis, and that increase appears to be permanent.

All these meanings remain in play today. I even found a nice new one, courtesy of a senior editor at Harlequin Romances: “Werewolf and vampire heroes are examples of the alpha male, strong and protective.” I assure you that in the old days, no one ever called an alpha male “protective.” But the term has also acquired a negative tinge, or at least the possibility of one. Two examples from 2009: sportswriter Francis X. Clines of the New York Times referred to obnoxious football fans as “alpha male bellowers.” Professor Robert Sapolsky alluded to “‘totally insane son of a bitch'” types, the sort of alpha males “who respond to stress by lashing out.” These are not just admissions that alpha male behavior might alienate people now and then; they are twists on the term that provide a new field of connotation. The idea that an alpha male exerted anything less than total authority in his field, or had anything to apologize for, was almost unknown as late as 2000 — it was nearly always a term of admiration or envy. Urban Dictionary offers several examples of sardonic or derogatory definitions of the term, though in fairness, most of them have not been treated well by voters. “Alpha male” may be developing the same double life as “type-A personality” (or “control freak“), which might be used as a compliment but generally is not. As beta males conspire to get their slow revenge on the alphas, more such heretical definitions may creep into the language. Among humans as among animals, a group of lesser men acting in concert can bring down the most potent head man. Julius Caesar went from “he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus” to “Then fall, Caesar!” in two short acts.

If the expression continues to take on darker meanings, it will mirror the decline in primatology and other disciplines of the whole notion of alpha males lording it over their enclaves. Frans de Waal and L. David Mech, among others, have moved away from descriptions of social organization dependent on such rigid hierarchies. The very concept of the “alpha male” has little to do with the politics of group behavior among animals and crudely oversimplifies the ways they organize themselves. The idea probably was born more of the predilections of mid-century researchers, and a general urge to find easy explanations of complicated phenomena, than actual observations of wild animals. (In fact, many early studies used captive animals, who behave much differently from their counterparts in the wild.) It may well prove that the alpha male today, like the social Darwinist a century earlier, is no more than a pseudo-natural mandate for the most selfish and sociopathic among us to justify their promiscuous, arrogant, or exploitative desires. For now, “alpha male” still retains much of its old shine, but that may change in the next ten or twenty years.

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male bonding

(1980’s | academese | “camaraderie,” “esprit de corps”)

An expression created by a known, specific person, like “hot button” and “factoid.” “Male bonding” was coined by anthropologist Lionel Tiger; the term played a prominent role in his book, “Men in Groups” (1969), and the only earlier sighting in the OED comes from a 1966 paper by Tiger and Robin Fox. Google Books turns up no instances before 1969. From the seventies, only a few hits come up on LexisNexis, but they generally had at least a faintly technical tone and had little to do with beer-swilling, or even disciplined communal pursuit of athletic or military glory, which is closer to what Tiger had in mind. Writers used it narrowly to talk about organization of all-male groups and how leaders were chosen. An interesting thing happened in the early eighties: arts writers adopted the expression to talk about characters in books, plays, movies, etc. That sort of use has remained common from that day to this, and is probably the avenue by which most Americans first encountered the term. That’s noteworthy because arts writing has funneled a lot of therapese expressions into everyday language, and “male bonding” could easily have been coined by a therapist. But Tiger’s priority is clear. Now, the images most often conjured are auto shops, bowling alleys and bars, or other all-around guy stuff. It can happen at a restaurant or senior center — anywhere men gather without women. And even if they do little and talk about less, just sittin’ and spittin’ in the same room gives all us guys a charge.

There are many examples of all-male duos and larger groups in ancient history: Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Spartan warriors, Jesus and the apostles. Such images occur plentifully in more modern times as well, as in Elizabethan acting companies, football locker rooms, and any number of chain gangs. There is a general sense that such untrammeled intimacy has disappeared, or severely declined, since the sixties, when feminists started getting uppity again and men surrendered, instead of standing up for themselves and using that old male bonding to put down the latest ladies’ insurrection. That strategy had worked pretty well for several thousand years, but the guys just couldn’t get it up any more ca. 1963, probably due to fluoride in the water or Russkies in Cuba or something like that. So instead of saying, “Gee, we’ll have to pay more attention to women now,” we said, “Our ancient fortresses have been stormed, and men shall never laugh together over the Three Stooges again.” The eighties saw the rise of the aggrieved American man, a tiresome John Updike hero twenty years on, resentful that women have become more suspicious, or just more knowing, about stag parties and beer busts. A minor genre bloomed in which men lamented the death of comfortable male companionship and the need to defend their right to assemble without women. Not that it had really become more difficult for most men to gather in single-sex groups, but they felt guilty about it and blamed feminism.

Tiger traced male bonding back to hunting and gathering societies and found examples among other animals, although many scholars took issue with his primatology. He argues that it is partly rooted in biology (so it gets a pass — if we inherited the behavior from our ancestors, then objections are more or less futile), and it has profound social implications. The way men form small groups within groups (I wonder if there’s any resemblances to the way schoolgirls form social cliques) is deeply important to the development of society. He goes beyond the simple assertion that male bonding is significant because a lot of it goes on. He ascribes a powerful force to intense male friendships, diminishing by implication the social significance of other kinds of human cooperation. And he betrays a certain nostalgia for a past in which it was taken for granted that grown men could exclude women from decision-making whenever they felt like it, as boys post “Gurlz keep out” signs on their treehouses. It is undoubtedly true that most men benefit from a certain amount of time away from women, but must we demand social betterment from such vacations? Tiger claimed not just that men behave differently when no women are around (a trivial observation), but the relationships they develop inform customs and government of society as a whole.

Mainstream culture has taken Tiger’s phrase and turned it into a bit of a joke (cf. the recent neologism “bromance”). Part of the slippage of this term results from the fact that Tiger had little to say about politics or corporations, where men still make decisions with little or no contribution from women (though this is changing at a glacial pace), which gave critics an easy line of attack. Tiger also did not use the concept of male bonding to address interplay between fathers and sons, but inevitably the term has grown to embrace such interactions as childrearing has taken up more and more room in our discourse. In common usage, there is no nobility inherent in male bonding; it’s as likely to lead to mayhem or sophomorism as improvements in the human condition. Another trend of recent decades has also played a role in the failure of Tiger’s concept to take a more exalted place in our culture: a sharp increase in individualist rhetoric. There’s something suspiciously communitarian about male bonding, which after all involves by definition a bunch of men acting in some kind of concert — a far cry from the sort of every man for himself, no holds barred, to the winner go the spoils esthetic that has flourished recently in American politics, one hopes temporarily. Such cartoon individualism veers so far from life as we know it that it cannot help but lead us astray if we take it seriously.

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