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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: Bill Clinton

laser-focused

(1990’s | journalese? athletese? | “single-minded,” “intent (on)”)

The output of a laser meets a casual definition of “focused”: a light beam formed from many waves, all of the same wavelength, projected through a very narrow opening. There are those who believe that the uniformity of the light waves means that it is incorrect to describe a laser as “focused,” because focusing happens only with light of many different wavelengths, but it’s also true that there are such things as focused lasers. Besides, it’s the uniformity that gives the impression of focus, optics notwithstanding. So it’s not surprising that we took to talk of “laser focus.” I can’t think of any precise noun equivalents from before 1980, except perhaps for “undivided attention,” but we had several closely related concepts, such as “bearing down,” “bound and determined,” “powers of concentration.” It suggests not only purpose but precision, not only concentrating effectively but concentrating on the right thing. “Laser focus” has also done spot duty as a verb for twenty years at least, though it is not used in the imperative, as “focus” by itself is.

The expression seems to have arisen in sportswriting, if you believe LexisNexis (in this case, I’m not sure I do); the first unmistakable instances popped up in articles about boxers in the late eighties (the laser industry trade magazine “Laser Focus” had been around for several years by then). As with “wonk,” Bill Clinton did not invent the expression but helped solidify it in the early nineties when he promised a “laser focus” on the economy. For all that, it does not seem to have become rife until after the turn of the millennium; I don’t recall hearing it until probably after 2010, though it might have crossed my path earlier.

The advent of the CD player, which was for most of us the first practical, everyday use of a laser, helped make this term possible. Lasers were exotic then (they’re still kind of exotic), but there one was in your own home, bringing your favorite tunes to life. There was a vague understanding in the air that a laser was the magical part of the new piece of equipment, much spookier and more advanced than a diamond stylus or magnetic tape. So lasers were ushered into the general consciousness, opening up room for a new figurative expression. A mere thirty years later, “laser-focused” was declared business jargon by Bloomberg News, and it is clearly a term businessmen have picked up, more than politicians, though it is available to anyone now.

We generally hear the term as praise, but calling someone “laser-focused” may just be a nice way of saying they are wearing blinders; that is, it may imply the wrong kind of workaholism or micromanagement. It’s one thing to pour your efforts into reaching a commendable goal, but obsession has its own risks even in the service of a noble cause. I would say the term generally continues to have a positive connotation, but it certainly can suggest something else: an unhealthy involvement in a single pursuit that leads to exclusion or isolation. We don’t hear that when a corporate spokesman boasts of a laser focus on customer service, but when an individual exercises laser focus, we may wonder.

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lesson learned

(2000’s? | bureaucratese? | “I’ve learned my lesson,” “I’ll do better next time,” “I get the point”)

Now available as a pronouncement. Used to punctuate a conversation, it seems to come out of bureaucracy, especially the technological or military variety. NASA and the U.S. Army both have “Lessons Learned” databases that record and disseminate even quite small and apparently insignificant, but reliable, bits of practice gleaned mostly from previous failures. A lesson learned is something you ignore at your peril. They are empirical, and thus may soon become best practices. They could have to do with anything from peeling potatoes to preventing malfunctions in electrical circuitry to choosing material that will withstand re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. In everyday journalism, lessons learned follow from disasters, such as a big hurricane, fast-moving computer virus, or financial crash. The phrase is often used by individuals, of course; even then, it has a peremptory tone, carrying a firm note of finality with more than an overtone of “never again.” The emphatic final syllable contributes to that, as in “promise kept,” “problem solved,” or even “slam dunk” (a spondee). Ending the utterance with extra oomph has a way of stopping the conversation. I haven’t heard “lesson learned” used jokingly much; it has retained its force and magnitude so far. That can change quickly. If some comedian picks it up as a tagline, we’ll start saying it in all sorts of trivial contexts.

The phrase “lesson learned” is intended to convey rue or determination. The actual lesson you learn is what we now call the takeaway, another new expression. “Takeaway” is not as portentous as “lesson learned,” but the two are closely related, with little daylight between them. Lessons learned are painful somehow, as the new normal is worse than what came before, even though there’s nothing in the wording of either phrase that requires that it be so. Here’s a little rhyme to help you remember:

Experience is a teacher,
But here’s what makes me burn.
It’s always teaching me the things
I do not care to learn.

As one supplicant asked on Stack Exchange, why not “learned lesson”? Partly because it invites confusion with “learned” (two syllables), which is used before the noun, but you see that fine old scholarly term less and less. There’s something about fixed word pairs where the adjective follows the noun. I remember how weird it sounded when Bill Clinton used the expression “date certain.” What is this, the Middle Ages? (He was actually speaking legalese at the time, which accounts for the medieval flavor.) “Siege Perilous,” “paradise lost,” “penny saved.” (Does “code red” fit the pattern? I can’t decide.) The past participle doing duty as an adjective adds a dash of verb flavor, a hint of resolute action. More generally, the noun-adjective construction is probably a remnant of the baneful French influence on English (particularly in matters of law), but it does lend an elusive, poetic quality, striking the ear and compelling attention.

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wonk

(1980’s | journalese (politics) | “bookworm,” “grind,” “nerd,” “whiz,” “expert”)

No one seems to know where the word comes from. It is “know” spelled backwards, but that may be a coincidence. It has nothing visible to do with “wonky” (wobbly or unreliable), British slang that gets an occasional airing in the U.S. In the eighties, most people who speculated on the subject were pretty sure it was college slang, which still makes the big jump into grown-up language from time to time — “love handles,” “go commando,” possibly “power nap.” In 1992, the great Russell Baker called it “a terrible, ugly word.” Wonks are detail-oriented, passionate about acquiring knowledge but not necessarily about using it in humane ways, and have poor social skills. The roughly equivalent “nerd” was around when I was a kid, though to my recollection that word didn’t necessarily imply excess intelligence or hunger for data; “dweeb” is newer, and “geek” didn’t generally have that connotation in my youth, though we may have used it it that way sometimes. (I first understood “geek” to refer to the guy who bites heads off chickens at the carnival.)

“Wonk” was in circulation before Bill Clinton came along, but for some reason the expression chose his coattails to ride into everyday language. Before 1992, it turned up infrequently, often in discussions of college slang (it was a particular favorite of William Safire, who explicated it as early as 1980); late in 1992 it became the word du jour to describe Clinton and his associates, all of them brimming with arcane knowledge. This despite the fact that Gary Hart in 1988 called himself a wonk; he seems to have been the first presidential candidate to adopt the term. Yet the credit goes to Clinton. I have commented before on new expressions due to presidents or arising within their administrations. I haven’t covered many of Clinton’s so far — “boots on the ground,” “on message,” maybe “race to the bottom” — and this is one of the best-known. By 2000, the word had advanced beyond political reporting, and other sorts of people might merit the label, such as programmers, scientists, financial advisors, or football coaches.

Clinton aside, most policy wonks are more or less inhuman, and don’t generally combine, as Clinton did, an intelligent mastery of issues with a folksy, empathetic demeanor. The expression may apply alike to someone with a broad or a narrow range of interests, as in a chess wonk or security wonk — not a recognized authority necessarily, but someone who knows everything worth knowing about a particular subject. In politics, single-issue focus isn’t necessary; it’s obsessive interest in policy details, to the exclusion of normal political preoccupations like graft and adultery. (Here again, Clinton was an exception.)

“Wonk” usually attaches itself to Democrats in national politics: Gore, Kerry, and Obama also attracted the opprobrium at one time or other. (On the GOP side, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is reputed to be a wonk.) Since Nixon, only highly educated Democrats with an encyclopedic grasp of the issues have been elected president, while Republicans must not only be dumb, but proudly and aggressively dumb. (George H.W. Bush was an exception, but no one ever called him a wonk, and before his son came along he was not regarded as particularly bright.) Populism need not imply hostility to scholarship and study, but now it does, and with a vengeance. Our pleasure in sneering at savants does mean we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again; Santayana was right about that. But it gets worse. For fifty years and more, the Republican message to the base has boiled down to “follow your resentment wherever it leads” and “if you disagree with the experts, they’re wrong.” With voters like that, small wonder bullies, meanies, and pinheads are the only ones who can win.

Thanks to my father for nominating “wonk” several years ago. Sorry for the delay, Dad, not that you lost any sleep over it. Rest assured, Lex Maniac never forgets.

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boots on the ground

(1990’s | miltarese | “infantry,” “combat troops,” “invaders”)

The army has been the butt of jokes for a long time. In my childhood, we all learned the “biscuits in the army” song, and as an organization it has long been associated with inefficiency, rigidity, stupidity, profiteering, etc. For those reasons and others the army is seen as the least appealing branch of the service. The navy is also pretty plebeian but has better uniforms and goes on voyages, the Air Force has its own lofty glamor, and the Marines are our badass fighting force, taking on the jobs no one else will take. These rough distinctions form part of the background for this week’s expression.

In the 1990’s, it came to the attention of policymakers that the Cold War was over, and the basis of our military strategy for the last fifty years had vanished. That didn’t bother anyone too much (somehow the money kept rolling in, despite ominous talk of a “peace dividend”), but debate over the proper response to this revolting development smoldered for a few years. One prong of it boiled down to a conflict between the Air Force, touting the virtues of long-range warfare relying on satellite missile guidance and precision airstrikes, and the Army, for whom there is no substitute for sending lots of soldiers and tanks to slog through the mire to victory. Clinton’s foreign policy predictably developed a strong preference for avoiding U.S. combat deaths, which meant fewer mess tents and more smart bombs. We all know that sending in platoons of grunts means more casualties, more brutality, billions of dollars down the drain, and quagmires. Who wouldn’t prefer a nice, clean missile? But presidents who try to pull troops out of combat zones usually find themselves putting them back in sooner or later. Boots on the ground have never quite gone out of style; missiles and drones have their cachet but can’t do it all by themselves.

“Boots on the ground” began to appear in the mid-1990’s among military officials and their pretorian guards — members of Congress, think-tank warriors, and journalists. By 2000, it was making its way into everyday life; the expression was evocative and easy to understand, and readers and hearers were quick to grasp it. I was surprised to see recent examples in a variety of civilian sources, not just law enforcement, for which the military analogy is obvious, but wherever efficient action is needed to counter a threat: disaster response, political campaigns, trade missions, NASA (I’m serious), even hospitals. Here’s one fresh from a Frontline Technologies press release (June 21, 2016): “Teachers are the ‘boots on the ground’ in your school district. More than anyone, they have their finger on the pulse of the student body, they look at the data and know the student needs in their particular building, and they know the areas where they need to grow as educators.” It conjures images of dedicated people fanning out and getting the job done. The notion of response to a direct threat is fading; sometimes the phrase is little more than a way of saying “taking action” or “doing something about it.” Available as a hyphenated adjective for a long time, but I’ve never seen it used as a predicate complement. (As in “That’s very boots-on-the-ground.”) The speed with which the phrase has spread is impressive.

An unfortunate and now forgotten assistant secretary of the Army, Sara Lister, was forced to resign in 1997 after saying, “I think the Army is much more connected to society than the Marines are. The Marine Corps is — you know, they have all these checkerboard fancy uniforms and stuff. But the Army is sort of muddy boots on the ground.” She noted that the Marine Corps was more prone to political extremism than the Army, which may well have been true. The relations between the military and the rest of us were much discussed in the nineties; some commentators were concerned that our men and women in uniform were becoming hostile to American society, because it was too soft, or liberal, or heathen, or whatever. The trend is unlikely to have changed since then. There is plenty of evidence that eliminating conscription has led to a definite rightward shift in the politics of the average soldier, but it is no longer fashionable to point it out.

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slam dunk

(1990’s | athletese | “sure bet,” “sure thing,” “lead-pipe cinch,” “guarantee(d)”)

“Dunk,” now. It seems to come from Pennsylvania Dutch in colonial days. The Dunkers (or Dunkards) were a German sect that believed in full immersion baptism, like the Southern Baptists, a more successful sect historically that took fervor much further. The name was in use by the mid-eighteenth century. According to Matthews’s Dictionary of Americanisms and Random House, the use of “dunk” as a verb came along just after the Civil War. That use has shown staying power, now immortalized in the name of our leading donut chain. As late as 1970, “dunk” was not in common use as a basketball term; by 1980 it was essential. Our figurative use of “slam dunk” today is descended from basketball. It is invariable, even though there are, or were, other equivalents in basketball jargon. Either “slam” or “dunk” can be used without its complement, “jam” is a common verb (less common as a noun), and you used to hear “stuff” (still used sometimes as a verb) or even “stuff shot.”

Dunking wasn’t even legal in college basketball when I was a boy, but certain NBA players gave the practice great cachet. One thinks of Julius Erving (Dr. J), David Thompson, or Darryl Dawkins, who was known for destroying backboards. Now it’s not a specialty any more. Just about every college or professional player is capable of dunking, with or without choreography. The rise of the phrase in sports journalism made it possible for it to pass into more fanciful use, so that the phrase now refers to a can’t miss proposition, or something so easy you can’t mess it up. (Actually, it is possible to miss a dunk, and it even happens occasionally, but it remains the highest percentage shot in basketball.) Once in a while, it is used as a verb to mean “ram” or “force.” In aviation, a “slam-dunk approach” refers to an unusually steep descent to the runway.

As I recall, “slam dunk” earned cliché status during the Clinton impeachment proceeding, but it was certainly around before then. It became omnipresent during the hearings, when Republican Congressmen gloated relentlessly over their “slam-dunk” case against Clinton for perjury. Turned out to be more of a free throw clanking off the front rim. Anybody remember Henry Hyde any more? (Conveniently, his initials also stood for “Homewreckin’ Hypocrite.”) Clinton-haters positively salivated over the president’s disgrace, which only seemed to increase his standing with the rest of the electorate; Clinton remains popular now, but Ken Starr will never sit on the Supreme Court. Our language got a little boost from his travails, gaining for good this punchy, spondaic expression. It enjoyed a renaissance during the run-up to the Iraq War, thanks to CIA director George Tenet’s claim of conclusive evidence that Saddam Hussein was harboring unguessed (turned out they were nothing but guessed — no one ever found any) caches of weapons of mass destruction. Another overconfident Republican overstating his case.

The expression always pretends to certainty — and therefore may be used to disguise its absence — we know this is the moral thing to do, or it’s what the people want, or we have overwhelming evidence that it’s true. But in the incidences above, a slam-dunk case proceeds on the basis of violence, of exasperated righteousness left with no choice but to take drastic action. That seems to be present at least as an undercurrent when people use this phrase. Since it is often used in legal or faux-legal contexts, it has an adversarial bent. Furthermore, your opponent must be willfully blind or gumming up the works to ignore the overwhelming evidence against him. So when you use the phrase, it generally conveys a flavor of retribution, even taunting — it strikes me as loaded that way.

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chick flick (1990’s | journalese | “tearjerker,” “movie pitched at women”)
chick magnet (2000’s | “something that draws the ladies,” “Adonis”)

These two phrases came along at about the same time — the mid-nineties — and both seem to reflect Commonwealth influence. The case is especially clear for “chick magnet,” which appeared almost exclusively in Australian, British, and Canadian sources until 2000 or so, and remains more common there to this day, according to LexisNexis. “Chick flick” started out at about the same frequency in the U.S. as in other Anglophone countries. It took a few years for “chick flick” to settle as the invariable term (Phrase Finder has a good history). In “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993), Tom Hanks uses the phrase “chick’s movie,” and variants with and without the possessive could all be heard for a few years there. “Chick magnet” never experienced the same flux in form beyond the odd apostrophe-s, but it could (and can) mean different things. One: A person (generally a man) unusually attractive to women. (You might prefer not to be reminded, but “chick magnet” became a minor epithet — as opposed to all the major epithets — for Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal.) Two: a creature that attracts women (e.g., “Get a dog. They’re real chick magnets.”) Three: an object that attracts women. My girlfriend’s daughter showed me a “vine” (ten-second YouTube video) in which a teen-age boy calls a Lamborghini “a real chick magnet.” My sense is that when the term first slipped into the language, the first usage predominated. Now I think the second and third have overtaken it, but all three are still available.

A “chick flick” denotes a film designed to appeal to a specifically female audience; that is, to attract a more abstract population of millions of women rather than the handful of women hanging around the park, or the bar, at any given time. Chick flicks may rely on weepy or Harlequin Romance clichés to do their work, but they may also draw their effectiveness from strong women characters that crowd out or overshadow the men. (“Thelma and Louise” and “A League of Their Own,” both released near the dawn of the chick-flick era, did not send women flocking to the cinema because they were fuzzy, heartwarming stories with lots of muscular men with hearts of gold.) The very strong implication is that the men in the audience are also crowded out. We’d rather go watch James Bond or Jim Carrey. Confession: I loved “Dumb and Dumber.” Out of character, I hope, but I cannot tell a lie.

The real question here is how did “chick,” a word already unpleasantly musty and at least vaguely insulting when I was a kid, worm its way back into our vocabulary? If these phrases really did arise in England and Australia, it may be the word was less ominous over there. I believe “chick” used to mean girl or woman is primarily a U.S. locution that had its moment in the sun in the early and mid-twentieth century — it’s tempting to suggest that it descends from W.C. Fields’s primordial “chickadee,” but that’s pure folk etymology, and I abjure it in the absence of evidence. By the time “chick flick” and “chick magnet” came along, it had been at least a generation since discreet people stopped using “chick” that way, and no doubt it had lost most of its sting. But I don’t hear adults calling women “chicks” even now, except maybe jocularly, and if kids do it today, it’s retro-slang. Now this may be a simple case of hipster irony taking an old word or concept, bending it a bit, and breathing new life into it (“chick lit” is a related example). It is not an example of an oppressed minority twisting a term of contempt into a proud epithet, however. (At least, I don’t think so; here’s another point of view.) Women may use these phrases (particularly “chick flick”), but they did not arise among women or feminists. A recent movie and video game both used “Chick Magnet” as the title, and both exemplify the purest male fantasy about effortless sexual conquest. The recrudescence of “chick” does not strike me as harmless; the forces of degradation never sleep, and lots of people (not all of them men) continue to resent the gains women have made in the last fifty years. And if “broad” starts to sneak back into the language in the guise of lighthearted cultural commentary, you’ll know I’m right.

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