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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: Bill Clinton

it is what it is

(2000’s | athletese | “that’s (just) how it is,” “what more can I say?,” “what can you do?,” “there’s not a damn thing I can do about it”)

Anyone who reads the sports pages has long since grown tired of this one, now an indispensable response any time something goes wrong. Athletes use it to express frustration over their own performance, or the team’s generally, or a controversy affecting the team’s play. There’s no sense, however, that “it” must result from one’s own actions; any adverse circumstance may rate the phrase. The often unspoken sequel is “and now we have to deal with it.” “It is what it is” expresses resignation but not despair (cf. “roll with it“). Nothing to be done but move on and make the best of it. That’s why “it is what it is” remains fundamentally a forward-looking expression. What happened in the past created our current difficulties, but this phrase allows us to put that behind us and look resolutely ahead. And that’s why you don’t hear “it was what it was.” Why doesn’t a dejected quarterback use the past tense after a punishing loss? Is a touch of the literary too much to ask of our gladiators? Or before the Super Bowl, why not “It will be what it will be” (wait, wasn’t that a song?). Another common expression — I know what I know — seems related somehow. It has the same brute obviousness, the same logical assurance of certainty so certain as to be empty, but the mood differs. “I know what I know” carries more determination; it may even be a touch truculent. “It is what it is” is not uttered in anger or any kind of passion. Grit your teeth if you must, but this phrase has a weary feel. If you’re extremely irritated, you don’t use it.

The concept is very old. Nowadays we might translate Ben Franklin’s dictum about death and taxes as “When it comes to death and taxes, it is what it is.” (For earlier examples, try the book of Job or any Greek tragedy.) The expression draws attention to the intractability of certain states, which has led some commentators to deplore the way the phrase is used as a cover by people who don’t want to deal with their problems, no matter how crippling. (Here are examples from business and personal contexts.)

An observation so simple as to be asinine, “it is what it is” is even more tiresome than most apodictic statements. What else could “it” be? If “is” may be permitted to retain any rags of meaning at all (thanks, Bill Clinton!) it can hardly be otherwise. Does it differ from “that’s how it is”? I can’t see that it does, except it is a bit more resonant. There is rhetorical value in simplicity; if managed well, it lends a certain power, making expressions more memorable (cf. “that’s that”). It may even convey philosophy or profundity. Simple language may seem to express irreducible truth, forestalling further comment, which may be why it is attractive to athletes trying to get through the unpleasant chore of the post-game interview. It serves the same message as “end of story“: stop asking me about this subject.

Lovely Liz from Queens asked why this phrase annoys so many people. It appears frequently on lists of obnoxious clichés and is deplored with machine-like regularity by self-styled style mavens. The answer, we agreed, is partly a matter of its studied emptiness, partly a matter of how often it is used, and partly a matter of who uses it (athletes, celebrities). No doubt some catch-phrases become grating through sheer repetition — and this one, like “same old same old,” is not only repeated a lot but has repetition built into it — and a few, like “been there, done that,” have lost popularity after a few years of ubiquity. Not this one, at least not yet: “It is what it is” is riding a twenty-year wave and shows no signs of waning.


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welfare check

(2000’s | bureaucratese?)

An expression that has changed meaning quite thoroughly. While the older meaning, familiar in my youth, had to do with government assistance to needy individuals, the newer one has to do with government assistance to individuals who are in trouble, or might be. A less common but significant variant is “wellness check.” The news has been rife with it lately on account of young comedian Pete Davidson, who proved to be o.k. when NYPD visited his apartment after he posted a “disturbing Instagram message,” as good a cry for help as any in these tiring times. Welfare checks are normally made by the police at the request of someone — normally a relative or caregiver — who is concerned about a third party. I can’t think of an older expression, though I suppose police officers and social workers have done this sort of thing for a long time, but if there was a word for it, official or otherwise, I don’t know what it was. Something with “visit” in it, most likely.

There are a couple of obvious reasons that “welfare check” is no longer needed to refer to government payments to the poor. One is that “welfare” is rarely used in official circles to denote that kind of assistance, though regular people still use the word. Another is that it’s been at least two decades since such payments were distributed in check form, making room for an entirely different sense of “check.” The change took place after 2000 — within ten years of Clinton’s circumscribing and restructuring of welfare as we knew it — although I found a few instances in the late nineties where the more recent meaning turned up. The odd thing about the two meanings of this phrase is that when either is used, the other is not acknowledged; even when the cops make a welfare check on a welfare recipient — which happens fairly often — no one seems to notice the coincidence. A welfare check is a welfare check, and never the twain shall meet.

It’s a three-headed transaction, so it requires three sets of verbs. There’s the people who set up the welfare check (request, call for), there’s the people who carry it out (conduct, do, make, perform), and there’s the people whose homes are visited (receive). The story is rarely told from the point of view of the last, much more often from those of the first two. That presumably is why that group doesn’t get as many verbs; we might suggest others: undergo, suffer, endure. If the result is the discovery of a corpse, no such verb is required, of course. When the official visit turns up nothing wrong — no crime, no corpses, just somebody who was too busy to text his mom for a couple of days — then there’s no story, and no one is interested in the victim of the welfare check.

There’s something a little Kafkaesque about it. You’re shoved into the system by someone who (presumably) wishes you well, but who does sic the cops on you. The victim has no say in the matter, and once you’re in a police database you can’t get out, or at least can’t be sure you’re out. When we remember Kafka’s dangerously plausible stories of impenetrable and maleficent bureaucracy, into which one wanders innocently and whose clutches cannot be escaped, the welfare check doesn’t seem quite so benign. I don’t mean to suggest that we should reject welfare checks entirely on libertarian grounds — they are certainly useful for helping law-abiding senior citizens and their families, for example — but I would think long and hard before calling one in on anyone I knew.

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get into the weeds

(2000’s | bureaucratese? journalese? | “go into detail,” “sweat the small stuff,” “dig deeper”)

I have to confess I wasn’t familiar with this expression, but it was ably urged upon me by Lovelies Martha and Liz from Queens, who between them pretty much wrote the entry, or would have if my memory were better. As it is, they bear responsibility for the accuracies and the good stuff, and I get the blame for everything else.

Not especially common, the phrase has something a bit elitist about it, a direct legacy of its earliest occurrences in the corridors of power. The first use I found in LexisNexis attributed it to Bill Clinton in a one-on-one meeting with Boris Yeltsin in October 1995, and when it turned up after that, it was usually in the mouth of a powerful public official. By now it has spread beyond that narrow band, but I sense that it has remained largely outside demotic vocabulary. Actually, the earliest search result from LexisNexis yielded a quite different application; a Republican Congressional official in 1998 invoked the gentlemanly nature of competitions for House leadership by saying, “You don’t get into the weeds here.” No throwing mud or alley-cat tactics. That strikes me as a perfectly sensible definition of this rather odd phrase, but it has not caught on.

Instead, it generally seems to imply an arduous and vaguely unpleasant task, and in fact it is used strikingly often in the negative (“We don’t need to get into the weeds here”) to mean “I’ll spare you the complexities” or “Let’s not lose sight of the big picture,” which is how Clinton used it in 1995. Only geeks and specialists need understand the underpinnings. Sometimes it suggests undue effort, or even frustration, but that doesn’t seem predominant. Because of its firm association with the will not to overlook anything, it turns up occasionally as a synonym for “micromanage.”

I find it edifying to ponder briefly the usual connotations of “weeds.” (Not “weed,” which has replaced “pot” as the standard kids’ word for marijuana.) When you’re not using an archaic phrase to denote widows’ garments, they are unwanted plants that compete with or endanger whatever you’re trying to coax out of the soil. They are not pleasing to look at, spread way too fast, and require toil to uproot. So it makes sense that “get into the weeds” implies unwelcome effort. The most common shading I found in my researches is “get lost or tangled up in complications that ultimately doesn’t make that much difference.” That connotation gives the phrase the power to distract from or obscure genuine wrongdoing; sometimes “let’s not lose sight of the big picture” means “let’s not hold anyone responsible for what happened.” But the phrase has avoided degeneration into a synonym for “cover up,” and it remains a bureaucrat’s or academic’s way of saying “delve into the minutiae.” Sometimes you need to do that in order to get to the heart of the matter, but you’re probably not going to enjoy it.

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(1990’s | athletese | “mulligan,” “redo”)

This week’s expression probably arose among athletes, or sportswriters, and it is closely related to “mulligan” (according to one lexicographer, an equivalent term was “shapiro”), a golf term that referred to other players agreeing to let one of the foursome have another tee shot after a poor drive, particularly on the first hole. Needless to say, mulligans occur only in friendly games — an on-the-spot handicap that allows a player to avoid falling too far behind too early. I’m not a golfer, but I believe the word could be used to cover different shots and situations now. “Mulligan” is a little older than “do-over,” but not a lot; the first citation in Lighter dates from 1949, and it doesn’t seem to have penetrated other fields for at least thirty years after that. “Do-over” followed a similar historical pattern, but more condensed. I found a few instances in the late eighties, all in sports talk; by the mid-nineties, political and financial journalists were using it without hesitation. Today it is quite common, used all over the language, and available as an adjective.

There is an important distinction between “do-over” and “mulligan.” Mulligans are casual — a quick, informal consensus reached within a group of peers. “Do-overs” are decreed by a higher power, such as the referee or a government official. In the earliest instances I found, the purpose of a do-over was righting a wrong. The previous play, or the outcome of a competition, was nullified because one side’s rights were taken away somehow, or because a sudden change of condition resulted in an unfair advantage that tainted the result. It was up to the officials to determine what level of injustice or mishap required a do-over. While this sense has remained, the word need not suggest a fundamental injustice any more. Sometimes it’s intended to correct a flaw or problem created by previous action, and sometimes it tries to recast an unwanted, as opposed to an unfair, situation. A recent example: Stephen Colbert offered Bill Clinton another chance to address questions about his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky after he botched an earlier one. While Colbert used the word “do-over” to describe the offer, it was really a mulligan. In effect Colbert was saying, “We’re all friends here, Bill; take another whack at it and we won’t count the first one.”

I don’t recall using or hearing “do-over” (does it have anything to do with “make-over”?) on seventies sandlots, but one writer suggested it originates in children’s games, where often the easiest solution to a problem on the field is just to expunge the previous play and do it over again. I think in such cases we said “Doesn’t count; do it over,” or possibly “replay it,” but I don’t have any clear recollection. Maybe simply “do over!,” easily recast as a noun and any other part of speech you want. There’s something innocent about a do-over in its pure form, a childlike faith that you can remake the past. But in the real world, that faith leaves out too many complexities, which leaves it vulnerable. It will fade and even dissolve if the arbiters decide to grant do-overs based on one side’s advantage rather than uphold fundamental fairness.

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don’t ask, don’t tell

(1990’s | militarese? bureaucratese? | “keep it to yourself,” “don’t bring it up,” “let sleeping dogs lie”)

An odd name for an odd policy. Until 1993, gay people were legally prohibited from serving in the military (a bit of history here). A year earlier, Bill Clinton had campaign-promised to end the ban, and he made an effort to do so within the first few months of his term, a time when presidents usually push their highest priorities. Whatever you think of Clinton (I never liked him, but I never met a politician I liked), he deserves credit for political courage, and it does seem likely that his insistence on raising the issue led ultimately to the full, official acceptance of gay people in the service, though that took another fifteen or twenty years. At the time, the compromise was generally viewed as a failure on Clinton’s part.

LexisNexis provides a blow-by-blow account of those debates in 1993. The important thing to remember is that although the phrase is associated with Clinton, it is not due to him. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was something Clinton had to settle for, not something he wanted. It was foisted upon him by Congress — which even then was unwilling to insist on an outright ban. Senator Sam Nunn may have been the first public figure to use the exact phrase (the record is not conclusive), but the APA Divisions web site credits one Dr. Charlie Moskos with inventing it: “a well-known, politically active military sociologist from Northwestern University, and a member of Division 19, told me that he had suggested the DADT compromise to President Clinton and to Senator Nunn. At the very least, Charlie is credited with coining the DADT name — which was originally titled ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue’ and later as ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue, don’t harass.'” The dam broke in May 1993, when an expression that previously had not even qualified as obscure burst into the press and has remained firmly lodged ever since.

In truth, the old word for “don’t ask, don’t tell” is “discretion.” Before 1990 or so, few gay people went around bragging about how gay they were, which permitted public opinion and state repression to ignore the fact that these people were violating “civilized” norms (besides, lots of gay people were highly civilized). “Discretion” is actually a polite word for the old state of affairs; younger people may not know that “the love that dare not speak its name” was a euphemism for “gay love,” and it meant what it said. Generally, gay people had to disguise their relationships, not just paper them over, and there was always social or physical risk as well. That was likewise true in the armed forces; when lifting the ban became thinkable, a compromise was required. The old guard kept the power to bar openly gay soldiers, but they could tolerate the closeted provided no one had to acknowledge anything. Within twenty years, the compromise was no longer necessary, and even Sam Nunn, who made sure Clinton couldn’t simply repeal the ban in 1993, supported getting rid of it in 2010. So well established in 2018 is the refusal to discriminate against gay people — even, apparently, within the ranks — that the best the revanchist right can do is to try to keep trans people out of the service, and they’re not assured of success. Doesn’t that suggest that the bans were never necessary in the first place? So many of us cling to the idea that we can define groups of people as inferiors, and need to. But diversity and inclusion march on because they work better than discrimination. The larger your talent pool, the higher percentage of effective workers you’ll have, and we need all the help we can get.

Today “don’t ask, don’t tell” may be used in reference to a wider range of subjects, from abortion to zoning, but it still generally is used where a large bureaucratic organization — like the Defense Department — is involved, and it means something like “don’t rock the boat.” If you are breaking or bending a rule, and no one is hassling you about it, you’re apt to say, “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Or it may expose you to legal trouble to request, or volunteer, certain information. As in asking for salary history in a job interview, now illegal in some states, or testing employees for marijuana use, which fewer employers are doing now, because it’s just easier not to find out and have to do something about it. That’s fertile soil for this expression.

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(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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(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 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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