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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: British culture

cringeworthy

(2000’s | “embarrassing,” “appalling,” “repellent,” “disgraceful”)

The reason the word is so effective is that cringing is a very strong, primal reaction of instinctive avoidance. That which is cringeworthy is acutely shameful, disgusting, etc. — not just any old awkward moment or fleeting contretemps. The term so often attaches itself to the least excusable antics or pratfalls of celebrities (or anyone unfortunate enough to be in the public eye). For it is beloved of gossipmongers and social media addicts; anyone can humiliate themselves, but the word turns up disproportionately in celebrity journalism, or so Google makes it appear. Much celebrity journalism exudes more than a whiff of Schadenfreude, and “cringeworthy” suggests a certain pleasure in another’s discomfiture beyond the word’s primary effect of evoking the discomfort in oneself. My sense is that originally “cringeworthy” was used often in artistic contexts, to talk about a song, say, or a performance, that left you feeling sorry for the purveyor, and sorry for yourself for having endured it, too. Over time it has come to apply more often to situations, utterances, or actions that leave the feeling of having experienced something indecent, a low point in another person’s conduct that you would rather not have witnessed and can’t unsee, as today’s kids say.

This expression straddles the line between a strictly personal reaction and a social consensus about what is objectionable and what isn’t, which must go on to rank the objectionable things so we’ll know exactly when to start cringing. When you describe a text or act as cringeworthy, you are appealing to a set of boundaries that most people, or at least most people who have any interest in the field under discussion, would subscribe to. Each of us grimaces and shies away as an individual, but we are animated by a shared understanding of the awful.

“Worthy” as a suffix is not unknown, but seems kind of quaint. Praiseworthy, blameworthy, credit-worthy, seaworthy. It turns up now and then in surnames, as in Galsworthy. “Cringeworthy” was, in fact, the name of a character in the long-running “Bash Street Kids,” a recurring feature in the British comic book “The Beano,” and almost sounds like a name in a Dickens novel, but not quite. The mating with “cringe” works well because it too is an old-fashioned word. I daresay most people know what it means, but you don’t hear it much in casual conversation (the rise of “cringeworthy” may propel it into greater prominence). Two quasi-archaic expressions shoved together — a natural. Had the word been invented in the U.S., it might have come out “cringe-making,” but it is a Briticism; it was common in Commonwealth countries by the mid-nineties, a decade or so before it caught on over here. (A bit more history for them as wants it.) You do hear “cringey” sometimes, which means the same thing.

No mean Anglophile herself, Lovely Liz from Queens proposed this week’s expression. I say, thanks, old top!

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me time

(1990’s | therapese? | “time to (or for) myself,” “free (or spare) time,” “break”)

With its echoes of the me generation and “all about me,” this expression can’t help sounding selfish. Yet me time is often touted as a way to make us more useful to others and is urged especially on parents. It’s what you need to refresh yourself so that you can handle your duties — particularly at home — with renewed vigor. Me time is not for the self-centered; it’s for the worn out. The emotional equivalent of breaks during the day at an office or construction site. Even the flintiest bosses have been compelled to recognize that employees will be more productive and last longer if they have some time to relax or occupy themselves with other matters, and dispensers of advice note that we often drive ourselves harder than anyone else and have to learn to cut ourselves some slack. If you don’t make time for yourself now and then, your duties will get even more arduous and exhausting, hastening a breakdown (and making you useless to those who depend on you).

Can “me time” be frivolous? Sometimes it is presented as pure hedonism, but much more often as an antidote to stress, a way to preserve equanimity in the midst of a demanding schedule. Which makes it an obligation, but to whom? A complicated mix of oneself and others. It is not essential to the expression, but “me time” may take a definite moral tone — not an indulgence, a responsibility.

Though not common in the nineties, the expression appeared occasionally, especially in the British and Canadian press, so it may be a Briticism. One pictures the exasperated English mother — having run through story time, nap time, play time — banishing the kids and declaring “me time!” If it didn’t originate in the States, it found its way here soon enough and became much more common after 2000. Now “Me Time” is the name of a Sephora skin care product — grandiosely described as “a firming and antioxidant-powered age-delay ritual fueled by black tea” — and even the august New York Times publishes a monthly column under this heading in its august Style section. Starting to lose that moral tone.

Here’s a question: Why doesn’t this phrase mean “time for me to shine,” or “pay attention to me”? Imagine a television host saying, “O.k., boys and girls, it’s ME time!” You wouldn’t have any trouble understanding that, right? “It’s Howdy-Doody time!” doesn’t mean it’s time for Howdy Doody to go off by himself and ignore everyone else for a while. It means he’s front and center. In a culture as self-obsessed as ours, we always need more ways to call attention to ourselves. But we would more likely say “my time” than “me time.”

We can thank Britney Spears for the recent spike in the frequency of this phrase. She used it innocently enough about a month ago to announce that she was taking a break from helping to tend her father, who was recovering from major abdominal surgery. We might have lauded her filial loyalty and wisdom in knowing when she needed a respite herself. Instead, a sirocco erupted in which a lot of people who need something better to do opined at length on matters that weren’t their business, and worse; Spears claims she has received death threats. Celebrities must hunger, at least occasionally, to be out of the public eye, and I suspect part of what she meant was simply “please leave me alone.” Grant me the mercy of being out of range of the tireless, and entirely otiose, celebrity gossip machine, eager to tar and feather this week’s villain for the slightest incorrect word, sentiment, or gesture. We sure know how to chew ’em up and spit ’em out.

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play the race card

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “appeal to one’s worst instincts,” “stir up trouble”)

Apparently a Briticism, which came as rather a surprise to me, considering the expression smacks so richly of American penchants for prejudice and poker. The earliest appearances in LexisNexis began in the U.K. ca. 1986 and didn’t show up in U.S. sources until 1990, though it took root very quickly (see penchants noted above). No hits from any country in Google Books before 1985, either. I would love to have a fuller understanding of the origin of “play the race card.” Few expressions have a clear origin or single inventor, but normally one finds isolated early examples preceding a flowering, or similar expressions serving as transitional forms. (In this case, an example might be Nixon’s references to playing the China card, presumably part of an old China hand, as one source suggests.) But in this case it seems to have caught on more or less instantly, at least by linguistic standards. Some sources suggest that the O.J. Simpson trial lent it ubiquity in the U.S.

The other surprise came out of the discovery that in those early British instances, and in many early American ones, too, the race card was played by the majority, fomenting suspicion and hatred of a minority group. I’ve grown used to hearing the practice imputed to members of minorities, trying to claim special privileges based on past discrimination. But it was originally a left-wing attack phrase, used of nationalist or anti-immigrant parties in England. Jesse Helms’s 1990 campaign for Senate against Harvey Gantt (who was African-American) ran an ad accusing him of favoring racial quotas, whereupon Helms was condemned for “playing the race card.” It worked; he came from behind to win a close election. By 2008, Republicans routinely accused Obama of the tactic; actually, right-wingers are happy to claim anyone, black, white, or red all over, is playing the race card. No matter which side does it, it is more than a breach of etiquette; it is dishonorable, a matter of taking unfair advantage. (It also constitutes a form of intimidation.) Which is a little strange, because in poker (or, more likely, bridge, as Lovely Liz points out), there’s nothing suspect about playing a card; it’s part of the normal course of the game. When transposed into politics, it becomes a low-down act, but maybe that says more about politics than cards.

The expression has spawned a few imitators; one hears occasional references to the “gender card,” “religion card,” “terrorist card,” or other nonce cards — but none as common, or quite as venomous, as “race card.” One rarely acknowledges playing the race card oneself; it is an accusation. Nor does one admire deft use of the race card, even when played effectively. Like negative campaigning, push polling, and plenty of other dubious political practices, everyone deplores it but will happily engage in it if it has any chance of working. Who says bipartisanship is dead?

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foodie

(1980’s | journalese | “gourmet,” “epicure”)

A British import, like “over the top” or “at the end of the day,” this word flared up when a bestseller used it in the title in 1984: “The Official Foodie’s Handbook.” (Only a couple of instances have been found in print before then, at least one of those attributable to one of the authors.) And it meant then what it means now, someone obsessed with cuisine — ingredients, preparation, or both — to the point that it is easy to make fun of them. Although some use the word with pride, non-foodies generally use it with at least a hint of condescension or exasperation. Food is important, and it’s a fine idea to take pleasure in eating it, as anyone who has spent time around an anorexic can tell you. But foodies may do so to such an exaggerated degree that non-initiates can’t really take them seriously. Their raptures often come across as forced and stagey, more a matter of competing with each other than expressing a genuine appreciation for the gust and lore of their aliment. Nearly all of us delight in taking pretentious know-it-alls down a peg, so we are prone to suspect that most of these people haven’t the least idea what they are talking about. And we are bound to be right a high percentage of the time. (Urban Dictionary offers some sulfurous definitions of the term along those lines.) The most likely antecedents were “preppie” and “yuppie,” words that had taken hold only a few years earlier (“Foodie” authors Ann Barr and Paul Levy alluded directly to “The Official Preppie Handbook” in their title). My first thought was that “Trekkie” lurks in the background. It conveys the same sense of fervid, fanatical devotion that “foodie” does — far better than “preppie” or “yuppie.” I don’t know how common “Trekkie” was in England, though.

Another reason this word is so annoying, aside from the people it applies to, is that it partakes of the irritating British habit of taking perfectly useful words and adding diminutive or cutesy suffixes, hacking off syllables as needed. (The British have a long tradition of swallowing syllables, but tell me, is “Featherstonehaugh” really pronounced “Fanshaw”? I suspect that was Wodehouse’s idea of a joke, but I’ve never been quite sure, what with Cholmondeley and Marjoribanks.) I ask you: “Chocky” (a piece of chocolate), “preggers” (pregnant), “botty burp” (fart), “brolly” (umbrella), champers (champagne), sarnie (sandwich). There are dozens of them. Then there’s things like “billy-o,” “tickety-boo,” or “moggie” (cat), where the word sounds like it was invented on a particularly obnoxious kids’ television program, even though no orthographic surgery is involved. Are these not the effluvia of a decaying culture? This from the once-proud nation that gave us rhyming slang, which is both amusing and intellectually stimulating, when not downright mystifying. Why does “me old china” mean “old friend”? Well, it’s really “me old china plate,” which rhymes with “mate,” which means “friend.” Then you get rid of the actual rhyming part because that would make it too easy. That’s three steps you have to go through — not for dummies. Rhyming slang is still around, and new terms continue to come forth (as in “britney [spears]” for “beers”), so it hasn’t been supplanted. But it’s a shame that the Brits insist on obscuring a powerful slang tradition with a glut of cloying, infantilized, and frankly unnecessary expressions. Yes, I am a blogger who loves words, but if you call me a “wordie,” I will find you and wreak dire vengeance.

Thanks to my sister for proposing this week’s expression! I was surprised that I hadn’t made a note of “foodie” on any of my rather disorganized lists, but surprises like that keep this blog entertaining, for me, at least.

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