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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: clothes

plus one

(2000’s | journalese (society page)? | “date,” “guest”)

Now a staple of the younger set, “plus one” is a companion, usually temporary, for a social event, such as a wedding. No particular connection is implied; in fact, the term may suggest casual relations at best, maybe even just the only person you could scrounge up. (But it’s also possible to have a regular plus one who becomes a reliable escort, or to bring a good friend to an event they would enjoy.) Occasionally the phrase is used when a stronger connection is understood, and that related but distinct meaning may be gaining ground gradually. It bears some relation to “arm candy,” but whereas arm candy has to be attractive, the plus one has no particular attributes. Arm candy is a plus one, but a plus one probably isn’t arm candy.

“Plus one” could easily devolve into meaning any companion for a social occasion; the implication of the ad hoc acquaintance, sufficient for this party or that bowling night, may disappear into a broader, sloppier term. Another usage note: “plus one” is used sometimes to refer to an accessory (as in make-up or jewelry) — in that case, the connotation changes and the plus one becomes more of a sine qua non, required whenever you’re out in public.

The phrase may be a Briticism, but I can’t tell. The earliest example coughed up by LexisNexis is from 1998, in a British source, but it turns up in both U.K. and U.S. press, and I couldn’t trace a distinct origin. Some early uses suggested a different meaning in context — something like a ticket or pass that one is granted so that one can bring a friend — but it is not plain to me that that was ever a true definition of the term. There’s something frustratingly inconclusive about this expression. Can’t tell where it came from or isolate variant meanings. Some nerve.

plus size

(1980’s | businese (fashion) | “full-figured”)

Not present in the mainstream press in 1980, but definitely there by 1990. “Plus-size” has become a relatively neutral way to refer to women (as far as I can tell, the term is applied invariably to women) who are normal-size Americans or larger, or their apparel. For decades, we are told, designers made clothes only for thin women; anyone bigger than size 6 had to settle for cheap sweaters, or dowdy stretch pants, or spend the money to have their outfits custom-made. (Lane Bryant was a pioneer in selling clothing designed for such women, and it’s still around. The male version of that is the “big and tall store.” But “plus-size” doesn’t modify “store.”) Somewhere around 1980, couturiers noticed that a lot of women fit that description, and decided to see if they would pay for designer clothes. There is still some bias toward skinny models in the fashion industry, but plus-size women have come a long way since 1990. That’s an old American story: for decades, centuries, we’ve discriminated against this or that group of people for whatever reason. One day, someone notices that those people have money. Then the gold rush begins, the market is cultivated, and a few decades later, it is no longer o.k. to discriminate against that group. Groups that don’t have money, of course, remain on the shit list.

The plus-size revolution isn’t only a matter of business. It has gone along with a movement encouraging women to accept their bodies without guilt or mortification of the flesh. Part of that is finding expressions that are not off-putting or down-putting (if that’s a word); it’s difficult to think of older terms that did not bear at least some condescension. Customers will spend more freely if they feel welcome, reason the advertisers, who more adeptly than just about anyone else avoid offensive language or imagery, not out of civic motives, but from a desire to keep the income rolling in from as many wallets as possible. The hypersensitive left is generally blamed for the ascendancy of political correctness, and the righteous right uses that story very successfully for fundraising purposes. But advertisers have a lot more power to drag society in one direction or other than a few thousand professors, foundation heads, activists, and politicians.

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love handles

(1980’s | teenagese? | “spare tire,” “middle-age spread”)

I remember from late childhood or early adolescence a tableau on the Special K cereal box: a waist-length photo of a woman with a faintly accusing expression asking, “Can you pinch more than an inch?” If you took a firm grip on the outermost part of your belly fat, was the resulting wad more than an inch high? Those were the days before the great fitness craze of the eighties, before liposuction became popular. Exercise and a healthy diet were the only ways to keep from getting disgustingly fat, and those were the values Kellogg’s was trying to promote, or give the appearance of promoting. (Special K has always been pitched to believers in fitness and healthy diet. It continues to strike me as an inexplicable brand name for a cereal, but not as ominous as “Product 19.”)

This week’s expression owes nothing to Kellogg’s, but it did come into its own at the same time as aerobics (“six-pack abs” and “no pain, no gain” are other new fitness-related expressions). Not long after the lady left the cereal box, “love handles” became an accepted term for that very specific variety of belly fat on one’s sides at the waist. Not to be confused with the beer belly, or saddlebags, deposits of adipose depending from the hips and thighs. Hip fat may be called “love handles” (do you notice? it’s never singular), but that usage is imprecise. For the last ten years or so, hip fat has also been referred to as “muffin tops,” but that conjures up an even more specific picture: rolls of hip and waist fat pushed upward and outward by tight jeans, forming a distinctive muffin-type silhouette. (Here is a fun list of other fat-related anatomical features, and another.) We delight in vocabulary that makes fun of our anatomical deficiencies, but most such expressions don’t spread far or have much staying power. The poetic “grab of flab,” another way to say “love handles,” never seems to have made the big time. Why has “love handles” lasted so well? It names a very common anatomical feature, for one thing; we need a word for those particular belly flaps because nearly everyone over thirty has them. It sounds pleasingly warm and fuzzy and has a jocular quality that probably has helped make it attractive. “Muffin tops” will probably also persist, but it is more dependent on fashion; there is less need for the expression when tight jeans go out of style.

The origin of “love handles” is obscure; according to Lighter and Google Books, it was first recorded in the late sixties in glossaries of college slang. The phrase stayed mainly in the shadows throughout the seventies but began to dip its toes into the mainstream by the end of that decade. Well into the eighties it was placed delicately in quotation marks and frequently glossed; such niceties were not necessary by 1990, although you may see the phrase in quotation marks to this day, a sign that it still sounds slangy and not quite reputable. There’s a reason for that: Richard Spears’s Slang and Euphemism (1981) defines “love handles” as “fat on the sides of a man or woman held onto during copulation.” It took thirty years, but the sowers of quotation marks have pretty well lost the battle and the term has become respectable, used indiscriminately by doctors, advice columnists, and stuffy professors. As the phrase has become familiar, the prurient connotation has worn away, causing many to wonder why they’re called “love handles” when no one loves, or even wants, them; as a result, you see “hate handles” occasionally used as a synonym, in the manner of “fat chance” and “slim chance.”

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fashion statement

(1980’s | journalese | “statement”)

A bit of a cheat by my avowed chronological limits, but only a bit, “fashion statement” arose in the 1970’s and became available for use outside the industry in the 1980’s. Google Books shows effectively no instances before 1970, when it started to creep into fashion journalism. By 1985 it could turn up anywhere in the entertainment press, from sports to theater reviews, and even in political reporting. “Fashion model” and “fashion sense” are much older, “fashion plate” is older still; any of them might have provided a model for the new coinage. “Fashion police” and “fashionista” came along later.

The phrase can mean a lot of things. As of 2015, it applies loosely to any wearing of clothes or accessories to get any sort of attention. Like a muumuu, the vagueness conceals many meanings. Let’s try a few on:

-announcement of new line or even trend, normally at a major show, but only by means of the clothes themselves (a designer’s description of her new line at a press conference would not be considered a fashion statement)

-declaration of allegiance to a particular designer or trend.

In these two cases, the statement is delivered by the clothes themselves, and it centers on a designer or trend. But fashion statements may say more about the person making them:

-using clothes and accessories to show that you are independent of the current mode, or have an interesting variation on it

or, more broadly,

-any expression of one’s character, preferences, passions, etc., etc. through the medium of apparel. I’m not sure if wearing an Aeropostale shirt counts as a fashion statement. More loosely still, the phrase means

-doing or wearing something because it’s chic

-drawing attention to oneself by means of what one is wearing.

But references to the world beyond the runway are possible, too. Fashion statements may take aim at a social or political issue (as in students wearing Confederate flag t-shirts, or showing solidarity with gay peers by wearing denim.)

It doesn’t even have to be wearables: I came across an article in the Oberlin Review (April 3, 2015) about “decorative beards,” which are adorned with flowers, miniature Christmas lights, and who knows what. More than one student used “fashion statement” to talk about the new phenomenon. True, the donning of a three-dimensional object is still required to trigger use of the expression, but one wonders how long before beards or tattoos become potent fashion statements in themselves.

What you really have to watch with this expression is who (or what) makes the statement. It may be a designer, stunning this year’s audience with sheer audacity. It may be you or I, or it may just be the clothes. Who you are and what you wear may blend seamlessly, with your garments reflecting, nay, expounding your inner self through your carefully chosen wardrobe. Or you make your wardrobe as discordant or opinionated as possible in order to provoke reactions from bystanders. The gregarious looseness of this expression — abetted by the word “statement,” more general than declaration, announcement, or testimony — lets it cover such a broad range.

Fashion is often derided as superficial and trivial, but fashion statements, even light-hearted ones, are rarely dismissed out of hand. They are influential, or at least have the potential to be, and the power of a designer to inspire imitation through bold novelties remains considerable. Frankly, I would have expected the phrase to have taken on a negative cast over time, like hipster or comfort zone. No such derogatory usage has ever become the norm.

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wiggle room

(1990’s | bureaucratese | “leeway,” “room to maneuver,” “margin for error,” “slack,” “discretion”)

Until the mid-sixties, this phrase, used mainly in shoe advertisements or sewing manuals, had to do with trying on clothes or footwear. A secondary meaning was used more in the context of a different kind of fit, as a car or airplane seat. How much freedom does your body have; how much restraint and discomfort are you subject to? For toes or torso, some wiggle room is a good thing, recommended by mothers and fashion consultants alike.

Politicians and diplomats were the first to use the expression in a more fanciful way. I found several uses in the Congressional Record, including one from 1967 that attributed it to Secretary of State Dean Rusk. (Even in my boyhood “Dean Rusk” sounded like a name from the distant past — one got him mixed up with Dean Acheson — and I doubt most people under thirty have ever heard of him. While I’m digressing, am I the only one who gets pissed off because Google Books shows the Congressional Record in “snippet view”? I couldn’t identify the blankety-blank member of Congress who credited Rusk with popularizing the metaphorical use of “wiggle room” because of this policy, which makes absolutely no sense. The Record is a government publication and not copyrighted, and it is a fundamental text for citizens trying to learn about our government and its history (I abjure the temptation to launch into a third digression on the fact that we are all consumers rather than citizens now). The Library of Congress has scanned the Record only as far back as 1989 but will let you look at all of it; Google has all of it scanned and won’t let you see so much as a single complete page. Why, Google, why? In your not-so-infinite wisdom.)

In fact, Life magazine quoted Rusk using “wiggle room” in an interview given as his tenure ended (January 1969), so he may indeed have imparted momentum to this expression. It was a down-home kind of phrase, and he was a down-home kind of guy. Based on what I found on LexisNexis and Google Books, it seems to have remained the property of government officials through the eighties, though it may have turned up occasionally in other contexts. William Safire, a particularly keen observer of officialese, devoted half a column to it in 1984; in those pre-database days, the earliest citation he found was in a 1978 Business Week (you’d think Safire would remember Dean Rusk’s verbal quiddities, but apparently not — or maybe Rusk really wasn’t known for using the phrase, the Congressional Record in snippy view notwithstanding).

By 2000 it was widely used, both in terms of sheer number of citations and variety of fields and contexts. It’s one of those expressions whose definition hasn’t broadened, and even in the early days it was usually presented without a gloss. Much as I would like “wiggle room” to mean “discotheque,” it denotes a way of acknowledging contingency and change. Wiggle room lets you massage the numbers. Wiggle room lets you get away with this and that, temporize, make exceptions, or evade limits. That also makes it a lawyer’s dream; wiggle room opens up vistas of interpretation that must be argued and ruled upon. It’s sort of the opposite of zero tolerance or mandatory sentencing, procrustean devices enacted to make the legal system more fair which inevitably make it less so. “Wiggle room” gets less commendable when it becomes a way to avoid committing yourself to anything, and it can have a downright unsavory connotation in the mouth of a purist. A classic example was Ronald Reagan’s spokesman, Larry Speakes, equating wiggle room with “weasel room” in 1984. Men of principle have no use for loose language or slippery logic that gives them an easy out. Here “wiggle room” means no more than a pre-planned means of going back on your word.

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dress down

(1980’s | “dress informally,” “slum”)

“Dress down” meant “scold harshly” for nigh onto three hundred years. First it meant “beat up” or “thrash”; soon it got watered down to the verbal from the physical but retained the violence of the original sense. It’s recorded both in Grose and in Farmer & Henley, important pre-twentieth-century slang dictionaries. And that’s how I learned it back in the 1970’s — it wasn’t used all that often, but it was considered standard, having lost its colloquial taint.

You still have to know the old meaning if you want to follow the news, especially where British English is spoken. But here, “dress down” has pretty much become the antonym of “dress up,” a process already underway in the 1970’s. There’s some leeway about the usage: it could mean “dress nicely but informally for a formal occasion,” or “dress like a slob,” or “dress like a coal miner.” The phrase is broadening its base now, used in contexts that have little or nothing to with clothes, as in this fragment from Newsday, January 14, 2011: “the wallpaper can be either dressed down or up, depending on the accessories.” Note that it’s also used transitively in this passage, another shift, and a sign that it’s gaining ground.

Occasionally an idiom sheds a more complicated meaning for a more literal one: “beg the question” comes to mind. Most of us breathe a little sigh of relief when it happens, if we notice at all. We can still use the phrase, but now it means what it should have meant all along, and we don’t have to remember a strange, puzzling definition. A once troublesome expression becomes comfortable, and we can take that extra bit of brain space we’ve saved and use it for more important things, like our top video-game scores, or TV trivia.

type a personality

(1990’s | faux-therapese | “workaholic,” “overachiever,” “overbearing jerk”)

First, let’s sort out the meaning of this term, which has a favorable use: “driven,” “hard-charging,” “self-motivated,” or “determined to finish the job” and a derogatory use: “impatient,” “hypercompetitive,” “fanatically punctual,” or “too wrapped up in work.” The term originated with two cardiologists, Michael Friedman and Ray Rosenman, who observed, or thought they did, that people who displayed the second set of traits listed above had a much greater likelihood of heart disease than the general population. They were trying to create a profile of a heart patient rather than describe a personality type; their book, in fact, referred to “type A behavior,” not “personality.” How soon it was generalized; now we almost always use the term to talk about types of people, not types of action. It sounds like therapese, but it was really invented by medical doctors trying to think like therapists.

However you use “type A,” the definition of “type B personality” boils down to little more than its opposite. There’s this other kind of person, see, who doesn’t have as many heart attacks, and look, they’re not like the type A guys at all. Such a lack of precision may explain why more recent research has discounted the link between certain kinds of social behavior and heart disease. These things take on a life of their own, however, and you can find references to type C personality, type D, and even type H. Then there’s the variant I overheard on the bus: “She’s so type A, she’s type A-plus!”

I have no idea what the “A” stands for or how Drs. Friedman and Rosenman arrived at the term. But clinical descriptions of this personality type are not generally flattering, and the originators themselves regarded type A behavior as a disorder that might lead to illness and death. Type A’s are apt to be rude, easily exasperated, bad listeners, and inconsiderate of their friends and loved ones because they’re too busy working. At first, I thought maybe the “A” stood for “aggression,” but after a bit more research I’m beginning to think “asshole” was the word they had in mind.

The reason we all know about type A’s, and the reason so many of them are successful, is that we live in a type A culture. Someone who works too hard and lives strictly by the clock is no more or less than the poster child for Ben Franklin’s maxim, “Remember that time is money,” which immediately and irrevocably became one of America’s founding commandments. Ruthless, unpleasant people who would never dream of taking it easy, even in the middle of a heart attack, have always done very well in the U.S. if they have any talent at all.

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