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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: Congress

nuclear option

(1990’s | journalese | “extreme (or drastic or desperate) measure,” “last resort,” “irrevocable decision”)

Gorblimey, china plates, I do believe this expression counts as a Briticism, at least in its contemporary sense. As far back as the sixties, the phrase was widely used in the U.S. to talk about energy generation or weapons. “The nuclear option,” on one hand, was what utility executives urged us not to neglect; on the other, it heralded the development of atomic weapons (for those that didn’t already have them), or different ways it might be possible to use them (for those that did). That was true at least until 1980. Not long after that, one started seeing the odd figurative use, but it was much more common in the U.K. than in the U.S. up until 2004 or so, when the phrase assumed the meaning we hear most commonly today: the majority party in the U.S. Senate taking away the filibuster, the last-ditch means for the minority of derailing legislation. Since then, it has crept into other spheres — trade negotiations, computer maintenance, even sports.

Semantically, I find the phrase surprisingly difficult to pin down. Is it an unanswerable blow? A point of no return? Overkill? Destroying the cause of a problem rather than simply solving it? Nuclear war can only be imagined in terms of all-encompassing destruction, persisting for centuries, at least, so the figurative use has a palette of apocalypses to choose from. But the slipperiness brings starkly into view the loss of force the expression has undergone. Inevitably, the “nuclear option” in negotiation or managing your players involves lower stakes than it does in its more literal senses, even though the literal meanings have not gone away. In time the terror will leach out of it. (Not that eliminating the filibuster isn’t terrifying, but you can’t compare it to thousands dead in a flash.) Grammatically, it’s more predictable: “nuclear option” always takes the definite article; you’ll never hear “a nuclear option,” though that sort of thing can always change.

Today’s Senate is pretty debased, but they have not quite gone the whole hog with the nuclear option, not yet, anyway. Oh, wait, they have, at least as the term was originally understood in 2004. Back then, Republicans threatened to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominees. They didn’t go through with it, and two years later the Democrats took the Senate back. But in 2013, the Democrats did change the rules, exempting only Supreme Court nominees. In 2017, the Republicans finished the job, but so far have stoutly resisted doing away with the filibuster against legislation, Trump’s uncomprehending dismay notwithstanding. The majority party in the Senate has been pointing fingers and making threats at least since the nineties, and minority power has diminished though not disappeared. Those who believe the minority party should not have the power to stop majority-supported legislation may tout government efficiency as their most powerful rationale. I say the last thing we need is efficient government, particularly at the federal level. Efficient governments are dictatorships. Our system has been designed from the beginning to pose obstacles to rushed legislation that we’ll all regret later. The framers weren’t always right by any means, but we would do well to reflect on their wisdom here.

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full disclosure

(1990’s | legalese | “telling the whole story,” “full accounting,” “clean breast”)

It’s a formula now, a ritual. The reporter states affiliations, preferences, or beliefs closely related to the topic at hand, prefaced invariably by “Full disclosure,” or “In the interest of full disclosure” for the orotund. Fair enough; journalists remain essential channels of information even when no one believes them, and we have as much need to know what commentators might be hiding as what politicians are. The expression has been around a long time, after all. It shows up often in Google Books often between 1800 and 1840, usually in bankruptcy cases or parliamentary debates, but it could crop up anywhere; one might make a full disclosure of feelings or past exploits as well as assets. For what it’s worth, Google Ngrams shows a noticeable increase in use after 1980, after a long period of relative neglect.

A bit more history: William Safire titled his 1977 novel “Full Disclosure.” In the eighties “full disclosure” turned up often in political reporting, as officials were asked to lay bare their financial dealings so voters could hold them to account for conflicts of interest. Since then, the phrase has made itself at home in other contexts, especially discussions of relationships. Journalists began to use it in the nineties, as far as I can tell, and within ten years it was everywhere. (Despite a few showy successes, efforts to drive money and influence out of government at any level have been notable failures; now Congress is populated largely by millionaires who get away with revealing little about who’s paying them for what, particularly when campaigning, now a permanent activity. And it turns out most voters don’t care. If a guy is smart enough to represent us, he’s smart enough to get around ethics rules.)

There’s nothing new about compelling people to make a complete accounting of assets or donors, but whereas journalists used to be the ones demanding such transparency, now they feel compelled to assure skeptical readers that they are clean themselves. It’s easier to force ink-stained wretches to show their hands than wealthy elites, and public distrust of “the media” has been increasing for decades, so they have become targets. And of course it’s true that reporters, like anyone else, may use the phrase deceptively. It’s easy to disguise a partial disclosure as a full disclosure, leaving out material facts; the very solemnity of the expression may make us reluctant to scrutinize the revelations offered. Deceptive or not, journalists use the phrase as a pre-emptive strike; it means “you don’t have to pry this information out of me; I’m going to tell you up front.” Which may also increase its effectiveness as a tool for misleading others. I’m not suggesting that newshounds are more likely than anyone else to use the term deceptively, by the way, probably less. The real movers and shakers will always have more to hide, and have greater means to hide it from the rest of us.

“Full” makes it sound like you’re spilling every last bean, but in legal and financial circles full disclosure requires only that relevant facts be adduced; it must pertain to the question at hand, whether it’s the materials and processes embodied in a patent, possible influence on a legislator, or anything a bankrupt is able to liquidate. When the principle of full disclosure justifies revealing anything a public figure would rather conceal, the investigation turns into a witch hunt. Maybe we should rename it “pertinent disclosure.” It might make the phrase less ubiquitous, if nothing else.

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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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control freak

(1990’s | journalese?, therapese? | “dictator,” “perfectionist,” “obsessive or unyielding person”)

This phrase really has to figure out which side it’s on. Grudging compliment or insult? Perfectionist or nazi? Do you rule with an iron hand, or do you want everything just so? You will hear people admit, usually with more sheepishness than pride, that they are control freaks. But when an artist or businessman is described that way, the term may inspire a certain respect; it’s a way of saying this person has a powerful, compelling vision and doesn’t want anything to interfere with it. If the company is successful or the movie sells, the “control freak” prospers and gains acclaim. On the other hand, when a right-wing blogger uses the term, it means “arrogant government official bent on taking over our lives.” When you describe a run-of-the-mill person as a control freak, it’s usually more than a touch derogatory. We understand that the person is a pain in the ass or worse. The related adjective “controlling” as applied to persons, referring to someone who wants to run others’ lives, has also come into being in the last forty years, although it arose later.

I found a few examples from the 1970’s among hippies and artists, but the expression seems to have grown more common through the 1980’s and become ordinary by the early 1990’s. “Freak” was a big word in the 1960’s, yet one more example of hijacking a derogatory term and turning it into a blazon. The word has always had the sense of “whim” — a pleasant irony in the case of “control freak,” whose goal is to wipe out whim altogether — or “monster” (as in “freak of nature”), and all the weirdos and malcontents declared themselves freaks, the better to épater les bourgeois. Hippie culture faded into irrelevance, but a fair amount of the vocabulary lingered on, and “freak” came to mean “enthusiast” or “passionate exponent.” “Jesus freak” was still heard often in my childhood, an early, influential example of the “noun + freak” construction. The phrase “control freak” appeared in The Deer Hunter (1978), which may have been the first opportunity most of us had to learn the expression. Most of the examples I found before the late 1980’s appeared in arts journalism.

Another binary opposition: Does the control freak seek primarily to control himself or others? Sometimes “control freak” is used to mean someone who never acts spontaneously, or struggles to keep inner impulses in check. When I hear this phrase, I envision someone who creates detailed arrangements for kitchen utensils and goes nuts any time someone puts a spatula in the wrong place, but it’s sometimes used in a sense that doesn’t involve imposing your will on others or even your surroundings, but on yourself.


(early 1990’s | miltarese?, bureaucratese? | “interfere”)

Unlike “control freak,” which can be a backhanded compliment, “micromanage” never has a positive connotation. When the word arose in the 1980’s, it was most commonly used by government officials about other government officials, especially in military contexts. Nowadays “micromanage” can act as the verb form of “control freak,” as in this example of a son describing his father (quoted in Newsday, June 10, 2012): “He kind of let life happen. He didn’t micromanage. He let people be who they are.” In this usage a micromanager is fussy about details AND feels compelled to run the show.

This is another bifurcated word; it has two oddly distinct meanings. The best way I can think of to express the difference is to say that sometimes the opposite of “micromanage” is “manage better,” and sometimes it’s “don’t manage at all.” If the word refers to top management meddling in minor matters — corporate headquarters setting the break schedule at every outpost, or a federal agency taking charge of small-town parking regulations — it’s definitely an insult, but it’s remediable. If the people at the top just focus on their proper sphere, there won’t be a problem. The other meaning comes up often among right-wing politicians alluding to members of Congress “micromanaging” military or diplomatic operations (i.e., the province of the executive), the clear implication being not that Congress is looking down from above and tending to unimportant matters, but that Congress should keep its hands off entirely. Don’t manage, in other words. (What they’re really saying, of course, is that Congress should disregard its obligation to the people to oversee federal agencies and cede the power of the purse to the Defense Department.) The latter sense allows demagogues to smear any oversight as counterproductive meddling. Which is what both meanings have in common: “sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong.”

A personal note: In 2007, a restive Congress finally began to make some noise about ending or at least slowing down the Iraq War. Pundits and finger-waggers in solemn procession accused Congress of “micromanaging” the war. As I pointed out in a sulfurous letter to the editor, Congress was actually managing the war, and it was about time, since Bush and his band had made no effort in that direction. Newsday didn’t print the letter, but that’s when it hit me how often “micromanage” is used in this sneaky way.

Another personal note: Thanks to the ever-lovin’ and indefatigable Liz from Queens for giving me this word!

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hot button

(late 1980’s | businese (sales) | “sore spot,” “controversial”)

I’m no etymologist, and quite possibly I’m wrong about this. But “hot button” looks to be traceable not just to a single event or movement (or movie), but to a single man, one Jack Lacy, a salesman who specialized in figuring out what would get the customer excited and using that as the main selling point. (His sales philosophy has been stated in different ways.) Lacy and his followers trained thousands of salesmen starting in 1937 — he even made a record in 1961 called Hot-Button Salesmanship — although it’s not clear that he was using the term “hot button” from the beginning. I didn’t find any figurative uses of “hot button” before Lacy; it took a few decades for the term to make it into the mainstream.

Fast forward to the eighties. The word is used by two kinds of people, salesmen and politicians (o.k., maybe they’re the same kind), mostly the former. But politicians used it about like we do now, except it was invariably a noun. A hot button was something that got people excited, usually angry or upset, but it could also make people motivated or enthusiastic. Merriam-Webster Online defines it thus: “an emotional and usually controversial issue or concern that triggers immediate intense reaction.” The word has evolved from “what makes the sale” to “what gets people riled up,” but the undertone of excitement or passion is still there. By the end of the eighties, “hot button” acquired a hyphen and was pressed into service as an adjective on occasion, and the term was well-established by the early 1990’s. Now the adjectival use is much more common than the nominal, and phrases like “hot-button issue” roll blithely off our tongues.

“Hot button” has a secondary, more specific meaning: what makes you angry, or what we used to call a pet peeve. Here, too, the hot button is the thing that sets you off or gets you worked up, but it has lost all connection with selling. When politicians exploit hot-button issues, it’s all about selling; saying what you need to say to get votes is conceptually pretty similar to saying what you need to say to get a housewife to buy a Fuller Brush.


(1990’s | “lost cause,” “failure”)

A Briticism, like “queue,” “vet” (verb), “spot-on” or “take a decision,” all of which Americans say far more often than they used to. The term arises from horse racing, a “non-starter” logically enough being what is also called a “scratch,” a horse that doesn’t appear in a scheduled race for some reason. That evolved into a proposal or idea that is completely unrealistic, or can’t be taken seriously, perhaps through a phase in which it is used mainly of persons (as in a candidate for a job who can’t possibly get it). “Non-starter” in its modern sense was already turning up in Commonwealth publications at midcentury, and I found a few examples, mostly in political journalism, in the U.S. press before 1980. (It was used in sportswriting to mean team members that aren’t in the starting line-up, and it still is. That kind of “non-starter” may play an important role in the game, however.) It got a small boost during the 1984 presidential campaign, when Mondale attacked Reagan’s plan to share “Star Wars” technology with the Soviets once it had been perfected as a “non-starter” (a somewhat covert pun on Reagan’s arms-control initiative, START, which replaced SALT). It has never spread far beyond political contexts in the U.S.; even today it used most often with reference to matters of negotiation or policy.

Today the meaning can be expressed in several closely related ways: something not worth considering, something that cannot take place or get anywhere, something dismissed out of hand, a doomed proposition; “non-starter” has held onto a relatively narrow and well-defined meaning and realm. Its part of speech hasn’t changed, either; it remains solidly a noun, and has steadfastly avoided any shift toward the adjectival (except in technical terms like “non-starter bacteria”). Furthermore, the word has successfully avoided a connotation that it might have been expected to accrete by now: disingenuousness or bad-faith bargaining. True, “non-starter” is sometimes used with such an imputation, but it isn’t automatic. It can be a well-intended and reasonable idea that can’t be implemented (in the current political atmosphere, say) just as easily as a deliberate attempt to score political points with an impossible or unworkable proposal.

There don’t seem to have been many nouns with precisely this meaning in my youth. You could say a proposal was “dead on arrival,” or that it “wouldn’t fly.” But I’ve had a hard time coming up with noun equivalents. In other words, there are lots of older equivalents for “That’s a non-starter” — “that’s not a serious proposal,” “that’ll go over like a lead balloon,” “I won’t dignify that with a response” — but hardly any for “non-starter” itself. That’s one explanation for the increasing popularity of the word. Another is the growth of intransigence in national politics. When anyone offers up a piece of legislation, “That’s a non-starter” makes it so easy for the opposition — acres of complex policy dismissed, no explanation required, no wavering occasioned by the fatal acknowledgment that the other side might have a legitimate point. Keep that stuff up for thirty years, and you get a Congress with a 10% approval rating.

Special thanks to Liz, who slipped me both of this week’s expressions!

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everything on the table

(1990’s? | “leaving (all) our options open,” “no holds barred”)

This is one of those phrases that has changed meaning in the last fifty years. It’s a variant of “cards on the table,” borrowed decades ago from poker players by negotiators. To put your cards face-up means to reveal that which has been concealed, and “everything on the table” meant the same thing, holding nothing back, being completely aboveboard with the other party. A businessman named Gilbert Mintz said it this way: “Executives participating in mergers and acquisitions should be completely honest with each other and lay everything on the table at the outset” (quoted in Computer World, November 15, 1976). Another gambling-related use had to do with the idea of risking everything, pushing all your chips into the pot rather than showing your hand. Distinguished editor Michael Korda, in his memoir (Charmed Lives, 1979), used it thus: “Alex had always been a gambler, but he was now launching on the biggest gamble of his life: with the sale of his United Artists shares, he had put everything on the table.”

What does it mean now? It’s similar, but distinct: “everything is on the table” means nothing is off-limits, everything is up for discussion. The idea of holding nothing back persists, but the emphasis has shifted from “I’m not hiding anything” to “I’m not ruling anything out.” Instead of the smoke-wreathed card table in a back room, one imagines a smoke-wreathed table surrounded by grouchy members of Congress. One by one, each sacred cow is brought out for horse trading.

It has become a ritual announcement whenever there’s a contentious issue in Washington. This phrase pops up most often in budget negotiations, designed to conjure up a picture of Congressmen examining every federal program rigorously, without fear or favor, ruthless scalpels at the ready. What with the state of our economy, this phrase has become nearly ubiquitous, as our solons vie to shed the saltiest crocodile tears over the budget deficit or the unemployment rate. In practice, many programs start out on the table only to be whisked away as soon as the serious bargaining starts. One spectacular example is the notion that the federal government should address the budget deficit by raising revenue, which never stays on the table for long in the Republican House of Representatives. Right-wingers like to say government ought to be run like a business, but they’d look very strangely indeed on a business that made no effort to increase its revenue in hard financial times.

Just as most alternatives really aren’t on the table, most of us don’t have a “place at the table,” another phrase beloved of politicians. You need one to decide exactly which parts of everything will be on the table, or be tabled.

under the radar

(1990’s | militarese | “escaping attention,” “out of nowhere,” “stealthily,” “discreetly”)

Like “ahead of the curve” and “flame out,” this is another term from aviation. It’s a richer source of idioms than I would have guessed. You don’t have to be a four-year-old boy for airplanes to have a hold on your psyche, it seems.

Up until 1990 or so, this term was used mostly to talk about missiles and warplanes, with the occasional reference to drug smuggling, although the figurative use had started to drift into the language during the previous decade. It was probably a shortening of “under the radar screen,” commonly used in discussions of evasive flying in the 1970’s and earlier. As with other military contributions to the language, this one spread by way of politicians and businessmen. The military-industrial complex depends on elected officials for survival, and politicians do not shirk their responsibility — so it’s not surprising that they love to adopt military vocabulary. (“Stealth” was not an adjective before the B-2 bomber became the talk of the nation in the mid-1980’s.)

The phrase may carry the implication of deception — being under the radar may be a sneaky attempt to avoid detection. (Like the Florida Parks Division’s quiet effort to sell off public parkland.) Or it may indicate deficiencies in those minding the radar: larger forces of the culture which are supposed to spot worthy new trends and bring them to our attention. (Indian businessman Adi Godrej: “the key is to pick niche products with sizeable local market shares which pass under the radar of big global rivals.”) Or maybe it just suggests insignificance: the “forgotten people” helped by the Under The Radar Foundation. (Or is that just another case of being overlooked by the wider culture?) It might even connote a noble indifference to publicity or attention. As far as I can tell, there’s no predominant or presumptive sense — the first two are the most common — each time you hear the phrase, you have to figure out what is implied.

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