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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: crime


(1980’s | bureaucratese? legalese? financese? | “recoup,” “recover”)

No longer the sole property of sportswriters, this noun-verb complex has invaded the financial pages and legal journals in force. When I was young, you clawed your way back into a contest through determination and effort, not quitting until the game was on the line and you had a chance to win. It didn’t have to be a single game; it could happen over course of a season, as in a baseball team clawing its way back into the pennant race. It might be used in the context of an individual sport like tennis or golf, but I think it more often went with team sports. In the business world, you might claw your way to the top, but you don’t claw back your way to the top — though you might claw your way back to the top. There’s something ruthless about clawing when people do it; it requires unreasoning vigor, like a jungle cat, blindly fighting its way forward as long as it can move.

In the late seventies, the U.S. began imposing treble (i.e., threefold) damages on defendants who lost certain kinds of civil suits. The U.K. responded by passing a law of their own that gave a British person or corporation the right to recover the portion of the total damages that was not actually compensatory (in other words, the part that was multiplied on after actual damages were awarded). In both the British and American press, this was widely referred to as a “clawback provision.” The expression was much more common in the British, Canadian, and Australian press for at least a decade thereafter, and it is indubitably a Briticism.

My impression was that the expression refers mainly to something governments do, as in the Bernie Madoff case, but a corporation can do it, too; take Wells Fargo’s repossession of stock from disgraced executives in the wake of a banking scandal. I suppose that a business partner could claw back money that another partner had misused, but for the most part it seems to be something an institution does. Clawbacks normally occur when assets have been stolen or used illegitimately; when you hear the word, you can be pretty sure that there was some funny business that has been found out, and a governing body, private or public, is doing something about it. (That isn’t always true; for example, when the British government was privatizing public industries in the eighties, they decreed that a certain number of shares had to be available to British investors. In some cases, that meant “clawing back” shares bought by foreigners to make sure enough shares were available.) The government generally needs some kind of judicial ruling, but a corporation needs no more than the approval of the directors.

In truth, the new expression here is “clawback” (n.) since “claw back” (v.) has been a permissible construction for a long time. (As we saw above, “clawback” also serves as an adjective. I hope I am cold in my grave before “clawbackly” becomes standard English.) But its present sense seems to have arisen around the same time, and I wouldn’t want to state with certainty that one preceded the other, though I would guess the verb came first. It has never left legal and political contexts, or spread outward from them. Law and justice must have their own language.


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racial profiling

(1990’s | legalese | “discrimination”)

The verb “to profile” has a relatively complicated recent history, even if you set aside the usual literal or technical meanings from geology, engineering, esthetics, etc. For most of the twentieth century, the most common usage had to do with interview-based journalism — describing a worthy individual or organization in detail. Usually an actor or comparable cultural phenomenon, hence the phrase “celebrity profile.” The word was available as both noun and verb, but from either angle it seems an odd choice. The classical meaning of “profile” — a face seen from the side — would seem, on the face of it (sorry), to have little to do with a revealing biographical portrait. To carry the metaphor to its logical conclusion implies that the reporter has left out half the relevant information, as a profile leaves out half the visage — although an art critic might argue that sometimes the profile is more revealing than a full-face view, and there’s no denying some faces are far more interesting in profile. Sometimes “profile” means little more than “categorize,” as in a corporate profile that provides statistics grouped under various measures of performance. In African-American slang, “profiling” was another word for “showing off.” But when we use the term in African-American contexts today, it has an entirely different slant.

Our use of “racial profiling” today is descended from the more sinister practice of psychological profiling; the OED lists its first example of this usage in 1951. The goal is to see beneath the surface presented by the soldier, teacher, or employee, the psychologist’s trained eye constructing an account of each personality that understands the subject better than she understands herself, or at least better than the boss understands her. Inevitably, it occurred to the criminal justice system that such a thing might be useful in dealing with malefactors, and the idea of profiling this depraved criminal or that deranged terrorist entered the mainstream in the seventies and eighties. By 1990, the concept had undergone further refinement in the form of DNA profiling, by which the expert found a unique way to identify any individual through a bit of hair or saliva, again finding a distinctive marker that was not apparent to the unaided eye or brain. A DNA profile is a hyper-detailed diagram constructing a definitive portrait that cannot be confused with that of anyone else. Though the technology is often used in the context of medical research, it turns up much more often in news accounts of criminals, which has paved the way for “racial profiling,” now the dominant locution in which “profiling” appears. (I append the ACLU’s definition along with a reasonably non-partisan discussion of various kinds of profiling.)

The extraordinary thing about the new expression is that it has turned the old idea on its head. Racial profiling dispenses entirely with a painstaking account of the individual, teasing out a detailed map of characteristics, and replaces it with a simple question: Do you belong to this or that dangerous group? (Profiling based on religion or nationality is also possible, of course.) On one view, the change in usage is a complete reversal, but from another it is more or less seamless — profiling is merely one more weapon in the eternal war against the bad guys — and therefore it may be entitled to a certain poetic license.

The illogic of widespread, systematic profiling has been proven so often that the practice has few defenders but many adherents. When Americans feel threatened — some of us don’t even have to feel threatened — we disregard the studies and the logic and reach for the easy, satisfying answer. If a few people from a certain group mean us harm, make all of them suspect. For that to have any chance to work, the group must be very small, but preferred objects of unequal treatment in our society number in the millions, most of whom are law-abiding and just trying to do their jobs and pay their taxes. Having been mistreated by the justice system, such members of minority groups have no incentive to work with police and a quite reasonable desire to avoid them. Police departments around the country have learned this the hard way. (An exchange between Sam Harris and Bruce Schneier may flesh out the argument sketched above.) But their experiences have not dissuaded an uncomfortably large percentage of us, who demand that the law be simple and punitive. In America, foolish and failed policies can be enacted over and over again, if they benefit — or harm — the right people.

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(1990’s | businese (finance) | “con man,” “crook,” “trickster”)

A far as I can tell, we owe this one to the Brits, or maybe their ex-colonials. There are very few LexisNexis results from U.S. sources before 1995; nearly all come from Great Britain and the recent colonies. We’re certainly not above borrowing Briticisms and their cousins (“at the end of the day,” “over the moon,” “selfie“) in these parts, and the venerable “-ster” suffix (see below) rolls off the tongue easily in America, the land of gangsters and mobsters.

This word probably is not necessary in either hemisphere, but it does have the advantage of incorporating the very act its embodiments practice. The old equivalents (see above) do not. “Con[fidence] man” is itself a bit deceptive; it really refers to someone you should not have confidence in, and he has to convince you to do so. “Crook” is more general than “fraudster,” but the two words line up pretty well, so it’s rarely jarring to substitute one for the other. A fraudster sees an opening and uses it dishonestly for personal advantage. The word seems indifferent to distinctions like preying on individuals vs. cheating corporate bodies, or large-scale vs. small-scale crime. As the OED (first citation: 1975) notes, “fraudster” denotes in particular one who lies or cheats in the course of a business transaction. But it is not restricted to such use and has already spread out.

I cannot help but wonder if the rise of this expression since the seventies does not result from a simple (or rather geometric) increase in chicanery. It may be that an ever more complicated and less regulated financial system, coupled with increased criminal activity enabled by widespread use of computers, has made it ever easier to pull scams, causing a new expression to erupt, a boon to harassed writers if no one else. It’s such a relief to have a new, yet easily grasped, synonym to haul out once in a while.

The “-ster” suffix repays study. My feeling is that it has had a bit of an underbelly for centuries, but any negative connotation probably became more pronounced in the twentieth century, at least in the U.S. “Gangster” and “mobster” both date back to somewhere around 1900, according to Random House; I suspect that “gangster” relies on “teamster,” an eighteenth-century expression that did not, as far as I know, develop a dark side until the twentieth, when the Teamsters’ Union for a time became synonymous with corruption. (Tapster, tipster, and trickster, all dubious trades, are much older words. Speaking of deplorable occupations, where do “barrister” and “monster” fit into all this?) The suffix doesn’t always have a negative connotation, even today; when connected to a name, it may be affectionate. For example, Tom Bergeron used to call Whoopi Goldberg “Whoopster” on Hollywood Squares. Then again, after fifty years as a compliment, “hipster” finally became a dirty word somewhere around 2000. I’m not enough of a linguist to offer a proper history of the suffix, but “baxter” (female baker) and “brewster” (female brewer) are very old. According to Chambers Etymological Dictionary (thanks, Liz!), “-ster” comes from Anglo-Saxon, where it denoted specifically a female practitioner, but well before the Elizabethan era the gender distinction had disappeared. Chambers also notes that the suffix, originally attached to verbs (bake, brew), as befits an equivalent of the “-er” suffix, now hooks more readily to nouns. It has gone on yoking itself to new words for centuries now, and it usually seems to have something shady or untrustworthy about it. “Fraudster” thus takes its place in a long, rich tradition.

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(2000’s | teenagese | “dangerous,” “creepy,” “uncanny,” “bizarre”)

A new meaning of “sketchy” arose while I wasn’t paying attention, still mainly the property of kids and young adults, though such words invariably become the property of the superannuated fifty years on. Ten years ago, you had to be in college, or younger, to hear it this way. I learned the new meaning from kids within the last three or four years. Last year I asked my niece (then thirteen) if “sketchy” meant “scary” or “disreputable,” and she answered, “Both!” It has taken on a dark shade, and a new set of nouns. “Sketchy” (or simply “sketch”) now describes people or places — very unusual in standard English as late as 2000. (The change seems unrelated to the old use of “sketch” to mean “eccentric person.”) “Sketchy neighborhood” meant nothing thirty years ago, but now it means something very definite: it’s a neighborhood you don’t want to be in. Maybe because it’s ill lit, maybe because it has a bad reputation, maybe because drug deals happen on every corner. An app called SketchFactor encourages users to submit information or impressions about what we used to call bad parts of town; the designers note, “Sketchy means a number of different things. To you, it may mean dangerous. To someone else, it may mean weird.” Just like my niece said.

I have been bedeviled for some time trying to understand how “sketchy” went from inchoate or incomplete to sinister or screwy. But with a little help from lovely Liz from Queens and my own research, I think I get it now. If you search LexisNexis in the seventies or eighties, the overwhelming majority of your results will show the term describing details, statistics, or reports. That usage is quite venerable, and it wasn’t a long step from “inadequate” to “dubious.” But occasionally you would see something a little different, as when “sketchy” modifies accounting practices, or recordkeeping. There are some contexts in which it is not o.k. to be quick and dirty or less than thorough; in such cases to be sketchy is to be unethical or illegal. Another possible contributor is the fact that the word showed up often in early reports on disasters or tragedies, and may have picked up a negative tinge that way. But the truth is “sketchy” has had a bit of an underbelly for decades now; it has been used to mean unsavory or subpar for a long time, as in a sketchy character or reputation. For another example, E.B. White referred to his “sketchy health” in a letter from 1943 cited in the OED. I haven’t tried, but it might even be possible to demonstrate that this aspect of the word has been increasing in frequency for some time and has finally won out among the younger generation.

But maybe more evolution is on the way. “Sketchy” has changed emphasis in the last twenty years, since the dawn of the internet. So we would expect a lot of web sites with “sketchy” in the title to be about scary or disreputable things. There are some; is pretty good, and Sketchy Santas are popular. But Google calls forth a surprising number of sites that confer on “sketchy” still another meaning distinct both from the older and the newer: of or pertaining to drawing. Sketchy Notions and Let’s Get Sketchy are both run by artists. I had high hopes for Sketchy Miami, but right there on the home page it says, “The goal of Sketchy Miami is to create a portrait of every person in Miami.” Sketchy Neighbors? Nope — it’s an artists’ collective in Houston. I don’t have enough examples to determine if this is a new trend or just some silly coincidences, but never doubt the power of earnest artists to change the language.

This is the second, possibly third, week in a row I’ve taken on a recognizably slang expression, which I am supposed to leave to What interests me about “sketchy” is how decisive the change was, and how quick. People under 20, probably even 30, hear some variation on “icky” as the predominant meaning, though most of them also recognize the sense of “dashed off.” I hear kids use the newer sense all the time, the older sense rarely. But “sketchy” was a solid citizen of a word with a decent foundation; “sketch” goes back to the seventeenth century, for Pete’s sake, the adjective almost as far. The old meaning had been standard English for well over a hundred years; the new one most adults would still regard as slang. That distinction, always porous, has become more blurred rather than less over time. There are still arbiters — judges, professors, Associated Press editors — and I wouldn’t say the distinction is dead yet, any more than the distinction between clean and dirty words has disappeared, but the once forbidden, or at least frowned upon, has crept into many more contexts and is getting harder and harder to avoid. The barrier between slang and standard English used to be higher, and it had fewer tunnels undermining it.

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(1980’s | journalese? advertese? | “manufactured excitement,” “hyperbole,” “puffery”; “tout,” “boost,” “oversell”)

Not eligible for the blog, strictly speaking, this word was pretty well established before 1980, but my girlfriend suggested it and being a sensible feller, I tend to do what she tells me. (It’s not the first time I’ve bent the rules; “community service” and “unintended consequences” are both terms I’ve covered even though they came along before 1980.) “Hype” was used without gloss several times even before 1960 in Billboard magazine: “What constitutes a hype? It is the launching of tunes and records with great fanfare and thousands of free promotional records to disk jockeys and juke box operators . . .” (October 29, 1955). Note that “hype” could take an indefinite article then, which is no longer possible; our ancestors used hype to mean act or instance of promoting, rather than to refer to aggregated examples of any old promotional efforts as we do today. Grammatical distinctions aside, hype involves ginning up interest by means of exaggeration; it doesn’t have to rise to the level of conscious dishonesty, but that implication is there the majority of the time (see below). The ubiquity of the catchphrase “Don’t believe the hype,” which owes its cachet to Public Enemy, indicates as much. Here are a couple of examples from the early days:

“You can’t hype kids into buying things” (attributed to John Roberts, an organizer of Woodstock, 1969)

“He was also known to be a hype artist by nature. He never just liked something. He loved it. And when he loved, everybody knew it.” (Arnold Shaw, 1974).

The proportions vary, but in both quotations the combination of creating a false impression and overstating the worth of a product or an idea is present.

“Hype” actually became less disreputable with this new meaning. Before 1970, it generally meant “junkie” or “needle” (as in “hypodermic”), or denoted a certain trick for swindling checkout clerks in underworld slang. Both of these meanings go back to the 1920’s, according to Lighter’s slang dictionary, so the word has had a distinct air of dishonesty, not to say sleaze, for a long time now. Both senses were pretty well gone by my boyhood and by now have been terminally supplanted. It seems unlikely that they are direct ancestors, anyway; “hype” presumably is short for “hyperbole,” unless someone has a better explanation.

I noted above that “hype” generally involves lightweight deception, or at least a tinge of dishonesty. To my ear, this seems especially true when it is used as a noun. Used as a verb, “hype” refers as readily to the efforts of professional ad men and flacks, kept more or less within ethical bounds, as to those of hucksters and mountebanks. Not that the verb never suggests lying, but it’s less inevitable. The past participle may also mean “excited and alert” (as in “psyched” or “pumped”): picture an athlete exclaiming, “We were hyped up!” after a close game. In that sense it may simply be short for “hyper,” although it means something a little different. (Mercifully, “hyper” has avoided the sense of “one who hypes.”)

What is the relation between “hype” and “buzz”? Sometimes they are treated as synonyms, but they aren’t. Hype, executed properly, creates buzz. Hyping isn’t merely exaggerating, innocently or otherwise; it’s about generating publicity. Get the town, or the blogosphere, buzzing about your product. If your hype doesn’t create buzz, you’re pretty hypeless.

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anger management

(1990’s | therapese | “self-control,” “control of one’s temper”)

The phrase began to appear among psychologists and therapists in the seventies, and began to show up in the mainstream press is the eighties, although it did not become ordinary until later. Quotation marks normally surrounded the expression when it was first used. Although it was adopted pretty early by lawyers and judges as a form of alternative sentencing, the origin seems to lie within therapese. In the eighties, when anyone talked “anger management,” the subject usually was wifebeating, or athletes or schoolkids getting into violent trouble. The idea was to give people who can respond to difficult situations only by blowing up and lashing out a procedure to control themselves — to learn to recognize warning signs that they were about to lose it and take steps to keep themselves in check: lower your voice, take that deep breath, leave the room, or whatever it takes that doesn’t involve hitting someone.

As prisons filled up in the seventies and eighties, there were two kinds of responses: “we need to build more prisons” and “we need to find some other way to punish people for breaking the law.” The former had a good run and still has plenty of partisans. But the latter has always been there in the shadows and has continued to attract influential defenders over the decades. Once you get past the satisfaction of locking up malefactors where they can only hurt each other — and the occasional prison guard — there are lots of problems with locking everyone up. Financial problems, which usually force reform where no other cause can, but also social problems, as illustrated by recidivism rates or the hard-headed observation that prison is a breeding ground and laboratory for crime. Classes and workshops sprang up to help us govern our violent impulses, and judges got used to the idea of sentencing minor offenders to longer fuses.

I’m afraid the concept has become a bit of a joke — the property of celebrities like Charlie Sheen (whose show uses it as a title, for Pete’s sake) or Lindsay Lohan, who don’t feel bound by the same rules as the rest of us. But considering how many angry people there are out there, and how easy it is at any given moment for one of them to cast off restraint and really hurt someone else, emotionally if not physically, it strikes me as a worthwhile pursuit. People who are bad at controlling themselves do a great deal of damage. Not all of them will learn how to deal with their rage, but we can still try to get some of them to learn how to vent without doing too much harm. Even one violent outburst nipped in the bud is an improvement.

community service

(1990’s | legalese | “forced labor,” “restitution”)

Thanks to Adam from Queens for proposing this phrase. I’m not sure it’s eligible, strictly speaking; it has been around for a long time. I have a sense, however, that this phrase has shifted environments over time to become more and more of a criminal-justice word and less and less of a good-government word.

In the old days, community service was straightforward. It could be provided by the government or by a private organization, but government normally had a role, even if it was just contracting with a private partner to offer assistance to the local population. Street lights, libraries, soup kitchens — pretty much any public amenity or benefit came under the heading. The Community Services Agency, succeeded by the Office of Community Services, was a federal agency for a while, back in the days when a few dreamers and Luftmenschen still believed that the job of government was to help everybody, not just the wealthy few who ought to spend their own damn money. It was a time when not very many people felt comfortable arguing against using public money to help the public. In the intervening generation or two, the old notion that public money should be spent mainly on private interests has become popular again, but that wasn’t always true, kids. And it won’t be true again.

When did “community service” become part of the judge’s arsenal? According to this web site, it was 1966 in Alameda County, California (another brief history can be found here). It was a new twist on the Thirteenth Amendment, which permits involuntary servitude — that is, work that you are compelled to do for which you receive no payment — as punishment for a criminal conviction. Eventually, the criminal justice system progressed from chain gangs and breaking rocks to softer, arguably more useful, labor. Sometimes there’s a connection between the crime and the community service, as when an athlete found guilty of drug use has to discourse to kids on the dangers of addiction. The larger point seems to be that almost any crime is an attack on the community or even society at large (the People vs. So-and-So), and therefore community service constitutes restitution, even in the absence of any direct relation between the crime and the punishment.

There will always be a debate about whether community service is merely a way to keep white, wealthy convicts out of jail. Harsh punishment, even of the rich, never wants for defenders in our culture, and studies will happily show that community service sentences are or are not effective (whatever that may mean). The question cuts both ways. Some may wonder if community service really serves the community; others may complain that such a sentence doesn’t convey to the offender the severity of the crime. This goes back to the question of what a sentence is for: to punish (or rehabilitate) the defendant, or to gratify the rest of us. In some cases, community service is a cop-out, to be sure. But it has the great advantage of making malefactors suffer while putting them to use. Maybe it doesn’t satisfy anyone, but it does have certain advantages over the lock-up-anything-that-moves school of jurisprudence.

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zero tolerance

(late 1980’s | bureaucratese | “no exceptions,” “strict enforcement,” “to the full extent of the law”)

A bit of regulatory history, if you please. This term arose in the 1950’s and 1960’s as a way of saying there was no permissible minimum amount for certain chemicals, specifically in processed food. The phrase was often applied to pesticides; a federal law called the Delaney Clause (“No additive shall be deemed to be safe if it is found to induce cancer when ingested by man or laboratory animals or if it is found, after tests which are appropriate for the evaluation of the safety of food additives, to induce cancer in man or animals.”) hit the books in 1958 and established a “zero tolerance” — i.e., any measurable amount is too much — for carcinogenic food additives. That definition held up until the 1980’s. Since it referred to specific chemicals, the construction “a zero tolerance (for pesticide X)” was not unusual, even though it sounds very odd today.

From the standpoint of linguistic evolution, the interesting thing about this usage is that it rests at least partly on the third definition of “tolerance” given in Webster’s Third: “allowable deviation from a standard.” But the notion of no margin for error or no leeway is of course what survives in our latter-day use of the phrase. Another holdover: the association between this particular expression and the regulation of chemicals. In the early 1980’s, the U.S. Navy adopted a policy of “zero tolerance” toward illegal drug use, meaning no excuses or second chances. A few years later, late in Ronald Reagan’s second term, anti-drug rhetoric and enforcement surged, following the First Lady’s “Just say no” campaign. “Zero tolerance” became high-stakes federal policy, permitting officials to seize boats, cars, etc. if even small amounts of an illegal drug were found, with the presumption that the owner must prove innocence to get it back — contrary to longstanding legal principles. (The fact that the Iran-Contra scandal and a recession were both in full swing by 1988 may have suggested to Reagan’s handlers the wisdom of fanning public anger over a completely different problem.) After a couple of yachts were seized, the policy was hastily reconsidered. But the new punitive usage obscured the old sense, so that the phrase became a simple stand-in for “we absolutely will not tolerate x.” Tolerance is now understood to refer to the act of permitting or putting up with, not as a deviation from a standard. They are closely related, but they feel different.

Today, the term is applied to many, many undesirable things. From the first two months of 2011, LexisNexis disgorged the following zero-tolerance campaigns, great and small: illegal drug use (still the most popular target), drunk driving, underage drinking, weapons in school, bullying, hazing, anti-Semitism, racial epithets, domestic violence, and prostitution. That’s not a comprehensive list. But it shows how ordinary, how ubiquitous the phrase has become — and how much we take the concept for granted. It sounds satisfying. There are many actions that nearly everyone recognizes as harmful to others, and we are always tempted to believe that relentless law enforcement will eliminate them. Who wouldn’t be against “swift, certain, and just punishment” (Ronald Reagan’s phrase)? Who doesn’t want to make sure that vicious criminals can’t harm innocent people?

In most times and places, it quickly becomes clear that such procrustean, draconian punishments may hobble the malefactors, but they also hurt a lot of people who haven’t really done anything wrong, and such policies are moderated, if only implicitly. America’s record over the last twenty years has been spotty, however, and zero-tolerance codes have gained ground, particularly in school districts and in laws directed against users of illegal drugs. I can see how the sheer simplicity of zero-tolerance policies makes them attractive. You break the rules, you get nailed, and it’s a perfectly mechanical, incorruptible meting out of punishment — the same for everybody every time. Except when it isn’t. The wheels of our justice system do not grind as fine as they might, and over time people with influence find ways to walk away, and people without, however harmless, get socked with disproportionate, crippling penalties. Let’s not forget — we have a legal system in the first place because the talion yielded the wrong answer too often. But some of us can’t see past theoretical efficiency to practical consequences. Until you try it, unyielding application of the law seems like a great idea.

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