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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: data

crunch the numbers

(1980’s | computerese? enginese? | “wade through OR digest the figures”)

Some new expressions engulf the landscape, washing over us all and forcing themselves on every ear, if not every lip. When we talk about common expressions, those are usually the kind we mean. There is another kind, though, not so ubiquitous, but unavoidable because the preferred, or only, way to refer to a particular action, process, or concept. So it likewise forces itself on every ear, but without the same unrelenting insistence. “Crunch the numbers” is one of those. It has become inevitable, in a culture devoted to amassing vast reservoirs of data, that we have a word for getting something useful out of all those statistics — once you collect all those numbers, you have to do something with them. There’s really no other word for it, and the phrase has become invariably associated with statistical distillation. The commonplace is formed not only from sheer frequency; if you have no choice but to reach for the same expression every time, it makes its presence felt.

The point of “crunching” the numbers, I think, is that they are reduced in size and complexity, like a mouthful of bran flakes turning into easily swallowed mush. The computer — number-crunching is almost invariably associated with computers, occasionally with calculators — takes a huge, indigestible mass of data and breaks it down. The expression seems to have arisen in the engineering community in the sixties and moved beyond it by the early eighties. It gained ground quickly, and soon no longer required quotation marks or glosses (actually, it was never generally glossed). Some expressions, though slangy and therefore not reproduced in mainstream publications until well after they’ve become ordinary, at least in their field, take hold quickly once they do because they’re easy to grasp and enjoy.

“Crunch the numbers” was at one time sole property of engineers and programmers; a few more professions may try it on now — accountants and statisticians primarily. The function of the computer, as envisioned in the post-war world, was to do many, many calculations per minute by brute force, placing vast amounts of computing power in one place and letting ‘er rip. I haven’t done the research to determine the no doubt lively expressions the tech boys used in the decade or two before “crunch the numbers” came along, or maybe it arose earlier than I think. It seems likely that there was no predictable expression before we started using this one, because we so rarely needed to talk about that volume and density of computation.

“Crunch the numbers” doesn’t share the taint of “massage the numbers,” or “game the system” or “fuzzy math.” A ground-level, first-resort expression must remain neutral, and the phrase is not generally used to question the motives or competence of those doing the crunching. “Run the numbers” is a little different, meaning “execute the formula and get the answer.” It likewise lacks any dubious connotation, despite a superficial resemblance to that staple of urban gambling, “running numbers” (or “playing the numbers”).


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off the charts

(1980’s | journalese (economics) | “through the roof,” “extreme(ly),” “amazing(ly),” “off the scale”)

Investigation has led me to revise my understanding of the rise of this week’s expression. First, the old meaning of “chart” is irrelevant; I haven’t found any evidence that “off the charts” has any connection with maps. I thought it had something to do with pop music charts, and sure enough, the earliest reference I found dates from 1956 in Billboard, describing a new record featuring Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby: “It has now registered very strong on all fronts and is just off the charts.” The little bagatelles of research I carry out are not what you would call comprehensive, but the phrase didn’t show up again for twenty years in my usual sources. When it did, it was in the context of graphs displaying economic data. Picture the stock graphic that goes with business news reports on television: the line with an arrow on the end of it zig-zagging up and down across a grid. Now picture that line sloping so steeply upward or downward in a brief period of time that it goes below the x-axis or rises beyond the upper margin. THAT’s “off the charts.” (After all, even the most successful record in history can’t go any higher than no. 1, and therefore must still be ON the charts. “Off the chart” was used interchangeably with “off the charts” in the eighties, another clue that the origin of our expression is not pop music charts, which are always plural. Oh, and by the way, when we say “pop music charts,” we’re talking about record sales, not instrumental arrangements.) The expression was used several times during the primary and general election campaign of 1980 by George H.W. Bush, and that seems to have given the phrase a boost. Bush also played a role in popularizing “out of the loop,” “you’re history,” and “go ballistic.”

Graphs and charts are merely means of making economic data quickly intelligible, so other kinds of statistics — demographic, medical, meteorological — could go off the charts, too. Music sales rankings definitely did spawn a closely related term, “knock (or fall) off the charts,” also available before 1980. That use represents an early stage in the evolution of this phrase. Falling off the charts was as common as flying off of them until 1990 or so, but that concept has disappeared. And the verbs have gotten lazier over time, too. In the old days, “off the charts” generally went with active verbs like “zoom” or “soar,” “slide” or “drop.” Such verbs still crop up occasionally, but today we are much more likely to get the copula, usually “is” or “was.” A noticeable difference, but probably rather minor in the grand scheme of things. And another change in range: “off the charts” is used as an adjective (or adverb) phrase much more often than it used to be, though examples may be found as far back as the seventies.

From political and economic pundits the expression spread to sportswriters, who found its vigor useful in describing athletes. Today it can show up almost anywhere. Politicians are not above using it, but they seem less enamored of it than the rest of us now — or maybe it’s just that the rest of us have caught up. “Off the charts” has not become so overused that it has been stripped of excitement; it still has a little pizzazz. May it keep its sizzle rather than turning into a flaccid echo of itself.

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(2000’s | journalese (film)?, computerese? | “put to (new or different) use,” “recycle,” “adapt,” “convert”)

It sort of rhymes with “refurbish,” and there’s often an implicit sense of renewal or revival in “repurpose” that lies beyond our everyday definition: taking an object intended for one use and giving it another. From a specialized origin, this verb has grown out to encompass more and more objects. Now a favorite of advice columnists, interior designers, and community planners, “repurpose” came into common use a scant twenty years ago, mainly in the argot of film and television executives.

In those days, repurposing was something that happened to content; the sense might be summarized as “old content, new context.” Say you owned the rights to a bunch of old movies, or new data, and you wanted to exploit them, so you figured out a way to work them into a new form — putting them on-line, say — or to change them a little in order to attract a new audience, like adding some sort of interactive feature. Film executives were the pioneer repurposers, and the mid-nineties was a particularly opportune time for such a term to come along, what with the dawn of DVD’s and the internet. Those wily executives needed a word that disguised the fact that they were peddling the same old stuff; the idea was to make as few changes as possible when repurposing your content. Maybe some technical adjustment was required, but the point was to save money by transplanting what you already had. Sometimes it meant as little as “copy text from one web site to another,” so that after a year or two it became a way of referring to a rival’s lack of creativity or lack of respect for the customer. You might hear, “We don’t just repurpose our content.” You had to alter the content so it would work in the new context; failure to do so hurt sales.

Which is closer to what “repurpose” means now. It stretches much farther today, not only to objects, but money, food, or even ideas. In the case of abstractions, it generally means something like “redirect,” which is not so intuitive. But in general, the term has become more intuitive, not less; when you repurpose a building or a Christmas ornament, you are deliberately deviating from the way it was intended to be used; that is, you are giving it a new purpose, or “purposing” it again. When the word grew first in Hollywood, the purpose of the classic movie remained the same as ever — to make money for film executives. And “repurpose” suggested a conscious effort to make something new out of an existing product, not just repackage it. That’s why there was always something misleading about using the word that way. Now the deception has filtered out of the word, and with it the whiff of the arcane that wafted through the room when industry experts spoke sagely of repurposing “I Love Lucy.”

When did “to purpose” become a verb, you ask? It’s been a verb for a long time, meaning “to resolve (to do something).” But so far “repurpose” has not spawned a new definition for “purpose,” as in “assign a function to.” There is no root form of the verb; it requires a prefix. One can imagine other prefixes, or even the rise of “Oh, baby, purpose me!” But not yet; to date, “repurpose” stands alone.

The early career of “repurpose” is somewhat more interesting than I have let on. There is a ten-year gap in LexisNexis between the first (1984) and second appearances of this term, an extraordinary occurrence. Google Books shows only a few scattered instances in the eighties. “Repurpose” was used in an exceedingly specialized context, and even after reading several examples, I still can’t figure out exactly what it meant, but it had to do with a process applied to videodiscs that were playable on a computer, which is why I suspect that the true wellspring for this word may be computerese. But it didn’t start to show up in the mainstream press until the mid-nineties, and it doesn’t seem to have spread beyond the entertainment press until after 2000. One of the first hits in LexisNexis dates from 1994 in The New Republic: “Los Alamos [New Mexico], like most other defense-based civic economies, is searching for ways to repurpose itself.” Pretty advanced for 1994; even blocks and single buildings weren’t candidates for repurposing back then, much less entire cities. To this day, the reflexive use has not caught on, but don’t be surprised if it does.

Thanks to lovely Liz from Queens for nominating this word for investigation this week!

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