Skip to content

Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: dating

date night

(1990’s | therapese)

One of those expressions that has evolved a distinct new shade of meaning in the last forty years. Before 1990 or so, it was a loose, carefree expression that applied mainly to single people. As often as not, it was a shorthand way of referring to Friday or Saturday evening. Movie theaters and sports teams held promotional date nights to encourage under-25’s to come out and spend money. These uses have not disappeared by any means, but what has changed? Now date nights are the province primarily of the married, more specifically the married who sense that their relationship needs a boost. So you and your spouse ditch the kids and go out on the town and spend money. The custom has a bit more range now; you might go to a class together on date night, or church. The main consequence of the change? Date nights aren’t only for the young and frivolous any more. Now mature adults with responsibilities and work ethics are enjoined to enjoy them, too. The shift started in the nineties — I found only a few isolated incidences before then.

Date nights are urged particularly on parents, but sources of stress and separation besides kids may trigger a date-night deficit. (The “daddy/daughter date night” is an occasional non-marital variation, which likewise marks an effort to improve or deepen a relationship.) Couples need to reconnect and rekindle sometimes, and many well-meaning busybodies have issued extensive guidelines for doing so. I have hinted before at the meticulously planned architecture of relationships patiently builded by swarms of counselors, therapists, journalists, et al., et al., from coffee date to date night, or as you might say, from dates to nuts. They even advise periodic spontaneity, but if you have to plan it . . . oh, never mind. It’s not the decline in spontaneity that bothers me (most people aren’t that good at it, anyway) so much as the depressing uniformity of it all. An endless stream of like-minded relationship advice, however well-meant, must dull our romantic powers. Even if it works most of the time, sometimes ya gotta throw away the playbook.

After a brief and unscientific survey of LexisNexis results over the past month or so, I’d say that while date nights are urged upon all of us by the romance industry, the date nights of celebrities are reported endlessly, creating the impression that no one else ever takes one. Why not turn that around? Report on local couples’ nights out as if they were celebrities — what she wore, where they went, how close they danced, which base they got to, that sort of thing. I wonder how many people would enjoy that, and how many would hate it. We feel for celebrities who have to fend off paparazzi, and some of us would be all the more fervent if we had to go through it ourselves. But I’ll bet a lot of people would get a kick out of such oppressive attention. After all, it would mean you are worthy, it would mean you’re as important as . . . whoever you favor. The gossip page brought to life — from vicarious to visceral.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

coffee date

(1990’s | teenagese? | “first date,” “brief encounter,” “not even a date, really”)

It’s tempting to see the rise of the phrase “coffee date” as concomitant with the rise of the gourmet coffee craze (which hasn’t abated), and the expression did become a lot more common around the time Starbucks did, from the late eighties to the mid-nineties. On-line dating services made their mark only a few years later and produced many more coffee dates, but the term existed well before that. Google Books fishes up a solid reference in Mademoiselle magazine from 1966 (not that Google Books’s dating is all that reliable). That article explained that the coffee date was the college equivalent of the Coke date. There’s no obvious origin for either phrase that I can find in my limited corpora; maybe it bubbled up from below.

College students being so mature and all, naturally they prefer coffee. But the point of the coffee date is not what you consume; it’s a probationary first meeting, which the parties use to size each other up. So it must be short, inexpensive, casual, easy to escape, and in a neutral, public place. Nothing much can happen, and that’s the point. If you hit it off, maybe a lunch date next. “Lunch date,” “dinner date,” and “movie date” are older terms — or at least they became common earlier — that imply a progression whose first step now is the coffee date.

Coffee dates have become so firmly part of the romantic how-to manual that a reaction has developed. While conventional wisdom still recommends them as sensible first meetings, certain apostates, such as this eHarmony blogger, dismiss them as old hat and unlikely to lead to serious relationships; others question whether they should be called “dates” at all. There are always doubters, but even they can’t deny that the dating landscape has changed, tilting the playing field decisively toward Starbucks.

speed dating

(late 1990’s)

An expression, and concept, with a verifiable origin. The on-line consensus — unanimous as far as I can tell — says that Rabbi Yaakov Deyo and his wife invented speed dating in 1998 as a way to encourage Jewish singles to meet each other and form relationships. It goes like this: between five and ten women sit at individual tables. The same number of men wait nearby. At a signal, each man sits down at a table and talks with the woman for eight minutes, then moves to the next table and does it again. In slightly over an hour, you meet several candidates, at least one or two of whom might be worth a follow-up. Now several national organizations sponsor speed-dating events, which may or may not have any religious, ethnic, or gender restrictions. The practice is sometimes known as “turbo-dating.”

I was struck by the ritual character of speed-dating, which was after all created by a rabbi. The basics of the process don’t vary much regardless of who’s in charge: several conversations in succession, each a fixed period of time; then participants notify the organizer which live one(s) are of further interest, whereupon the organizer puts two people in touch if they appear on each other’s lists. Perhaps the level of rigor does not measure up to the detailed ritualistic instructions of the Torah, but there’s a rule-bound quality all the same. One site notes the roots of speed dating in the traditional Jewish concept of the shiddach (match), basically an arranged marriage made with the help of a middleman or -woman. At any rate, like many concepts invented by Jews, from monotheism to relativity, speed dating has spread quickly and exercised tremendous influence.

It’s another kind of prescribed first date and so is related to the coffee date, but it’s even more circumscribed. Like a coffee date, your chances of success are low but the investment of time and energy is small, and like a coffee date, it can only arguably be called a date at all. Speed dating is distinctive because of the sheer number of people involved; if you buy the theory that most of the time we decide in a matter of seconds whether we’re attracted to someone or not, the approach makes sense. Just get a bunch of generally like-minded, well-disposed people in the same room and let nature take its course. The irony is that while speed dating looks like it was designed to deal with a glut of possibly eligible partners, it was actually invented to keep members of a relatively small, insular group from finding mates elsewhere. (Of course, in a large city like Los Angeles, where Rabbi Deyo first tried out speed dating, there are thousands of unattached Jewish adults, still an impossible number to navigate on one’s own.)

When a reader asked advice columnist Carolyn Hax her opinion of speed dating, she replied, “I liked it a whole lot better when it was called a ‘cocktail party.’” The point is well taken; speed dating is a highly regulated version of what was once known as “mingling.” You went to a party with people you didn’t know, and you went around and talked to them, allowing you to determine who might be a possible romantic interest. No timekeepers or chaperones required, and if you wanted someone else to have your number, you gave it to them. I’ve never tried speed dating, but I was never much good at mingling, so something tells me I wouldn’t be much of a speed dater, either. Both of my long-term relationships began with dates that lasted several hours, so maybe that’s just how I roll.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


(2000’s | militarese | “buddy,” “sidekick,” “ally”)

Once upon a time this word was entirely serious. In the context of military aviation, the wingman is terribly important — the pilot of another plane just off to the side and behind the lead, an essential member of the group who might well save the lead pilot’s ass. In that sense, it goes back to the 1940’s, albeit as two words, according to the OED. By my childhood, the word also had a very specific use in sportswriting — think basketball, hockey, soccer — where it designated a position. Up until 2000 or so, that was about it, as far as LexisNexis is concerned. Many on-line sources point to the 1996 movie “Swingers” as the event that pushed the word into our vocabulary, but there’s no sign of it in LexisNexis, and the word does not appear in either of the scripts I found on-line, not that I trust them particularly. (What, you want me to sit down and watch a whole movie?) Anyway, by 2010 a new meaning was established, one for which there was no precise equivalent in the old days. The predatory male conspires with another man, who is pledged to aid and abet the aforementioned predatory male in picking up a woman (at a bar, for example). There are different ways to do that, of course, but most definitions agree that the wingman is there mainly to a) soak up the quarry’s unattached friend, who probably isn’t very attractive, and b) talk up the predatory male when he steps away in order to impress the quarry with the p.m.’s heroism and humility. Like a designated driver, the wingman is expected to forgo his own satisfaction for the night for the benefit of those around him. It is a sacrificial role, for which he generally expects some sort of compensation.

The modern conception doesn’t seem like much of a departure from the older sense. In either case, it’s a tight bond between two men, one of whom watches out for the other as he faces the enemy — er, uh, I mean the nice young lady — bravely and unflinchingly. As metaphors go, it’s pretty straightforward. The female equivalent, “wingwoman,” who can work with either another woman or a man, is starting to turn up; “winger” may become a unisex term. The verb seems to be “to wing,” which has nothing to do with winging it, much less flying by the seat of your pants. In politics, “wingman” also refers to a myrmidon of some kind, whether a fundraiser or a fellow legislator who runs interference. Occasionally it is used more fancifully still, as in a blogger referring to a digital camera feature as a “wingman,” automatically correcting your photographic mistakes.

Wingmen turn up a lot in movies and television; two characters open up many more possibilities. I’m pretty sure there was a Happy Days episode in which the Fonz observed Richie trying to impress a girl, offering sotto voce advice or critique when the girl visited the powder room, as girls must always do, at least in fiction. It would not have occurred to anyone in 1975 (much less in the 1950’s) to call Fonzie a “wingman.” Now we have a word for it. Who says civilization doesn’t advance? In “The Blue and the Gray,” Homer Simpson serves as Moe’s wingman. It seems like every few months there’s another buddy movie in which one man helps another pick up women. The new movie, “The Wedding Ringer,” ratchets it up several notches: Kevin Hart’s character hires himself out to prospective grooms who can’t generate their own wedding party — the wingman gets promoted to best man. An extreme twist, but still not quite in John Alden’s league. In real life, the wingman isn’t a paid employee, but that’s what screenwriters are for.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,


(2000’s | “older woman on the make or prowl,” “cradle robber,” “(old) hussy”)

The Encyclopedia of Women in Today’s World (2011) traces “cougar” to Canada right around 2000, and it does show up first in the Canadian press; the first citation in LexisNexis appears in 2002 on a Canadian news program, one year after Canadian sex and relationships expert Valerie Gibson published “Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men.” That about sums it up. Authorities may quarrel over how old a woman has to be to qualify as a cougar — most people who try to define the term say over forty — and how much younger the man has to be. Based on my limited research, the age difference has to be at least ten years, and the more the merrier. The term doesn’t seem to have taken up residence in the U.S. until after 2005; the earliest use in the New York Times dates from 2009. Writers and editors no longer feel compelled to gloss it, although as recently as two or three years ago many instances of the word in print came with an explanation. Cougars (the cats, that is) seem to be a lot more common in Canada than in the U.S., and maybe also more common in Canada than other kinds of hunting cats (not that I’m a zoologist), so it is not surprising that Canadians would have pioneered the new use of the word.

There seems to be little doubt that the word takes its new metaphorical meaning from the predatory habits of cats. Such women are conceived as hunters preying on young men. The term may be applied to women who hit the bars and bring home a new conquest every night, or who take up with one man for an extended relationship, as long as he’s noticeably younger than she. The term may be used as an insult or to express “you go, girl” solidarity. It’s a very old idea; wise young men have always understood that you can learn a lot from mature, experienced women. Today’s twist comes from the idea of older women taking public pride in, not to say gloating over, their pursuit of younger men. Cougars claim a privilege traditionally reserved for the male of the species, while celebrating their attractiveness and sex drive into middle age and beyond, staking out territory generally unavailable to women who went before.

“Urban cougar” is a common variant, the adjective probably intended to dispel any confusion with the cat prowling the woods, but most people probably grasp the word now without the elaboration, and it is likely to disappear over time. records other epithets sprung up in cougar’s wake — bobcat, jaguar, panther, puma, and a whole bunch that have nothing to do with cat names — which may distinguish age ranges, or something. Urban Dictionary does get a bit fanciful at times. Then there are “manther” and “cheetah,” which refer to older men chasing younger women. I rather like “manther,” and “cheetah” has a certain lex appeal.

Thanks through the ether to my nephew, who used “cougar” in conversation, little suspecting that my antennae were on full alert. Tell your dad to read my blog, kid.

tiger mother

(2010’s | “disciplinarian,” “slavedriver,” “strict mother”)

This term burst upon the scene with unusual speed and force in 2011, when law professor Amy Chua published “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Partly a critique of western (i.e., American) child rearing, partly an account of the limits of her own Asian (i.e., Chinese) methods of raising children, the book seeded any number of blogospheric disturbances, with the usual fuss and bother and misunderstandings. I did not read the book, but my five-minute summary understanding based on a few blog posts and web videos suggests that what defines the “tiger mother” is making demands on her children, requiring them to work hard and resist complacency. The premise is open to debate — and since when does one set of child-rearing practices work for everybody? — but many critics seem to have taken the most extreme moments described in the book as typical of the tiger mother and set up a straw woman instead of engaging Chua’s primary points. My broad-brush analysis, based on sketchy research, is not to be taken entirely seriously, but this sort of distortion-by-simplification is pretty common in our discourse, or what passes for it these days, so I’m prone to suspect that something of the kind occurred in this instance.

Chua’s elder daughter has matriculated at Harvard, and apparently her younger daughter, who rebelled against her mother and forced her to relent to some extent, also is doing quite well. The older daughter’s achievements are often touted as vindication of Chua’s methods, but I can think of lots of explanations for the daughter of two high-powered Yale law professors getting into Harvard. Few people seem to have addressed the possibility that the offspring of two extremely intelligent, motivated, and well-connected parents would probably do pretty well regardless of how her mother treated her.

American parents with enough leisure and income to be self-conscious seem to enjoy entertaining misgivings about their child-rearing missteps, so Chua’s seeds fell on fertile ground, and the discussion continues, although instances of both “tiger mother” and “tiger mom” in LexisNexis fell off significantly in 2012 and are poised to drop again in 2013, barring a sudden revival of the topic. (“Tiger mom” may soon become the preferred form as “moms” complete their takeover of the language.) “Tiger parent” turns up now and then; “tiger father” or “dad” hardly at all. And that’s revealing: mothers more than fathers are now held responsible for how their kids turn out, and kids who don’t turn out well are blamed on failures of maternal discipline — not like the old days, when society held the father responsible (thanks, Liz!). The “tiger mom” also conjures up all too easily the all-too-familiar image of the shrewish mother hectoring and exhausting her children, a stereotype of long standing held against relatively successful immigrant groups. Used to be Jews; now it’s Asians.

In thirty years, the phrase may seem quaint or irrelevant, just one more passing fad ginned up by the media, social or otherwise. Too early to tell, of course. It’s not clear to me why Chua chose “tiger” as her epithet, but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with tiger moths or Tiger Woods. Count me relieved.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,