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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: David Petraeus

all in

(2010’s | militarese? | “giving one’s all,” “bound and determined”)

“All in all.” “All-in-one.” “All in the wrist.” “All in your head.” “All in the same boat.” “All in good time.” Or you could just settle for “all in,” shorn of superfluous objects and uttered with quiet conviction. It means we won’t turn back; we won’t give in. But that’s not what it meant in my childhood. Back then “all in” meant “worn out,” “exhausted.” That definition was on its way out then, and the usage we see today represents a revival, doubtless an unnecessary one. In poker, it meant “having put all one’s chips in the pot” (which makes more sense). “All in” was a bit anomalous among the many vigorous expressions for states of lassitude. Most of them are straight predicate adjectives: “beat,” “pooped,” “spent,” “wrecked.” It reminds me a little of “done in,” but literally that means “murdered,” something much stronger. The old usage (citations date back to the nineteenth century in Lighter) is mostly gone, but I believe the term is still current in poker. (Ian Crouch gives a good account of the evolution of “all in” in the New Yorker.) In the modern sense, popularized by David Petraeus’s biography (2012), it also seems related to poker somehow, but in a more positive way — a confidence in the supremacy of your hand that causes you to bet your entire stack of chips without hesitation. But “all in” doesn’t connote arrogance or unseemly displays of power so much as steely resolve or unswerving attention to the task at hand. “All in” is what you are at the beginning of the day; it used to be what you are at the end of the day.

Theoretically it ought to be possible to be “all in” squared — bent on reaching the goal AND too tired to go on. But the effort required to maintain such commitment precludes helplessness born of weariness. Being all in implies that you have enough energy to figure out and make the next move, or enough force of will to overcome the newest obstacle. The other verb that precedes the expression is “go,” which reminds us of how closely it resembles “go all out,” a phrase much beloved of sports announcers in my youth. I don’t listen to play-by-play as much as I used to, but I have the impression we don’t hear “go all out” much any more.

“All” in itself implies a group, so “all in” should suggest effort toward a common goal, as in “we’re all in this together.” It may, but it doesn’t have to. It is possible to go all in on your own private project, but it might sound a little odd. When politicians and military people use it, there’s at least a hint of pulling together. That assumption of camaraderie is made explicit in what may prove to be yet another new meaning for the expression. Penn State University’s “All In” initiative provides an example, the motto being “A Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion.” Here the term is used very self-consciously to express the ideal of a tolerant, easy-going community. Donald Trump’s ascendance has given this sort of communitarianism a boost, and so I suspect we may see the expression used this way more and more. Keep your eyes peeled; “all in” may shed its skin yet again.


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what part of no don’t you understand?

(1990’s | journalese (politics)? | “no means no,” “don’t you get it?,” “stop acting like an idiot”)

Nearly anything can substitute for “no” in this rhetorical question — “this” and “that” are often used — otherwise it is invariable, except that occasionally you will see a pronoun other than “you” (“they,” I should say, a majority of the time). Normally used as a rejoinder or expostulation suggesting that you fail to grasp something that has been made abundantly clear; therefore, whether actively disingenuous or not, you are being obtuse. Whether directed to a child by a parent or to public officials by voters, it bears an outraged, sarcastic, or at least exasperated edge. Linguist Arnold Zwicky has provided a very thorough exposition and history of the phrase and how it may be amended. The Phrase Finder’s entry is also worth a look.

Neither Zwicky nor anyone else has uncovered a primal connection with a film or television show, which surprises me; this question has always struck me as very likely to have fallen originally from the lips of an actor. (I have noted previously that this sort of genesis isn’t as common as one might suppose.) Lorrie Morgan’s 1992 country hit featured it prominently. LexisNexis suggests that this expression, and its numerous variants, are less common now than in the 1990’s, when it became generally known. A celebrity or public official uses it every so often; presidential candidate Herman Cain, disgraced general David Petraeus, and the president of Venezuela were all quoted using it in recent years. Mostly, it remains the mainstay of those who write cranky letters to the editor.

What gives “what part of no . . . ?” its kick is the fact that “no” is about the least dissectible utterance in the language. It doesn’t have any constituent parts. It can be used in different parts of speech, so it can be analyzed, but it is everywhere the ur-negation (except in a particular usage which is discussed in detail here). The only utterance more indivisible is an animal’s cry: a dog barking or a cat meowing (“What part of woof/meow don’t you understand?” are popular memes nowadays, so the kids tell me). This thrust is lost when nearly any other expression replaces “no.” Here’s a simple example: “What part of ‘Thou shalt not kill?’ don’t you understand?” Well, the hearer might not understand “thou” or “shalt,” or might want clarification of the precise meaning of “kill.” Alternatively, one may comprehend an expression perfectly well but fail to see why it’s relevant.

When wielded, “what part of no . . . ?” is a challenge. But when you look at the issue from the other side — that is, from the point of view of the one whose actions are provoking the questioner — it is quite often a red herring. For prohibitions to be effective, the hearer must recognize the authority of the issuer. Just because someone tells you “no” doesn’t mean they have the right to boss you around or imply that you’re stupid. The way to meet this question is to insist on its irrelevance.

Thanks to Dad, who unwittingly nudged this week’s expression my way. It always reminds me of a memorable episode I experienced with my friend Charles years ago. We were sitting in his yard minding our own business when a nearby homeowner barged out of his house and said to someone he considered a trespasser (not us), “What part of ‘get off my property’ don’t you understand?” The offender’s reply was a fine example of the response described in the previous paragraph: I’m not on your land, so you can’t tell me what to do. Bloodshed was averted even if hard feelings were not.

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