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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: Donald Trump


(1980’s | journalese (politics) | “much ado about nothing,” “tempest in a teapot,” “big fat zero,” “empty suit”)

Chalk up one more for the Reagan administration, by far the most prolific presidential source of new vocabulary since Kennedy or possibly FDR. Actually, Reagan’s EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch Burford, made it famous in 1984, by which time she was his former EPA administrator, having resigned rather than turn over subpoenaed documents to Congressional committees. She used “nothing-burger” to describe the next post to which she had been nominated: head of the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere. (Antiquarians like myself will observe that it happened the same year as the “Where’s the beef” ad campaign.) I must add that Google Books yielded one instance before Burford: none other than Helen Gurley Brown in Sex and the Office (1964), who tossed it off in a discussion of dressing for success (i.e., attracting a man) at work. I quote: “Wearing one great pin four days in a row is better than changing to nothing-burger clinkers.” An adjective, it’s true, but easily turned into a noun. Apparently gossip columnist Louella Parsons used the expression even earlier, though my sources are all second-hand.

The point of “nothing-burger” is that it denotes a statement, event, or (sometimes) person that promises more than it delivers, or doesn’t live up to its hype. Or maybe a small solution to a big problem. (Good exposition here.) By now the term has broadened so that it denotes any non-entity, regardless of advance publicity. It’s always an insult, a quick dismissal of a policy statement, an opponent’s sally, or even sworn testimony. Therefore, it may be used defensively, as a means of suggesting that the very telling blow one has just absorbed had absolutely no effect. To this day, it is used overwhelmingly by politicians and political commentators, though one stumbles across it now and then in movie reviews or sportswriting.

The use of “burger” as a suffix is not all that widespread, despite America’s obsession with the hamburger and its many variants. Lighter’s slang dictionary lists only two examples (of course, that was over twenty years ago), and the only one I could think of was “slutburger,” which was pressed into service to discuss salacious commercials for the fast-food chain Carl’s Jr., although it was the name of an underground comic book drawn by Rip Off Press regular Mary Fleener before that. Even now, most “-burger” words are strictly food-related.

Though it’s used now by politicians of all persuasions, “nothing-burger” has always been more prominent among right-wingers, befitting its first popularizer. Burford was an early right-wing martyr, head of an agency whose mission she opposed, like so many of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries. She sold simple obstruction of justice — stonewalling the people’s representatives for the sake of a profoundly dubious assertion of executive privilege — as principled resistance to intrusive, pettifogging gummint bureaucracy. Of course, she had a willing audience, and the same third of the country that cheered her on has just put Trump in the White House. He has repaid them by placing her son on the supreme bench. We may well wonder how many of her notions about the law and the Constitution he has absorbed.

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word salad

(2000’s | journalese (politics) | “gibberish,” “incoherent speech,” “obfuscation”)

This expression recently underwent a significant change after a hundred stable years. The first citation I found dates from a psychiatric handbook of 1907, where it occurs in a discussion of dementia precox, the old name for schizophrenia, more or less (they weren’t exactly the same, but that’s the closest term in modern mental health vocabulary). It hasn’t changed meaning in that context; a textbook published in 1970 gave the following: “A jumbled, unintelligible mixture of words, usually containing both real words or phrases and neologisms. This disturbance in verbal communication is most frequently found in advanced schizophrenic reactions.” By 1980, arts writers used it now and then to talk about writers like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, both of whom were considerably more artful than your average schizo, but somewhat less syntactically or semantically forthright than Mickey Spillane, say. It took thirty more years before the expression came to characterize political speeches; the first consistent victim was Sarah Palin in 2008, but in 2016, both Trump and Clinton, widely different speaking styles notwithstanding, were accused of producing word salad. (Somehow this expression doesn’t take to the plural.) The older uses are still found, but in ten short years the phrase has become quite common in political commentary, in which it was never used before Sarah Palin took the national stage. Merriam-Webster On-line provides a history with plenty of examples.

Like “hive mind,” “word salad” has become a favored term of abuse, but it need not be an insult. When used to refer to the ramblings of the mentally ill, it probably was always implicitly insulting — and that origin continues to be felt as we use the phrase today — but literary critics may treat it as a neutral descriptor. Not long before the move into political discourse, “word salad” took on two new uses: one referred to a technique of creating spam e-mails that used blocks of unconnected words in order to fool the filters; more significantly, it started to imply deception, pointing the way to politics. The crucial difference has to do with volition; the schizophrenic babbles uncontrollably, but the purveyor of catch-phrases strung together so as to defeat interpretation is doing it on purpose. In political discourse, it may take either shading, and they’re equally insulting — a variation on the old Reagan cleft stick: if he knows what’s going on, he’s a criminal; if he doesn’t, he’s too out of it to be president. Whether you think Trump just doesn’t know any better or is deliberately snowing us, you probably think he shouldn’t have the job.

Now that “word salad” is firmly enmeshed in political journalism, it is anyone’s guess whether psychiatrists will continue to use it; they may be forced to find a new phrase if the old one changes connotation for good. As late as the nineties, it was pressed into service as the title of a computer game and an on-line poetry magazine, suggesting that it might yet be considered favorable, or at least eye-catching. Those days appear to be over.

Why salad, anyway? The idea of several heterogeneous ingredients, mixed but not blended together, seems to be at the bottom of it, though the expression probably hails from German or French originally, and I’m not certain “salad” carries the same mental picture in those languages. I’ve seen “word hash” offered as a synonym, but if there ever was a contest, “word salad” has won. It’s more memorable than “jumble” or “logorrhea,” that’s for sure (personally, I’d like to see “word avalanche”). And I like the idea of pouring oil (and vinegar) on troubled word salad.

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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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victory lap

(1980’s | athletese | “bow,” “youthful exuberance,” “rubbing it in”)

I’m not quite sure when the custom originated of taking a victory lap after a race. The first instances of the phrase I’ve found turn up in the context of auto racing in the fifties and sixties, but runners have probably been taking them at least that long. (Victory laps are reserved for runners and drivers; horses are spared.) For all I know the Lacedaemonians or Athenians made an extra circuit of the stadium after trouncing the other, and being Greek, they must have had a word for it. The purpose of the act seems simple enough: it gives the adrenaline a little time to subside and the athlete a little time to soak up adulation. As late as 1980, the expression was restricted to track, racing, or occasionally non-athletic contests, like the Miss America pageant, already a small deviation from the literal.

In its figurative sense, the term is used most often by political journalists, though not exclusively; musicians and fashion designers may take them, for example. (In student slang, a “victory lap” refers to a year of high school or college beyond the usual four.) The first specifically political use I found appeared in the Washington Post, describing Reagan’s meetings with assorted government officials after he won his first term in 1980 (he pledged “cooperation with all,” as new presidents customarily do). Non-racing athletes also rated the term around the same time; I was somewhat startled to discover that as early as 1983 Reds’ catcher Johnny Bench’s last season was referred to as a “victory lap.” When a well-known athlete announces retirement far enough in advance, he may reap respectful send-offs at opponents’ stadiums as well as his own. Sometimes it’s called a “victory tour” to give the whole exercise a grander sound; either way, it’s all about adoring crowds, which is what politicians are after, too. Even today, “victory lap” denotes the acts of elected officials more often than not. As far as I know, neither man used the term, but the post-election travels of both Obama and Trump were widely described as “victory laps”: Trump’s thank-you tour and Obama’s last round of visits to European capitals. In the latter case, the phrase didn’t evoke any particular triumph so much as a sense that it was Obama’s last chance to talk up his achievements.

The rise of this expression in political journalism has given it an unsavory connotation. Victory laps used to be joyful celebrations, perhaps not always spontaneous, but at least a moment of innocent exultation shared by athlete and audience. A certain amount of self-congratulation was involved, to be sure. But the politician’s victory lap generally has more to do exaggerating an achievement or rubbing salt in the wounds of the defeated. It is a thoroughly calculated gesture, at worst malicious and at best indulged in purely for its own sake. Politicians are forever being taken to task for taking crass advantage of such opportunities for self-promotion, either because the victory is illusory or because the victor is crude and ungracious. That tendency hasn’t changed and seems unlikely to.

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dog whistle

(2000’s | journalese (politics) | “coded (signals),” “speaking to people in their own language,” “telling people what they want to hear”)

In its figurative political sense, “dog whistle” first began to turn up in quantity around 2000, primarily in the Australian press. When used down there, it was generally identified as an American expression. I’m not saying they were wrong — though in 2005, William Safire quoted an Australian reporter suggesting that the phrase may have originated in Australia after all — but LexisNexis coughs up precious few examples in America, or anywhere else, before 1995. None, really; the Washington Post defined the “dog whistle effect,” a pollster’s term, in 1988: “Respondents hear something in the question that researchers do not.” (I’m not sure if this remains a technical term in polling.) In 1995, a House Republican spake thus of Newt Gingrich: “When Newt and the others would talk about what was possible, it was like a dog whistle. Some people heard it and some people didn’t. If you were tuned into that frequency it made a lot of sense.” And that, of course, is the essence of the dog whistle. One group gets it full force and the others are blissfully unaware of the hidden message, giving the in group the added pleasure of putting one over on the uninitiated. If you want to express covert solidarity, use words and phrases that have special meaning for the target, but not for others. In fact, the phrase didn’t blossom in the U.S. until shortly after George W. Bush took office; he wooed evangelicals with snatches from hymns or Bible verses intended to elude listeners not versed in Christian vocabulary. Bush used religious rhetoric in much more open ways, but he also found subtler means to reassure that reliable chunk of his base. Dog whistles, in Australia as in the U.S., get more of a workout from politicians on the right — wonder why that is — so it’s telling that the concept was associated early on with Gingrich and his merry men.

The New York Times, not normally an outlier when it comes to contemporary usage, nevertheless defined “dog-whistle politics” thus in 2005: “handful of emotive issues that will hit voters like a high-pitched whistle,” ignoring the point of the metaphor but not exactly inaccurate, either. In the more regulation sense outlined above, the phrase has always been more common as an adjective, most often modifying “politics,” but it is also available as a noun. While it is possible to use it in other contexts, it is a political term par excellence. It captures one of the many kinds of duplicity required of politicians, though it’s more roundabout than the usual “I know an easy way to make everything better, and it won’t cost you a penny.”

In case anyone is wondering if the presidential election may have prompted this week’s musings, maybe you’re right. But for the most part, Trump didn’t bother with dog whistles, and that was one of the most extraordinary features of his campaign. Hillary did use dog whistles to talk to investment bankers, but she certainly made no effort to convince coal miners that she had a deep connection with them. It’s not entirely true that Trump dispensed with dog whistles, but coyness is not one of his attributes — which doesn’t mean he’s honest — and he did best when he trumpeted the yearnings and grievances of the white right. If the dog whistle loses its raison d’être in our politics, Trump will get the credit — or blame. Dog whistles are dishonorable, but they are also an acknowledgment of an accepted range of political discourse that does not permit slander, baseless accusations, or entirely fabricated “facts” to become the stuff of campaigns. When Trump wanted to fire up his base, he didn’t bother with the subliminal. And it worked better than anything else Republican presidential candidates have tried lately. Maybe all it proves is that many Republican voters don’t like indirect messages because they’re too dumb to interpret them. Give ’em a little rhetorical red meat, and they’ll follow you to the ends of the earth.

Thanks as always to lovely Liz from Queens, who has contributed countless expressions to the blog and continues to do so. My cup runneth over.

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(1980’s | athletese | “revenge,” “comeuppance,” “just desserts”)

It seems odd to me that this word came to mean what it does as late as it did. “Pay back” has never been the idiom of choice when it comes to getting back at someone else, but instances of it do turn up in many times and places. Surely it would be entitled to the same shift in part of speech as its financial counterpart, which had several nominal uses in the mid-seventies: at the most literal, “act of repaying,” or “restitution,” but often it meant “return on investment” or “reward” — in other words, “payoff.” A related adjectival use was found in phrases like “payback period,” defined as the amount of time required to make back the money invested. (In other words, how long it will be before the investment pays for itself.) That phrase is important in corporate accounting, and it may be shortened informally to “payback” (as in “payback of three years”).

These uses of the word are still around, but “payback” has taken on the more ominous meaning of “vengeance.” I found but two or three instances of the term before 1980 in LexisNexis in this sense, all in sports-related contexts. Sport is a natural breeding ground for retribution because of its competitive nature and because of how leagues work, organizing schedules that match the same teams against each other over and over. They beat us last year, but this year we’ll get payback. By the end of the eighties, athletes were using “payback time” in such contexts, which until then had been an occasional variant of “payback period.” As late as 2000, “payback” seems to have been mainly an athlete’s word, but now it has spread through the language. It made its mark next in political discourse, not surprisingly; you will hear the phrase “political payback,” which always refers to settling a score. When Donald Trump tells his supporters that it’s payback time, part of what he means is “I’m going to help you get back everything the [fill in the blank] have taken away from you.” It ain’t just money.

It has occurred to me that “payback” ought to mean rendering the service bought with a bribe or similar corruption, influenced by “kickback,” just as it sometimes is influenced by “payoff.” You see that every now and then, but it has never become common. It’s a scenario that arises rather often, so having another word to cover it would be helpful. Yet “payback” never seems to have stepped into those shoes. Odd, I call it.

In sports and especially in politics, “payback” is never neutral. It is almost always used to exult in the defeat or destruction of a rival. Although it appeals to a rough justice, payback need not be proportionate; messing the opponent up more than they messed you up to begin with may be desirable and is in any case part of the game. Winning a round carries with it the risk that you will lose the ground gained and maybe more during the next battle. Sometimes you hear “Payback’s a bitch, ain’t it?” The question is uttered with a sneer, a means of rubbing it in when you have skunked your opponent. But rhetorical flourishes are not required; “payback” in its nature bears meanness and resentment, a sense that one was bested unfairly and has no choice but to stick it to the aggressor. The only way to redress the grievance is to make the victor suffer at least as much as they made you suffer.

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