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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: driving

plant-based

(1980’s | scientese | “plant,” “vegetable,” “vegetarian”)

Confirmed carnivore that I am, I’m always a little bemused by this expression — I concede that it makes sense, though “plant-rooted” might be more poetic. At its broadest, it means “made from things that grow out of the earth.” A plant-based diet means you eat predominantly, but not exclusively, fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, fungi, and things made from them. (Lovely Liz from Queens likes to quote Michael Pollan’s dictum, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) The emphasis is more on avoiding animal products than on supplementing them. So it’s veganism with room for backsliding, but the foundation is clearly vegetarian. That would seem to warrant the firmness and solidity of “based.”

“Plant-based” existed in the seventies, but no one used it to talk about food. That was true as late as 2000. The first citation I found (1979) modified ethanol, intended to distinguish it from petroleum-based gasoline back when we started talking about using it as an additive. (No one was thinking about climate change in those days, just the fact that fossil fuels had gotten expensive and corn prices kept going down.) It might also be used for pharmaceuticals or vaccines, and it frequently modified “product.” It still does all that, and it may have an abstract use as well, as in “plant-based business” or “plant-based lifestyle.”

The beauty of the phrase is its sheer reach; just about anything can be plant-based. We tend to think of it first with reference to food, and it continues to have a strong bias toward products with animal counterparts — fake meat, fake leather, etc. After all, most plant-based products make no attempt to impersonate flesh or hide. “Plant-based” is also widely employed to imply that the product so described is safer and/or healthier to use and less harmful to the environment, and, if food, minimally processed — is a vegetable “plant-based,” or simply “plant”? — even if the details are not spelled out.

Much is made in some circles over the resources required to produce meat, and the point is well taken. Growing animals in order to slaughter and eat them is wasteful, shockingly so in some cases. Plants are more efficient, but they too are born of the earth; exploiting plants means exploiting the planet. Maybe we’ll wear our old earth out a little slower if we switch to plant-based diets, but we will still wear it out. The earth’s carrying capacity cannot be made infinite, no matter how good we get at extending it.

What will happen to this expression and its relatives if we, as a species, consume less and less of our fellow animals? It will last as long as we find it necessary to distinguish alternatives to animal flesh from the real thing, and such distinctions seem likely to be needed for at least a few more decades. If veganism becomes the norm, we may have to go the other way and start saying “animal-based” instead. Presumably, “veggie burger” will go extinct at that time as well. Anything that eases the ubiquity of the vastly irritating “veggie” is all right with me.

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stay in your lane

(2000’s | athletese | “stay out of my way,” “keep your nose out of my business,” “don’t make waves”; “stick to what you do best,” “bear down”)

Oh, for the good old days when this expression was used in two contexts: driving instruction and sports (football and auto racing). It had a nice literal ring to it, if you understand “lane” to mean “bounded pathway,” which wasn’t hard to do by 1975; rustic alleyways had largely disappeared by then and most people thought of lines on a roadway when they heard the word. “Stay in your lane” was rarely used any other way until 2000, at least. At some point in the new millennium, it was adopted into a wider vernacular, by which process it was divorced from any physical referent, becoming metaphorical and generally admonitory. While driving instructors and sportswriters have to reach to find an alternative, the rest of us, who have plenty of alternatives (see above), have glommed onto it.

Yet we use it in a variety of ways, which I will try to delineate. “Don’t go looking for trouble.” Then there’s “keep your hands to yourself,” or its milder cousin, “keep your head down.” It also means “don’t interfere in matters that don’t concern you” or “don’t discourse on things you don’t understand.” Perhaps most perniciously, it means “know your place” or “keep it to yourself.” In this sense it is used often by right-wing political commentators to inform uppity athletes, actors, emergency room doctors, and anyone with brown skin regardless of occupation that their carefully considered opinions are not wanted and they should shut up and do their jobs. It is not clear that this usage will win in the end. Most multi-meaning expressions lose all but one or two over time, and “stay in your lane” will probably settle down as well. And it does have a couple of more positive senses, which I should not neglect, such as “focus” or “play to your strengths.” While I can’t predict which definitions will emerge from the pack, I have considerable confidence that the hostile shade of this expression will win; there’s just too much momentum in that direction.

The interesting thing about the right-wing snarl is that it enforces a hierarchical vision of the world, in which the old, white, and wealthy do their utmost to keep everyone else down. Yet “stay in your lane” understood literally has a strictly lateral horizon; it means don’t move from side to side (in an environment where moving up and down isn’t even possible). The phrase has been yanked out of its proper dimension to enforce a top-down view of the world. I couldn’t tell you why, when there are plenty of other ways to get the point across. It may just be one of those things where an influential loudmouth used it and others picked it up, as happens often in the internet echosphere.

I’m not sure when this particular usage began to bob up, but it definitely has built up a lot of steam in a short time, and it is likely that left-wing commentators will adopt the expression, if they haven’t already, ironically at first but soon enough in earnest. There is not much communication between representatives of our armed political camps, but an effective insult or quip that shuts down the argument travels easily from one side of the aisle to the other. In an era that shows few flashes of bipartisanship, the infectious sharing of new idioms between left and right feels perversely comforting.

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baby on board

(1980’s | “child in car”)

Strictly an eighties phenomenon in the U.S., these signs, designed to stick to the inside of a car window and look like miniature roadside warnings of sharp curves and other hazards, were imported from Germany (“Baby an Bord” or “Kind [child] an Bord”), where they were in use by 1980. By 1985, they were a fixture on American roads, and by 1986, the backlash had begun, both in the form of innumerable parodies and law-enforcement crackdowns, justified on the grounds that the signs obstructed the driver’s view. The manufacturer, ironically, touted them as safety equipment, and there were two common arguments for their use: they alert other drivers to be solicitous of the precious cargo inside, and they alert police and paramedics to ditto. (In my suburban youth, it was common to see stickers on house windows telling the fire department where the children’s rooms were.) Unbelievers tended to ascribe obnoxious parental officiousness to those who so decorated their cars, an uncharitable interpretation, but probably not far wide of the mark in many cases. The fad rose quickly and fell slowly; “Baby on board” remained common in back windshields for some time, though you see them much less often now. But they have never shed the taint cast by the quick rise and reaction of the eighties.

Parenthood has become more demanding since my parents were in the business, and “Baby on board” was part of that evolution — yet another precaution parents might fail to take, thus endangering their children instead of protecting them. I’ve commented before on the oppressive growth of parenting as competitive sport, or competitive anguish, and on changes in standards and expectations for those unlucky enough to give birth. Whether intended as a sinister marketing scheme or not, “Baby on board” signs did their bit to harass new parents, promising increased safety, or at least a chance of it, at a low price. It wasn’t just fear of losing a young child because you hadn’t told first responders to look for him. It was a quick, cheap way of avoiding the appearance of negligence, and what parent wouldn’t want that?

Why doesn’t “baby on board” mean pregnant? Now it does, sometimes, but I don’t recall anyone using it that way, or understanding it that way, even in a fit of explication du texte. Khloe Kardashian used it to mean “having very young babies in the house” in a trailer for the next season of “Keeping up with the Kardashians” (a modern-day soap opera), alluding to the newborns produced by members of the clan, and it may be used, with a hint of jocularity, to refer to expectant mothers as well (as in “if you have a baby on board, you can expect . . .”). It feels to me like the shift to this usage has been slower and less general than you might expect. For reasons unclear to me, some expressions never stray far from their original senses, while others fan out far and wide. “Baby on board” strikes me as an example of the former that ought to be an example of the latter.

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congestion pricing

(1980’s | bureaucratese)

This week Lex Maniac lops the “e” off “urbane” and goes urban. Congestion pricing is in the news again, at least here in New York, as our solons ready themselves for another push to improve traffic flow. The phrase itself is not new; the first hit I found in LexisNexis dates from 1979. But only a couple of months ago I had to explain it to my father. (No knock on the old man — where he lives the subject doesn’t come up, and besides, we all have expressions that we’ve never heard though they’ve been familiar to everyone else for years.) Congestion pricing involves charging drivers to enter the parts of the city with the highest traffic density (in Manhattan, that usually means below 59th Street, or maybe 96th) at certain times of the day, with the goal of raising money and discouraging people from motoring through the busiest parts of town. The phrase existed before 1980 but remained a specialized term until after 1990, I would say. Even then, it was frequently placed in quotation marks and glossed, but it had become the accepted term for that form of traffic engineering. It remains a technical term without metaphorical implications or traces. It may also be used in reference to regulating airplane traffic — for example, raising landing fees during popular travel times. But normally congestion pricing is more terrestrial.

It’s typically sold as a way to reduce vehicular traffic, prefaced by terrifying statistics, like the average rush-hour speed along 34th Street, or whether a Boy Scout can outrun a crosstown bus. Reduced traffic has other benefits besides getting everyone where they’re going faster. The first time congestion pricing came up in New York, in 1986, the city was in violation of the Clean Air Act and had to find ways to reduce carbon monoxide and ozone. Less traffic means less stress and a healthier environment. What’s so terrible about that?

Officials in charge of high traffic density areas have a ritual of proposing congestion pricing from time to time, only to see it crushed ruthlessly. And that’s probably what will happen this go-round, though the current plan’s backers have tried to address objections made to previous versions. And who knows? Now that “cashless tolling” (another blot on the vocabulary) has settled in, even the skittish have gotten used to the technology. All you need to do is build gantries — so that’s what a gantry is! — at every entry point with a bunch of EZPass readers, just like on the Verrazano Bridge, and watch those virtual dollars pile up.

The principle is as simple as forcing drivers to pay for maintenance of the roads, because without the roads there wouldn’t be any drivers. That makes sense, right? The people who use the thoroughfares should pay for them, and gasoline taxes don’t cover all the costs, certainly not in New York. Road building and maintenance entail significant future costs, so congestion pricing redresses a perennial weak spot of our form of industrial capitalism, which is accounting for future expenditure made inevitable by present actions. Yet there’s little political appetite for infringing the sacred right to drive, so they’re selling the policy as new revenue for the subway. Which will need it if the overcrowded, delay-prone trains are to absorb still more commuters.

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designated driver

(1980’s | bureaucratese?)

A new expression that has stayed put, sober and responsible. “Designated driver” first poked its head out in 1982, says LexisNexis, and its sense has never changed. Metaphorical uses are uncommon, and literal uses not much less so. Oh, a race car pilot may be “designated driver” of a particular car for a particular race, though it’s not clear which part of speech “designated” is in such a case. Now and then a paid driver (bus, ambulette, taxi) winds up being referred to as a designated driver. But the set phrase that we grasp as second nature today is pure eighties. It grew slowly but steadily with the rise of the movement against drunk driving.

Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (soon changed to “Drunk Driving”) was founded in 1980 by actual mothers whose children had been killed in accidents caused by drunk drivers. It has been enormously successful, an example of a do-gooder public-service organization that has won respect (or deference, which is more important) across the political spectrum and changed a nation’s behavior. Plenty of people still drink and drive, but they do it much more cautiously than they did two generations ago. Attitudes have changed, and a multidisciplinary structure has been built to make driving under the influence shameful and criminal. Part of that structure is the designated driver, born (in the U.S., at least) near the beginning of the eighties, worming its way into beer commercials by the end of the decade, by which time all us reprobates had learned the expression. Actually, Congress declared “National Drunk and Drugged Driving Awareness Week” as early as December 1982, and the phrase was part of the proclamation. The first use recorded in LexisNexis (October 27, 1982) is due to St. Louis Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter, who had just won the World Series MVP Award and was known at the time as a player who had completed drug rehabilitation successfully (“drugs” included alcohol, as Porter was careful to point out). “‘I didn’t even drink in high school,’ he said with a smile. ‘I was what you’d call the designated driver.'” I myself was in college during those crucial early years when the new expression was struggling to make its way, and I don’t remember hearing it then, but may have. I do remember “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”

Porter’s use of the expression is significant, not just as a matter of historical precedence, but in heralding a radical change in the group behavior of young men. Simply put, non-drinkers became extremely popular when the designated driver took its place in the arsenal of defenses against drunk driving. For decades, centuries, teetotalers were objects of scorn and generally avoided (ironically, the old insult “wet,” meaning something like “lame” as we use it today with an extra touch of wimpiness, fit teetotalers nicely). But when you need a designated driver, that’s exactly the guy you want to bring along — he was gonna drink soda all night anyway. (Wise friends repay the designated driver occasionally, perhaps by providing wingman services.)

“Designated” is a bureaucrat’s word, generally used to refer to something named or assigned by legal authority. It was thus a rather odd choice for the new line-up spot created in 1973 by the American League. (The player was assigned to the Designated Hitter position by the manager, so it wasn’t unreasonable. At first, one heard “Designated Pinch Hitter,” but that disappeared quickly, just as well, since it was confusing.) The designated hitter is the most likely — actually the only — forerunner I can think of. The “designated driver” is not named by authority, generally. Someone within the group has to volunteer, or members of the group take turns. More like a nominated driver, at least if being nominated consists of drawing the short straw.

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how I roll

(2000’s | journalese? | “my way or thing,” “what I like,” “how I do things”)

I learned this expression from my girlfriend’s daughter. It had its day in our household last year and has since receded, although it will undoubtedly rear its head again. The kids didn’t invent it, though. The earliest large-scale media event I found that employed the phrase was a Pepsi commercial during the 2005 Super Bowl. I came across some older examples, but it seems safe to say that the expression gained a lot of ground after that. By the end of 2009, a writer on slate.com dismissed the phrase as out of date, but that was probably true only among the avant-garde; most of us were just getting started. The pronoun varies; any combination of persons and numbers is possible, but I, we, and they seem to predominate. Oddly, one finds relatively few examples of the the third-person singular, but the others all make their presences felt. It can also be used in the negative to decry an action that one does not condone.

“How I roll” or “the way I roll” has an invariable meaning. It follows the statement of a habit, preference, or wish that the speaker thinks might raise eyebrows, and pre-empts any doubts or objections. The phrase is not defensive; in fact, it implies pride in the behavior or belief, underlain by a healthy dose of “whether you like it or not.” Raise all the eyebrows you want; I don’t care. It’s supposed to feel insouciant or devil-may-care rather than emphatic or truculent, and as far as I can tell it usually does.

I don’t know which of the many meanings of “roll” deserves to be honored as the true ancestor of this expression. Dice? Dough? Drums? Cigarettes? Eyes? Tape? Bandages? Along? Over? Out? Up? On the river? With the punches? Rock and? Does it go back to driving somehow? I like the idea of a defiant French student defending her pronunciation of the letter r with a swift “That’s how I roll!” Or maybe a mugger explaining his technique for relieving drunken sailors of their money. Some of these possibilities are sillier than others, but none of them seems absurd on its face.

roll with it

(1990’s | athletese? | “take it as it comes,” “go with the flow,” “make the best of it”)

A phrase betokening resignation but not despair, suggesting the will to carry on amid adversity. It indicates relaxation rather than passivity. The origin of the expression is not as clear-cut as I thought. It seems most likely to descend from the old boxing exhortation, “roll with the punches”; another possible parent is martial arts, rather than the sweet science. But it could also come from sailing (as in rolling with the waves, but that’s not as idiomatic), or even something more cosmic (as the earth rolls around the sun, we have no choice but to roll with it). I still think the first is most likely, mostly because the phrase goes invariably with unpleasant or frustrating circumstances. Nobody ever rolls with winning the lottery; it has to be something that makes your life more difficult. And it usually is a change in conditions imposed from the outside, like bad weather, a legal verdict, or other people’s mistakes. The phrase may be used in response to a change in oneself, as in the diagnosis of an incurable disease, but only when the obstacle is presumed to be beyond our control. If you can’t make it better, you roll with it; if you can improve by applying yourself, it is assumed in our self-help culture that you will.

The expression is popular among athletes and has been for a long time, but I found examples from therapy, education, music, and popular culture as far back as 1970. That’s why I’m skeptical of a tidy origin myth for this term. “Roll with it” can be read as a distillation of the first part of the Serenity Prayer, which is closely associated with Alcoholics Anonymous: “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Rolling with it means not getting wrought up about things you can’t do anything about. Just deal with it and keep moving, because resistance makes it worse. We need the stock phrase, because it’s something we have to remind ourselves to do — it feels counterintuitive, like steering into a skid. And yet it’s certainly a handy rule for a species as adaptable as ours.

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gridlock

(1980’s | enginese | “traffic jam,” “logjam,” “deadlock,” “paralysis”)

I found a handful of doubtful cases in Google Books, but nothing that disproved the reigning explanation of the origin of “gridlock.” The story goes that two traffic engineers, Sam Schwartz and his partner Roy Cottam, invented a word for a nightmarish traffic jam — Manhattan’s street grid rendered completely impassable due to cars blocking every intersection for blocks around. (Maybe it should have been called “gridblock.”) New York has a transit strike every so often, and we had a big one in 1980. No subways and buses means more cars on the same streets means impossible traffic all over Midtown. Schwartz by that time was a city employee, and the word started to turn up regularly in the New York Times. (William Safire was an early partisan, using the word several times in his language column between 1980 and 1982; one lexicographer was watching it closely even in 1981.) It was thoroughly established within a few years. In the early days, it was used most often to talk about movement of motorized vehicles, but the word was used in discussions of politics as early as 1980, and quickly developed secondary senses in the realms of legislation (parties can’t agree on anything) and the judicial system (shortage of judges preventing cases from being resolved quickly). It can still be used to talk about traffic, but that sounds a little prosaic, now that the term is heard far more often in political discourse. Today, “gridlock” takes flight only when used to bash one’s political opponents as obstructionists, do-nothings, and filibusterers.

Schwartz did well by the coinage, anyway: he went on to write the wonderful “Gridlock Sam” traffic advice column for the New York Daily News –- one of the few bright spots of the News in the mid-1990’s, as I recall –- and he remains a respected commentator on traffic and transportation. That’s a full-time job in New York, and few are better at it.

The three uses mentioned above (traffic, politics, courts) constitute a relatively small number, considering how often the word appears. It has retained a narrow range with little spread into new applications. No one talks about “emotional gridlock,” or “office gridlock.” When it comes to traffic, the word denotes immobility due to overuse of the roads. But in political use — much more common these days — the immobility isn’t generally due to an oversupply of legislative proposals or debates; it’s more likely to arise from throwing sand in the gears. Classic gridlock isn’t willed. It just happens, because there’s nowhere for all the cars to go. But partisan gridlock is often the deliberate result of the efforts of a small group. There is a broadening of definition here, but not of application; the use of the word in politics caught on early and fast and now is omnipresent.

Legislative gridlock is always deplored, and no one ever speaks up for it. But gridlock is good. When the two parties disagree on how to achieve the shared goal of screwing most of the population, gridlock can keep things from getting worse too fast. It’s surprising how often American voters wind up with divided legislatures, or a partisan divide between the legislature and the executive. I think that’s partly because we understand instinctively that government can do a lot of damage in a hurry if the people don’t find ways to apply the brakes. (Witness the shitstorm of changes in North Carolina this year, when both houses of the legislature and the governor are all of the same party for the first time since Reconstruction.) Like pork-barrel spending, gridlock may not be so bad. The ruthlessly efficient government is the most dangerous because it is most likely to disregard the will of the people. Democratic governments need to slow down, hear from a lot of different sides, and throw bribes at voters to stay in power. That is one of the great premises of our political system: making it difficult to pass (or change) laws, because so many competing interests must be placated. Gridlock caused by partisan differences and failure to compromise is an important check on the legislature.

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SUV

(1990’s | advertese)

The first use of “sport utility vehicle” that shows up in LexisNexis appears on May 24, 1978 in an Associated Press story as the answer to a riddle: “What gets lousy gas mileage and carries kids to school, the rich to the country club, hunters through fields and a major American corporation into the black? A phenomenally popular plaything best described as half-truck, half-station wagon.” (“Sports utility vehicle” was a variant that disappeared by the end of the eighties; “sport” and “utility” were hyphenated occasionally. “Sports vehicles” and “utility vehicles” both were recognized categories at that time, so the coinage is not revolutionary.) The earliest use of “SUV” I found appeared in Adweek, April 7, 1986, where it is included in parentheses as an alternative to the spelled-out phrase and repeated several times. If you have an earlier citation, send it in. “Sport utility vehicle” was ordinary in automotive circles by 1990, and both it and “SUV” had roared into the mainstream lexicon by the middle of the decade.

Some on-line historians trace the noble lineage of the sport utility vehicle much further back: the first Chevrolet Suburban (1935) is one possible ancestor (the generic term then was “carryall”), or maybe the early civilian Jeeps, the Willys-Overland Jeep Station Wagon from the late 1940’s, or even Harley Earl’s El Kineño. Some point to the Jeep Wagoneer (1963); or even the Jeep Cherokee (1983). In the trade press, the Dodge Ramcharger and Plymouth Trailduster bore the name as early as 1981; the Chevy S-10 Blazer, Ford Bronco, and Ford Explorer were all so called by the mid-1980’s. I recall that SUV’s became thick on the roads in the early 1990’s, but I wasn’t driving much in those years and it may have been earlier.

They sure became popular in a hurry, didn’t they? SUV’s and minivans rose at about the same time. (The word “minivan” starts to appear earlier, but not as a consumer vehicle so much as a small bus.) I can’t think of any developments in the automotive market since then that have been remotely comparable in terms of driving habits and preferences. Hybrids and mini-cars have made a few inroads in the last decade but had nowhere near the impact of the SUV and minivan invasion that began thirty years ago. The two had widely different cultural significances, of course. The SUV was for the adventurer, tough, versatile, and independent, while the minivan was Mom’s car, suitable for hauling the kids around. Real men didn’t drive minivans, although real women could and did drive SUV’s. One thing they had in common was lousy gas mileage — a mere ten years after a crippling energy crisis, the nation embraced a new generation of gas-guzzlers. And while a spike in gas prices still has the power to curtail SUV sales, they always bounce back.

Early in the game, it became clear that most SUV owners weren’t interested in off-road driving and actually spent most of their time on the interstate, so many models shed their more rugged features and increased the size of their cupholders. I propose that such models be rechristened “sport futility vehicles.” If you bought your SUV to make sure you’d get the better of a crash or to take pride in America’s disdain for energy conservation, how about “sport hostility vehicle”?

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sticker shock

(1980’s | businese)

Not what Brer Rabbit was praying for. The expression rose quickly and effortlessly right at the beginning of the era covered by this blog; the first occurrence in LexisNexis dates from 1981, billed as “the latest auto term to be coined in this revolutionary period” (Industry Week, March 23). And an auto term it was: LexisNexis yields thirty-odd uses of the phrase in 1981, all in the context of car sales. Chrysler savior and capitalist folk hero Lee Iacocca used it that very year (“we’re declaring war on sticker shock”). Treasury Secretary Paul Volcker used it in 1982 (“‘sticker shock’ still seems to be the major deterrent to new car sales”), which probably gave it a boost, since most of the country listened when Volcker spoke up about the economy in 1982. By the mid-80’s, it had started to creep into other contexts.

Back then, only cars had a “sticker price,” as I recall, even though adhesive price tags were in widespread use. So people grasped right away that “sticker shock” was about auto prices in particular. Nowadays other things — like a new computer, or a college education — have a sticker price, too, and may induce sticker shock. Car dealers seem to have moved on to “MSRP,” which sounds like an early seventies band or a really scary food additive.

I have not come up with a pre-1980’s equivalent for this phrase. The reason it caught on so quickly, like senior moment, is that it provided an attractive locution for a common occurrence. It is short, sharp, and consonant. It captures that moment when we see a price higher than we expect and can’t hold back: What!? I can’t afford that! (According to urbandictionary.com, the term may also be used for the sick feeling of realizing how much something costs after you’ve agreed to buy it, whereas traditional use denotes one’s reaction on first seeing the price, before you sign anything.) “Sticker shock” has never developed much of a metaphorical life, and it has never become particularly widespread, but it has become a term everyone has to know. And it’s refreshing to encounter an expression that modestly keeps to itself instead of absent-mindedly acquiring a new meaning every year or two.

You don’t have to be a historian to see why 1981 was a propitious time for “sticker shock” to make its debut. Prices had been rising rapidly, both by historical standards and today’s standards, for nearly a decade. Unemployment up, basic necessities harder to afford. The whole mess was blamed on government regulation, greedy unions, and pampered workers (sound familiar?), as if the energy crisis and stagflation had been some sort of collective delusion. It’s easy to see in retrospect: The seventies marked the end of postwar prosperity and gave us the first taste of the chancier economic times that have since become the norm. Americans were starting to confront the idea that our standard of living wouldn’t just keep going up, and we didn’t like it. “Sticker shock” was an early manifestation of that sea change.

t-bone

(2000’s | athletese | “broadside”)

The standard term for this kind of wreck is “side collision,” clear but lacking in verve. Presumably “side collision” includes sideswipes, whereas “t-bone” or “broadside” refers specifically to the front of one car hitting the side of another, usually near the front door on the driver’s or passenger’s side. “Broadside collision” packs a bit more punch, and it has been in modest use for a long time. “T-bone collision” you really don’t see before 1990. I had thought it applied only to cars, motorcycles, or other road vehicles, but apparently sailors also use it. Here’s an example from the New York Times, December 26, 1994: “In what is known in yacht racing parlance as a T-bone collision, the bow of Ville de Paris slammed broadside into the midship section of Spirit of Unum.” Whether the phrase ultimately came from drivers or boaters, it seems to have been used first by competitive racers. Now it appears regularly in accident reports and small-town newspaper stories about local highway mayhem.

“T-bone” shows up most often as a verb or an adjective. If you mentioned “a t-bone” in conversation, I think most people would think of a steak rather than a car accident. But nobody would envision a “t-bone collision” taking place inside a steakhouse, either. There doesn’t seem to be much danger of confusing the different senses.

“T-bone” is more evocative than “broadside,” which sounds a touch old-fashioned and highfalutin. It may also suggest more precisely what happens in this kind of collision; at any rate, it seems to be displacing the older term.

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road rage

(late 1990’s | legalese?, therapese? | “dangerous or reckless driving,” “some asshole gave me the finger,” etc.)

It’s really “motorist rage,” isn’t it? Even though “motorist” sounds a bit quaint nowadays, that’s where it all begins, with the jerk in the car who can’t control himself. It can happen in parking lots, but it’s usually a highway thing. It gets blamed on bad drivers, overcrowded roads, short-fused jerks with type A personalities, even incompetent cops. But such explanations neglect the most fundamental factor of all.

There’s general agreement that the phrase arose in the late 1980’s and was widely used by the late 1990’s. Anyone with access to LexisNexis can tell you that the term first appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on April 2, 1988. This is the sort of dubious precision characteristic of the database age, but it’s probably close enough. Interestingly, a story in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph in 1987 on a spate of violent driving incidents in California cited the term “freeway rage,” apparently quoting a California police officer; the reporter also alluded to Mel Gibson’s Mad Max to help readers get the idea. It seems plausible that the term originated among police, but it was popularized by a psychologist who worked to have it recognized as a mental disorder. Believe it or not, road rage is sometimes given as an example of “intermittent explosive disorder,” which I swear I am not making up. There’s some question about whether the term influenced or was influenced by “roid rage,” acts of violence committed by steroid users (see below). There’s also some question about whether the term arose in the U.K. or U.S. For a couple of years there in the mid-1990’s, it was more common in Great Britain and the former Commonwealth, but they usually blame Americans for it, and I’m inclined to think they’re right. Phrases.org.uk offers the most reliable account.

“Road rage” applies both to how you conduct your car and how you conduct yourself. In the former sense, it shares a rather fuzzy border with “reckless or aggressive driving,” both of which were common terms in my youth, especially the former. But I don’t think there was a general term for screaming, gesturing, sideswiping, or pulling over and settling the matter with fists or weapons. That makes me wonder if the practice hasn’t become more common. One wishes to avoid the error of assuming that a particular phenomenon is occurring more often because people are taking more notice of it. But when the phenomenon in question goes from something we have to bring up every five years to something we have to bring up every week, that creates significant pressure on the language and often forces a new expression up through the crust of established usage. I’m sure you can find examples of road rage through the years, but we’ve spent a lot more time talking about it in the last fifteen years than in all previous recorded history.

The fundamental factor I mentioned above? “Driving is the most dangerous activity for the majority of people in an industrialized society” (citation). You’re taking your life in your hands every time you merge onto the interstate. At those speeds, any unconventional or unexpected driving, intentional or not, risks the life, health, and safety of anyone nearby, as most of us are very aware. The stakes are that high when even a brief lapse in concentration can mean serious injury and death. It’s why differing driving habits create stress in a marriage, and it’s why it’s so easy to get angry at someone going slow and blocking traffic or someone weaving all over a crowded highway. The prospect of imminent death will get the most phlegmatic among us a little worked up.

roid rage

(1990’s | athletese?)

Well, whaddaya know? Look this phrase up on LexisNexis and the first citation is from 1988! Same as “road rage.” And in fact, it got established a little faster; it was getting regular use in major publications by 1991; “road rage” didn’t take off in the U.S. until four or five years later. So we can suppose that “roid rage” influenced “road rage,” not the other way around. It seems likely to have been invented by athletes or by doctors who make a specialty of treating them. (“Roid” seems to have been a colloquial abbreviation for “steroid” within the medical profession dating back to the 1960’s or 1970’s.)

Sports fans and reporters started writing about steroids in the late 1980’s, ten years before Mark McGwire reluctantly told the world about andro, and the phrase became familiar outside sports contexts because it wasn’t just professional athletes that took them. Teenagers were getting hold of steroids, so the parenting industry took notice. Lawyers caught on quickly that a “roid rage” defense might sway a jury, while cops occasionally went after illicit dealers, so it slipped into the grown-up news here and there. There’s some doubt about whether it’s real or not, but the evidence suggests that while very few steroid users turn into part-time psychopaths, it can happen.

How many people have heard “roids” used for “hemorrhoids”? Seems like it ought to be more common than it is. I remember Al Bundy sending Bud out to buy “roid cream” on Married . . . with Children, but you don’t hear it much. Maybe because the shortened form of the word is just too breezy for something no one really wants to talk about.

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