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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: drug testing

don’t ask, don’t tell

(1990’s | militarese? bureaucratese? | “keep it to yourself,” “don’t bring it up,” “let sleeping dogs lie”)

An odd name for an odd policy. Until 1993, gay people were legally prohibited from serving in the military (a bit of history here). A year earlier, Bill Clinton had campaign-promised to end the ban, and he made an effort to do so within the first few months of his term, a time when presidents usually push their highest priorities. Whatever you think of Clinton (I never liked him, but I never met a politician I liked), he deserves credit for political courage, and it does seem likely that his insistence on raising the issue led ultimately to the full, official acceptance of gay people in the service, though that took another fifteen or twenty years. At the time, the compromise was generally viewed as a failure on Clinton’s part.

LexisNexis provides a blow-by-blow account of those debates in 1993. The important thing to remember is that although the phrase is associated with Clinton, it is not due to him. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was something Clinton had to settle for, not something he wanted. It was foisted upon him by Congress — which even then was unwilling to insist on an outright ban. Senator Sam Nunn may have been the first public figure to use the exact phrase (the record is not conclusive), but the APA Divisions web site credits one Dr. Charlie Moskos with inventing it: “a well-known, politically active military sociologist from Northwestern University, and a member of Division 19, told me that he had suggested the DADT compromise to President Clinton and to Senator Nunn. At the very least, Charlie is credited with coining the DADT name — which was originally titled ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue’ and later as ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue, don’t harass.'” The dam broke in May 1993, when an expression that previously had not even qualified as obscure burst into the press and has remained firmly lodged ever since.

In truth, the old word for “don’t ask, don’t tell” is “discretion.” Before 1990 or so, few gay people went around bragging about how gay they were, which permitted public opinion and state repression to ignore the fact that these people were violating “civilized” norms (besides, lots of gay people were highly civilized). “Discretion” is actually a polite word for the old state of affairs; younger people may not know that “the love that dare not speak its name” was a euphemism for “gay love,” and it meant what it said. Generally, gay people had to disguise their relationships, not just paper them over, and there was always social or physical risk as well. That was likewise true in the armed forces; when lifting the ban became thinkable, a compromise was required. The old guard kept the power to bar openly gay soldiers, but they could tolerate the closeted provided no one had to acknowledge anything. Within twenty years, the compromise was no longer necessary, and even Sam Nunn, who made sure Clinton couldn’t simply repeal the ban in 1993, supported getting rid of it in 2010. So well established in 2018 is the refusal to discriminate against gay people — even, apparently, within the ranks — that the best the revanchist right can do is to try to keep trans people out of the service, and they’re not assured of success. Doesn’t that suggest that the bans were never necessary in the first place? So many of us cling to the idea that we can define groups of people as inferiors, and need to. But diversity and inclusion march on because they work better than discrimination. The larger your talent pool, the higher percentage of effective workers you’ll have, and we need all the help we can get.

Today “don’t ask, don’t tell” may be used in reference to a wider range of subjects, from abortion to zoning, but it still generally is used where a large bureaucratic organization — like the Defense Department — is involved, and it means something like “don’t rock the boat.” If you are breaking or bending a rule, and no one is hassling you about it, you’re apt to say, “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Or it may expose you to legal trouble to request, or volunteer, certain information. As in asking for salary history in a job interview, now illegal in some states, or testing employees for marijuana use, which fewer employers are doing now, because it’s just easier not to find out and have to do something about it. That’s fertile soil for this expression.


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false positive

(1980’s | doctorese | “bad diagnosis”)

An example of an older expression that has grown common and become less specialized (other examples: “blowback,” “grounded,” “politically correct,” “template“). In medicine, “false positive” goes back at least to the forties, probably earlier; for some reason, the only results in Google Books from those days have to do with the Wassermann test for syphilis. In the seventies, the phrase got a boost from the popularity of home pregnancy tests. In the eighties, it was employee drug testing. Both developments got plenty of press, so use of the phrase grew sharply, and as it spread it began to turn up outside of strictly medical contexts. Now it can apply to virus or spam detection, security systems, internet search results, or even economic forecasting or earthquake warnings. The last two are notable because they involve not results but predictions, which adds a new twist. You said there will be a recession and it doesn’t materialize — instead of you said there was cancer and there was no cancer there. Another example from the scientific community: “A false positive is a claim that an effect exists when in actuality it doesn’t,” that is, detecting a correlation that exists only because of your misinterpretation of the data. All these meanings rely on presumably preventable misreadings of an empirical result, incorrectly assigning too broad a significance to a single symptom, or maybe just running the test wrong.

False positives are a big problem; they can creep into the work of the most careful scientists. Medical tests that show a disease that isn’t really present can result in unnecessary or dangerous treatment, and all the expense that goes with it. The effect is subtler in empirical science, but pressure to obtain statistically significant results can skew the perspectives even of conscientious experimenters. (This article explains how it happens.) Such errors are dangerous because it’s worse to be sure of something that isn’t true than to fail to know something that is. As a great American philosopher, possibly Josh Billings or maybe Will Rogers, said, “It ain’t what people don’t know that’s the problem; it’s what they know that ain’t so.”

The expression was well settled by 1980, but only in medical contexts. (“False negative” is just as old.) When it turned up in general-interest articles, it often came packaged in quotation marks. It had not become a regulation noun; in those days it was still normally a compound adjective, applied to readings, results, reactions, responses, rates. Now it is more common as a noun than as an adjective.

I’m sure I wasn’t the first or last kid to stumble over the counterintuitive meaning of “positive” in medicine. I thought “the test came back positive” was good news, whereupon my hard-working parents (I kept ’em hopping) had to explain that the word you wanted to hear was “negative.” Doctors test for the presence of a disease or condition, and a positive result means they’ve found it, and you’re stuck with an undesirable disorder. It’s the only zone in everyday language in which “positive” means “negative,” I do believe. (It reminds me of middle-aged parents in the seventies cheerily reminding each other that “bad” meant “good.”) We must ever observe the instructions in the song and accentuate the positive, but not in the lab, please!

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