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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: ethics

full disclosure

(1990’s | legalese | “telling the whole story,” “full accounting,” “clean breast”)

It’s a formula now, a ritual. The reporter states affiliations, preferences, or beliefs closely related to the topic at hand, prefaced invariably by “Full disclosure,” or “In the interest of full disclosure” for the orotund. Fair enough; journalists remain essential channels of information even when no one believes them, and we have as much need to know what commentators might be hiding as what politicians are. The expression has been around a long time, after all. It shows up often in Google Books often between 1800 and 1840, usually in bankruptcy cases or parliamentary debates, but it could crop up anywhere; one might make a full disclosure of feelings or past exploits as well as assets. For what it’s worth, Google Ngrams shows a noticeable increase in use after 1980, after a long period of relative neglect.

A bit more history: William Safire titled his 1977 novel “Full Disclosure.” In the eighties “full disclosure” turned up often in political reporting, as officials were asked to lay bare their financial dealings so voters could hold them to account for conflicts of interest. Since then, the phrase has made itself at home in other contexts, especially discussions of relationships. Journalists began to use it in the nineties, as far as I can tell, and within ten years it was everywhere. (Despite a few showy successes, efforts to drive money and influence out of government at any level have been notable failures; now Congress is populated largely by millionaires who get away with revealing little about who’s paying them for what, particularly when campaigning, now a permanent activity. And it turns out most voters don’t care. If a guy is smart enough to represent us, he’s smart enough to get around ethics rules.)

There’s nothing new about compelling people to make a complete accounting of assets or donors, but whereas journalists used to be the ones demanding such transparency, now they feel compelled to assure skeptical readers that they are clean themselves. It’s easier to force ink-stained wretches to show their hands than wealthy elites, and public distrust of “the media” has been increasing for decades, so they have become targets. And of course it’s true that reporters, like anyone else, may use the phrase deceptively. It’s easy to disguise a partial disclosure as a full disclosure, leaving out material facts; the very solemnity of the expression may make us reluctant to scrutinize the revelations offered. Deceptive or not, journalists use the phrase as a pre-emptive strike; it means “you don’t have to pry this information out of me; I’m going to tell you up front.” Which may also increase its effectiveness as a tool for misleading others. I’m not suggesting that newshounds are more likely than anyone else to use the term deceptively, by the way, probably less. The real movers and shakers will always have more to hide, and have greater means to hide it from the rest of us.

“Full” makes it sound like you’re spilling every last bean, but in legal and financial circles full disclosure requires only that relevant facts be adduced; it must pertain to the question at hand, whether it’s the materials and processes embodied in a patent, possible influence on a legislator, or anything a bankrupt is able to liquidate. When the principle of full disclosure justifies revealing anything a public figure would rather conceal, the investigation turns into a witch hunt. Maybe we should rename it “pertinent disclosure.” It might make the phrase less ubiquitous, if nothing else.


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random acts of kindness

(1990’s | “kindness of strangers,” “being kind to others”)

The first use of this term in LexisNexis comes from a British source, which credits it to an American named Anne Herbert of San Francisco or somewhere out there in Bayarea. The story goes she saw graffiti that read “Random acts of violence,” and she created the counter-slogan the very same day. There have always been differing versions; the most economical I’ve seen is “Random acts of kindness and senseless beauty,” an elaboration on “random acts of kindness,” which was already in the air; there are several solid citations in Google Books before 1990, and an editorial in the December 1991 Glamour magazine used the expression. So Herbert didn’t invent it, but she improved it, and she gained plenty of credit for popularizing it. (Ben & Jerry’s was an early adopter.)

The breakout year was 1992. “Random acts of kindness” soon became talk-show fodder, then a bumper sticker, then the subject of a popular book. I think I first encountered it as a bumper sticker, though I can’t be sure — maybe around the same time as “visualize whirled peas”? It even inspired a short-lived movement that called itself Guerrilla Goodness, in which people went around putting money in other people’s parking meters or gratuitously helping senior citizens. The movement disappeared from view, at least under that name — which doesn’t mean it ceased to have adherents; The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation and Random Acts of Kindness Week (not to mention World Kindness Day) now carry on the tradition. In 1992, we still had George Bush’s evocations of the “thousand points of light” fresh in our memories, and the Guerrilla Goodness movement might be seen as a response, though I’m not sure its members saw it that way at the time. The movie Pay It Forward (2000) gave another boost to the phrase. “Pay it forward” itself has become a new expression, which comes directly from the movie title — a nice bit of inspiration on the part of whoever thought it up. As I’ve noted, fewer expressions arise unquestionably from films than you might think.

Originally the phrase invariably carried the sense of doing something for someone you don’t know and aren’t trying to butter up — as the Boy Scouts have always preached — but also whether they need it or not. But that’s slipping; people now blithely refer to random acts of kindness directed at friends and relatives based on knowledge of their situation. (But not enemies, generally. Let’s not have too much of a good thing.) The “acts of kindness” part is self-explanatory, but you have to keep an eye on “random,” often used to mean unmotivated rather than unconnected. For true believers in random acts of kindness envision a world-wide web of kindness evolving as more and more people chase down strangers in order to do something unexpectedly nice.

Schoolchildren are frequently encouraged to practice random or not-so-random acts of kindness, and this phenomenon has only grown since the late nineties. If training, especially early training, is destiny, we will have an unusually kind new crop of adults any year now. It could be happening, for all I know, at least among the young and powerless. The powerful continue to consider such things beneath them most of the time, trumpeting the occasional exception, which makes that much more of an impression due to its rarity.

Like Shakespeare’s mercy, random acts of kindness bless them that give and them that take, and as a practical matter, the benefits to the actor are touted as much, or more, as those to the recipient. Doing something nice for someone you’ll probably never see again makes you feel better, improves your health, burnishes your karma, whatever on-line claims you can dig up. Your good deed might nonplus, or even irritate, the beneficiary, but it definitely gives you a hit of endorphins. If the recipient happens to pass it on, that’s a bonus. Many charitable acts have poorly concealed selfish motivations, so that the case for altruism often turns into the case for its opposite. Even the Golden Rule hints at self-interest by suggesting that the more the rule is exercised, the more likely each of us is to reap the benefit. Which presumably is where the notion of “enlightened self-interest” comes from. Maybe we should just settle for acts of kindness, random or not. Even the philosophers should let us get by with a few of those.

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doesn’t pass the smell test

(1980’s | legalese? bureaucratese? | “is fishy,” “ain’t right,” “doesn’t smell right,” “stinks to high heaven”)

The primary characteristic of the “smell test,” I suppose, is that it does not measure or evaluate anything that can be rigorously defined. It’s a more or less instantaneous reaction to circumstances that tells you whether to go further or not. And it usually is an ethical test. Passing the smell test means you are on the up-and-up; to do otherwise means your motives or methods are questionable, or worse. An important characteristic of the smell test is that it is anterior to other kinds of questions that might need to be asked. Deciding that an explanation or proposal doesn’t pass the smell test means you need not go any further to evaluate other aspects of the set-up; you simply turn up your nose and go home. It has failed to meet a minimum standard of credibility or honesty.

Even though it is possible to pass a smell test, the phrase is used far more often in the negative — so much so that while it is very easy to think of idiomatic equivalents to “doesn’t pass the smell test,” it’s much harder to come by conventional expressions that mean the opposite. It would be more economical to have a new expression that fills in a gap instead of lapsing into a well-worn groove, but many recent additions to our vocabulary are unnecessary, if not unwanted.

“Smell test” has a more literal meaning: evaluation of olfactory acuity (not very common) or any examination conducted by means of smelling (less uncommon). An example would be sniffing a sample of the grain harvest to see if it’s moldy or otherwise contaminated. The inspector’s nose must decide if the wheat has something wrong with it that makes it unfit to eat. This appears to be a direct ancestor of our more figurative use, since the same operation and results are at work. The odor is off, so we declare the batch unusable and cast it aside.

I found exactly one example of “doesn’t pass the smell test” before 1980 in LexisNexis. The phrase seems not to have taken hold for several years after that. It was used now and then during the eighties, nearly always in legal or political contexts. In a New York Times article (1988), an attorney named Edward Costikyan credited the expression to a colleague, but it seems likely that the phrase had been around for a decade or more by then. There doesn’t seem to have been a definite moment that catapulted “smell test” into everyday language. A few people liked it and used it as a handy way to refer to a kind of quick and final gut reaction that (usually) warned you away from a crime, scam, or cover-up. Maybe it’s obvious to everyone; maybe you have to know something about a particular field or business to detect the problem, but either way, you know it when you see it. Maybe you can’t give a well-defined reason, but you don’t need one with a smell test — a feature that makes it easy to abuse. For the most part, though, “smell test” does not seem to have become a synonym for arbitrary or prejudicial conduct (e.g., your job application didn’t pass the smell test because your name is Takisha). It still has a faintly commendable ring, evidence of an active sense of right and wrong and a pure heart rather than a means of getting rid of people or projects you didn’t like anyway.

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push poll

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “dirty trick”)

Push polls originated in political campaigns. They are presented as impartial, conducted by an organization not technically connected with a candidate (although if a respondent pushes back hard enough, the caller may be forced to reveal his true employer). The point is not neutral assessment of public opinion, but rather influencing it directly, often by making a dubious, if not outright false, imputation about an opponent — sometimes the mechanism relies on laudatory comments about oneself, but the intent is the same. It usually takes the form, “If you knew so-and-so about Candidate X, would it make you more or less likely to vote for her?” The phrase established itself in the mid-1990’s, with the first hit in LexisNexis due to David Broder in October 1994. By the 1996 election, the expression had common currency in political reporting, and many commentators no longer bothered to define it, which had been the rule only a few months earlier.

There’s nothing new about libeling political opponents, but the problem is the means. To be effective over the long term, opinion polls have to be fair, designed to avoid favoring one group over another. A survey has the presumption of fairness; therefore, it’s worse to use a poll to perpetuate slander than to use other means. The main point, as stated by Matthew Reichbach in the New Mexico Independent (September 22, 2009): “a push poll is not a poll at all. Its a fraud, an attempt to disseminate information under the guise of a legitimate survey.” It is a fraud in that it presents itself in a misleading way, but the “information” conveyed may be fraudulent, too. Reputable pollsters hate them and are forever calling for an end to push polls.

In 1996, the derivation of “push poll” was generally explained as a simple elaboration on the act of pushing voters away from a particular candidate. That’s folk etymology, but there is probably some underlying truth. The term comes out of pollsters’ jargon, by evolution or corruption. “Push poll” is actually a descendant of “push question,” described in 1982 by William Safire as “designed to squeeze respondents to come up with the answer the sponsors want.” It’s a variety of loaded question native to the survey business, and not necessarily unethical, although it does lend itself to unethical use.

A push poll may contain more than one push question, heaven knows. In 2001, I was on the receiving end of a Bloomberg-for-mayor push poll which consisted almost entirely of pro-Bloomberg statements masquerading as questions. I finally said something like “Aw, c’mon,” and the (apparently young and definitely inexperienced) questioner agreed that the bias was pretty obvious. I kept going, answering each question gamely in the most anti-Bloomberg manner I could muster, but the whole thing was a farce. Did Bloomberg pay for it? Who knows? Yes or no, the whole process showed nothing but contempt for our intelligence.

And now, the scope of push polls has broadened, and you don’t have to be a politician any more. Anyone trying to influence public opinion — a corporation (Walmart seeking to open a store in Chicago), a social movement (a group trying to promote, or scuttle, gun-control legislation), etc. — can initiate them. I’m pleased to note that the phrase still carries strong opprobrium, and it is thrown around in grim accusation or indignant denial, never in approbation. It may be true that one man’s push poll is another man’s opposition research, and political professionals once defended push questions as legitimate, if they raised a verifiable point about the rival candidate. No one defends them any more, at least not in public.

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(2000’s | therapese? | “down to earth,” “well-adjusted,” “sane,” “connected (to tradition, etc.)”)

A rich old word. How many different meanings did “grounded” have forty years ago? “Kept from flying” (as an airplane). “Prevented from leaving the house” (as a teenager). “Connected to the earth or similar conductor” (physics). “Run aground” (as a ship). “Rooted in” or “founded on.” “Settled.” “Established.” These definitions were all venerable; none was rare. Starting in the 1970’s, sociologists used the term “grounded theory” (you’ll have to ask a sociologist to explain it); philosophers have used the word, with “in,” for centuries to mean “resting on a foundation of.” It sounds a little weightier than “based on” or “derived from.” “One’s fears were well-grounded (i.e., justified)” was a stock phrase, although not a particularly common one. “Well-grounded” in a field or discipline meant “thoroughly trained.”

The striking change since then is the way the word now is applied to people as well as circuits, helicopters, or boats. In the old days, the only time it was applied to persons was in aviation; just as an airplane could be grounded, so could a pilot, or, by extension, a sullen teenager. But in today’s idiom, it seems to be shorthand for “rooted in” or “grounded in” whatever it may be: a sense of one’s history, one’s ethical obligations, real life as opposed to misleading fantasy, etc. (like “give back” or “prior,” “grounded” has lost its preposition). It means remaining steady even when things are going badly, staying on an even keel, not getting knocked off course. In another vein, it might be something like keeping things in perspective, rising above petty everyday annoyances, or taking the long view.

We used to express this idea with corporeal metaphors. The most obviously related expression was “having one’s feet on the ground.” But the opposite end of the body was commonly invoked: keeping one’s head on straight or being level-headed. The fundamental idea seems to be that of connection, however, as in this author’s account of hearing the music her parents loved when they were young (Tampa-Bay Tribune, December 25, 1994): “It made me feel good. Made me feel grounded, tethered, CONNECTED to them, as if I had stumbled on a cache of their old letters.” That’s really the fundamental meaning of “grounded” — touching the ground. Attached to mother earth. On the firmest of foundations. That’s where the engineers and philosophers meet, and our latest addition to the dictionary relies on that sense, too. (But did you notice that when I defined the word in the last paragraph, I used a lot of metaphors that depend on water and air rather than earth? Now you know what kept the post-structuralists in business.)

The earliest examples I found of the word used this way date from the mid-1990’s. In a 1975 book titled Design for Evolution, astrophysicist Erich Jantsch talked about “grounding” and “centering.” He defined “grounding” as the “process of rediscovering man’s full and undivided nature,” and said that the “grounded man knows what he needs and what is good for him, because he knows in a very basic way, not dependent on logic, what is natural for him.” That looks like a definite ancestor, but I don’t know how the word got from then to now. I can’t even promise that it’s therapese, although it sure sounds like it, and I don’t have any other likely sources. Here’s an early use from Ebony magazine (January 1995), attributed to a “family facilitator”: “The feeling of being rooted in a rich history can make children feel grounded and prepares them for the rigors of life.” But the word entered the language slowly and did not go mainstream in any meaningful sense until after 2000.

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