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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: etiquette

plus one

(2000’s | journalese (society page)? | “date,” “guest”)

Now a staple of the younger set, “plus one” is a companion, usually temporary, for a social event, such as a wedding. No particular connection is implied; in fact, the term may suggest casual relations at best, maybe even just the only person you could scrounge up. (But it’s also possible to have a regular plus one who becomes a reliable escort, or to bring a good friend to an event they would enjoy.) Occasionally the phrase is used when a stronger connection is understood, and that related but distinct meaning may be gaining ground gradually. It bears some relation to “arm candy,” but whereas arm candy has to be attractive, the plus one has no particular attributes. Arm candy is a plus one, but a plus one probably isn’t arm candy.

“Plus one” could easily devolve into meaning any companion for a social occasion; the implication of the ad hoc acquaintance, sufficient for this party or that bowling night, may disappear into a broader, sloppier term. Another usage note: “plus one” is used sometimes to refer to an accessory (as in make-up or jewelry) — in that case, the connotation changes and the plus one becomes more of a sine qua non, required whenever you’re out in public.

The phrase may be a Briticism, but I can’t tell. The earliest example coughed up by LexisNexis is from 1998, in a British source, but it turns up in both U.K. and U.S. press, and I couldn’t trace a distinct origin. Some early uses suggested a different meaning in context — something like a ticket or pass that one is granted so that one can bring a friend — but it is not plain to me that that was ever a true definition of the term. There’s something frustratingly inconclusive about this expression. Can’t tell where it came from or isolate variant meanings. Some nerve.

plus size

(1980’s | businese (fashion) | “full-figured”)

Not present in the mainstream press in 1980, but definitely there by 1990. “Plus-size” has become a relatively neutral way to refer to women (as far as I can tell, the term is applied invariably to women) who are normal-size Americans or larger, or their apparel. For decades, we are told, designers made clothes only for thin women; anyone bigger than size 6 had to settle for cheap sweaters, or dowdy stretch pants, or spend the money to have their outfits custom-made. (Lane Bryant was a pioneer in selling clothing designed for such women, and it’s still around. The male version of that is the “big and tall store.” But “plus-size” doesn’t modify “store.”) Somewhere around 1980, couturiers noticed that a lot of women fit that description, and decided to see if they would pay for designer clothes. There is still some bias toward skinny models in the fashion industry, but plus-size women have come a long way since 1990. That’s an old American story: for decades, centuries, we’ve discriminated against this or that group of people for whatever reason. One day, someone notices that those people have money. Then the gold rush begins, the market is cultivated, and a few decades later, it is no longer o.k. to discriminate against that group. Groups that don’t have money, of course, remain on the shit list.

The plus-size revolution isn’t only a matter of business. It has gone along with a movement encouraging women to accept their bodies without guilt or mortification of the flesh. Part of that is finding expressions that are not off-putting or down-putting (if that’s a word); it’s difficult to think of older terms that did not bear at least some condescension. Customers will spend more freely if they feel welcome, reason the advertisers, who more adeptly than just about anyone else avoid offensive language or imagery, not out of civic motives, but from a desire to keep the income rolling in from as many wallets as possible. The hypersensitive left is generally blamed for the ascendancy of political correctness, and the righteous right uses that story very successfully for fundraising purposes. But advertisers have a lot more power to drag society in one direction or other than a few thousand professors, foundation heads, activists, and politicians.

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(2010’s | therapese? academese? | “little thing,” “insult,” “slight,” “dig”)

Now that Jim Crow is no longer legal (not that it has disappeared), we are left with microaggressions: words or actions directed at members of a minority group that appeal to negative stereotypes, intentionally or not. They do not violate any law, sometimes not even social convention, and in some cases the oppressed person can’t even explain why he is offended. But they can have a powerful cumulative effect, causing people to feel as degraded as their forebears felt under more immediately threatening conditions. To such victims, the microaggression is only a more subtle means of keeping women, African-Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, Jews, the homeless, trans- people, et al. in their places. It’s not just white men who commit microaggressions, though we do it more than anyone else, partly because we have the biggest pool of people to commit them against. But pecking orders are observed here as elsewhere, and each group looks for another group to feel superior to. In U.S. culture, everybody gets to pick on African-Americans, but African-Americans get to pick on LGBTQ people. Men lord it over women; the sharp mulct the dull. There must always be a way to define yourself such that there exists a class lower than you. As long as we seek such imbalances of power, we will have fertile fields for microaggressions, among other things.

Many sources attribute the coinage to Professor Chester Pierce, ca. 1970, an African-American professor of psychology at Harvard. The New York Times also pointed to a 2007 article by Professor Derald Sue that pushed the term out of the academic ghetto into wider use. (I certainly don’t recall hearing it before then.) To this day, the word is used far more often at universities than anywhere else. We have a lot of “micro” words now: microfiber, microloan, microblogging. “Microcephaly” has reared its ugly head recently thanks to the Zika virus. Two more examples sometimes seen near “microaggression” are “microinequality” or “microinequity.” I can’t help but hear an echo of the medical term “microabrasion,” which has little semantic connection but a strong phonological one. The word “aggression” does get people riled up, but the reason “microaggression,” despite its technical, academic sound, has some punch and poignancy stems from the fact that such acts occur only in situations when both the aggressor and aggressee are in direct contact, normally in a public place; they cannot be committed remotely, except by telephone, but even there you have two people engaging each other. Personal interaction is required.

Microaggressions have emerged as the latest fodder in an old debate: Are the oppressed overreacting to unexceptionable behavior, or are the oppressors using any means available to remind everyone else who the boss group really is? The more fundamental question — who gets to decide? — may be shunted aside. Straight, well-off white people are quick to suggest that microaggressions are symptoms of hypersensitivity or political correctness, a means to make us feel guilty even after we’ve made the reforms we were asked to make (well, most of us). But SWOW’s likewise dismissed much more brutal and intimidating means of subjection, from segregation of public amenities to lynching. You know, “They don’t have it so bad. Look at all the nice things we do for those people.” Not much comfort when you’re hauled off to jail for sitting in the wrong place or getting killed for an imagined offense against some white man’s code of honor. That old feeling of domination, whether backed up or not by formal legal sanction, counted for a lot. Treating as equals those you have been discriminating against for generations is a hard pill to swallow, and lots of people are tired of trying. It’s easier to say, “Wait a minute. I’m a victim, too!”

The rise of the microaggression may be taken optimistically: Except in a few extreme cases, physical and economic violence have gone out of the practice of racism, etc., leaving only petty snubs and well-meant gaucheries, which do much less real damage and will in turn become unacceptable in another generation or two. Or pessimistically: There’s no end to it. We get rid of one layer of abuses, and there’s another below that, and another below that. Microaggressions definitely damage some individuals, and that will ultimately hurt the larger society. My two cents: I haven’t thought this through, and it may be untrue, but it seems to me that if a half-concealed sneer can cause significant harm, then small kindnesses may also have an effect greater than their magnitude. It would be awfully nice to think so.

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(2010’s | therapese? | “be overeager,” “say too much”)

I believe I heard this word for the first time last year. The first use I found in LexisNexis dated back to 1998, and it turned up occasionally after 2000. In 2008, Webster’s New World Dictionary named it Word of the Year: “the name given to ‘TMI (too much information),’ whether willingly offered or inadvertently revealed. It is the word for both the tedious minutiae on personal websites and blogs and the accidental slips of the tongue in public (or even private) situations. Both a verb and a noun . . . ” The term has always, in its short life, had an affinity with social media and on-line communication generally, but it isn’t restricted to embarrassing e-revelations; the word may also be used to describe someone’s behavior in old-fashioned conversation. In fast circles nowadays, you can use “overshare” as an interjection, exactly as one used “TMI” ten years ago.

One way “overshare” differs from “TMI” is that you use it to denote a leak of information that leads to fraud or identity theft (or even burglary — I’ve heard tell of people who noted on Facebook when and how long they would be away from home and returned to find someone had ripped them off). An “overshare” may have nothing to do with personal hygiene or medical history, in other words, but it has a damaging impact all the same. Here again, the connection with social media is clear. The connection may be reinforced by the knowledge that an English company, Exonar, makes a product called “Social Overshare” designed to protect companies against employees’ (presumably unintentional) leaks of sensitive data.

The expression is often applied to on-line behavior, and the web is full of explanations for the phenomenon. Aside from “some people don’t know any better,” oversharing may be diagnosed as: an effort to get attention, an attempt to take a shortcut to close friendship or intimacy, or because telling others about ourselves activates pleasure centers in the brain. Whatever the cause, there is a redefinition of privacy going on here among the rising generation, a sense that practically everybody needs to know the details of your mother’s colonoscopy (or, worse, her maiden name), or how and when you pick your nose. Hard to say if this sort of thing will go out of style or become less and less noteworthy. There have always been people who said too much and cast a pall over the dinner table. Has Facebook made such behavior so commonplace that it will perforce become acceptable?

I haven’t heard anyone say, “Thanks for oversharing” yet, although someone must have. Several web sites collect examples of on-line oversharing — more small-minded sport for the wired masses — but I didn’t find Oversharers Anonymous anywhere on-line. What are we waiting for? It seems only a matter of time.

TMI (“too much information”)

(2000’s | computerese? | “more than I wanted to know,” “I wouldn’t have told that”)

I was hoping that this expression would turn out to have a simple origin (click here and scroll down to comments for some speculation). I don’t know why; we rarely get that satisfaction. Even phrases confidently attributed to this or that celebrity (I swear I saw “TMI” credited to Matthew Perry on “Friends,” which as far as I can tell is entirely baseless; another site cited Christopher Hitchens) turn out to have slithered onto the shore of everyday language from a dank, dark pond and curled around our tongues before we were aware. This one came along at the right time to be yet another internet abbreviation, but it doesn’t seem to have shown up in computerese any more often than anywhere else. The phrase probably predates the abbreviation anyway, according to my girlfriend’s (and my) recollection.

While this phrase could mean simply, “you’re telling me more than I can absorb,” and occasionally does, it almost invariably means “you’re telling me more than I want to know.” It covers embarrassment or distaste, a way to deflect a person who just doesn’t know when to shut up and avoid difficult scenes. Our need for such an expression has increased in my lifetime as we’ve placed more and more emphasis on making the culture sharing rather than shared, so it was necessary to find or invent an expression that fills that particular gap. Somewhere in the last ten or fifteen years, it became the rejoinder of choice to any intimate detail regarded as more icky than juicy.

But why doesn’t “TMI” serve as a reply to a glut of technical detail or just more data than we can use? “Too much information” is a situation we find ourselves in every day, whether we’re trying to figure out how an appliance works or following the news. The web makes it all too easy to turn up more facts or conjectures than we can possibly use or even process on almost any public issue. After 9/11, the grand poohbahs explained the failure of our multi-billion dollar system of spies and soldiers and high tech by saying, in effect, TMI. There was just too much data to sift, too many e-mails to go through. It was a plausible defense, but their proposed solution — more surveillance and more eavesdropping, trawling for more information with a still wider net — proved that they hadn’t grasped the fundamental problem. We couldn’t handle what we got, so we need to collect more — that’s a non sequitur. Unless you hire zillions more people to handle the increased load. That was the idea, but I get the feeling that the proliferation of secret, semi-secret, and semi-public agencies has outpaced the addition of competent people to the ranks of those sworn to protect us.

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