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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: failure

step up

(1990’s | athletese | “rise to the occasion,” “step in,” “do your part,” “take a stand”)

I’ll tell you what’s up: “Step up” used to be transitive. Now it has a well-established intransitive use. That sort of thing happens now and then, but I think not very many people notice. We grumpy grammarians, on the other hand . . .

It was still transitive most of the time in 1990, but the intransitive had emerged, primarily among athletes. Other verbs, including “ramp up” and “ratchet up,” have made space for “step up” to meander into another meaning. “Step up” meant “increase” or “augment,” also sometimes “increase the pace of.” These senses have not disappeared, but they have been joined by “step up” shorn of all its appendages, used to mean take charge of handling a problem or situation (it crops up a lot in crunch time). When it was transitive, even if it didn’t have an object, it was followed by a prepositional phrase, notably “to the plate.” That expression is likely the progenitor of today’s use, which may be followed by an infinitive, as in “step up to make sure the job is done,” but more often closes a clause or sentence.

As so much athletes’ vocabulary does, this has spread to politicians and businessmen. “Who will step up?” has a ring to it, it’s true, although “step up” also sounds like a kind of baby dog. To me it evokes a medal-winning Olympic athlete mounting the podium, or the older expression “step forward” (think of a line of soldiers, a few of whom have stood forth to volunteer for a dangerous assignment). Stepping up emphasizes crucial duty more than unpleasant duty, but the latter implication can definitely creep in. I’ve covered a couple other locutions like it — “designated driver,” “real MVP,” “take one for the team” — that express a blend of solidarity and heroism that may be found in the humblest office or in the seventh game of the World Series. I haven’t covered “stand-up guy” (not “step-up guy”) but that’s part of the group, too.

It’s not easy to pin down precise opposites. (“Step down” is not one of them, although you might step down after failing to step up.) The most direct, I think, are “flop” or “fall down on the job” — not nearly so pithy — and a less closely linked but still related antonym is “stand down,” which refers to disengagement, which may in turn result from failure. You can try to go above and beyond and fall short, or you can simply back away from the problem and leave it to others; either would constitute a failure to step up. When you use the past tense, you’re implying pretty strongly that the intervention was successful; it isn’t nearly so common to say “so-and-so stepped up” when he gave it his best shot but didn’t pull it off. (“He gave it his best shot” wouldn’t make a bad epitaph, would it? Some rich ambiguities there.)

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death spiral

(1980’s | financese (from athletese) | “vicious circle,” “irrevocable decline”)

“Death spiral” is a noun, but as we use it today it is influenced by the verb “to spiral,” as in “spiral out of control.” However auspicious a spiral may be for the quarterback, in most contexts it portends widening disaster, an ever-growing series of calamities, each fed by the one before. I can’t be the only one who hears an echo of Yeats’s “The Second Coming”: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre . . . Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” But maybe I am the only one that finds a resemblance between “death spiral” and “perfect storm.”

In its classic form, the death spiral denotes a financial situation in which the seller faces declining revenues and responds by raising prices. Thereupon even fewer people buy the product or service, leading to untenable losses. The first industry in which commentators adopted the expression consistently was utilities, especially electricity. Now we’re most accustomed to hearing the phrase with reference to the health insurance marketplace; that usage was common long before the Affordable Care Act. In the eighties it appeared in in non-financial contexts, but even today buying and selling still provide the most fertile ground. By now it has spread; I’ve come across references within the past year in articles about opiate addiction, declining sperm counts, Venezuela, etc.

There’s another, more specific, financial use that denotes a particular type of corporate raiding: an equity firm buys into (or lends money to) a small publicly owned company, agrees to lend or invest more provided the stock price doesn’t go below a certain level, then drives the stock price down by selling large blocks of shares — robbing the company of its assets and forcing it into bankruptcy while walking away with a profit. (Ain’t capitalism grand? This is an example of what I call vulture capitalism, except vultures don’t kill their prey first.)

For all that “death spiral” conjures up disaster and political gamesmanship, the expression comes originally from ice skating, not aviation, as I had guessed, though it describes airborne maneuvers occasionally. (How it made the leap from skating jargon to the business world I don’t know.) It denotes a move in pairs skating, where the woman holds her partner’s hand as she circles him, one leg in the air, bent all the while at the waist so that her upper body is parallel to the ice. When well-executed, it’s breathtaking. The “death” part has to do with sheer riskiness, as far as I know, but anyone who knows anything about ice skating — or high finance — is invited to jump in here.

I am indebted to lovely Liz from Queens for providing another expression for the blog. Inspired, as always.

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