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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: fashion

lanyard

(1990’s)

You’d be surprised at how many meanings this word has — anyway, I was. They’re all related to the notion of a strap (going back to Middle French and Old High German), and that association holds true even in these latter days. A hundred years ago, its primary meanings were: a strong rope used to help secure ship’s rigging, cord used to fire a cannon, strip of leather used to hold a snowshoe (for example) together, and another nautical reference, which evolved directly into today’s use of the word: the cord a sailor hung his knife on so he could carry it around his neck. “Lanyard” has a few other miscellaneous meanings as well: chinstrap (on a hat), summer camp favorite (the lanyard as craft project seems to date back at least to the middle of the twentieth century), what the referee wears a whistle on (back to the sailors again), military decoration (worn on the shoulder), part of a safety harness. When used to help construction workers secure their tools, lanyards aren’t just for necks any more; they can attach to shoulder or wrist as well. By and large, the old meanings are still active, and probably no less common than they ever were. Around them has sprung up a new field that calls on lucrative forces of the Zeitgeist like security, fashion, and commerce, commerce, commerce. Now we have Lanyards USA, Lanyards Tomorrow, and CustomLanyard.net.

If the old meanings are still around and there aren’t any new ones, why an entry? Just my sense that the word has become vastly more popular. It may have meant a lot of things in its storied past, but it always had a specialized air about it. Nowadays, though, you hear it everywhere — everybody from lowly janitors to Super Bowl spectators wears one. And it’s being applied in ways it never was before. Now “lanyard” is what you call the cord or chain you hang your glasses on around your neck; in my youth, plenty of people wore their glasses around their necks, but not on lanyards. It was always true that the lanyard, whatever it denoted, had a strongly utilitarian cast. But not any more; lanyards still serve everyday functions, but they also should match your clothes or sparkle or advertise or say something interesting. An accessory at the very least, potentially more.

The lanyard revolution is more than anything a consequence of our efforts to keep ourselves safe, which has made us ID-happy. Why do you need a lanyard at the Super Bowl, or to get into your office? So you can display your credentials and prove that you belong there. Sure, people carry keys and other household objects around their necks, too, but your standard lanyard nowadays comes with the clear plastic ID-holder, so you never have to dig out your card to show the guard. In the seventies, members of a few professions were using lanyards for that purpose, but now almost any public employee and lots of private ones wear them as a matter of course. It’s a tacit acknowledgment that we have accepted increasing restrictions on our movements in hopes of preventing, or at least limiting, mayhem and bloodshed. Lanyards are an emblem of that loss of freedom, another component of the uniform that the wealthy, ever security-conscious (and for good reason), force on the masses. Adding insult to injury, the bosses and big money want us to regard the badge of servitude as just one more consumer good. If they succeed, we lose again.

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love handles

(1980’s | teenagese? | “spare tire,” “middle-age spread”)

I remember from late childhood or early adolescence a tableau on the Special K cereal box: a waist-length photo of a woman with a faintly accusing expression asking, “Can you pinch more than an inch?” If you took a firm grip on the outermost part of your belly fat, was the resulting wad more than an inch high? Those were the days before the great fitness craze of the eighties, before liposuction became popular. Exercise and a healthy diet were the only ways to keep from getting disgustingly fat, and those were the values Kellogg’s was trying to promote, or give the appearance of promoting. (Special K has always been pitched to believers in fitness and healthy diet. It continues to strike me as an inexplicable brand name for a cereal, but not as ominous as “Product 19.”)

This week’s expression owes nothing to Kellogg’s, but it did come into its own at the same time as aerobics (“six-pack abs” and “no pain, no gain” are other new fitness-related expressions). Not long after the lady left the cereal box, “love handles” became an accepted term for that very specific variety of belly fat on one’s sides at the waist. Not to be confused with the beer belly, or saddlebags, deposits of adipose depending from the hips and thighs. Hip fat may be called “love handles” (do you notice? it’s never singular), but that usage is imprecise. For the last ten years or so, hip fat has also been referred to as “muffin tops,” but that conjures up an even more specific picture: rolls of hip and waist fat pushed upward and outward by tight jeans, forming a distinctive muffin-type silhouette. (Here is a fun list of other fat-related anatomical features, and another.) We delight in vocabulary that makes fun of our anatomical deficiencies, but most such expressions don’t spread far or have much staying power. The poetic “grab of flab,” another way to say “love handles,” never seems to have made the big time. Why has “love handles” lasted so well? It names a very common anatomical feature, for one thing; we need a word for those particular belly flaps because nearly everyone over thirty has them. It sounds pleasingly warm and fuzzy and has a jocular quality that probably has helped make it attractive. “Muffin tops” will probably also persist, but it is more dependent on fashion; there is less need for the expression when tight jeans go out of style.

The origin of “love handles” is obscure; according to Lighter and Google Books, it was first recorded in the late sixties in glossaries of college slang. The phrase stayed mainly in the shadows throughout the seventies but began to dip its toes into the mainstream by the end of that decade. Well into the eighties it was placed delicately in quotation marks and frequently glossed; such niceties were not necessary by 1990, although you may see the phrase in quotation marks to this day, a sign that it still sounds slangy and not quite reputable. There’s a reason for that: Richard Spears’s Slang and Euphemism (1981) defines “love handles” as “fat on the sides of a man or woman held onto during copulation.” It took thirty years, but the sowers of quotation marks have pretty well lost the battle and the term has become respectable, used indiscriminately by doctors, advice columnists, and stuffy professors. As the phrase has become familiar, the prurient connotation has worn away, causing many to wonder why they’re called “love handles” when no one loves, or even wants, them; as a result, you see “hate handles” occasionally used as a synonym, in the manner of “slim chance” and “fat chance.”

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baby bump

(2000’s | journalese (gossip) | “belly”)

Definitely a Briticism, which is not something I would have guessed. It appeared rarely in the U.S. press before 2005, says LexisNexis, by which time the Brits didn’t even consider it cheeky any more. “Baby bump” is a creature of the gossip pages and has generally been the property of celebrities. By now it is possible to use the phrase with reference to any pregnant woman, but it still turns up on the gossip pages an awful lot. Presumably the American expression “baby boom” acted as a midwife helping “baby bump” enter the language. Alternative usage note: In recent years demographers have begun using the phrase to denote a temporary increase in the birth rate, using “bump” to mean “spike” or “uptick” rather than protuberance.

My sense is that the rise of the expression paralleled the decline in baggy maternity dresses, which were still the norm in my childhood. Pregnancy has become glamorous and has perforce developed its own style, at least among those who consider style important. Flaunting the physical changes wrought by pregnancy, rather than concealing them or at least blurring the outlines a little, is a change in fashion as well as mores, and the strong association with celebrities confirms that the baby bump is regarded a built-in accessory which women can dress, decorate, and display to attract attention to themselves and their blessed state. Then again, some celebrities may not want the extra attention. Chrissy Teigen recently responded to on-line speculation about her pregnancy by telling fans to “get out of my uterus.” I suspect the offenders thought they were just doing their job; it’s refreshing to learn that at least some celebrities miss the sensation of privacy.

When I was young, it was customary to talk about pregnancy as a state of being, not as a feature or possession. We said an expecting woman was “showing,” or “visibly pregnant,” but I don’t think there was really an equivalent for “baby bump.” The reluctance to show or mention manifestations of pregnancy was passing away even then, reflecting deeper changes in the intersections of individuals and society. Now the swollen belly has become just one more part of the body to show off, cheapening the sanctity of motherhood. That’s the moralist’s interpretation, anyway. It’s also possible to view the shift less censoriously as an evolution of convenience, offering an informal way to refer to a common physical condition, creating a different part of speech in the process and thus permitting greater variety and flexibility in sentence-making. (Many new expressions fall into this category.) Or simply a restless pressure to expand the language; writers are always looking for new ways to say old things.

Back in disco’s heyday, we did the bump. “Fist bump” has replaced “slap me five,” and chest bumps have become much more common. Why shouldn’t “baby bump” signify two prospective mothers bouncing their bellies together, in greeting or in solidarity? I guess that would be “belly bump,” wouldn’t it? Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to start a new fad.

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go commando

(1990’s | teenagese?)

This evocative verb phrase is more of a head-scratcher than most, and I’m scratching as hard as anyone. There does not seem to be any convincing reason why “go commando” should mean “go without underwear.” The most common explanation found on-line is that commandos (see below) don’t wear underwear because it’s too much trouble keeping it clean when you’re on a mission, because it causes jungle rot, or because ferocious Scots warriors went without under their kilts. The problem is that even if it’s true that special forces never wear underwear, the reasons adduced for scanting scanties are not specific to commandos, but shared by all soldiers. I guess it sounds better than “go doughboy” or “go GI” or “go grunt,” but the association with the ilk of Navy SEALS seems fanciful at best. The expression does seem to be used more often of men than women; accordingly, it is not generally used to mean “go without a bra.” It’s the lower story.

The first citation in the OED dates from 1974, but it doesn’t start showing up in LexisNexis until 1996, when it was cited in a list of slang terms current among college students. More to the point, it was used on “Friends” by Joey (played by Matt LeBlanc) early that same year, which seems to have provided the impetus for “go commando” to enter our vocabulary. The phrase needed several years before it could be used without quotation marks and glosses, but most people recognize it by now. There is some dispute over whether the phrase is of British origin (probably not). The word “commando” goes back to the Boer War, where it referred to a raid or one who participated in the raid; the word comes originally from Afrikaans. Certain British troops were called “commandos” during World War II, and from there it entered American vocabulary. If “go commando” meant anything fifty years ago, it meant “act like a commando” — notably brave, relentless, or capable of quick, decisive action. Today, “commando” has a slightly musty sound, and the armed services don’t use it, at least not in the U.S. But we continue to honour the valour of those daring English soldiers who carried out assassinations and rescues behind enemy lines by naming an eccentric sartorial practice after them.

Maybe that word “daring” forms the bridge, as lovely Liz from Queens suggests. Going without underwear requires a devil-may-care defiance of convention and homely wisdom; forget everything you learned about what to wear in case you’re in an accident. It also suggests forgoing protection or a degree of safety, demonstrating courage and nerve, in which qualities commandos are unmatched. There is something exciting about dispensing with drawers — I remember in high school one of the more advanced boys (he had moved east from California) bragged to a girl that he wasn’t wearing any (unfortunately, I can’t remember exactly how he said it, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t have anything to do with commandos); he lowered his waistband an inch or two to demonstrate. The girl was suitably impressed. But whatever the cachet, it is a deeply personal decision, and many of us find forgoing that bottom layer uncomfortable or unhygienic.

Some on-line sources identify “freeballing” as a pre-1980 equivalent. It’s not a word I know, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. Otherwise, I’m not sure there was an old word for it. And now we have one — language marches on. I’d like to thank lovely Martha from Queens for giving me this week’s subject! Always a pleasure to hear from my dedicated readers.

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fashion statement

(1980’s | journalese | “statement”)

A bit of a cheat by my avowed chronological limits, but only a bit, “fashion statement” arose in the 1970’s and became available for use outside the industry in the 1980’s. Google Books shows effectively no instances before 1970, when it started to creep into fashion journalism. By 1985 it could turn up anywhere in the entertainment press, from sports to theater reviews, and even in political reporting. “Fashion model” and “fashion sense” are much older, “fashion plate” is older still; any of them might have provided a model for the new coinage. “Fashion police” and “fashionista” came along later.

The phrase can mean a lot of things. As of 2015, it applies loosely to any wearing of clothes or accessories to get any sort of attention. Like a muumuu, the vagueness conceals many meanings. Let’s try a few on:

-announcement of new line or even trend, normally at a major show, but only by means of the clothes themselves (a designer’s description of her new line at a press conference would not be considered a fashion statement)

-declaration of allegiance to a particular designer or trend.

In these two cases, the statement is delivered by the clothes themselves, and it centers on a designer or trend. But fashion statements may say more about the person making them:

-using clothes and accessories to show that you are independent of the current mode, or have an interesting variation on it

or, more broadly,

-any expression of one’s character, preferences, passions, etc., etc. through the medium of apparel. I’m not sure if wearing an Aeropostale shirt counts as a fashion statement. More loosely still, the phrase means

-doing or wearing something because it’s chic

-drawing attention to oneself by means of what one is wearing.

But references to the world beyond the runway are possible, too. Fashion statements may take aim at a social or political issue (as in students wearing Confederate flag t-shirts, or showing solidarity with gay peers by wearing denim.)

It doesn’t even have to be wearables: I came across an article in the Oberlin Review (April 3, 2015) about “decorative beards,” which are adorned with flowers, miniature Christmas lights, and who knows what. More than one student used “fashion statement” to talk about the new phenomenon. True, the donning of a three-dimensional object is still required to trigger use of the expression, but one wonders how long before beards or tattoos become potent fashion statements in themselves.

What you really have to watch with this expression is who (or what) makes the statement. It may be a designer, stunning this year’s audience with sheer audacity. It may be you or I, or it may just be the clothes. Who you are and what you wear may blend seamlessly, with your garments reflecting, nay, expounding your inner self through your carefully chosen wardrobe. Or you make your wardrobe as discordant or opinionated as possible in order to provoke reactions from bystanders. The gregarious looseness of this expression — abetted by the word “statement,” more general than declaration, announcement, or testimony — lets it cover such a broad range.

Fashion is often derided as superficial and trivial, but fashion statements, even light-hearted ones, are rarely dismissed out of hand. They are influential, or at least have the potential to be, and the power of a designer to inspire imitation through bold novelties remains considerable. Frankly, I would have expected the phrase to have taken on a negative cast over time, like hipster or comfort zone. No such derogatory usage has ever become the norm.

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hot mess

(2010’s | journalese | “siren”)

How quickly this phrase has cropped up! It feels that way, but it’s been around for a long time. The phrase dates back to a time when “mess” meant “meal (service),” especially for soldiers. On good days, the troops got a “hot mess.” That hasn’t disappeared entirely, but it’s highly specialized, even in phrases like “mess of victuals” (if any young people are reading this, that word is pronounced “vittles”). At least in American English, “mess” has thoroughly staked out its meaning: state of clutter, filth, or chaos, and even if one refers to a dish or a lunch as a mess, we hear “sloppy” before we hear “meal.” A good history of this phrase on time.com reveals that “hot mess” has been in use for at least a hundred years to mean “unusually bad situation,” and that meaning definitely remains in play.

Somewhere around 2005, you started hearing “hot mess” applied to persons, a mutation that has established itself rapidly and decisively. At first, the phrase was used to denote a very attractive but emotionally unstable person, someone who gets into at least minor trouble and makes life difficult for everyone around. Britney Spears was an early avatar; several sources credit television programs “Project Runway” (ca. 2008) and “Arrested Development” (ca. 2013) with popularizing the term. Today, the predominant meaning seems to be a watered-down version of that: disheveled, attractive woman (usually), attractive either despite or because of the dishevelment. I regard that as the predominant meaning — and so does Urban Dictionary; among 62 definitions, it has by far the most thumbs-ups. But it may also refer to an unattractive and unfashionable person, or someone unkempt without redeeming qualities, in which case one might say “I looked a hot mess” (reminiscent of an older expression, “sweaty mess”). “Hot mess” may apply to anything hazardous (hot as in too hot to handle). It has sexual and excretory uses that I probably don’t need to explain. The sheer number and persistence of competing meanings drives the instability that makes this expression worth watching. My own sense is that television has won, and the fashion-jargon definition — attractive, disheveled person — will win out over time, if it hasn’t already. But I’m not sure which of the other senses will disappear.

The mutation of meaning constitutes another case of an idiom misunderstood because we’ve lost sight of older meanings of words and try to make sense of an expression in terms of modern vocabulary. We hear “hot” to mean attractive (rather than dangerous, although a “hot mess” may be dangerous) and “mess” to mean “disaster”; glue them together and you get either of our recent definitions. In this case, the retreat to the literal seems less damaging than in the case of my favorite example, “beg the question,” or even “dress down” and “ramp up.”

Thanks to Liz and Adam from Queens, two of my most faithful correspondents, who proposed this week’s expression independently in the past month, so its time has come. Hope I did it justice.

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retro

(early 1990’s | fashionese | “old-time(y),” “harking back”)

Back to the past! To hell with the future! From these revolutionary sentiments sprang our word “retro,” first used in bulk at the end of the 1970’s to talk about the latest fashions from Paris. Not too many of our new expressions are imported from France, but this one was (“la mode rétro”), so eaters of freedom fries use at your own risk. An early citation from New York Magazine (December 13, 1978) defined it as “the concept of borrowing things from the past, of looking backward for inspiration.” The word was capitalized and placed in quotation marks, presented as decidedly new. And it’s defined as a noun, perhaps even a specific school of fashion. (Cf. this from UPI, January 25, 1982: “the Nina Ricci salon opened the Paris high fashion spring-summer collections by reviving Paris’ favorite ‘retro,’ the 1940s look.”) Before that, “retro” was mainly a prefix, although it had a few specialized uses as an independent word. It was probably most familiar to most of us in words like “retro-rocket,” which has a pleasantly musty 1950’s science fiction sound (a tense voice says, “Activate the retro-rockets now!” just before the music swells). Occasionally it served as an abbreviation for “retroactive,” probably the most common word that began with “retro.”

It seems to have been used almost exclusively in the fashion world for a few years before it began to creep into discourse on other arts and leisures. The nominal usage fell by the wayside pretty quickly as the word edged into everyday use later in the 1980’s. By 1989, there it is in Car and Driver: “Suddenly, retro cars are hot. ‘Retro’ meaning cars that trigger nostalgic feelings . . .” We can all agree that a fashionista term has arrived when it turns up in one of the great automotive magazines. I’d say “retro” was comfortably ensconced in our vocabulary by the mid-1990’s.

It isn’t altogether clear to me what shades of meaning “retro” has. Must nostalgia be involved? How far back does a style (or anything else) have to go to qualify as retro? “Vintage” obviously is a related word; according to my hasty investigations, “vintage” when applied to clothes or cars came into use not long before “retro.” Another word that lies close but means something a little different is “period,” as in “period piece” or “period furniture.” But “retro” is at the opposite end of the temporal spectrum from another new expression: “That’s so five minutes ago!” Maybe “retro” by now has pretty much lost its little ways and degenerated into “old-fashioned.” (That definition strikes my ear as too broad and vague, but maybe I’m just retro.)

Not everything can be retro — some things just don’t lend themselves to throwbacks. You don’t hear much about “retro software” or “retro laptops.” (Though I should point out that one of the WordPress “themes” is called Retro MacOS, designed to make the blog look like an old Mac screen.) Some day, the iPad will be retro, but will there ever be a retro iPad? It seems impossible, because computer equipment that isn’t up to date or better can’t be sold in any quantity. But in a hundred years, who knows? Maybe our demi-robot descendants will be comforted by the reassuringly antiquated touch screen.

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dress down

(1980’s | “dress informally,” “slum”)

“Dress down” meant “scold harshly” for nigh onto three hundred years. First it meant “beat up” or “thrash”; soon it got watered down to the verbal from the physical but retained the violence of the original sense. It’s recorded both in Grose and in Farmer & Henley, important pre-twentieth-century slang dictionaries. And that’s how I learned it back in the 1970’s — it wasn’t used all that often, but it was considered standard, having lost its colloquial taint.

You still have to know the old meaning if you want to follow the news, especially where British English is spoken. But here, “dress down” has pretty much become the antonym of “dress up,” a process already underway in the 1970’s. There’s some leeway about the usage: it could mean “dress nicely but informally for a formal occasion,” or “dress like a slob,” or “dress like a coal miner.” The phrase is broadening its base now, used in contexts that have little or nothing to with clothes, as in this fragment from Newsday, January 14, 2011: “the wallpaper can be either dressed down or up, depending on the accessories.” Note that it’s also used transitively in this passage, another shift, and a sign that it’s gaining ground.

Occasionally an idiom sheds a more complicated meaning for a more literal one: “beg the question” comes to mind. Most of us breathe a little sigh of relief when it happens, if we notice at all. We can still use the phrase, but now it means what it should have meant all along, and we don’t have to remember a strange, puzzling definition. A once troublesome expression becomes comfortable, and we can take that extra bit of brain space we’ve saved and use it for more important things, like our top video-game scores, or TV trivia.

type a personality

(1990’s | faux-therapese | “workaholic,” “overachiever,” “overbearing jerk”)

First, let’s sort out the meaning of this term, which has a favorable use: “driven,” “hard-charging,” “self-motivated,” or “determined to finish the job” and a derogatory use: “impatient,” “hypercompetitive,” “fanatically punctual,” or “too wrapped up in work.” The term originated with two cardiologists, Michael Friedman and Ray Rosenman, who observed, or thought they did, that people who displayed the second set of traits listed above had a much greater likelihood of heart disease than the general population. They were trying to create a profile of a heart patient rather than describe a personality type; their book, in fact, referred to “type A behavior,” not “personality.” How soon it was generalized; now we almost always use the term to talk about types of people, not types of action. It sounds like therapese, but it was really invented by medical doctors trying to think like therapists.

However you use “type A,” the definition of “type B personality” boils down to little more than its opposite. There’s this other kind of person, see, who doesn’t have as many heart attacks, and look, they’re not like the type A guys at all. Such a lack of precision may explain why more recent research has discounted the link between certain kinds of social behavior and heart disease. These things take on a life of their own, however, and you can find references to type C personality, type D, and even type H. Then there’s the variant I overheard on the bus: “She’s so type A, she’s type A-plus!”

I have no idea what the “A” stands for or how Drs. Friedman and Rosenman arrived at the term. But clinical descriptions of this personality type are not generally flattering, and the originators themselves regarded type A behavior as a disorder that might lead to illness and death. Type A’s are apt to be rude, easily exasperated, bad listeners, and inconsiderate of their friends and loved ones because they’re too busy working. At first, I thought maybe the “A” stood for “aggression,” but after a bit more research I’m beginning to think “asshole” was the word they had in mind.

The reason we all know about type A’s, and the reason so many of them are successful, is that we live in a type A culture. Someone who works too hard and lives strictly by the clock is no more or less than the poster child for Ben Franklin’s maxim, “Remember that time is money,” which immediately and irrevocably became one of America’s founding commandments. Ruthless, unpleasant people who would never dream of taking it easy, even in the middle of a heart attack, have always done very well in the U.S. if they have any talent at all.

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