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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: feminism

lean in

(2010’s | athletese? | “give your all”)

I sense the need for an anatomy of this odd expression, changed forever by Google and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. The first fork in the family tree branch generates “lean in” and “lean into.” The latter has been used for some time by sportscasters to denote exerting extra force in a certain direction (as a batter leaning into a pitch), or shifting weight on a skateboard or in a car to assist the steering (leaning into a curve). “Lean in” is more complicated. At the simplest level, it denotes a motion or posture understood to express attention, interest, or excitement. That is, it’s another way to say “lean toward.” Some time after 2000, the phrase became an adjective current among advertisers and entertainment executives, as in “lean-in experience” or “lean-in factor.” The latter was typically used in connection with exciting moments on television, conjuring the image of audience members on the edge of their seats, breathlessly awaiting the next utterance. “Lean in” has another application as well, as an antonym of “lean back” or “back away” — that is, as the opposite of taking it easy or retreating. In such contexts, leaning in is a sign of toughness and resolve. That would seem to be the most direct ancestor of Sandberg, but I don’t think it’s much older. The earlier athletic usage has a claim as well.

Sheryl Sandberg published her book in 2013, though she was quoted using the phrase before that. She preached ambition and assertiveness for women in the work force, or, as Lovely Liz from Queens summarized: women need to act more like men. Sandberg’s dicta have permeated the culture and spawned a women’s empowerment movement; the Lean In Foundation is a big organization, helping women all over the world learn from each other and move up the ladder. Yet a Washington Post writer declared the Lean In movement dead at the end of last year, after Michelle Obama drove a stake through its heart. More recently, Marissa Orr published a critique of Sandberg called “Lean Out.” Will “lean out” take its place alongside “lean in”? Will Sandberg’s addition to the lexicon lose momentum? Stay tuned . . .

It all starts with “lean,” which is tricky because it may suggest both a casual or relaxed tendency and much more concentrated force, as in the cases of “lean in” and “lean into.” “Lean” strictly speaking denotes any departure from the vertical in a normally upright object, and at least when people and animals do it, we usually have a specific purpose; we lean toward something or someone. “Lean in” has always shared that sense of purposefulness. To reach its present eminence, it had to lose its appendages, a step in the evolution of several expressions, including “give back” (other examples here). “Leaning in” once was invariably followed by “a certain direction,” “favor,” etc. Now it is a set phrase all on its own. In most similar cases, this slimming process results from a distillation of a number of competing longer phrases into a single shorter one. But in this case, the casting off seems to have come with the establishment of a new definition, imbuing the phrase with attributes of superior dedication and willpower. Not boiling down, but striding forth in a new direction.


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you go, girl

(1990’s | feminese (African-American) | “I love it!,” “be strong,” “do your own thing”)

This expression has punch and verve, a bit of alliteration, and even a certain amount of colloquial charm. And it has a distinctly modern sound; it’s impossible to imagine suffragettes saying it to each other, or even sixties feminists. Partly that comes from the insouciant use of “girl.” (I can imagine a sixties feminist saying “You go, sister,” but I don’t think any actually did.) Enlightened women didn’t address each other that way when men called women girls with impunity. Somewhere in there — “you go, girl” seems to date from the late eighties or early nineties; I found no examples in LexisNexis before 1990 — women grabbed hold of the demeaning, infantilizing epithet and made it a term of empowerment. The more I write this blog, the more I realize how essential such appropriation, nay, co-opting (as we used to say in the ol’ English department) is to the development of our language. I’m not enough of a historian to judge how long oppressed minorities have been turning insults into badges of honor, but since World War II it has developed into an industry.

It wasn’t just women who brought “You go, girl” into the language, it was African-American women. (One of the first uses I saw in print came from BPI Entertainment Wire, April 1994, citing hip-hop duo Tag Team’s new song “U Go Girl” and crediting them with “taking ‘Whoomp! (There It Is)’ from street slang into the mainstream.”) At that time, the simpler “Go, girl” turned up about as frequently, though it seemed to be used much more by white women, not that my sample size is large enough to be reliable. (By now, white women have adopted “you go, girl,” so there is no longer even the appearance of a racial divide.) Adding “you” makes for increased emphasis or ebullience. My memory suggests that “you go” unadorned preceded either girl-phrase, but I’m not really sure; maybe the non-gender-specific formulation actually came later. (There was an imported Eastern-bloc car, too — anybody remember?) There’s no class bias; you can say it to your workout partner at the gym or to the First Lady and it won’t be out of place.

The phrase is all about encouragement and solidarity; to date it has not developed much of an ironic side. The implication is that the woman in question is up to something unconventional, difficult, or maybe just healthy, but anyway, worth applauding. That is still predominantly true, even if derring-do is no longer necessary. “Way to go, girl” also turns up occasionally, but “way to go” was old when I was a boy and seems to have been slowly receding from our everyday vocabulary since.

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male bonding

(1980’s | academese | “camaraderie,” “esprit de corps”)

An expression created by a known, specific person, like “hot button” and “factoid.” “Male bonding” was coined by anthropologist Lionel Tiger; the term played a prominent role in his book, “Men in Groups” (1969), and the only earlier sighting in the OED comes from a 1966 paper by Tiger and Robin Fox. Google Books turns up no instances before 1969. From the seventies, only a few hits come up on LexisNexis, but they generally had at least a faintly technical tone and had little to do with beer-swilling, or even disciplined communal pursuit of athletic or military glory, which is closer to what Tiger had in mind. Writers used it narrowly to talk about organization of all-male groups and how leaders were chosen. An interesting thing happened in the early eighties: arts writers adopted the expression to talk about characters in books, plays, movies, etc. That sort of use has remained common from that day to this, and is probably the avenue by which most Americans first encountered the term. That’s noteworthy because arts writing has funneled a lot of therapese expressions into everyday language, and “male bonding” could easily have been coined by a therapist. But Tiger’s priority is clear. Now, the images most often conjured are auto shops, bowling alleys and bars, or other all-around guy stuff. It can happen at a restaurant or senior center — anywhere men gather without women. And even if they do little and talk about less, just sittin’ and spittin’ in the same room gives all us guys a charge.

There are many examples of all-male duos and larger groups in ancient history: Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Spartan warriors, Jesus and the apostles. Such images occur plentifully in more modern times as well, as in Elizabethan acting companies, football locker rooms, and any number of chain gangs. There is a general sense that such untrammeled intimacy has disappeared, or severely declined, since the sixties, when feminists started getting uppity again and men surrendered, instead of standing up for themselves and using that old male bonding to put down the latest ladies’ insurrection. That strategy had worked pretty well for several thousand years, but the guys just couldn’t get it up any more ca. 1963, probably due to fluoride in the water or Russkies in Cuba or something like that. So instead of saying, “Gee, we’ll have to pay more attention to women now,” we said, “Our ancient fortresses have been stormed, and men shall never laugh together over the Three Stooges again.” The eighties saw the rise of the aggrieved American man, a tiresome John Updike hero twenty years on, resentful that women have become more suspicious, or just more knowing, about stag parties and beer busts. A minor genre bloomed in which men lamented the death of comfortable male companionship and the need to defend their right to assemble without women. Not that it had really become more difficult for most men to gather in single-sex groups, but they felt guilty about it and blamed feminism.

Tiger traced male bonding back to hunting and gathering societies and found examples among other animals, although many scholars took issue with his primatology. He argues that it is partly rooted in biology (so it gets a pass — if we inherited the behavior from our ancestors, then objections are more or less futile), and it has profound social implications. The way men form small groups within groups (I wonder if there’s any resemblances to the way schoolgirls form social cliques) is deeply important to the development of society. He goes beyond the simple assertion that male bonding is significant because a lot of it goes on. He ascribes a powerful force to intense male friendships, diminishing by implication the social significance of other kinds of human cooperation. And he betrays a certain nostalgia for a past in which it was taken for granted that grown men could exclude women from decision-making whenever they felt like it, as boys post “Gurlz keep out” signs on their treehouses. It is undoubtedly true that most men benefit from a certain amount of time away from women, but must we demand social betterment from such vacations? Tiger claimed not just that men behave differently when no women are around (a trivial observation), but the relationships they develop inform customs and government of society as a whole.

Mainstream culture has taken Tiger’s phrase and turned it into a bit of a joke (cf. the recent neologism “bromance”). Part of the slippage of this term results from the fact that Tiger had little to say about politics or corporations, where men still make decisions with little or no contribution from women (though this is changing at a glacial pace), which gave critics an easy line of attack. Tiger also did not use the concept of male bonding to address interplay between fathers and sons, but inevitably the term has grown to embrace such interactions as childrearing has taken up more and more room in our discourse. In common usage, there is no nobility inherent in male bonding; it’s as likely to lead to mayhem or sophomorism as improvements in the human condition. Another trend of recent decades has also played a role in the failure of Tiger’s concept to take a more exalted place in our culture: a sharp increase in individualist rhetoric. There’s something suspiciously communitarian about male bonding, which after all involves by definition a bunch of men acting in some kind of concert — a far cry from the sort of every man for himself, no holds barred, to the winner go the spoils esthetic that has flourished recently in American politics, one hopes temporarily. Such cartoon individualism veers so far from life as we know it that it cannot help but lead us astray if we take it seriously.

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chick flick (1990’s | journalese | “tearjerker,” “movie pitched at women”)
chick magnet (2000’s | “something that draws the ladies,” “Adonis”)

These two phrases came along at about the same time — the mid-nineties — and both seem to reflect Commonwealth influence. The case is especially clear for “chick magnet,” which appeared almost exclusively in Australian, British, and Canadian sources until 2000 or so, and remains more common there to this day, according to LexisNexis. “Chick flick” started out at about the same frequency in the U.S. as in other Anglophone countries. It took a few years for “chick flick” to settle as the invariable term (Phrase Finder has a good history). In “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993), Tom Hanks uses the phrase “chick’s movie,” and variants with and without the possessive could all be heard for a few years there. “Chick magnet” never experienced the same flux in form beyond the odd apostrophe-s, but it could (and can) mean different things. One: A person (generally a man) unusually attractive to women. (You might prefer not to be reminded, but “chick magnet” became a minor epithet — as opposed to all the major epithets — for Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal.) Two: a creature that attracts women (e.g., “Get a dog. They’re real chick magnets.”) Three: an object that attracts women. My girlfriend’s daughter showed me a “vine” (ten-second YouTube video) in which a teen-age boy calls a Lamborghini “a real chick magnet.” My sense is that when the term first slipped into the language, the first usage predominated. Now I think the second and third have overtaken it, but all three are still available.

A “chick flick” denotes a film designed to appeal to a specifically female audience; that is, to attract a more abstract population of millions of women rather than the handful of women hanging around the park, or the bar, at any given time. Chick flicks may rely on weepy or Harlequin Romance clichés to do their work, but they may also draw their effectiveness from strong women characters that crowd out or overshadow the men. (“Thelma and Louise” and “A League of Their Own,” both released near the dawn of the chick-flick era, did not send women flocking to the cinema because they were fuzzy, heartwarming stories with lots of muscular men with hearts of gold.) The very strong implication is that the men in the audience are also crowded out. We’d rather go watch James Bond or Jim Carrey. Confession: I loved “Dumb and Dumber.” Out of character, I hope, but I cannot tell a lie.

The real question here is how did “chick,” a word already unpleasantly musty and at least vaguely insulting when I was a kid, worm its way back into our vocabulary? If these phrases really did arise in England and Australia, it may be the word was less ominous over there. I believe “chick” used to mean girl or woman is primarily a U.S. locution that had its moment in the sun in the early and mid-twentieth century — it’s tempting to suggest that it descends from W.C. Fields’s primordial “chickadee,” but that’s pure folk etymology, and I abjure it in the absence of evidence. By the time “chick flick” and “chick magnet” came along, it had been at least a generation since discreet people stopped using “chick” that way, and no doubt it had lost most of its sting. But I don’t hear adults calling women “chicks” even now, except maybe jocularly, and if kids do it today, it’s retro-slang. Now this may be a simple case of hipster irony taking an old word or concept, bending it a bit, and breathing new life into it (“chick lit” is a related example). It is not an example of an oppressed minority twisting a term of contempt into a proud epithet, however. (At least, I don’t think so; here’s another point of view.) Women may use these phrases (particularly “chick flick”), but they did not arise among women or feminists. A recent movie and video game both used “Chick Magnet” as the title, and both exemplify the purest male fantasy about effortless sexual conquest. The recrudescence of “chick” does not strike me as harmless; the forces of degradation never sleep, and lots of people (not all of them men) continue to resent the gains women have made in the last fifty years. And if “broad” starts to sneak back into the language in the guise of lighthearted cultural commentary, you’ll know I’m right.

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glass ceiling

(1990’s | journalese | “sex discrimination,” “no room at the top”)

An unusual expression in that it seems to have been invented, or at least brought to the world’s attention, at a specific, detectable moment. Or perhaps that is an illusion based on the superstition that LexisNexis is infallible. Every on-line source that ventures an opinion gives credit to a magazine editor named Gay Bryant, quoted in Adweek, March 1984. The phrase took off — according to LexisNexis — in the second half of 1986, with a sharp increase in incidences, including uses by Betty Friedan and Katharine Graham. A book titled “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” was published in 1987. By the early nineties the phrase was well settled. The speed with which it took its place in our vocabulary suggests a certain pent-up demand.

“Glass ceiling” has not changed much since then, other than to seek out groups other than women, like African-Americans. My sense is that it is still used far more often of women than of any other group. A glass ceiling is an unacknowledged barrier to advancement to the top levels of an organization. More specifically, it is the name for the attitudes and actions of male executives, who find ways to prevent women from advancing into the highest circles of management (I almost typed “hell” — but according to Dante, the worst circles of hell were the lowest). The image suggests women who are close enough to real power to see it, but unable to reach the goal. It’s transparent (i.e., unacknowledged), like glass, yet impenetrable, like a ceiling. You can see it, but you can’t get through it. In an earlier age, we might have referred to such women as “(left) out in the cold.”

Every so often when you study an expression, you find alternative meanings that saw print once or twice and quickly disappeared. Usually they are as plausible as the winning meaning — often more — and it is not always clear why they didn’t make it. I can’t resist noting two that I came across. The first, from American Banker, November 22, 1985: “The response from the regulators and the Congress was a greater degree of voyeurism, and you and I found ourselves with offices that had glass walls and a glass ceiling. . . . The Comptroller’s office went on a witch-hunt, and the next thing we knew, our office had a glass floor and they were looking up our pants legs.” The emphasis falls on transparency, not impassability. Working beneath a glass ceiling means there’s no place to hide and you can’t get away with anything. Less than a year later, once again in American Banker, the president of the National Association of Bank Women said, “We’re not seeing women move into the very executive levels any more [any more?! — ed.]. There seems to be a glass ceiling that’s there. I call it a glass ceiling because I think it’s a fragile one and that it is going to be shattered.” Another familiar kind of glass — the kind that breaks easily. In retrospect, her optimism seems unwarranted, but the way she uses the expression seems at least as satisfying as the one we accept today.

In the military, you may hear about the “brass ceiling” that keeps women out of the top ranks. In England, the “class ceiling” hinders the upwardly mobile who went to state schools. Maybe there are other imitators out there as well. When a woman does reach the inner sanctum, she may be said to “crack,” “break,” or “shatter” the glass ceiling. The problem is more pervasive, however. If one or two extraordinary women here and there get through, that doesn’t mean a path is cleared for everyone else. There will be a glass ceiling until it’s as normal and commonplace for women to take the levers of power as for men. As long as qualified and deserving women aren’t promoted at the same rate as men — and that ain’t changed — the glass ceiling remains as thick as ever.

Ever-flowing gratitude to my gorgeous girlfriend, who not only nominated the phrase but pointed out that another pre-1980’s equivalent was “gentlemen’s agreement.” Extremely apt, as always.

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