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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: freedom



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

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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(1990’s | journalese | “healer,” “wise woman or man”)

Never a common word, “whisperer” certainly existed before 1980 and was used in a number of different ways. Aside from the ground-level meaning of “one who whispers,” it had a fair range of referents: rumormonger or backbiter; irritating theatergoer; obscene caller; meek, negligible person. The first of these is related to another old phrase, “whispering campaign,” which had to do with spreading gossip in order to undermine a person or institution. The word frequently had a negative connotation and rarely a positive one. A whisperer doesn’t speak his mind forthrightly, or if he does you can’t hear him, and there’s something surreptitious, if not underhanded, about that.

All that changed after May 1998, when “The Horse Whisperer” splashed onto screens across America; it grossed $75 million and grafted an entirely new meaning onto an old word. Robert Redford’s character cured traumatized horses by whispering to them and just sorta all-around bringing healing to troubled equine souls. Mother Nature’s wisdom administered with a mild hand works wonders on animals, including people, and the Horse Whisperer coincidentally worked wonders on the mother and daughter who owned the horse. The film was based on a novel published in 1995; although the book was a much-touted best seller, the film had a much more decisive impact on the language. By 2000, “whisperer” was appended to other creatures; a nanny known as the “Baby Whisperer” became an overnight sensation in Hollywood. Behold the unguessed linguistic powers of Robert Redford! The trend has continued; now anyone good at quieting living creatures and making them more tractable merits the label. (“Whisperer” still requires a prefix; using the term as a general occupation, unmoored from a particular species, sounds unidiomatic.) Not long ago, a friend of mine wished for a “kid-whisperer” to help the troubled daughter of a friend, prompting this post. Thanks, Amanda!

The change in feel from backstabbing and low-down to heartwarming and humane is striking. We are accustomed to seeing similar progressions when members of minorities take over derogatory terms, as in the ever-cited example “queer,” or “girl,” or “flyover country.” Yet there is no groundswell of public support for the -whisperers lobby, as far as I know. Like villains in literature, the expressions that have turned sour in the last forty years seem more compelling: “enable,” “hipster,” “sketchy.”

Real-life horse (or whatever)-whisperers are people who have spent a lot of time with animals and understand them better than the rest of us do. One possible model for the title character of the novel was a trainer named Monty Roberts, who talks of getting horses to “join” or work with humans, rather than compelling obedience through intimidation and beatings. “Whisperer” suggests a quiet, gentle demeanor, and horse people have long used “gentle” as a verb to refer to the same sort of approach. Someone who gentled a horse (a “gentler”?) made it pliant and cooperative by creating a calm atmosphere and soothing the horse, enabling it to resume normal activities. From the perspective of individual liberty, the horse-whisperer puts down rebellion and maintains the status quo with humans firmly in charge, stamping out resistance among the equine ranks. But she does so not by breaking the animal’s will but by convincing it that we’re all on the same team. There may be a lesson there for those who must deal with human revolutionaries.

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(2000’s? | therapese | “limits,” “principles,” “sense of propriety”)

This word dropped onto my list from The Simpsons, not that it originated there. When Edna goes against Ned Flanders’s — her new husband’s — wishes, she apologizes for overstepping Ned’s boundaries. She means that she violated his sense of right and wrong, and this use of “boundaries” has become pretty standard. Yet a boundary of necessity has two sides. Most of the time, the phrase is used to denote a breach of one’s own definition of acceptable behavior, or simply one’s defenses, by another person, that is, from the outside. It can also go the other way. A boundary may be a self-imposed limit that one transgresses with no help from others, perhaps by accident. This sense of the word seems to be falling out of favor. The emphasis today falls on overstepping someone else’s boundaries; in the old days it was more common to talk about overstepping one’s own boundaries.

Most of the time, it’s really two sides of the same coin. One example: Attacks on the press for disseminating explicit photographs often use just that phrase — “overstepping boundaries” — to accuse publishers of violating the constraints of common decency. The complainers treat it as a breach from the inside, in which the press of its own volition transgresses its declared standards. However, if enough members of the community are outraged, then it makes just as much sense to talk about their boundaries being overstepped as the press breaking its own rules. It’s quite possible for someone to transgress another person’s boundaries without breaching their own, of course. I may tell a joke I consider harmless that offends someone else. To a great extent, the rules and practices of society are intended to smooth out those differences and give us all a similar notion of where the lines are. Most of the time it works.

A web site called defines “personal boundaries” thus: “the physical, emotional and mental limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, or violated by others. They allow us to separate who we are, and what we think and feel, from the thoughts and feelings of others.” They are our defenses, and ultimately they guard our sense of self. And they can also protect, or at least define, physical safety, as when a child defends her boundaries against a hostile adult. But in truth the boundary has become invisible, marking territory that can never be found on a map. A concept once used to talk only about physical space now refers as readily to the mental: one’s sense of decency, one’s privacy, one’s freedom, one’s individuality. These concepts manifest themselves constantly in the larger world, but they don’t really exist outside our heads.

bright line

(2000’s | legalese | “dividing line,” “sharp distinction” “well-defined (or widely applicable) standard”)

I intended to cover this phrase in the same post as “best practices,” but time ran out on me last week. Their most obvious point in common is the fact that “generally accepted standard” could be taken as a synonym for either expression, even though they are used in different fields in different ways and come from different places. Words generate their own mysterious connections sometimes.

Maybe this one isn’t used frequently enough outside of legal circles to qualify, but I like the phrase. Lawyers do seem to be throwing it around more and more, and it is spreading into other kinds of situations, particularly politics. Unquestionably a legal term, it should have a sexier origin. May I suggest art criticism (“The Bright Line of Tintoretto”), or maybe a device to teach small children to walk single file (“Follow the Bright Line, children!”). The first usages in judicial opinions turn up in the 1940’s, according to LexisNexis, and Justice Felix Frankfurter used it in an opinion in 1949 (Wilkerson v. McCarthy). It’s so lovely I can’t resist quoting it: “If there were a bright line dividing negligence from non-negligence, there would be no problem.” A lot of other judges couldn’t resist quoting it, either, and while it’s doubtful that Frankfurter originated the phrase, he was decisive in introducing it into the legal lexicon.

Which provokes a digression into the development of legal language. When unfamiliar expressions are used by prominent judges, they soon become current within the law, in the way that a celebrity can cause a new expression to take off in the wider culture. But many people who use the word du jour don’t realize they’re quoting a celebrity. The law, on the other hand, is founded upon direct quotation of known sources. Like religion, or witchcraft, it relies on citing formulas exactly as they were laid down earlier, rather than settling for the gist — a reminder of how old and primitive the practice of law is. Legal vocabulary (or legal doctrine) propagates rather like DNA, endlessly creating exact replicas of itself. And like DNA, it is subject to mutation, or “judicial activism,” as its foes generally call it.

And now “bright line” is generally understood to mean an unmistakable border dividing the legal from the illegal, or merely right from wrong, still its primary application. It makes a solid compound adjective, most often modifying “rule,” “distinction,” or “standard.” Justice Frankfurter used it to stand for the opposite of “case by case,” a legal standard that could be widely and easily applied, so judges don’t have to waste time examining details of closely related cases. To me, it’s more useful to think of “bright line” as the opposite of “fine line.” It’s not a subtle distinction that you have to search for, it’s obvious, blazingly clear. The term is generally used without irony, but it can suggest an overly simple or arbitrary standard adopted for convenience rather than for justice and fairness.

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