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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: George H.W. Bush

off the charts

(1980’s | journalese (economics) | “through the roof,” “extreme(ly),” “amazing(ly),” “off the scale”)

Investigation has led me to revise my understanding of the rise of this week’s expression. First, the old meaning of “chart” is irrelevant; I haven’t found any evidence that “off the charts” has any connection with maps. I thought it had something to do with pop music charts, and sure enough, the earliest reference I found dates from 1956 in Billboard, describing a new record featuring Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby: “It has now registered very strong on all fronts and is just off the charts.” The little bagatelles of research I carry out are not what you would call comprehensive, but the phrase didn’t show up again for twenty years in my usual sources. When it did, it was in the context of graphs displaying economic data. Picture the stock graphic that goes with business news reports on television: the line with an arrow on the end of it zig-zagging up and down across a grid. Now picture that line sloping so steeply upward or downward in a brief period of time that it goes below the x-axis or rises beyond the upper margin. THAT’s “off the charts.” (After all, even the most successful record in history can’t go any higher than no. 1, and therefore must still be ON the charts. “Off the chart” was used interchangeably with “off the charts” in the eighties, another clue that the origin of our expression is not pop music charts, which are always plural. Oh, and by the way, when we say “pop music charts,” we’re talking about record sales, not instrumental arrangements.) The expression was used several times during the primary and general election campaign of 1980 by George H.W. Bush, and that seems to have given the phrase a boost. Bush also played a role in popularizing “out of the loop,” “you’re history,” and “go ballistic.”

Graphs and charts are merely means of making economic data quickly intelligible, so other kinds of statistics — demographic, medical, meteorological — could go off the charts, too. Music sales rankings definitely did spawn a closely related term, “knock (or fall) off the charts,” also available before 1980. That use represents an early stage in the evolution of this phrase. Falling off the charts was as common as flying off of them until 1990 or so, but that concept has disappeared. And the verbs have gotten lazier over time, too. In the old days, “off the charts” generally went with active verbs like “zoom” or “soar,” “slide” or “drop.” Such verbs still crop up occasionally, but today we are much more likely to get the copula, usually “is” or “was.” A noticeable difference, but probably rather minor in the grand scheme of things. And another change in range: “off the charts” is used as an adjective (or adverb) phrase much more often than it used to be, though examples may be found as far back as the seventies.

From political and economic pundits the expression spread to sportswriters, who found its vigor useful in describing athletes. Today it can show up almost anywhere. Politicians are not above using it, but they seem less enamored of it than the rest of us now — or maybe it’s just that the rest of us have caught up. “Off the charts” has not become so overused that it has been stripped of excitement; it still has a little pizzazz. May it keep its sizzle rather than turning into a flaccid echo of itself.

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you’re history

(1990’s | athletese | “you’re finished,” “you’re out or gone,” “your time is past,” “it’s over”)

It bubbled up first in sports and showbiz, says LexisNexis. Google Books shows a couple of hits from auto racing even before 1980, then it spent the first part of the decade diffusing through sports and entertainment writing. David Letterman used it in early in 1987, and George Bush gave it a boost when he accepted the Republican nomination in 1988: “‘Zero tolerance’ isn’t just a policy, it’s an attitude. . . . my administration will be telling the [drug] dealers: whatever we have to do we’ll do, but your day is over; you’re history.” It definitely started trickling into the mainstream after that. By the mid-nineties, old-timers and kids were both using it. I wonder if it might have southern roots. I learned it in college in 1983 from southern kids, and the early association with auto racing is also suggestive. One apparent misattribution: In 1988, the august Times of London attributed the line to “Dirty Harry,” but if that’s correct, no one else has noticed.

If you are part of the past, no longer significant in our everyday world, then you must perforce be history. The doggedly literal-minded might understand history to encompass only the dead, but imagine a one-shot wonder from the old days, still alive, whose name turns up occasionally but whom no one interviews or quotes any more. You talk about such a person only with reference to the past — no longer significant, but faded and distant. Leonardo DiCaprio is current; Jim Nabors is not. The expression puts you in your place (or time), yet it hangs onto a certain academic, even high-toned, quality.

It can be a very literal death threat, of course, as in a prison guard talking to an inmate, or a gang member to an informer. But usually it means something a little less drastic. The range of meaning is not wide: anything from “dead” or “done for” to “your time is up” or “get the hell out of here.” It puts an end to things, sometimes tinged with rue, sometimes with violence; it can also be used in humorous ways. As I noted last week, it sounds most comfortable in the second person, but third person (especially singular) and first person (especially plural) are also quite possible. We used to say “that’s ancient history,” but not to refer to persons — the new formulation insists on a particular person or group, not a concept or event.

you’re toast

(1990’s | athletese? | “you’re done for”)

The little variation or flexibility possessed by “you’re history” is denied to “you’re toast,” which has an even more restricted and invariable meaning. A quick and violent cessation of life, literal or metaphorical, is almost always present. One pictures not a big fork or a small oven but a flamethrower. One columnist (1996) traced the line to “Ghostbusters” in the form “this chick is toast” — the on-line script doesn’t show it, but my sister-in-law, who oughta know, says the line does appear in the movie. (In a different scene, the script instructs Venkman (Bill Murray) to say “turn him into toast.” Maybe it was an ad-lib.) The first hit on LexisNexis dates from 1987 — three years after the film’s release — attributed to a luger on New Zealand’s Olympic team, describing the effects of moving your head during a run. A swift, gruesome end. Like “you’re history,” it can occur with any pronoun, although the second person and third-person singular occur most commonly. (The second person is generally used a substitute for the third-person indefinite “one,” anyway, so maybe the third-person actually predominates. I’ve never heard or read “one is toast,” and the only way it might sound remotely idiomatic is in a British accent.)

“You’re toast” came along a little later than “you’re history” and has never been quite as popular or widespread, but it compensates by being more edgy and hip. Because it has a stronger connotation, it is reserved for fewer situations, or maybe it’s the other way around. “You’re toast” also became popular first among athletes. Here’s a nice variation from a football player who hoped to catch on in the NFL (1991): “I know that one minute you’re white bread and the next you’re toast.” Ted Turner attracted a lot of attention in 1995 when he told his son, “You’re toast,” after the young man made the mistake of asking if his job would survive the latest reorganization. William Safire wrote about both expressions back in 1997 with his usual acuity.

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pitch perfect

(late 1990’s | journalese (arts) | “dead on,” “picture-perfect,” “exemplary”)

You would suspect that this term arose from music criticism, and you would be right. It doesn’t show up in Google Books before the early 1960’s, and I found no references before the mid-1980’s outside of the arts belt, mostly music (describing the ability to sing or harmonize in tune) and literature (describing dialogue). From there it gradually spread into other arts: theater, film, fashion, food and wine. It usually describes the mechanics of a performance, but it can also refer to an evocation, or even an imitation or parody. The first non-arts use I encountered in LexisNexis dates from 1984 (Newsweek): “Having delivered a pitch-perfect performance as the loyal vice president, George Bush, 60, considers himself the rightful heir to the Reagan revolution.” Here the presiding genius seems to be the drama critic. Bush believed his studied acting job deserved an encore, and he got his reward against a weak and divided Democratic party in 1988. He made the least of it, an actor cast in a role beyond his abilities giving an unconvincing performance, causing half the audience to vote with their feet at intermission.

When you use “pitch-perfect” to describe dialogue in a work of fiction, for example, what does it mean? My first thought was “true to life,” but a novel full of characters talking like real people would be unbearable: all the throat clearings, meaningless expressions, repeated phrases (I resort to “y’know, I mean” a lot myself), and verbal tics would propel the book out of our hands in no time. A more precise answer would be “using appropriate diction, phrasing, and emphasis for a character based on occupation, status, ancestry, etc.” When an actor gives a pitch-perfect performance, it has to do with accent, delivery, gait, and gestures, and other factors over which she has less control: make-up, costume, and the rest of the cast. When applied to food, I don’t know what it might mean. Masterly blending of flavors, like harmony in music? When arts critics use this phrase, it boils down to “thoroughly satisfying,” and as it appears more and more often, it risks becoming a lazy compliment — a laudatory but ultimately undefinable way of saying “I really liked it.”

I would hazard that this term to this day turns up most often among arts writers, but it is used comfortably in other fields as well, mostly politics: “Romney is pitch perfect on the economy for Republican voters” (CNN); Mike Huckabee’s “pitch-perfect [campaign tone] for Midwestern conservatives” (politico.com). The situational aspect, generally implicit in arts writing, is made explicit in these examples: the splendor of your performance depends on your audience’s ability to appreciate it. Politics is no more than another kind of drama, of course, but applying the term to politicians recalls another meaning of “pitch.” Does the campaigner have perfect pitch or a perfect pitch? Being “pitch perfect” might be a matter of delivering your pitch perfectly.

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