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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: gossip


(2000’s | “embarrassing,” “appalling,” “repellent,” “disgraceful”)

The reason the word is so effective is that cringing is a very strong, primal reaction of instinctive avoidance. That which is cringeworthy is acutely shameful, disgusting, etc. — not just any old awkward moment or fleeting contretemps. The term so often attaches itself to the least excusable antics or pratfalls of celebrities (or anyone unfortunate enough to be in the public eye). For it is beloved of gossipmongers and social media addicts; anyone can humiliate themselves, but the word turns up disproportionately in celebrity journalism, or so Google makes it appear. Much celebrity journalism exudes more than a whiff of Schadenfreude, and “cringeworthy” suggests a certain pleasure in another’s discomfiture beyond the word’s primary effect of evoking the discomfort in oneself. My sense is that originally “cringeworthy” was used often in artistic contexts, to talk about a song, say, or a performance, that left you feeling sorry for the purveyor, and sorry for yourself for having endured it, too. Over time it has come to apply more often to situations, utterances, or actions that leave the feeling of having experienced something indecent, a low point in another person’s conduct that you would rather not have witnessed and can’t unsee, as today’s kids say.

This expression straddles the line between a strictly personal reaction and a social consensus about what is objectionable and what isn’t, which must go on to rank the objectionable things so we’ll know exactly when to start cringing. When you describe a text or act as cringeworthy, you are appealing to a set of boundaries that most people, or at least most people who have any interest in the field under discussion, would subscribe to. Each of us grimaces and shies away as an individual, but we are animated by a shared understanding of the awful.

“Worthy” as a suffix is not unknown, but seems kind of quaint. Praiseworthy, blameworthy, credit-worthy, seaworthy. It turns up now and then in surnames, as in Galsworthy. “Cringeworthy” was, in fact, the name of a character in the long-running “Bash Street Kids,” a recurring feature in the British comic book “The Beano,” and almost sounds like a name in a Dickens novel, but not quite. The mating with “cringe” works well because it too is an old-fashioned word. I daresay most people know what it means, but you don’t hear it much in casual conversation (the rise of “cringeworthy” may propel it into greater prominence). Two quasi-archaic expressions shoved together — a natural. Had the word been invented in the U.S., it might have come out “cringe-making,” but it is a Briticism; it was common in Commonwealth countries by the mid-nineties, a decade or so before it caught on over here. (A bit more history for them as wants it.) You do hear “cringey” sometimes, which means the same thing.

No mean Anglophile herself, Lovely Liz from Queens proposed this week’s expression. I say, thanks, old top!

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me time

(1990’s | therapese? | “time to (or for) myself,” “free (or spare) time,” “break”)

With its echoes of the me generation and “all about me,” this expression can’t help sounding selfish. Yet me time is often touted as a way to make us more useful to others and is urged especially on parents. It’s what you need to refresh yourself so that you can handle your duties — particularly at home — with renewed vigor. Me time is not for the self-centered; it’s for the worn out. The emotional equivalent of breaks during the day at an office or construction site. Even the flintiest bosses have been compelled to recognize that employees will be more productive and last longer if they have some time to relax or occupy themselves with other matters, and dispensers of advice note that we often drive ourselves harder than anyone else and have to learn to cut ourselves some slack. If you don’t make time for yourself now and then, your duties will get even more arduous and exhausting, hastening a breakdown (and making you useless to those who depend on you).

Can “me time” be frivolous? Sometimes it is presented as pure hedonism, but much more often as an antidote to stress, a way to preserve equanimity in the midst of a demanding schedule. Which makes it an obligation, but to whom? A complicated mix of oneself and others. It is not essential to the expression, but “me time” may take a definite moral tone — not an indulgence, a responsibility.

Though not common in the nineties, the expression appeared occasionally, especially in the British and Canadian press, so it may be a Briticism. One pictures the exasperated English mother — having run through story time, nap time, play time — banishing the kids and declaring “me time!” If it didn’t originate in the States, it found its way here soon enough and became much more common after 2000. Now “Me Time” is the name of a Sephora skin care product — grandiosely described as “a firming and antioxidant-powered age-delay ritual fueled by black tea” — and even the august New York Times publishes a monthly column under this heading in its august Style section. Starting to lose that moral tone.

Here’s a question: Why doesn’t this phrase mean “time for me to shine,” or “pay attention to me”? Imagine a television host saying, “O.k., boys and girls, it’s ME time!” You wouldn’t have any trouble understanding that, right? “It’s Howdy-Doody time!” doesn’t mean it’s time for Howdy Doody to go off by himself and ignore everyone else for a while. It means he’s front and center. In a culture as self-obsessed as ours, we always need more ways to call attention to ourselves. But we would more likely say “my time” than “me time.”

We can thank Britney Spears for the recent spike in the frequency of this phrase. She used it innocently enough about a month ago to announce that she was taking a break from helping to tend her father, who was recovering from major abdominal surgery. We might have lauded her filial loyalty and wisdom in knowing when she needed a respite herself. Instead, a sirocco erupted in which a lot of people who need something better to do opined at length on matters that weren’t their business, and worse; Spears claims she has received death threats. Celebrities must hunger, at least occasionally, to be out of the public eye, and I suspect part of what she meant was simply “please leave me alone.” Grant me the mercy of being out of range of the tireless, and entirely otiose, celebrity gossip machine, eager to tar and feather this week’s villain for the slightest incorrect word, sentiment, or gesture. We sure know how to chew ’em up and spit ’em out.

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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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