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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: government

nuclear option

(1990’s | journalese | “extreme (or drastic or desperate) measure,” “last resort,” “irrevocable decision”)

Gorblimey, china plates, I do believe this expression counts as a Briticism, at least in its contemporary sense. As far back as the sixties, the phrase was widely used in the U.S. to talk about energy generation or weapons. “The nuclear option,” on one hand, was what utility executives urged us not to neglect; on the other, it heralded the development of atomic weapons (for those that didn’t already have them), or different ways it might be possible to use them (for those that did). That was true at least until 1980. Not long after that, one started seeing the odd figurative use, but it was much more common in the U.K. than in the U.S. up until 2004 or so, when the phrase assumed the meaning we hear most commonly today: the majority party in the U.S. Senate taking away the filibuster, the last-ditch means for the minority of derailing legislation. Since then, it has crept into other spheres — trade negotiations, computer maintenance, even sports.

Semantically, I find the phrase surprisingly difficult to pin down. Is it an unanswerable blow? A point of no return? Overkill? Destroying the cause of a problem rather than simply solving it? Nuclear war can only be imagined in terms of all-encompassing destruction, persisting for centuries, at least, so the figurative use has a palette of apocalypses to choose from. But the slipperiness brings starkly into view the loss of force the expression has undergone. Inevitably, the “nuclear option” in negotiation or managing your players involves lower stakes than it does in its more literal senses, even though the literal meanings have not gone away. In time the terror will leach out of it. (Not that eliminating the filibuster isn’t terrifying, but you can’t compare it to thousands dead in a flash.) Grammatically, it’s more predictable: “nuclear option” always takes the definite article; you’ll never hear “a nuclear option,” though that sort of thing can always change.

Today’s Senate is pretty debased, but they have not quite gone the whole hog with the nuclear option, not yet, anyway. Oh, wait, they have, at least as the term was originally understood in 2004. Back then, Republicans threatened to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominees. They didn’t go through with it, and two years later the Democrats took the Senate back. But in 2013, the Democrats did change the rules, exempting only Supreme Court nominees. In 2017, the Republicans finished the job, but so far have stoutly resisted doing away with the filibuster against legislation, Trump’s uncomprehending dismay notwithstanding. The majority party in the Senate has been pointing fingers and making threats at least since the nineties, and minority power has diminished though not disappeared. Those who believe the minority party should not have the power to stop majority-supported legislation may tout government efficiency as their most powerful rationale. I say the last thing we need is efficient government, particularly at the federal level. Efficient governments are dictatorships. Our system has been designed from the beginning to pose obstacles to rushed legislation that we’ll all regret later. The framers weren’t always right by any means, but we would do well to reflect on their wisdom here.


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bring to the table

(1980’s | businese | “have to offer,” “start out with”)

What one brings to the table by definition benefits the party already there. It is a positive term, rarely used ironically, indicating qualities that will improve an existing situation or resolve a problem. In a job interview, it’s the thing that makes you desirable. Among athletes, it’s what will make the team into a winner. In diplomacy, it’s a bargaining chip that helps move the process along. Generally, it’s what you can do to help. There was a time when it might connote baggage as well as benefit; what you brought to the table was simply what you had, good or bad. But since 1980 or so, it has taken on the favorable connotation exclusively. The phrase arose in business and government; nowadays athletes also use it a lot. To my ear at least, when a phrase becomes popular among athletes, it has stepped irrevocably over the border into cliché country. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it has to do with the fact that professional sports figures are quick to adopt new expressions from each other and use them frequently thereafter, rarely with any imagination or creativity.

You have to keep your eye on the table, because idioms that rely on that word come from different places. “Bring to the table” calls to mind negotiation: the big table everyone sits around to hammer out an agreement. “Everything on the table” almost certainly comes out of gambling — the moment of showing your hand. “Seat at the table” could come from either, or from the dining room. To get anywhere at any table, a seat is the minimum requirement. Waiters bring things to the table all the time, but that sort of pig-headed literal-mindedness doesn’t get the blog written. In all these expressions, the table by now is purely metaphorical; when an actual table is involved, we understand it to be a play on words.

There’s a certain kind of new expression that develops a settled usage even though it is not particularly distinctive and could occur in everyday conversation without any reference to the specialized meaning. That description is a little vague, so let me offer some examples: “at the end of the day,” “be careful out there,” “do the math,” “don’t even think about it,” “good luck with that,” “I’ll shut up now,” “in a good place,” “play well with others,” “smartest guy in the room,” “what’s your point?.” All of these expressions have in common an ordinariness, almost a triviality, that allows us to notice, if we think about it, that they could just as well have no meaning beyond that carried by the word string itself. And yet, when we hear such phrases, we grasp an extra dimension, so that even if the sense of the expression is not much different from the literal sense of the words, we know we are hearing a distinct expression. There must be a process that allows such utterances to transmogrify into idioms, but I don’t understand it. Is there any way to predict that “I’ll shut up now” would take on a universe of connotation while “I’ll go to the store” (so far) has not?

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(1980’s | bureaucratese? legalese? financese? | “recoup,” “recover”)

No longer the sole property of sportswriters, this noun-verb complex has invaded the financial pages and legal journals in force. When I was young, you clawed your way back into a contest through determination and effort, not quitting until the game was on the line and you had a chance to win. It didn’t have to be a single game; it could happen over course of a season, as in a baseball team clawing its way back into the pennant race. It might be used in the context of an individual sport like tennis or golf, but I think it more often went with team sports. In the business world, you might claw your way to the top, but you don’t claw back your way to the top — though you might claw your way back to the top. There’s something ruthless about clawing when people do it; it requires unreasoning vigor, like a jungle cat, blindly fighting its way forward as long as it can move.

In the late seventies, the U.S. began imposing treble (i.e., threefold) damages on defendants who lost certain kinds of civil suits. The U.K. responded by passing a law of their own that gave a British person or corporation the right to recover the portion of the total damages that was not actually compensatory (in other words, the part that was multiplied on after actual damages were awarded). In both the British and American press, this was widely referred to as a “clawback provision.” The expression was much more common in the British, Canadian, and Australian press for at least a decade thereafter, and it is indubitably a Briticism.

My impression was that the expression refers mainly to something governments do, as in the Bernie Madoff case, but a corporation can do it, too; take Wells Fargo’s repossession of stock from disgraced executives in the wake of a banking scandal. I suppose that a business partner could claw back money that another partner had misused, but for the most part it seems to be something an institution does. Clawbacks normally occur when assets have been stolen or used illegitimately; when you hear the word, you can be pretty sure that there was some funny business that has been found out, and a governing body, private or public, is doing something about it. (That isn’t always true; for example, when the British government was privatizing public industries in the eighties, they decreed that a certain number of shares had to be available to British investors. In some cases, that meant “clawing back” shares bought by foreigners to make sure enough shares were available.) The government generally needs some kind of judicial ruling, but a corporation needs no more than the approval of the directors.

In truth, the new expression here is “clawback” (n.) since “claw back” (v.) has been a permissible construction for a long time. (As we saw above, “clawback” also serves as an adjective. I hope I am cold in my grave before “clawbackly” becomes standard English.) But its present sense seems to have arisen around the same time, and I wouldn’t want to state with certainty that one preceded the other, though I would guess the verb came first. It has never left legal and political contexts, or spread outward from them. Law and justice must have their own language.

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show daylight between

(1980’s | athletese | “distance oneself from,” “move away from,” “disagree with”)

Now primarily a political term and has been for at least twenty years. It comes out of equestrian sports: space between rider and saddle or between two horses on a track. It goes back a long way among other athletes as well; Lighter found citations as far back as 1903 in sports talk. When a running back sees daylight, he’d better gain some yardage. Before that, “daylights” could mean “eyes” or “guts” (as in beating the daylights out of someone), an odd pairing. (“Lights” is a very archaic term for lungs, as in “liver and lights.”) Daylights plural and daylight singular don’t seem to have a lot to do with each other.

In sports lingo, “daylight” just means there is a gap between two things: a baseball and a foul pole, say, or two defenders. When you see light you know the objects aren’t touching. That particular meaning was next adopted into politics; by 1980, political figures felt free to use “daylight” in the athlete’s sense. By 1990, executives had it in their arsenals, too. Today, it is still primarily the property of athletes and politicians; according to LexisNexis, it turns up infrequently in any other context. Among athletes, “daylight” might be good or bad, according to the circumstances. But in politics, “daylight” always indicates antagonism of some kind. If it’s someone you want it known that you’re in conflict with, you may “put” or “create” daylight between yourself and the other. When an official wants to affirm unity with another official, she says there is “no daylight” between them. It can exist (or fail to exist) between organizations or countries, too.

Politicians, magpies that they are, love to steal the characteristic expressions of athletes, just as they love to hijack military jargon. I have covered at least half a dozen examples: payback, you’re history, raise the bar, slam dunk, punt, game changer, man up, and there are a few more that are less clear-cut. Politicians, especially male ones, may feel a toughness deficiency and look for ways to cover it up. Taking expressions from athletes and soldiers exploits their generally acknowledged masculine superiority and delivers to the audience an (often unmerited) impression of strength, vigor, and determination. I’ve noted before that politicians like to draw on military vocabulary, but their yen for athletese may also be worth exploring. There are other factors at work: “daylight” sounds like a pleasant, uplifting word, and the way it veils animosity also makes it attractive to the politically inclined.

“Daylight” should not be confused with “sunlight” or “sunshine,” words that in political discourse are used to talk about openness or transparency in government proceedings. The use of “daylight” in such a context would suggest a slip of the tongue or confusion on the part of the speaker.

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peace dividend

(1990’s | militarese, bureaucratese | “post-war boom”)

I was surprised to learn that “peace dividend” began to crop up as we were ending the Vietnam War by expanding it into the rest of southeast Asia. According to the Congressional Quarterly, the phrase was born in 1968, as pressure mounted to end the war, and Nixon won the election partly on the strength of a promise to do so — neither the first nor the last of his brazen lies. It occurred to a number of people that we would save a lot of money if we weren’t garrisoning a huge army and manufacturing and destroying vast arsenals of weapons. If we were to spend that money, or part of it, on education, infrastructure, clean air and water, or other components of the much-maligned general welfare, it would be analogous to dividends from stocks and bonds (in fact, the analogy is very weak, but there’s no rule that says new expressions have to be plausible). It’s worth noting that the phrase does not refer to more general benefits conferred by the cessation of conflict; it nearly always has a purely economic cast. It didn’t really get popular until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989; for five or ten years after that, we heard a lot about the peace dividend that would arise from the end of the Cold War. Anybody seen it?

The phrase rarely takes metaphorical uses, although soon-to-be former New York City Police commissioner Bill Bratton has used it to talk about improved community relations following a drop in stop-and-frisks and other small-time arrests. Another meaning did emerge briefly, though it never gained much traction, after the Camp David accords of 1978 between Israel and Egypt. One of the means we used to get the parties to agree was to promise lots of military aid to both sides, which inspired some commentators to talk of a “peace dividend” to Israel and Egypt. A kind of bribe, in other words, to give both sides incentive to agree to a rather unpalatable set of conditions. (Arms manufacturers and their shareholders received quite literal dividends as well, but that was not pointed out in the mainstream press.) One can find examples from the late seventies and the early eighties, but that sense of the phrase was never more than a distant runner-up.

The end of the Cold War marked the last time the peace dividend played a significant part in U.S. politics. Maybe that’s just because the various wars and police actions* we’ve undertaken were either on a very small scale (former Yugoslavia) or are still more or less in progress (Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism). But the fact is our officials have abandoned alternatives to the national security state. No one considers, much less proposes, eliminating policies that seek to impose our will on the rest of the world whether they like it or not. Concomitantly, evidence that our efforts to do so rarely succeed and often backfire is blotted out of public discourse. There is no alternative to meddling and warfare. And there may be no discussion of the fact that there is no alternative. Naked emperors are as embarrassing as ever.

The problem with the peace dividend is that it is more a fiction of accounting than anything else. It makes sense in theory, but economists are always quick to point out that it won’t amount to much in practice. True, the army never gets much smaller and the pace of armament production never slows for long. But even if they did, government budgeting bears so little relation to personal or family budgeting — where reducing spending in one department might well lead directly to increased spending in another — that savings disappear without a trace into a complex web of interests and bureaucracies. The only way to change that would be to reduce the size of the federal government to something closer to what it was in the early days of the republic, when the population was much, much smaller. Despite a lot of big talk, neither the right nor the left wing has any interest in doing so, or any idea of how to go about it.

* Remember that phrase? It goes back to to the Korean War, when it still made some tradition-minded Constitutional scholars squeamish to refer to a “war” that Congress had not declared.

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failed state

(1990’s | academese? journalese? | “social collapse,” “anarchy,” “unrest”)

This term attempts to denote a single phenomenon, but each manifestation looks different from all the others. It is roughly defined as a government no longer able to provide what you might call basic services — roads, education, law enforcement, etc. — or the nation ruled by such a government. That’s the carrot-centric way to look at it; the big stick approach says it is a government that no longer maintains a monopoly on violence. Failure may be caused by civil war, corruption, insurgency, economic depression, or any shock to the system. The first uses in LexisNexis date from 1992, including an article in the journal Foreign Policy by Gerald B. Helman and Steven R. Ratner that has been cited as bringing the phrase to general attention. (I didn’t find anything to suggest that they didn’t invent the expression, but I didn’t look very hard.) Somalia was the first example to spring to everyone’s lips, with Haiti a close second; Rwanda and Bosnia were not far behind. Pundits may disagree on whether any given nation is a failed state or not, but most of them happily agree that there are a lot of failed states, which is handy in case a large western nation feels like limbering up an invasion force. States that look like they might fail any day now are called “fragile states.” (Here’s an SAT analogy for you: “fragile state” is to “failed state” as “food insecurity” is to “hunger.”) One commentator urges the absurdity of referring to states as “failed” that had never been successful, or functioned at all.

Experienced pundit-watchers will note that most failed states reside in what we like to call the third world, and there’s no doubt that the phrase is every bit as paternalistic as it sounds. The more deleterious the effect of previous western interference in the state in question, the less polite it is to bring it up — just as it’s not cricket to observe that first world nations routinely show shocking ineptitude in their efforts to impose effective governments on third world nations. The phrase long since emerged from scholarly lingo to become common currency among politicians and bureaucrats, who are in the best position to send the marines to restore order, or at least grab some of the goods. If enough Americans and Europeans (aw, hell, let’s throw in the Japanese and Australians, but not the Chinese and Russians!) think you’re a failed state, you can expect bombing runs or foreign soldiers spraying bullets. So it’s not a term to throw around lightly.

If “failed” turns out to be a bit unsavory when applied to nations, maybe we can make room for other uses of the adjective. I thought of it only this morning when I walked into the kitchen and realized we had forgotten to refrigerate, or even cover, a partly eaten mango yesterday: voilà, a failed mango. We’ve all been to failed parties. If your computer refuses to yield up your hard-entered data, you have a failed hard drive. As a longtime devotee of Monty Python, my thoughts can hardly fail to turn to failed parrots. It’s much more poetic and pathetic than referring to any old botch as a “fail,” as these kids today do.

June 26, 2016: It occurred to me that “Failed State” might also be the name of a university, as in, “Yeah, I went to Failed State.” I’ve been trying to come up with a team nickname for the school. After entertaining Second Bananas, Lieutenants, and Albatrosses, I’ve decided to go with Underdogs. Those who prefer the collective-noun-as-team-name formula that became standard after my childhood — which has penetrated the NBA but not the NFL or MLB (professional soccer led the way, as I recall) — can use Underdog.

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(1980’s | legalese? | “honcho,” “wheeler-dealer,” “big cheese,” “macher”)

“Rainmaker” seems to have developed a specific meaning, or maybe two closely related ones, during the 1960’s and ’70’s. (Evans and Novak used it in the Washington Post in January 1969, and I have not found an earlier instance.) Primarily, it was legal slang for a lawyer who brings in a lot of clients and/or revenue for the firm, but it might also refer to a government official who knows how to get results. William Safire used the term to refer to lobbyists — an unholy combination of the two. But whether used of lawyers or senators, it meant power and influence, the ability to get things done for those with the means to pay. Now it can refer to Hollywood executives and Wall Street brokers, but also movie stars and athletes. Someone who attracts money or prestige, or gets others to do her bidding. The specifically legal reference predominated at first, according to LexisNexis, but the other meaning has been available all along and by now has pulled even or even forged ahead.

“Rainmaker” used literally, or fancifully, is much older. The magician who makes rain fall in a dry season in Africa or the American Southwest (presumably their services are otiose in the Pacific Northwest or the British Isles) was known to anthropologists and everyone else as the rainmaker. So was the scientific practitioner, conjuring up precipitation by chemical, electrical, or explosive means. For many years, “rainmaker” in its literal sense led an uncomfortable double life, evoking both the miracle worker and the con man. The eponymous play and film told the story of an attractive mountebank (a little like Harold Hill in The Music Man) hired by a drought-stricken town that just happens to contain a feisty woman verging on old-maidhood, with predictable results. John Grisham’s equally eponymous legal thriller, made into a film in 1997, used the word more as we use it today. In sportswriting, “rainmaker” is used occasionally to denote a high-arching shot (as in tennis, basketball, or golf). “Rainmaker” is also popular as a brand name and trademark.

You know what I can’t figure out? How did “rainmaker” wind up meaning “one who brings in business”? As in the case of “bells and whistles” last week, we have a common yet non-intuitive expression whose original meanings bear no obvious relation to the way we use it today. I see the point that a rainmaker brings in money (“rainmaker” = “moneymaker”), and money makes the business grow and makes everything nice and green. Maybe I’m being fussy, but that’s not a very satisfying explanation. Bringing prosperity and showering the firm with cash? Then why not a “chieftain” (if we must have such anthropological terms) throwing a potlatch for his subjects? Why not a snake charmer, lulling the client with murmurs of competence and connections? Why not the witch doctor or shaman, brimming with mysterious power, driving away bad fortune and bringing forth good spirits? Any of these are at least as plausible and more readily available. The miracle worker/con-man dichotomy mentioned above may have played a role — arguably also characteristic of the snake charmer and witch doctor — but beyond that I can’t think of any reason “rainmaker” should have won out.

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task (v.)

(1980’s | bureaucratese | “order,” “assign,” “give a job to”)

This verb never quite went away, as it turns out. “To task” is very old, and it persisted for centuries, turning up in Shakespeare and in both Johnson’s and Webster’s dictionaries. According to Google N-grams, there were more incidences of the verb (I used the word “tasked” as a search expression) in 1900 than in 1940; it did not appear as often between the 1930’s and the 1970’s as it did before or after. The lapse of a couple of generations was sufficient, however, to prompt several influential journalists to object to the verb’s revival in the eighties. The redoubtable Helen Thomas took Robert McFarlane, Reagan’s National Security Advisor, to task over his use of “the noun ‘task’ as a verb” (November 20, 1985); William Safire and George Will both deplored the same usage just a couple of years later, as the Iran-Contra hearings were giving the verb an airing. Its route into everyday language runs through government officials, especially those associated with the military or espionage. It has spread to all fields now, used easily in sports and entertainment writing and everywhere else. One wonders if “multitask” would have taken off as it did if the root verb hadn’t trickled into the mainstream in the eighties.

The meaning of the verb was not much different in 2000 than it was in 1900. In the olden days, there was a greater tendency to use “tasked” to mean “burdened”; use of the verb strongly implied that the duties prescribed were unwelcome or excessive. That may be true today, but the link is not as strong as it was back then. It’s basically the same word as “tax” — also both noun and verb — but it has long had the meaning of “prescribed work” as opposed to “prescribed levy.” You might see “overtask” used as a substitute for “overtax,” for example. It may be a metathesis analogous to the Middle English “aks” turning into the modern “ask.”

By 1990, certainly, there were several possible ways to use “task” as a verb. First, it can be transitive or intransitive, although it is usually transitive, which we can discern from the fact that it is often used in passive voice. If it was not followed by a direct object — the unfortunate person who had a job dropped on her plate — it was followed by a preposition, usually “with” or “by” (there’s that passive voice). Or it may be followed by an infinitive, as in a phrase like “tasked to make the donuts.” What would be the alternative? “Tasked with making the donuts.” Semantically, there’s not much difference, and I don’t believe we should attach too much importance to the grammatical distinction. My ear and LexisNexis agree that by now “task with” has won out over the other variants as the predominant verb phrase.

There is a small but plucky group of expressions whose members have been around for at least a century or two but have either never been used commonly or have undergone some kind of eclipse before flowering in our era. I call the roll for the benefit of future generations: “overthink” had disappeared long since, but now it’s ordinary. “Hurtful” spent five hundred years as a word that sounded wrong but has spent the last thirty proliferating. “Ramp up” has meant several different things, but it has never in its long life (it goes back to Middle English) gotten the workout it has gotten since 1990. “Template” is a technical term dating back to the eighteenth century whose use has spread and soared. “Life lesson” and “bloviate” date from the nineteenth century. The former was used infrequently by philosophers, poets, divines, and no one else until 1990 or so. “Bloviate” is similar to “task” (v.) because it fell into disuse during the mid-twentieth century. “On task” must bring up the rear; it has little linguistically to do with this week’s expression, despite sharing a headword.

Martha and Adam from Queens suggested “task force,” which turned out to date from the thirties and forties but did remind me that “task” as a verb (using it in the infinitive — “to task” — never sounds right somehow) had been on my list for a while. Another victory for the Queens contingent!

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no harm, no foul

(1980’s | athletese | “no harm done,” “nothing to worry about,” “let’s forget the whole thing”)

I’m afraid the obvious origin is the true one. This expression was first used by basketball referees and sportswriters to describe a “philosophy” of officiating; here is a lovely definition from 1958: “if the contact does not interfere with the progress of the game, a foul shall not be called.” The earliest uses I found attributed the maxim to referees in the Big Ten Conference, in America’s heartland. “No harm, no foul” remained the property of basketball people until around 1980, when it started to creep into the language of politics and law. It’s not hard to see that the expression might appeal to lawyers, in that it summarizes an important legal principle: There must be real injury — not just the potential for it or some theoretical wrong — or there can be no tort. The phrase is commonly used now in the law to denote an argument or strategy designed to undercut plaintiffs by demonstrating that they have suffered no damage. If no one has really been hurt, there’s no infraction, and we can all get on with our lives.

It’s an awfully convenient argument, and requiring a plaintiff to prove incontrovertible injury makes redress less probable. Harm isn’t always visible to the naked eye, and if the malefactor is clever, or powerful, enough, he or she may be able to do great harm without warning. If the government invades your privacy, or a corporation poisons your water, the effects may not be felt for years, but they are real. Sometimes “no harm, no foul” is used when there is obvious harm, as way of obscuring it, or denying culpability. Thus the expression has developed a definite dark side in legalese; now it may go beyond time-honored principle to something a lot sleazier: “Yes, we broke the rules, but the same damage would have occurred if we hadn’t, so we’re not liable.” Only the government or another large institution can afford to take this position in court, illustrating another venerable legal principle: money and power almost always win.

In everyday speech, the phrase has become a stock response to an apology, loosely translated as “It doesn’t bother me, so you don’t have to feel guilty.” As Urban Dictionary notes, it has taken on a kinship with “No problem” or “no worries” to complement its persistent echo of the older “no harm done.” More broadly, “no harm, no foul” has become an all-purpose dismissal, with shades of meaning from “not my problem” to “everything’s fine.” These days, it is casually tossed off in myriad contexts, not just among athletes and lawyers, but chefs, farmers, art critics, you name it. And it has become almost empty of any specific meaning. It’s one of dozens of signals that there’s no need to take offense, or we’re all cool. What little rigor it had during its sheltered life among the basketball referees has vanished. And why should we care, after all? No harm, no foul.

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(1980’s | businese | “on a deadline,” “urgent,” “pressing,” “critical”)

Of all the words we limped along with before 1980, “urgent” comes closest to capturing the meaning of “time-sensitive,” although it often can’t be substituted directly for the newer term. But in fact the word was occasionally used with “urgent” in its early days, as a complementary term, because it’s not precisely the same thing. “Urgent” means drop everything and deal with this now. “Time-sensitive” means this may not be the highest priority but you can’t let it slide, either. The distinction is clear, even if “time-sensitive” is frequently used simply to mean “urgent” and always has been. The phrase has always been available hyphenated or as two words, and the two-word spelling remains widely seen today.

“Time-sensitive” arose in the press around 1980, says LexisNexis, largely the property of business and finance types, along with their inevitable fellow travelers, the generals. From that day to this, it is frequently used in official government documents. It modified a relatively small group of things: shipments and their contents, issues, targets (of assassination), data, documents, projects. For contrast, here are two recent examples that probably would have sounded peculiar in 1980: “time-sensitive aspects of driving,” which refers to reaction times, and “time-sensitive product,” meaning something that spoils quickly. Though the meaning can get a little slippery, the notion of a deadline is always there. Something must be done quickly, because the crucial object is about to expire (or become obsolete), or someone at the other end really has to have it, or because new conditions are taking effect.

I believe one of the things that made this phrase go was the rise of Federal Express, which was well-established by 1980 and had begun to familiarize us with the concept of overnight delivery of important packages, be they medical supplies, legal papers, or housekeys. By then it was even starting to teach us to find such a thing a matter of course. (Fellow Americans my age will have no trouble remembering the slogan “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”) There had been overnight, intercity, door-to-door deliveries before Federal Express came along, but they were the first ones to get famous doing it. (Anybody out there under fifty ever heard of Purolator?) Their success provided the soil for the growth of “time-sensitive,” even if it didn’t give birth to the expression. The couriers dealt with many different degrees of urgency, and it was handy to have a word that covered them all.

Once I stopped to think about it, I realized that “sensitive” as used in this expression makes for an odd appendage. “Time-sensitive” ought to mean acutely aware of the passage of time, perhaps to the point of neurosis, or maybe merely to the point of making sure you get your work done. And it really ought to apply to a person, dammit, and once in a while it does, as in a time-sensitive customer fuming at a long wait in line, or a historical re-enacter taking pains to look the part (“time” as in “era” rather than “money”). Or maybe it should refer to someone who goes into a tailspin at the thought of hours passing. “Sensitive” was a big word in the seventies, just as this week’s expression was starting to appear in print. As a personality trait, “sensitivity” meant a better-than-average awareness of emotion, especially other people’s emotion, a quality highly prized — because so rare — in men. “Sensitive” was an important word in the booming beauty products industry, and sensitive skin became the latest accessory. The word sometimes was used to talk about allergy sufferers. None of these quite matches the use of the affix in “time-sensitive.” I think it lies closer to the national-security meaning of “sensitive,” meaning kept under wraps, top secret, that sort of thing. This usage is not a precise analogue, either, but it comes closer to capturing that sense of something it would be foolhardy to ignore. Another possible cognate: “sensitive” used to mean “touchy” or “easily set off.” Here again, another usage with the requisite force, even if it isn’t identical.

Thanks to lovely Liz from Queens and her doughty sister for proposing this term this week. Free subscriptions for everybody!

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