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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: grammar

baked in

(2000’s | financese? | “built in”)

In a literal sense, we use “baked in” to refer to an ingredient incorporated before cooking, meaning that it is inseparable from the other ingredients and inextricable from the dish as a whole (as “baked-in flavor”). When we use it figuratively, it means something more like “inevitable.” It seems to have originated among financial types in the seventies and eighties (LexisNexis records the great banker Walter Wriston dropping it in 1979), generally in the form “(already) baked in the cake,” i.e., predetermined because macroeconomic conditions now in place (not necessarily because we planned it that way) must result in certain consequences no matter what we do.

Nowadays “baked in” retains that air of inevitability, but an alternate connotation has arisen: there from the start (also inherent in the literal). It is unreasonable to expect to get rid of it because it was always there, and everything around it has changed to reflect its presence. Any strongly held tenet of a political stance, a social movement, a scientific process, or a hunch can be baked in — and the phrase is still used often to talk about markets and marketing. Take a sentence like “In America, racism is baked in,” a proposition obvious to anyone with a glancing knowledge of our history. It was there from the beginning, it’s impossible (so far) to get rid of, and it continues to loom over contemporary politics and events.

“Baked in” doesn’t have to refer to a flaw, but it usually does. Here are two in the same ballpark: “hard-wired” and “overdetermined.” They are all generally used to explain after the fact why something happened and to tell us we should have seen it coming. The relation to the older “built in” — which “baked in” has not to date displaced — is obvious; the connection to “half-baked” is more subtle. “Steeped in” is another old culinary metaphor that works the same crowd.

Even now, “baked in” usually comes after the (linking) verb and spends little time acting as verb itself. (You do see it occasionally, especially among techie writers.) It doesn’t act as adjective often before a noun, either, but it could. It seems noteworthy that it is much more common in a passive mood than an active, a significant trait that may change over time. Poetic justice favors its use in discussions of climate change, but that turn does not seem to have been fully taken.

The descent from “baked in the cake” to “baked in” reminds us how many new expressions arrive at their final form simply by having pieces lopped off, usually at the end. An elaboration deemed necessary when an expression sounds new and daring grows tiresome over time, and we retreat gratefully to the shortened version. As with “lean in” and others, the process has yielded a new phrasal verb, or rather made an old one more common, operating over a much wider field.

Lovely Liz from Queens has ventured “baked in” more than once, which means she considers it a good candidate for the blog. Dead-on as usual, ba-bee! I know you will set me right if I have erred.

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crater

(1980’s | businese (finance) | “collapse,” “crash,” “tumble,” “drop,” “fall off a cliff,” “go south”)

“Crater” has always entailed a certain magnitude, not to mention violence. Its original meaning in English, the primary opening of a volcano, goes back to a Greek word for bowl. The noun has always denoted a big hole in the earth, which may be caused by rumblings from below or impact from above, from a meteor, say, or a bomb. Craters by implication are dangerous. If you don’t get engulfed in boiling lava, you may fall into one and never be heard from again. When used figuratively, say to describe a bullet wound, “crater” may be small in absolute terms but large in proportion to where it is. I dimly remember “crater face,” an affectionate nickname for high school students with heavy acne.

When “crater” takes the mantle of a verb — a relatively new phenomenon, even if Chambers etymological dictionary found a citation as far back as 1884 — it brings the same suggestions with it. I didn’t find many pre-2000 examples in LexisNexis; nearly all of them occurred in the financial press. Finance and corporate culture are reliable sources of American vocabulary, and analysts and executives often have a surprising flair for the dramatic. Whether the field is small (a single company) or great (the entire banking system), the verb signifies a sudden and unforeseeable decrease in value (we used to talk about the bottom falling out). The effect of the pandemic on certain industries — airlines, restaurants, petroleum, Hollywood, etc. — gave it a boost last year. As the economy craters, the frequency of the verb does the opposite. One might resort to “crater” when discussing roads or buildings, but such matter-of-fact use is rare.

By now the verb has become more common and has loosened up. Wherever it is used, the sense of a sudden sharp decrease is still the rule, but the magnitude may be more disconcerting than cataclysmic. Still used frequently in financial circles, the verb turns up more and more elsewhere, especially on the sports page, where it is not unusual to see reference to a team cratering (getting clobbered) in a single game or stretch of games, even an entire season. Other mutations are gaining speed as well. The past participle does duty as an adjective, which was rare twenty years ago (except when used to describe terrain or pavement). “Crater” is very often intransitive, but the transitive form, which goes back a long way, has been asserting itself more. (A recent example from a financial blogger: “Restaurant traffic is picking up after the pandemic cratered most of the sector.”) There is another semi-transitive use, when the verb is followed by an amount: for example, a stock’s value “cratered 25%.” That was possible twenty years ago but much less conventional. As best I can figure the percentage is really an adverb, but it certainly looks like a noun, and I’m not convinced it isn’t really an object.

“To crater” started as a narrow, specialized term; now we see it spreading its wings, eyeing new directions, acquiring variant usages, dropping from more lips. That probably means we will hear it more in the next twenty years than we have in the past twenty.

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face palm

(2000’s | “smack(ing) one’s forehead,” “bury(ing) one’s face in one’s hands,” “pass(ing) one’s hands over one’s eyes”)

face plant

(1990’s | athletese | “headlong fall”; “fall flat on your face”)

Both expressions are amply defined, etymologized, and annotated in the usual on-line sources, and everybody probably knows what they mean by now. The face palm can range from striking your forehead (“I shoulda known!”) to covering your face in grief (it’s always your own face, by the way). The primary momentum may originate with the palm (as in the former case) or the face, dropping into one’s hand. The range of feelings expressed by a face palm is noteworthy; embarrassment is often cited as the cause, but disbelief and exasperation get frequent mention, too. The face plant has a narrower range — you just fall on your face and that’s that. “Face plant” has a neater origin as a humorous variant of “handplant” — a term skateboarders use to denote a planned part of a maneuver when one’s hand touches the ground — and it got going in sports like skateboarding or skiing, where it’s not unusual to fall face-first. In internet use, the two diverge noticeably: Face palm is an emoji; face plant is a meme.

I find it very difficult to hear “face palm” as a verb; it is much more comfortable as a noun. But “face plant,” while it does duty as both, doesn’t work quite right as a verb either, despite the fact that “plant” goes both ways with ease. Try using it in the past tense, actually any formation except the present indicative. Maybe I’m too fussy, but it never sounds idiomatic. “Face palm” works better as an adjective than “face plant” does (as in “face-palm moment”). Most sources seem to hyphenate the components or run them together; they will end up as single words if they aren’t already. Commonplace associations of the face, such as “confront” (face up to), “surface” (on the face of it), or “frankness” (honest face) are absent. Neither phrase is used figuratively; an actual visage is always involved. Some expressions resist irony remarkably well.

Both expressions traffic in humor and humiliation. Like the old slapstick standby, the pie in the face, face palms and face plants are played for laughs but have a mean side. That’s particularly true of the face plant, of course, where the victim becomes a figure of fun (a pratfall by any other name . . .), even though subject to embarrassment or even serious injury. A face palm isn’t always funny and may even attract sympathy, but it most often conveys at least a modicum of chagrin over making a mistake you shouldn’t have made. Both vulnerable and evocative, the face makes an appealing target for those who wring their comedy from pain and mortification. Its power to transport us is transmuted into permission to enjoy the misfortunes of others.

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done deal

(1980’s | businese | “sure thing,” “fait accompli”)

“Done deal” always makes me think of the mob expression “made man.” The alliterative spondee lends both expressions the necessary sense of finality and irrevocability. I don’t know of any connection between “done deal” and organized crime; the earliest uses of the term I was able to find come out of the financial industry, soon absorbed into political discourse. As you might expect given its business origins, “deal” clearly refers to transactions, not cards, although I can imagine a casino employee responding to a poker player’s complaints with “Shut up — it’s a done deal.” Newsweek noted in 1985 that the phrase was a favorite of Treasury Secretary James Baker, and such early patronage by politicians favored its fortunes; there’s no doubt “done deal” is as useful in politics as in banking (or the Mafia, for that matter). Even today, the phrase turns up most often in financial and political news — not that they’re different. “Done deal” has now come to be used more often, if not predominantly, in the negative, to caution us that there’s no guarantee the contract will be completed as advertised (e.g., “this is not a done deal”).

“Done deal” originally referred to business maneuvers, but as politicians picked it up it came to mean any sort of dead certainty (a little like “slam dunk,” but used in different situations). A way of saying “we’re not going back” or “you can count on it.” A done deal need not actually be done, but the point is that even if the papers aren’t signed, they will be soon. It does seem to me that “done deal” is often used to refer to a transaction or agreement that is not yet formal or final; once the deal is truly executed, it is no longer necessary to call it “done.”

“Done deal” represents a form of grammatical displacement not uncommon among new expressions. The concept is an old one, so how did we express it in the old days? “Settled,” or more poetically “chiseled in stone.” In a simpler key, “all over.” These are all adjective phrases that cannot serve as subject or object. Commonplace ideas look for new parts of speech to inhabit, and nouns may slip into power where once ruled only adjectives. To some extent I am speaking fancifully in attributing will to words, which are but bits of breath and ink, but if you spend enough time observing the language, it’s easy to slip into the belief that words have life and motive independent of us, their creators but not their controllers.

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standalone

(1980’s | computerese, businese | “independent,” “unconnected,” “separate,” “isolated”)

The earliest instances of “standalone” (sometimes hyphenated, even in this day and age) in Google Books date from the sixties and seventies, nearly always in talking about non-networked computers. The first hits recorded in LexisNexis all date from 1979 in that trusty journal American Banker — but invariably in discussions of the use of computers in banking. The word was used often in the early days of ATM’s, which could, in the manner of computers, be divided into the ones clustered together for protection (e.g., in a bank lobby) and the ones out in the field, far from help. (The latter had to be connected to a mainframe somewhere or they wouldn’t have access to anyone’s account data, of course. And even a standalone computer had to be connected to a power source. No computer is an island; no computer stands alone.) ATM’s were brave and new in the eighties, and I suspect their spread pushed “standalone” into prominence. Other business types were certainly using the word by 1990, generally in reference to computers. It was widely understood by then but remained primarily a hardware term at least until 2000. One mildly interesting point about “standalone” is that it could apply to an entire system as well as to a single device. A standalone device can function even if it is not part of a larger system, but an entire system can also absorb the adjective if it doesn’t depend obviously on comparable systems.

“Standalone” retains a strong business bias, even today, but it is available to describe many things besides computers. A complicated piece of legislation might be broken up into standalone bills. Or a film for which no prequels or sequels are planned (or one in which a character that had been a supporting player in other films becomes the protagonist) might be so described. A government agency that doesn’t rely on another agency for its writ. A restaurant that isn’t part of a chain. “Standalone” is not generally used to mean “freestanding,” although it seems like it ought to be, literally speaking. I am a little surprised that I find almost no examples of the word used as a noun (one does see it used as a trade name), although that seems inevitable. All it takes is the careless insertion of one lousy one-letter article, and the deed is done. You’d think it would be harder to blur fundamental grammatical categories, but no.

The rise of this term inevitably accompanied a change in how we use computers. In the seventies and eighties, when we began to get serious about turning them into tools for business, the idea was that each employee’s work station had to be connected to the mainframe, where all the applications and data were stored. In the nineties, we shifted to the opposite model: each employee’s computer should have a big enough hard drive to store software and data; every work station became its own mainframe (or server, as we would say now). In the last few years, we’ve pushed the other way, and now minuscule laptops and tablets run software from the cloud, and store data there as well. The same shift has taken place outside the office; home computers have undergone a similar evolution. There are no doubt good reasons for the shift; the rules and conventions of the computer game have changed quite a bit. But like many such sizable shifts in our culture, it has taken place with little or no consideration of why we did it the other way. Are the once highly-touted advantages of standalone computers no longer real or significant? We don’t know, because the issue was never debated out where most of us could hear. We did it the old way because there was money in it, and now the powers that be have found a new way to make money. You’re stuck with it whether it helps you or not, and you’re not even entitled to an explanation. That should be surprising, but in practice, it isn’t. Our policy debates routinely fail to explore how things got to be the way they are. It’s as if we all woke up one day and said, “Look, a problem! Let’s fix it!” With insufficient historical understanding, we attack large-scale problems with little or no attention to how they arose and fail to acknowledge the evils the existing approach has successfully prevented.

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max out

(1990’s | enginese? bureaucratese? | top out, use (or fill) up, reach one’s peak, maximize)

A term that has grown in many directions since it came into existence around 1970 — Google Books and Lighter both find no examples before then. “Max out” may have arisen in prison slang, where it meant “serve the maximum sentence.” By 1980, it could mean “reach a limit,” still a very common way to use the expression. An employee might max out with respect to salary or vacation time, or a weightlifter might max out at 200 pounds. A less-used sense probably comes from militarese: “attain the best possible score on an exam.” These were all current by 1985, around the time when yet another meaning started to show up persistently in political reporting: “max out” is what donors do when they contribute as much as the law allows to a campaign. (This meaning is also still going strong, surprise, surprise.) Two more meanings: “get the most out of a situation” or “put forth utmost effort.” Occasionally it is used to mean “make the most of,” although I wouldn’t consider that a canonical definition. The common feature I would ask you to observe about these variants is that they are all intransitive. In order to smuggle in an object you have to use a preposition, so a reporter might have said, “The donor maxed out on campaign contributions.”

Some time after 1990 a transitive usage gained a foothold and by now has probably surpassed the older uses, though they maintain a robust business at the old stand. The history of the word “overthink” shows a similar pattern; “lighten up” went the other way. By 2000, the expression was often used in conjunction with one’s credit cards or retirement account contributions, and these remain among the most popular objects. Another, lesser, transitive use: now “max out” can serve as a substitute for “limit,” as in an Internet form maxing out the number of words or characters one can type.

Such a shift from intransitive to transitive is not uncommon, as even fundamental grammatical categories carry less and less force. “Max out” belongs in a group of verbs that swing both ways: ramp up, downsize, upsell. It’s not that the distinction has become insignificant; even rookie English speakers recognize that some verbs just can’t take an object, while others just can’t stop. But only the beleaguered few care enough to preserve even simple grammatical distinctions, especially with new additions to the vocabulary. It’s easier just to let it all slosh around, and most of your hearers or readers can figure out most of what you’re trying to say most of the time, anyway. It’s like a cell phone conversation in which every third word is inaudible, yet somehow we manage to communicate. Or at least get close.

Another member of the “maximum” family is “to the max,” which Lighter says arose at about the same time but which entered the mainstream a few years earlier. We were all throwing this around during the Valley Girl craze of the early eighties (grody to the max!), but the expression was in use before then. (Assuredly I am being fanciful in hearing the old oath “By the mass” in the background.) “Max out” was just evolving a little more slowly, but it has lasted better; “to the max” sounds distinctly archaic in 2015, but “max out” has plenty of vigor.

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parse

(2000’s | computerese | “sort (out),” “categorize,” “figure out”)

How did this word slip into fashion? The number of results from the search term “parse” in LexisNexis: August 1991: eight. August 2001: 101. August 2011: about 400. If you weed out the duplicates, the raw numbers get smaller, and LexisNexis indexes a lot more blogs than it did ten years ago. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that the term is used much more than formerly.

Only thirty years ago, “parse” was a forbidding grammatical term that meant assign parts of speech to elements of a sentence and show their relations to each other. It went with diagramming sentences, a skill I confess I never acquired. You could use it to mean “anatomize” (or “deconstruct” as we might say today) if you wanted to show off your education, and occasionally someone did. Then computers came along, and creators and teachers of computer languages adopted the term, using it to mean about what it did before, mutatis mutandis. Parts of speech don’t have precise equivalents in computer languages, but the idea of breaking up an expression to figure out how everything fits together is just as important. Thus the computer revolution inserted an existing but uncommon technical term into our everyday vocabulary.

The primary meaning of the term hasn’t changed so much as spread. It still normally involves the idea of taking something apart so you can figure out how it works or fits together, but it need not have anything to do with language. I collected five examples from the last week of August 2011, from news stories on policing practices in England (where it was used to mean “sift,” as in data), tax collection in the U.S. (“separate”), commentary on news reporting (“examine critically”), baseball (“figure out”), and my favorite, an American Chemical Society press release on the energy potential of panda dung: “Until the energy crunch fostered interest in biofuels, however, scientists never thought to parse out exactly what microbes in the giant panda gastrointestinal system were involved in digestion” (“categorize”). And another significant change shows up in the last example: “parse” now may be trailed by “out,” which was non-standard in the old days. The addition of “out” appears to be generating a new meaning for “parse out”: figure out, but not necessarily by taking apart and categorizing. I suspect in ten years this usage will be common.

perfect storm

(2000’s | journalese | “everything going wrong at once,” “falling dominoes,” “utter disaster”)

In honor of a lady named Irene . . .

I had the idea that this phrase arose all at once, ushered into being and prominence first by the title of Sebastian Junger‘s book (1997), then a Hollywood movie (2000), about a terrifying storm created by a meeting of two smaller storms. (If LexisNexis is anything to go by, the book introduced the term, but it didn’t become an everyday expression until after the film came out.) The inventor of the phrase “perfect storm” was almost certainly Junger himself or a meteorologist who acted as a source for the book, Bob Case. There’s a very good article from 2002 on how the term arose and its current uses here. That idea of a combination of storms has been incorporated into the now-common metaphorical use; the term refers to a series of untoward events that feed on each other and add up to the worst possible outcome. A nice, vigorous phrase, newly minted, AND it packs a punch. Love it.

Not so fast. The phrase “perfect storm” has been with us for a long time as a metaphor. It appears in any number of nineteenth-century authors, like Thackeray (in Vanity Fair), John C. Calhoun, General Sherman, Trevelyan, even in Huckleberry Finn. It took an indefinite article and generally went with “of.” There were a couple of particularly commonplace uses that verged on cliché, like “a perfect storm of bullets (shells, shot, etc.)” or “a perfect storm of applause (indignation, catcalls, etc.).” It was not unusual to use “perfect” attributively back then, to mean “ultimate” or “ideal,” although it sounds archaic today. And if you were a writer looking for a quick, punchy way to say “loud, violent, sudden manifestation,” you didn’t have to be Flaubert to come up with “storm.” Perhaps the phrase was not common enough to qualify as an idiom, but it was certainly in the word-hoard in 1991, if only dormant, waiting to be stirred up and used anew.

But wait. If you go back another century, guess what? The phrase existed then, too, but in the very literal sense of “really big storm.” It turns up in explorers’ narratives, ships’ logs, and diaries. I’m a Marylander, so I’ll quote Charles Carroll describing a sea voyage in 1776: “Came to anchor: blew a perfect storm all night and all day the fourth.” True, the eighteenth-century meaning lacks our notion of a combination of disasters adding up to the ultimate disaster. But we see the same progression. In both the eighteenth century and the 1990’s, the phrase starts off as a literal, meteorological term and slides into a metaphorical use that becomes common and eventually overtakes the literal use.

In an age when “perfect” usually means no more than “just what I wanted,” “perfect storm” represents a charming throwback in its construction. That stern, uncompromising, old-time idea of perfection as Platonic ideal, as an absolute, survives in this phrase.

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