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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: hierarchy

take to the next level

(1980’s | athletese? journalese (arts)? | “push myself (etc.) harder,” “move up,” “graduate”)

There was always a next level, of course. In any hierarchy, any given rank — except the top and bottom — has another above and below it. “Go to the next level” could be used easily in such a context: get promoted, or (less often) get demoted. It might even turn up in a building evacuation plan. It was an uncomplicated expression with little or no metaphorical dimension.

The form of the phrase is fixed, though the verb may vary (“go” or “move” frequently stand in). “Take to the next level” has two obvious interpretations which are not exclusive but which have much different significances. One is playing the same game better. Another is playing the same game in a better league. In athletese, the former usage has become the norm, but the latter is more common elsewhere. Take, for example, an outstanding college athlete joining the NFL or NBA draft; suppose he says “I’m taking my game to the next level.” My contention is that we would hear that to mean, “I’m going to improve as a player” rather than “I’ll be playing in a higher league.” In other cases — such as in a financial context, in entertainment journalism, even in international relations — it means being promoted, in effect; bettering your own or someone else’s performance, or just changing the situation so much that you break into a new stage, or provoke a new intensity. Often, the point of taking it to the next level is outdoing another person or overshadowing an earlier event. The expression turns up frequently in discussions of relationships, where taking it to the next level denotes getting serious — going steady or becoming engaged, for example. Such a usage may bear a hint of improving one’s performance as a romantic partner, but it partakes more of the idea of a different league.

Most people probably hear it now as an athlete’s expression, but there were some early instances in performance reviews, and in the earliest days it didn’t seem more likely to appear in one than in the other. I’m not sure who got hold of it first — artswriters or sportswriters — but by the end of the eighties one was already more apt to hear it from athletes. In either case, it suggests an advancement outside an established hierarchy, as in a team or player summoning resources not normally available for a big game or a stretch run. It might be a pitcher adding a new delivery that will fool hitters, or a guard taking extra shooting practice so she’ll be more reliable in game situations. On the one hand, it is something athletes are always trying to do: develop their abilities and win more often. Yet the phrase gets trotted out most often before a big game or series. One must reach deep inside oneself and find new strength and skill to defeat a formidable opponent.

The expression is quite similar to “raise your game” and is used in the same way at the same junctures. It has a bit more of a mystical side to it, I would say. You can prepare to raise your game on the practice field, but taking it to the next level requires finding something you didn’t know was there, an unguessed reservoir of will, adrenaline, and physical ability that leads to victory. That’s how I hear it, anyway. On the field there’s probably no way to tell preparation from inspiration, certainly not for the spectators, and maybe not for the players themselves.

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kiss up, kick down

(1990’s | bureaucratese?)

I don’t have a good story for the origin of this expression — I usually don’t — but it requires a hierarchical organization and therefore crops up frequently in business, government, and the military. It seems likely that one should get the credit, but I don’t know which. The phrase entered our vocabulary decisively in 2005 thanks to John Bolton, Trump’s recently axed National Security Advisor. It is unusual, if not historic, to find an expression so closely associated with an identifiable individual. NSC official Carl Ford pasted the label on Bolton during hearings on his nomination as UN Ambassador. Ford did not invent the phrase, which appears as early as 1995 in LexisNexis but saw scattered use at best before 2005. After 2006, the frequency died down again — Bolton’s return to officialdom did not portend a revival — but remains higher than pre-2005 levels.

Bolton’s nomination failed, although Bush finagled him into the post briefly with a recess appointment, long enough to make the rest of the world grateful for the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. (Republicans have an odd trick of hiring people for high-up positions who believe the position should not exist, which is like Ford or GM hiring only executives who think automobiles should be banned.) Bolton, too irascible and doctrinaire to be confirmed to a prominent federal post in 2006, now finds himself insufficiently venal and worshipful to survive in Trump’s White House.

“Kiss up, kick down” is trouble; it describes a person who flatters and fawns on superiors while bullying those below, usually with the emphasis on mistreating underlings, who resent the effects more. Such an attitude is most often ascribed to bureaucrats and bosses. The beauty of this sort of management style is that the people who can hurt you and the people you are hurting are carefully segregated; mistreating subordinates is not particularly dangerous unless you break certain rules, and maybe not even then. Those who abuse their authority probably think of themselves as strong and tough. To the rest of us they seem weak, bullying others to avoid confronting their own insecurity. I don’t know of another expression as comprehensive, that captures the two-pronged obnoxiousness of certain executives. I’ve also seen it used once or twice to refer not to a person, but to economic policy, that is, the kind that funnels money to the rich and keeps it mostly out of reach of everyone else. That’s a sidestep worth watching.

“Kiss up” was established, if not common, by my college days, but not much before that; the first citation in Lighter’s slang dictionary dates from 1965. (“Suck up” is older.) “Kick down” is not a common phrase on its own and doesn’t sound especially idiomatic, but it does sound enough like “kiss up” to produce some cheap euphony, and the meaning is not hard to decipher. “Kiss up” conveys the right amount of scorn, while viciousness and inhumanity radiate from “kick down.” So it works despite the awkwardnesses.

This post goes out to Steve from Eastchester, who inspired it. Everyone needs a little lexicography now and then . . .

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