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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: history


(1980’s | “from OR of the old school” “classic,” “old-time(y),” “traditional”)

It’s a nice way to say “old-fashioned.” The point is it’s nice; “old-school” is a compliment. It’s not just the old-fashioned way; it’s the right way. It may be used to mean blinkered or backward-looking, but that is unusual; one encounters it much more often in an admiring tone. Some expressions turn sour over time and develop a harsher side (examples: aspirational, comfort zone, game the system, lone wolf), and this one might, but not so far.

Almost certainly a Briticism, the adjective phrase developed from things like the old school tie, where it means something a little different. In that phrase, the main unit is the compound noun “school tie.” (We should also remember the older adjective-noun combination, which usually had a sentimental cast but might also be uttered with regret or mockery.) Now the link lies between “old” and “school,” a compound adjective with or without hyphen. During the eighties it started appearing regularly in the American press in that form, in political and art journalism and no doubt elsewhere as well. Sportswriters and music critics took to it readily to talk about athletes or musicians who emulated performers of previous generations. But it has never settled in one neighborhood of the language; “old-school” can come at you from any side.

Smith Barney commercials from the 1980’s featured John Houseman intoning, “They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it.” The commercial demonstrates why we needed the phrase, even though “old-school” doesn’t actually appear in it. There was no one more old-school than John Houseman. (Though he might be scouted by other old-school types for using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular entity. Then again, if you hear it as “Smith [and] Barney,” it’s plural after all.)

While Americans regularly show a preference for forgetting the past, there is a countervailing tendency to respect achievements and personalities that came before — because they paved the way or had an auspicious effect on later work. It arises from a yearning for a time when we were wiser and more sensible; we look to the past to provide standards and guidance, not just a way to measure our own accomplishments. When it comes to moral superiority, our past has a spotty record at best; some old ways have passed on and cannot be revived. If old-school exemplars want to be successful in today’s world, they have to choose the right practices, customs, and forms of address to hang onto. If you do it well, it still pays off.

Lex Maniac has covered a few other expressions that evoke old times: artisanal, back in the day, epic, retro. They all have the same admiring quality as “old-school,” or at least they did when they started out. I’ll have to come up with some that look back in anger.

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(2000’s | therapese? | “down to earth,” “well-adjusted,” “sane,” “connected (to tradition, etc.)”)

A rich old word. How many different meanings did “grounded” have forty years ago? “Kept from flying” (as an airplane). “Prevented from leaving the house” (as a teenager). “Connected to the earth or similar conductor” (physics). “Run aground” (as a ship). “Rooted in” or “founded on.” “Settled.” “Established.” These definitions were all venerable; none was rare. Starting in the 1970’s, sociologists used the term “grounded theory” (you’ll have to ask a sociologist to explain it); philosophers have used the word, with “in,” for centuries to mean “resting on a foundation of.” It sounds a little weightier than “based on” or “derived from.” “One’s fears were well-grounded (i.e., justified)” was a stock phrase, although not a particularly common one. “Well-grounded” in a field or discipline meant “thoroughly trained.”

The striking change since then is the way the word now is applied to people as well as circuits, helicopters, or boats. In the old days, the only time it was applied to persons was in aviation; just as an airplane could be grounded, so could a pilot, or, by extension, a sullen teenager. But in today’s idiom, it seems to be shorthand for “rooted in” or “grounded in” whatever it may be: a sense of one’s history, one’s ethical obligations, real life as opposed to misleading fantasy, etc. (like “give back” or “prior,” “grounded” has lost its preposition). It means remaining steady even when things are going badly, staying on an even keel, not getting knocked off course. In another vein, it might be something like keeping things in perspective, rising above petty everyday annoyances, or taking the long view.

We used to express this idea with corporeal metaphors. The most obviously related expression was “having one’s feet on the ground.” But the opposite end of the body was commonly invoked: keeping one’s head on straight or being level-headed. The fundamental idea seems to be that of connection, however, as in this author’s account of hearing the music her parents loved when they were young (Tampa-Bay Tribune, December 25, 1994): “It made me feel good. Made me feel grounded, tethered, CONNECTED to them, as if I had stumbled on a cache of their old letters.” That’s really the fundamental meaning of “grounded” — touching the ground. Attached to mother earth. On the firmest of foundations. That’s where the engineers and philosophers meet, and our latest addition to the dictionary relies on that sense, too. (But did you notice that when I defined the word in the last paragraph, I used a lot of metaphors that depend on water and air rather than earth? Now you know what kept the post-structuralists in business.)

The earliest examples I found of the word used this way date from the mid-1990’s. In a 1975 book titled Design for Evolution, astrophysicist Erich Jantsch talked about “grounding” and “centering.” He defined “grounding” as the “process of rediscovering man’s full and undivided nature,” and said that the “grounded man knows what he needs and what is good for him, because he knows in a very basic way, not dependent on logic, what is natural for him.” That looks like a definite ancestor, but I don’t know how the word got from then to now. I can’t even promise that it’s therapese, although it sure sounds like it, and I don’t have any other likely sources. Here’s an early use from Ebony magazine (January 1995), attributed to a “family facilitator”: “The feeling of being rooted in a rich history can make children feel grounded and prepares them for the rigors of life.” But the word entered the language slowly and did not go mainstream in any meaningful sense until after 2000.

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