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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: Jewish culture

coffee date

(1990’s | teenagese? | “first date,” “brief encounter,” “not even a date, really”)

It’s tempting to see the rise of the phrase “coffee date” as concomitant with the rise of the gourmet coffee craze (which hasn’t abated), and the expression did become a lot more common around the time Starbucks did, from the late eighties to the mid-nineties. On-line dating services made their mark only a few years later and produced many more coffee dates, but the term existed well before that. Google Books fishes up a solid reference in Mademoiselle magazine from 1966 (not that Google Books’s dating is all that reliable). That article explained that the coffee date was the college equivalent of the Coke date. There’s no obvious origin for either phrase that I can find in my limited corpora; maybe it bubbled up from below.

College students being so mature and all, naturally they prefer coffee. But the point of the coffee date is not what you consume; it’s a probationary first meeting, which the parties use to size each other up. So it must be short, inexpensive, casual, easy to escape, and in a neutral, public place. Nothing much can happen, and that’s the point. If you hit it off, maybe a lunch date next. “Lunch date,” “dinner date,” and “movie date” are older terms — or at least they became common earlier — that imply a progression whose first step now is the coffee date.

Coffee dates have become so firmly part of the romantic how-to manual that a reaction has developed. While conventional wisdom still recommends them as sensible first meetings, certain apostates, such as this eHarmony blogger, dismiss them as old hat and unlikely to lead to serious relationships; others question whether they should be called “dates” at all. There are always doubters, but even they can’t deny that the dating landscape has changed, tilting the playing field decisively toward Starbucks.

speed dating

(late 1990’s)

An expression, and concept, with a verifiable origin. The on-line consensus — unanimous as far as I can tell — says that Rabbi Yaakov Deyo and his wife invented speed dating in 1998 as a way to encourage Jewish singles to meet each other and form relationships. It goes like this: between five and ten women sit at individual tables. The same number of men wait nearby. At a signal, each man sits down at a table and talks with the woman for eight minutes, then moves to the next table and does it again. In slightly over an hour, you meet several candidates, at least one or two of whom might be worth a follow-up. Now several national organizations sponsor speed-dating events, which may or may not have any religious, ethnic, or gender restrictions. The practice is sometimes known as “turbo-dating.”

I was struck by the ritual character of speed-dating, which was after all created by a rabbi. The basics of the process don’t vary much regardless of who’s in charge: several conversations in succession, each a fixed period of time; then participants notify the organizer which live one(s) are of further interest, whereupon the organizer puts two people in touch if they appear on each other’s lists. Perhaps the level of rigor does not measure up to the detailed ritualistic instructions of the Torah, but there’s a rule-bound quality all the same. One site notes the roots of speed dating in the traditional Jewish concept of the shiddach (match), basically an arranged marriage made with the help of a middleman or -woman. At any rate, like many concepts invented by Jews, from monotheism to relativity, speed dating has spread quickly and exercised tremendous influence.

It’s another kind of prescribed first date and so is related to the coffee date, but it’s even more circumscribed. Like a coffee date, your chances of success are low but the investment of time and energy is small, and like a coffee date, it can only arguably be called a date at all. Speed dating is distinctive because of the sheer number of people involved; if you buy the theory that most of the time we decide in a matter of seconds whether we’re attracted to someone or not, the approach makes sense. Just get a bunch of generally like-minded, well-disposed people in the same room and let nature take its course. The irony is that while speed dating looks like it was designed to deal with a glut of possibly eligible partners, it was actually invented to keep members of a relatively small, insular group from finding mates elsewhere. (Of course, in a large city like Los Angeles, where Rabbi Deyo first tried out speed dating, there are thousands of unattached Jewish adults, still an impossible number to navigate on one’s own.)

When a reader asked advice columnist Carolyn Hax her opinion of speed dating, she replied, “I liked it a whole lot better when it was called a ‘cocktail party.’” The point is well taken; speed dating is a highly regulated version of what was once known as “mingling.” You went to a party with people you didn’t know, and you went around and talked to them, allowing you to determine who might be a possible romantic interest. No timekeepers or chaperones required, and if you wanted someone else to have your number, you gave it to them. I’ve never tried speed dating, but I was never much good at mingling, so something tells me I wouldn’t be much of a speed dater, either. Both of my long-term relationships began with dates that lasted several hours, so maybe that’s just how I roll.

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what’s not to like?

(1980’s | journalese (arts) | “what’s wrong with that?,” “that doesn’t sound so bad,” “what could go wrong?,” “everything’s cool”)

Except when used ironically, this expression is more or less synonymous with “it’s all good,” but it came along earlier. One can find on-line reports of sightings going back to Dorothy Kilgallen in 1963; my candidate for the earliest use (given the limitations of Google Books it’s hard to be sure) comes from a 1954 play, The Tender Trap, by Max Shulman and Robert Paul Smith. I haven’t found any sign of an earlier citation, though it sounds like something Groucho would have said. It does not seem to have found its footing in cold print until the seventies, when Amtrak used it in an ad campaign. Volkswagen used “What’s Not to Love?,” presumably influenced by Herbie the Love Bug, around the same time in commercials for the Beetle. In the eighties it got settled, most comfortably among actors and athletes (what’s the difference? I know, I know). In recent weeks, it has become almost a reflex to use the phrase in commentary on Facebook’s new “reaction” indicators, intended to give users more nuance than a simple “like” button. On-line language observers often dismiss it as a cliché, but it doesn’t seem terribly ubiquitous. That’s partly because we have so many ways to say the same thing.

It is also quite common for said observers to emphasize growth in the ironic use of “what’s not to like.” Here again, my ear says that’s not so common, though certainly available. My mental image of the phrase is literal and positive. One offers it with a shrug and a goofy smile after listing two or more amenities, benefits, or what have you. If it doesn’t mean “everything’s jake,” it means “there’s nothing wrong with you.” When the boyfriend is afraid the girlfriend’s parents won’t think well of him, she might respond with “What’s not to like? You’ll do fine.” No doubt, the sarcastic face of this rhetorical question shows more often than it did thirty years ago, when such intonation was rare. I’ve noted expressions that started off upbeat turning darker, like “comfort zone,” but “what’s not to like” hasn’t made it that far yet. That’s not to say it won’t.

Phrase Finder correctly identifies “what’s not to like” as reminiscent of Yiddish (maybe Shulman did invent it). Put “so” in front of it and the resemblance only intensifies, and doesn’t it sound suspiciously natural in a Yiddish-American accent? More fancifully, it may be because the question poses an implicit invitation to an argument, which might be counted a characteristically Jewish stance: What’s not to like? Go ahead, just try to find something wrong with it. The irony is there, but more veiled than when some yobbo prefaces a list of horrors with “what’s not to like?” Of course, one can also offer the phrase with a shrug, another gesture characteristic of the Jews, the French, and everyone else. (Full disclosure: I am a goyishe philo-Semite. Or, as lovely Liz prefers, “Semitophile,” on the grounds that “philo-Semite” ought to refer to the sentiment rather than the actor; that is, “love of Jews” rather than “one who loves Jews.”)

A digression on Max Shulman, since I brought him up. If he is remembered at all today, it’s for high-school charmer Dobie Gillis and his beatnik friend Maynard G. Krebs, whose antics could be viewed on Nick at Nite as late as my early adulthood. Shulman was a satirical novelist whose career began in 1943 with Barefoot Boy with Cheek, a fantasia on college life — he was fresh out of the University of Minnesota — and throughout his career he was known as a compiler and chronicler of campus humor. He was a keen observer of American absurdities and a determined social critic. (A World War II veteran, Shulman devoted a couple of novels to our armed forces. A later novel, Anybody Got a Match?, skewered the tobacco industry.) I just found out he wrote the book for the Broadway musical How Now, Dow Jones (1968). His technique could have been more refined, but he used genre parodies and zany wordplay very effectively and was a master at depicting situations spiraling out of control. We remember the Beats, but Shulman belonged to a much different tradition of non-conformism and social criticism. Sort of a Jewish Mark Twain.

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