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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: Jimmy Carter

thoughts and prayers

(1970’s | journalese (politics) | “(heartfelt) good wishes,” “(heartfelt) condolences,” “deepest sympathy”)

In the U.S., and presumably in other countries as well, presidents and their administrations are a rich source of vocabulary. In my lifetime, Ronald Reagan has done the most of any president to augment the roster of expressions we reach for habitually. Yet this expression we owe to his predecessor Jimmy Carter — the first openly born-again president in living memory — who spent a lot of time talking about prayer and other Christian virtues. Less than two months after his inauguration, Carter told the family of the Rev. James Baker that they were “in my thoughts and prayers” after his passing. (Other Carter-era new expressions: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” “in the loop,” and partial credit for “human capital” and “workaholic.”) The Iran hostage crisis soon gave us more chances to throw around thoughts and prayers. In March 1981, when Reagan was shot, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau offered thoughts and prayers, and the phrase was well launched. It soon became clear that there were plenty of opportunities to express sympathy, the world being what it is, and that thoughts and prayers are a quick, easy way to do it. Something for everyone: Thoughts for the secular, prayers for the religious. It sounds solemn without being too lofty or high-toned. It sounds empathetic without smarm or gush.

Sounds noble but is also cheap and easy. That may explain why “thoughts and prayers” has become a can’t-miss incantation, the first resort and last refuge of anyone called upon to sympathize with sufferers from almost anything. (The victim must be worthy, of course; you don’t send thoughts and prayers to the survivors of Moammar Gadhafi upon his inglorious death.) Hurricane came through? Thoughts and prayers. Plane crash? Thoughts and prayers. High school shot up? Thoughts and prayers.

Broadly speaking, there are two different ways to convey thoughts and prayers, and the distinction is subtle but not insignificant. “In my thoughts and prayers” was standard originally, up until the mid-eighties, at least. Today, we are much more likely to send them — an active verb. This gives the impression of doing more than dispensing ritual sympathy, but it also changes the target. When someone says, “You are in my thoughts and prayers,” it means that person is thinking about you and giving God a reminder that you need help. When the same person sends thoughts and prayers, it’s more like directing mental energy toward those who need it. That sneaks in the implication that you are taking positive action, when in fact, all you are doing is making a gesture that, if not entirely empty, requires little effort and has little effect. Norman Vincent Peale thought that “the human brain can send off power by thoughts and prayers,” but such a postulate was essential to the gospel of positive thinking. No one nowadays thinks they will do any good beyond making some of the intended recipients feel better. And making the sender look better.

There has been some pushback lately against the “thoughts and prayers” mantra after mass shootings; many people no longer feel shy about observing that such invocations, however well-meant, have done nothing to prevent or eliminate them. It’s a fair point, one seized upon by right-wingers to protest yet another attack on religion. Hardly. That mass shootings have become more frequent and destructive despite an ever-increasing volume of thoughts and prayers is an indisputable observation that does not require irreligious tendencies. If defenders of religion want the rest of us to show their particular god(s) more respect, they need to come up with one who does some visible good, the kind you don’t have to be a convert to see.

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if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

(1970’s | journalese (politics) | “leave well enough alone,” “don’t rock the boat,” “let sleeping dogs lie”)

So is this phrase proverbial or not? It sure sounds it, and there’s no shortage of people ready to claim it as a fine old example of down-home southern wisdom. (One early citation claimed it came from descendants of Swedes in Minnesota, also pretty down-home.) I’m not saying it isn’t, but there are precious few examples of it in print before 1977, when it emerged from the mouth of Bert Lance, Jimmy Carter’s budget director, and quickly became a bromide. (Here‘s a good history of the phrase.) Sure, Lance probably was not the first person to utter it, and if you scroll down enough discussion boards you can find folks who remember hearing it as far back as the fifties, and if you press them, they will brandish a newspaper clipping from oh, say, 1976, that den of antiquity. Why can’t it just be a new expression, people? Why can’t we just give Bert Lance the credit? Well, it sounds proverbial — a complete sentence, words of one syllable, down-to-earth advice about everyday nuisances that achieves a wider scope, and that strategic “ain’t,” which assures us of the speaker’s sincerity. I’ve covered other instant proverbs in this vein: no pain, no gain; no harm, no foul; pick your battles; be careful out there; listen to your body, think outside the box.

The expression counsels restraint and even a bit of humility (in embarrassingly short supply these days), but it is also a great hymn to inertia; critics have a point when they warn against complacency. There are several elaborations on the phrase, many of which have to do with seeing problems coming and correcting them before they get out of hand. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” will come back to haunt you if you ignore dangers on the horizon. The expression is effective in debate because the only way to top it is with a quick and convincing reply: “It IS broke, and here’s why.” We want to believe it’s true; in its short(?) life the phrase has risen to the level almost of an axiom, or a law of nature. We prefer to think of such rules to live by as the result of centuries of refinement, because they seem less debatable that way — part of the appeal of an anonymous or group pedigree.

Thanks to Lance, this particular adage has generally been considered a member of the sub-species dixieii (I heard it first from my Tarheel mother, who used it with relish). Meddlers who want to change things that are working perfectly fine have assorted names in the South, all of them bad: carpetbaggers, busybodies, reformers (which, if you back off the first syllable a bit, can sound a lot like “foreigners”), progressives. In the South as elsewhere, politicians cozy up to local prejudices with dog whistles, double meanings, and high-flown rhetoric — because they work — and it’s my guess that southerners are more vulnerable to such things per capita than people from the rest of the country, but not a lot. Of course, very few Americans of any region welcome uninvited visitors who aim to mess with their way of life.

Both Reagan and Bush used the phrase around the time of the 1980 election, lending it a right-wing flavor that to my ear, at least, it still has (cf. nothing-burger, truly needy, junk science, zero tolerance). It is indeed conservative wisdom — a direct descendant of the Hippocratic Oath, which ought be enough of a pedigree for anyone. Conservatives do have a reputation for sitting on the status quo, not to be confused with modern-day right-wingers ripping society apart to take us back to the idyllic (for whom?) eighteenth century, or fourteenth, or whatever. But it suits today’s right-wingers to clothe themselves in conservative garb on occasion, and this expression is one of many that rings the right changes with their loyal voters.

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