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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: job interviews

don’t ask, don’t tell

(1990’s | militarese? bureaucratese? | “keep it to yourself,” “don’t bring it up,” “let sleeping dogs lie”)

An odd name for an odd policy. Until 1993, gay people were legally prohibited from serving in the military (a bit of history here). A year earlier, Bill Clinton had campaign-promised to end the ban, and he made an effort to do so within the first few months of his term, a time when presidents usually push their highest priorities. Whatever you think of Clinton (I never liked him, but I never met a politician I liked), he deserves credit for political courage, and it does seem likely that his insistence on raising the issue led ultimately to the full, official acceptance of gay people in the service, though that took another fifteen or twenty years. At the time, the compromise was generally viewed as a failure on Clinton’s part.

LexisNexis provides a blow-by-blow account of those debates in 1993. The important thing to remember is that although the phrase is associated with Clinton, it is not due to him. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was something Clinton had to settle for, not something he wanted. It was foisted upon him by Congress — which even then was unwilling to insist on an outright ban. Senator Sam Nunn may have been the first public figure to use the exact phrase (the record is not conclusive), but the APA Divisions web site credits one Dr. Charlie Moskos with inventing it: “a well-known, politically active military sociologist from Northwestern University, and a member of Division 19, told me that he had suggested the DADT compromise to President Clinton and to Senator Nunn. At the very least, Charlie is credited with coining the DADT name — which was originally titled ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue’ and later as ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue, don’t harass.'” The dam broke in May 1993, when an expression that previously had not even qualified as obscure burst into the press and has remained firmly lodged ever since.

In truth, the old word for “don’t ask, don’t tell” is “discretion.” Before 1990 or so, few gay people went around bragging about how gay they were, which permitted public opinion and state repression to ignore the fact that these people were violating “civilized” norms (besides, lots of gay people were highly civilized). “Discretion” is actually a polite word for the old state of affairs; younger people may not know that “the love that dare not speak its name” was a euphemism for “gay love,” and it meant what it said. Generally, gay people had to disguise their relationships, not just paper them over, and there was always social or physical risk as well. That was likewise true in the armed forces; when lifting the ban became thinkable, a compromise was required. The old guard kept the power to bar openly gay soldiers, but they could tolerate the closeted provided no one had to acknowledge anything. Within twenty years, the compromise was no longer necessary, and even Sam Nunn, who made sure Clinton couldn’t simply repeal the ban in 1993, supported getting rid of it in 2010. So well established in 2018 is the refusal to discriminate against gay people — even, apparently, within the ranks — that the best the revanchist right can do is to try to keep trans people out of the service, and they’re not assured of success. Doesn’t that suggest that the bans were never necessary in the first place? So many of us cling to the idea that we can define groups of people as inferiors, and need to. But diversity and inclusion march on because they work better than discrimination. The larger your talent pool, the higher percentage of effective workers you’ll have, and we need all the help we can get.

Today “don’t ask, don’t tell” may be used in reference to a wider range of subjects, from abortion to zoning, but it still generally is used where a large bureaucratic organization — like the Defense Department — is involved, and it means something like “don’t rock the boat.” If you are breaking or bending a rule, and no one is hassling you about it, you’re apt to say, “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Or it may expose you to legal trouble to request, or volunteer, certain information. As in asking for salary history in a job interview, now illegal in some states, or testing employees for marijuana use, which fewer employers are doing now, because it’s just easier not to find out and have to do something about it. That’s fertile soil for this expression.

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bring to the table

(1980’s | businese | “have to offer,” “start out with”)

What one brings to the table by definition benefits the party already there. It is a positive term, rarely used ironically, indicating qualities that will improve an existing situation or resolve a problem. In a job interview, it’s the thing that makes you desirable. Among athletes, it’s what will make the team into a winner. In diplomacy, it’s a bargaining chip that helps move the process along. Generally, it’s what you can do to help. There was a time when it might connote baggage as well as benefit; what you brought to the table was simply what you had, good or bad. But since 1980 or so, it has taken on the favorable connotation exclusively. The phrase arose in business and government; nowadays athletes also use it a lot. To my ear at least, when a phrase becomes popular among athletes, it has stepped irrevocably over the border into cliché country. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it has to do with the fact that professional sports figures are quick to adopt new expressions from each other and use them frequently thereafter, rarely with any imagination or creativity.

You have to keep your eye on the table, because idioms that rely on that word come from different places. “Bring to the table” calls to mind negotiation: the big table everyone sits around to hammer out an agreement. “Everything on the table” almost certainly comes out of gambling — the moment of showing your hand. “Seat at the table” could come from either, or from the dining room. To get anywhere at any table, a seat is the minimum requirement. Waiters bring things to the table all the time, but that sort of pig-headed literal-mindedness doesn’t get the blog written. In all these expressions, the table by now is purely metaphorical; when an actual table is involved, we understand it to be a play on words.

There’s a certain kind of new expression that develops a settled usage even though it is not particularly distinctive and could occur in everyday conversation without any reference to the specialized meaning. That description is a little vague, so let me offer some examples: “at the end of the day,” “be careful out there,” “do the math,” “don’t even think about it,” “good luck with that,” “I’ll shut up now,” “in a good place,” “play well with others,” “smartest guy in the room,” “what’s your point?.” All of these expressions have in common an ordinariness, almost a triviality, that allows us to notice, if we think about it, that they could just as well have no meaning beyond that carried by the word string itself. And yet, when we hear such phrases, we grasp an extra dimension, so that even if the sense of the expression is not much different from the literal sense of the words, we know we are hearing a distinct expression. There must be a process that allows such utterances to transmogrify into idioms, but I don’t understand it. Is there any way to predict that “I’ll shut up now” would take on a universe of connotation while “I’ll go to the store” (so far) has not?

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