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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: jobs

latchkey kid

(1980’s | therapese?)

Also latchkey child, though that wording seems almost archaic now. Some sources date the expression to the 19th century, but it’s probably later. Random House assigns an origin between 1940 and 1945, and Dorothy Zietz in “Child Welfare: Principles and Methods” (Wiley, 1959) cites not only “latchkey child” but “eight-hour orphan” and “dayshift orphan” as synonyms. Zietz points to “’emergency’ day care programs which became prominent during World War II [that] are now regarded as part of the community’s basic child welfare services,” which will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever heard of Rosie the Riveter. Nonetheless, in 2017 it is generally assumed that Generation X both invented and perfected the concept of the latchkey kid. Scattered references can be found before 1980, but the phrase really took off afterwards, which explains why Gen X gets the credit. (Full disclosure: I’m a proud member of Generation X (the older end) but was not a latchkey kid.) I can’t find any sign that “latchkey child/kid” came along before World War II, certainly not as early as the nineteenth century. It’s easy to imagine a Victorian illustration of a disconsolate waif with a key on a string or chain (not a lanyard) around her neck, but the term was not needed then because the kids were working the same hours as their parents. We still have plenty of latchkey kids, of course, but the novelty has worn off. Today, Free Range Kids carries on the tradition of advocating unsupervised time for children.

God help us, a lot of those Gen X’ers are parents now, and they indulge in the eternal practice of contrasting their kids’ experience unfavorably with their own. The Generation Next of parents proclaims that all that time with no adults in the house made them resilient and self-reliant, and maybe it did. But then why have so many turned into helicopter parents who starve their own kids of opportunities to learn how to manage without adult intervention? I suspect such generational shifts aren’t all that unusual, because parents have a commendable desire to spare their children the traumas they had to go through. But the wider tendency to bewail these kids today goes back a long time, too long and steady to be wholly unfounded. Every generation of parents sees their own experiences as definitive and notices only that which has deteriorated. The thing is, a lot of the time they’re right; standards do change, sometimes for the worse, and good parents must be especially alert to such slippages.

We associate latchkey kids with working single mothers and always have, though plenty of them have working fathers. From this has arisen a certain stigma the phrase can never seem to shake. Even today, it is used as a class marker, one of many indications of poverty, crime, substandard education, and the rest of it. Numerous studies suggest that latchkey kids don’t generally do worse than average; they share the fate of all studies that call easy explanations into question. We just know that the kids are worse off now and/or will do worse as adults; don’t try to tell us different. It is common to read nostalgic accounts of eighties childhoods, but at the time most press coverage — and there was quite a bit — was marked by dubiety. Some researchers pointed to pervasive fear among latchkey kids of emergencies they were unequipped to handle, or of intruders, or just of being all alone in an empty house. Latchkey kids may not want to relate such feelings to their parents, knowing that expressing doubt or anxiety will disappoint or irritate their hard-working elders. Then again, some kids learned to keep house, manage their time, or just watch lots of television. It’s unlikely that most parents want to leave their kids alone day in and day out, but unless the kid shows obvious ill effects, there’s no point feeling guilty over it.


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task (v.)

(1980’s | bureaucratese | “order,” “assign,” “give a job to”)

This verb never quite went away, as it turns out. “To task” is very old, and it persisted for centuries, turning up in Shakespeare and in both Johnson’s and Webster’s dictionaries. According to Google N-grams, there were more incidences of the verb (I used the word “tasked” as a search expression) in 1900 than in 1940; it did not appear as often between the 1930’s and the 1970’s as it did before or after. The lapse of a couple of generations was sufficient, however, to prompt several influential journalists to object to the verb’s revival in the eighties. The redoubtable Helen Thomas took Robert McFarlane, Reagan’s National Security Advisor, to task over his use of “the noun ‘task’ as a verb” (November 20, 1985); William Safire and George Will both deplored the same usage just a couple of years later, as the Iran-Contra hearings were giving the verb an airing. Its route into everyday language runs through government officials, especially those associated with the military or espionage. It has spread to all fields now, used easily in sports and entertainment writing and everywhere else. One wonders if “multitask” would have taken off as it did if the root verb hadn’t trickled into the mainstream in the eighties.

The meaning of the verb was not much different in 2000 than it was in 1900. In the olden days, there was a greater tendency to use “tasked” to mean “burdened”; use of the verb strongly implied that the duties prescribed were unwelcome or excessive. That may be true today, but the link is not as strong as it was back then. It’s basically the same word as “tax” — also both noun and verb — but it has long had the meaning of “prescribed work” as opposed to “prescribed levy.” You might see “overtask” used as a substitute for “overtax,” for example. It may be a metathesis analogous to the Middle English “aks” turning into the modern “ask.”

By 1990, certainly, there were several possible ways to use “task” as a verb. First, it can be transitive or intransitive, although it is usually transitive, which we can discern from the fact that it is often used in passive voice. If it was not followed by a direct object — the unfortunate person who had a job dropped on her plate — it was followed by a preposition, usually “with” or “by” (there’s that passive voice). Or it may be followed by an infinitive, as in a phrase like “tasked to make the donuts.” What would be the alternative? “Tasked with making the donuts.” Semantically, there’s not much difference, and I don’t believe we should attach too much importance to the grammatical distinction. My ear and LexisNexis agree that by now “task with” has won out over the other variants as the predominant verb phrase.

There is a small but plucky group of expressions whose members have been around for at least a century or two but have either never been used commonly or have undergone some kind of eclipse before flowering in our era. I call the roll for the benefit of future generations: “overthink” had disappeared long since, but now it’s ordinary. “Hurtful” spent five hundred years as a word that sounded wrong but has spent the last thirty proliferating. “Ramp up” has meant several different things, but it has never in its long life (it goes back to Middle English) gotten the workout it has gotten since 1990. “Template” is a technical term dating back to the eighteenth century whose use has spread and soared. “Life lesson” and “bloviate” date from the nineteenth century. The former was used infrequently by philosophers, poets, divines, and no one else until 1990 or so. “Bloviate” is similar to “task” (v.) because it fell into disuse during the mid-twentieth century. “On task” must bring up the rear; it has little linguistically to do with this week’s expression, despite sharing a headword.

Martha and Adam from Queens suggested “task force,” which turned out to date from the thirties and forties but did remind me that “task” as a verb (using it in the infinitive — “to task” — never sounds right somehow) had been on my list for a while. Another victory for the Queens contingent!

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guest worker

(1980’s | bureaucratese? | “migrant worker,” “bracero”)

An import, “guest worker” is a literal translation of the German “Gastarbeiter.” Early occurrences in the New York Times confirm a German origin. Like the signifier, the signified is imported — an imported worker. In both English and German, the term is a euphemism devised to speak politely about a group of people no one really likes. Until 1980, it was used almost entirely in reporting on other parts of the world, mainly Europe, where waves of laborers from poorer countries (southern and especially southeastern Europe) moved to richer countries to fill temporary labor shortages. Early in his first term, Ronald Reagan proposed a limited guest worker program along similar lines: Mexican laborers could spend a few months here picking crops and then be shuttled home until next year. This sort of limited-time, manual and/or seasonal labor was what we thought of when we thought of guest workers for at least twenty years thereafter. Somewhere around 2000, it became possible to use the expression to talk about skilled laborers, meaning programmers and engineers, usually from Asia. Now both levels are available in everyday discussion, and there doesn’t seem to be much difference in frequency.

When presidents talk about sanctioning (now there’s a fine example of a word that can have two opposite meanings) guest workers, it’s usually one prong of an immigration strategy that also includes stricter border control and acceptance of workers who are already here illegally. In other words, we want to make it harder for people to sneak in from now on, but we know there’s not much we can do about the ones already here that isn’t incredibly expensive and incredibly intrusive. But then we need guest workers to replace the stream of illegal immigrants. Reagan and G.W. Bush both proposed a version of this plan, and so has Obama. Immigration goes right on fueling a long-simmering debate in the U.S., where second-generation immigrant groups are always ready to pull up the ladder once they get established, and there are always plenty of upstanding citizens ready to look askance at more recent ethnic arrivals. The right can appeal to national unity; the left to jobs and job security stolen from American workers (actually, right wingers often talk about jobs, too). As for the guest workers themselves — who are making their way to America the same way we’ve been doing it for 400 years, and for the same reason: it’s where the money is — they remain an easily exploited group of utterly expendable people, forever victims of injustice or worse, so destitute they must endure all sorts of privation and danger to give their families a slightly better chance of a slightly better life.

I alluded above to the class divide among guest workers, which can be roughly summed up by the difference between two U.S. workers’ visas, the H1-B (high-tech) and the H2-B (low-tech). It may be an overbroad generalization, but I find the class divide applies not only to the guest workers, but to those who use the term “guest worker.” When executives or members of Congress use the phrase today, they’re usually talking about highly educated workers, ostensibly needed to prevent the U.S. high-tech industry from collapsing in the face of foreign competition and an inadequate domestic educational system. When small-town or middle-class people use it, they’re talking about the harvesters and landscapers who take a toll on public services and depress wages for everyone, besides taking jobs away from folks who’ve lived around here all their lives. Of course, both usages are available to both sides of the divide, but doesn’t this sound like some new class-based vocabulary? Wait: You mean the same word can mean different things to the rich and the poor? When you put it that way, it doesn’t sound like a new idea at all.

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(1980’s | therapese? journalese? | “drudge,” “drone”)

Was there an old word for this? See the best I can do above, and it’s not very close. You could say someone was tied to his desk, maybe even “deskbound,” but a noun? It seems to me that we missed an opportunity to talk about “stay-at-work dads” when we started to talk about “stay-at-home moms,” but I don’t think that expression was used much before 1980 anyway.

This word seems to have marshaled itself and marched into the language in the late seventies, although the OED and the 2008 edition of Partridge trace it back to 1968, and I’ll admit I found a few instances in Google Books from before 1975, but not many. It seems to have been the first word to adopt the “-aholic” suffix from “alcoholic”; there have been many others, but few with the same staying power. To my ear, only “shopaholic” and “chocoholic” have anything like the same frequency of use. (Here’s an example of a fellow blogger having some fun with the construction.) There could be a new one coming along any day now, of course — that’s part of the fun of watching language evolve. One linguist gave “-holic” as an example of “a pseudo-affix attached to bases” (Katamba, “English Words,” 2nd ed., Routledge, 2005). According to, it is permissible to use “holic” by itself, with listeners depending on context to determine which variety is intended.

The noteworthy thing about “holic,” whether suffix or word, is that it doesn’t mean anything, yet we grasp it immediately. When “workaholic” began to appear in the mainstream press around 1975, it was almost never glossed and only sometimes placed in quotation marks. You were just supposed to know what it meant, and I daresay most people did. James J. Kilpatrick decried the “holic” phenomenon as early as 1985, and Follett’s Modern American Usage is no more complimentary. (Follett blames journalists, not therapists, for the rise of “workaholic” and its cousins.) Those who care about English usage must cringe at least a little at these weird words, formed by breaking another word at an unintelligible point — there is really no excuse, etymological or otherwise, for treating “alcohol-ic” as if it were “alc-oholic.” Fowler’s is more forgiving, calling “aholic” a “useful and productive word element, whose progress in the language is to some extent a reflection of social preoccupations.” Nothing new under the sun.

Ever since its dawning, the word has had two related but distinct meanings: someone who is addicted to work, to the detriment of health, relationships, etc. vs. someone who just works all the time without noticeable ill effects. When they called Jimmy Carter a workaholic in 1976, it usually had a complimentary tinge, but around the same time it was also used to describe neglectful husbands and office nuisances who took on too many tasks and gummed up the works for everyone else. Sometimes a pathology, sometimes a source of pride. Rather like the “type A personality” — the concepts are closely related.

Usage note: “workaholic” is rarely applied to manual laborers. It goes with salesmen, politicians, administrators, office workers generally; I’ve seen it applied to baseball players, who work with their hands but don’t do manual labor. There are workaholics in the fields and coal mines, and one can use the word to refer to them, but it sounds a little funny somehow. That may be because farmers and miners don’t have a choice about whether to work hard or not; no appeal to an emotional disorder is needed to explain their diligence. Would those who consider workaholism a pathology consider it an ungovernable compulsion, analogous to heroin addiction? There is a Workaholics Anonymous. The word can be used fancifully, too, as in this encomium to the noble kidney, organ extraordinary, published on Huffington Post, “The kidney is a workaholic.”

Thanks to the inestimably and estimably lovely Liz from Queens for nominating this word!

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(1990’s | businese (auto industry) | “shrink,” “scale or cut back,” “lay off workers”)

A word that flat-out didn’t exist before 1970, as far as I can tell. (Random House Unabridged says the word arose in the early 1970’s.) In 1984, George Will noted that the phrase came out of the auto industry; at first, it was used almost exclusively about cars, and it meant they were getting smaller — it wasn’t about the workforce. Here’s a good quick summary treatment of the word. You’ll see that no one really knows where it came from — I certainly don’t — although one source speculates that it was sparked by someone at General Motors. It caught and spread quickly. Now it’s an adjective — one that sounds a little awkward to me but for which there are plenty of citations — as well as a verb.

This is one of those verbs, like “shrink” before it, that became transitive or intransitive with little difference in sense. We need to downsize this model year’s cars, or this year’s models will have to downsize. At first, the transitive was probably more common, but the intransitive has also become standard, although you might say it’s implicitly transitive: “downsize” is simply short for “downsize workforce” or whatever. I even found one reflexive use, in something called Industry News, October 31, 1983: “‘Atari is in trouble on all fronts,’ he agrees. ‘Basically, the company has got to downsize itself.’” Whatever happened to Atari?

The particular spread of the intransitive “downsize” to mean “fire workers” (as in “That company needs to downsize”) occurred in the 1990’s, followed by the loathsome “right-size.” By the mid-1980’s, executives were talking about “downsizing operations” or “factories,” and you can’t do that without getting rid of workers, so it was an easy path to the more specific usage. There’s no warm, snuggly way to say “You’re fired,” but it did take workers a couple years to catch onto “downsize.” Michael Moore — one of our most successful and productive provocateurs — cemented the association with his book Downsize This! in 1996.

The Tea Party has brought us much talk of “downsizing government,” but there need be nothing so large or institutional about it. You can downsize your wardrobe, your dessert, or your dreams. It’s become an all-purpose, easily understood term that pops casually into conversation, whether about corporate management or self-help. We live in the uneasy conviction that we have grown too big at all levels of our society. But our population continues to grow, and our waste stream, and our consumption, despite recessions caused by powers far beyond the control of the average consumer. Maybe we can get ourselves to eat less ice cream, but we have no idea of how to consume less generally or leave a smaller footprint.


(early 1990’s | businese (auto industry) | “farm out,” “contract out,” “hire workers elsewhere”)

Whether we use this word to talk about goods or services; whether it applies to foreign or domestic transactions; whether it is used as a euphemism for “employ people in other countries to do work Americans used to do,” it means only one thing: find cheaper labor elsewhere. The first example I found in LexisNexis dates from 1981, quoting Roger Smith of General Motors saying “high labor costs” were forcing GM to “outsource,” a term the Washington Post defined thus: “buy foreign-manufactured parts, usually produced at lower cost” (December 9, 1981). There you have it. The urge to increase profit by cutting labor costs runs strong and deep in corporate culture, and if profits and stock price go up, we are trained not to notice the decline in standard of living left to the majority of the population.

“Outsource,” like “downsize,” bloomed as a code word for “cut jobs” in the 1990’s, but of course “outsourcing” involved an extra step: hiring workers in other countries to do the same work — cheaper labor elsewhere. It’s rather an odd word. There are many examples in contemporary English of the prefix “out-” used to mean “surpassing” or “in excess”: outdo, outfox, outrun, etc. There are only a few in which it’s used to mean “outward,” “away from oneself,” “in another place,” like outflank, outlay, outlaw. A prefix used in an unaccustomed way mated with a new verb to create a useful euphemism. It took about ten years for “outsource” to become a dirty word. Finally, advocates for labor dragged the word out into the open, and now everyone knows what it means. Most of us don’t like it, but no one has figured out how to prevent corporations from doing it.

A few hundred years ago, “out-” was used much more commonly as a prefix in the second sense above (e.g., “outbreak,” “outlie,” “outpour”). “Source,” on the other hand, has only recently come to mean “locate products or resources needed to run your company.” I’m a little fuzzy on the chronology, but it looks like “source” became a verb around the same time as “outsource” did, so “outsource” may not be derived from “source.” Perhaps our neologism was not formed according to centuries-old rules after all.

As the word was used originally, it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with foreign countries. Outsourcing just meant finding a function or process — running a computer network, managing the accounting system, or making equipment you need to manufacture your product — that the company used to do for itself and contracting it out to another company. So “outsourced” is the opposite of “in-house.”

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