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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: journalism

full disclosure

(1990’s | legalese | “telling the whole story,” “full accounting,” “clean breast”)

It’s a formula now, a ritual. The reporter states affiliations, preferences, or beliefs closely related to the topic at hand, prefaced invariably by “Full disclosure,” or “In the interest of full disclosure” for the orotund. Fair enough; journalists remain essential channels of information even when no one believes them, and we have as much need to know what commentators might be hiding as what politicians are. The expression has been around a long time, after all. It shows up often in Google Books often between 1800 and 1840, usually in bankruptcy cases or parliamentary debates, but it could crop up anywhere; one might make a full disclosure of feelings or past exploits as well as assets. For what it’s worth, Google Ngrams shows a noticeable increase in use after 1980, after a long period of relative neglect.

A bit more history: William Safire titled his 1977 novel “Full Disclosure.” In the eighties “full disclosure” turned up often in political reporting, as officials were asked to lay bare their financial dealings so voters could hold them to account for conflicts of interest. Since then, the phrase has made itself at home in other contexts, especially discussions of relationships. Journalists began to use it in the nineties, as far as I can tell, and within ten years it was everywhere. (Despite a few showy successes, efforts to drive money and influence out of government at any level have been notable failures; now Congress is populated largely by millionaires who get away with revealing little about who’s paying them for what, particularly when campaigning, now a permanent activity. And it turns out most voters don’t care. If a guy is smart enough to represent us, he’s smart enough to get around ethics rules.)

There’s nothing new about compelling people to make a complete accounting of assets or donors, but whereas journalists used to be the ones demanding such transparency, now they feel compelled to assure skeptical readers that they are clean themselves. It’s easier to force ink-stained wretches to show their hands than wealthy elites, and public distrust of “the media” has been increasing for decades, so they have become targets. And of course it’s true that reporters, like anyone else, may use the phrase deceptively. It’s easy to disguise a partial disclosure as a full disclosure, leaving out material facts; the very solemnity of the expression may make us reluctant to scrutinize the revelations offered. Deceptive or not, journalists use the phrase as a pre-emptive strike; it means “you don’t have to pry this information out of me; I’m going to tell you up front.” Which may also increase its effectiveness as a tool for misleading others. I’m not suggesting that newshounds are more likely than anyone else to use the term deceptively, by the way, probably less. The real movers and shakers will always have more to hide, and have greater means to hide it from the rest of us.

“Full” makes it sound like you’re spilling every last bean, but in legal and financial circles full disclosure requires only that relevant facts be adduced; it must pertain to the question at hand, whether it’s the materials and processes embodied in a patent, possible influence on a legislator, or anything a bankrupt is able to liquidate. When the principle of full disclosure justifies revealing anything a public figure would rather conceal, the investigation turns into a witch hunt. Maybe we should rename it “pertinent disclosure.” It might make the phrase less ubiquitous, if nothing else.


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perp walk

(1990’s | journalese | “frog march,” “duck walk,” “gauntlet”)

The act itself is objectionable to any American who takes the Bill of Rights seriously. Police march a suspect in shackles through a posse of reporters and photographers, who try to get him to say something incriminating or at least look guilty. Part of the purpose is planting the arrestee’s guilt in the public mind. Or it’s simply a way for the cops to get back at someone they don’t like. Parading criminals in front of crowds is a very old custom indeed, but the perp walk differs in two crucial respects. First, they are designed solely for the benefit of journalists, who act as stand-ins for the mobs of old. Second, they take place before guilt has been legally established. Most of us don’t get upset when a child pornographer or wealthy asshole is subjected to a perp walk, but as always, caution about giving the police too much rein is indicated. Presumption of guilt is insidious, and this expression perpetuates it shamelessly. There’s no snappy abbreviation of “accused” or “alleged,” I guess. “Susp” does not roll off the tongue.

“Perp walk” entered the mainstream somewhere around the mid-1990’s. There was no precise older equivalent, to my knowledge; if there was, it was pretty specialized. It might have been called, with grim irony, a “photo opportunity,” but I never heard anyone use that phrase that way. (Then I learned that the New York Post did call it a “photo op” a few months ago, so now I have. Who says writing a blog isn’t educational?) Several sources agree that the practice itself dates back decades, but the term “perp walk” does not appear in LexisNexis before 1986. My guess is that like “road rage,” the signifier grew more common because the signified grew more common. I’m not sure how far the rise of “reality” cop shows in the early nineties pushed “perp walk” into prominence. (Shouldn’t we have a reality show made up of nothing but footage of perp walks?) The phrase can’t be much older than that, because “perp” isn’t much older. It was almost certainly in use among police officers before 1980, but it was primarily a New York term throughout that decade; “perp” doesn’t seem to have become widespread until 1990. Its main advantage is that it’s short and memorable, but its lack of associations and baggage is also useful. Not a neutral term, exactly, but not as fraught as “accused,” “criminal,” or “con.”

Even after twenty years, “perp walk” has little if any figurative use. Here’s one instance, but it’s little removed from the literal: “chaplains and psychologists are housed together with the troops, so that a guy seeking mental health counseling doesn’t have to make the long ‘perp walk’ up the street past his buddies to the therapist’s office” (Huffington Post, April 29, 2016). It could stand in for any process that casts suspicion on someone, or even an invasion of privacy by the government or the press, but nothing like that has taken hold. “Raid,” “witch hunt,” “hounding” — all metaphors once — have become more or less standard terms. “Perp walk” shows little sign of going the other way.

Here’s a phrase that should be but isn’t: “perp school.” It’s when a juvenile is placed in an adult prison. No, wait, “Perp Walk” is a street name on Fire Island. Or how about “Under the perp walk, Down by the jail, Marched down the street in handcuffs, Gonna ride a rail.” I’m beginning to see why “perp walk” remains solidly literal — it doesn’t lend itself to plays on words, or any kind of play.

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(1980’s | therapese? | “torn,” “ambivalent”)

“Conflict (with)” has been a verb for quite some time now, and “conflicted” was its past participle, so it has long been able to serve as an adjective, but it rarely did before 1970. And when it did start making adjective appearances, it didn’t quite seem to be doing the work of the past participle of “to conflict.” Why don’t we say “conflictful” or even “conflicting” (as in “conflicting schedules”)? When you’re divided within yourself, two parts of you are in disagreement, so it’s not a completed action, and the present participle seems more suitable. (When a conflict is settled, it ceases to exist, after all.) Maybe I’m being too fussy about grammar, but there’s something irregular about the way we use “conflicted” today. Yet it doesn’t sound strange, even to me.

The definition doesn’t require much explanation, but using the word with the right force is important. You don’t use it when you’re trying to decide between chicken soup or a TV dinner; there must be pretty strong currents at work to invoke the term. One is conflicted about major issues or in the face of important decisions. Powerful emotions or principles must be reconciled in order to make one’s course clear.

In 1977, sportswriter Thomas Boswell referred to the New York Yankees as “wealthy, conflicted and almost-too-talented.” But he meant strife between rather than within, more like “fractious” or “confrontational.” The Yankees were famous for having too many players who didn’t like or respect each other, so the word presumably meant they fought all the time. Today, it’s more common to use “conflicted” to describe a single person, but if you view a team as a single organism, the meaning is basically the same as ours. Instead of everyone pushing toward the same goal, too many people are going in different directions, so the team isn’t single-minded. (The weakness of the baseball team as metaphor for the individual may be seen in the Yankees’ three straight pennants while in such a “conflicted” state; people mired in a dither are rarely so successful.)

If “conflicted” can be used to talk about groups or organizations, why not nations? It has become normal to talk about the U.S. as conflicted about this issue or that, or just across the board. Lovely Liz from Queens suggested last week that the U.S. needs a “republic-whisperer” to help calm all of us down and start working together to identify and solve problems, or at least agree that probably not everyone on the other side is guilty of treason. When a single person is conflicted, maybe you can help him sort it all out, but when half of us are unable to agree with the other half about anything, the task seems impossibly daunting. Our house has been divided before and we’ve survived, but as the retirement fund managers like to say, past performance does not guarantee future results.

Why do I place a question mark after “therapese” as the source of this expression? Could there be a clearer example? The early instances of the term I have found don’t come invariably or even consistently from shrinks and counselors; it turns up in social science and other branches of academese as well. One strong indication: as “conflicted” was taking on its new usage, it turned up in arts writing, especially book reviews, a lot. Arts journalists being more neurotic than average, they tend to be early adopters of therapese, before editorialists or sportswriters. Arguably, journalists do more than anyone — with the occasional exception of an actor or screenplay writer — to make new expressions common to us all. Many of the expressions I have treated started life in a specific professional or demographic subdivision of vocabulary before seeping or exploding into everyday language. Each type of journalist, unsurprisingly, tends to prefer certain subdivisions. Arts journalists are lucky to draw on such a fertile source of new expressions as therapese, sportswriters mine the rich veins of new vocabulary generated by athletese, and editorial writers enjoy the fruit of our prolific military men and bureaucrats.

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hold that thought

(1990’s | journalese? | “keep that in mind,” “we’ll come back to that,” “hang on”)

This expression is a bit of a dark horse. It slipped into the language without fanfare somewhere between 1970 and 1990 and did not get fully established in print until at least the latter year. An early adopter, sportswriter Thomas Boswell, used it a couple of times before 1990; Ross Perot said it in 1992 (I don’t associate it with him particularly, unlike some other characteristic phrases). One thinks of “hold back” (as in a dam or fence), “hold to,” or even “hold with” (affirm, believe, approve of), but none of those seems like a proper ancestor. “We hold these thoughts to be self-evident” doesn’t have the same ring as Jefferson’s canonical phrase, and it’s not the right meaning anyway. “Hold” in this case simply takes the place of “hang onto” or “suspend.” “Hold on,” “put on hold,” or “hold everything” are much more like it.

“Hold that thought” has always had a bit of contradiction built into it, or at least the potential for one. As the phrase is normally used, it asks the hearer to set something aside but also keep it in the forefront of one’s mind, prepared to reintroduce it at the first opportunity. Take it away, but don’t let it get away. So you rein in the idea on the tip of your tongue, knowing a more opportune moment will soon arrive. In the early days, the phrase could also carry a more unreserved meaning, closer to “stick with it” or “keep the faith,” but I am not conscious of seeing or hearing it used that way now. There is another distinctive feature of “hold that thought,” which is that writers often use it to begin or end a paragraph, or even as a paragraph unto itself. That gives it an air of portentousness, an injunction to the reader to keep your eye on the notion in question. My sense is that in conversation its use tends to be more casual, but even there it may take on the same minatory tinge. One more point, for the sake of completeness: you may see “hold that thought” used in the indicative sometimes, but in that mood it lacks any particular interest; we are discussing the imperative.

My best guess is that this expression arose on television, particularly in news programs or talk shows, where interviews make up most of the entertainment. “Hold that thought” enshrines a necessity imposed by commercial television, which dictates regular breaks in programming, often of two minutes or even more, well beyond the retention span of most of our fellow citizens. Let’s say an expert guest finally gets going just before the host cuts to a commercial. In such cases, the interviewer needs a polite, encouraging way to ask the speaker to take a break and pick up where she left off, and also to enjoin viewers to keep track of the topic through a volley of detergent ads. “Hold that thought” plays that role admirably, I think. The New York Times (April 26, 1987) put it like this: “Television is not always a great place to explore ideas that are complex, subtle or slippery. Things get in the way: a smart-aleck host, the scarcity of time, ‘hold that thought, here comes a station break.'” Sometimes “hold that thought” appears when there is no pause, as in cases where it means “wait while we introduce a related concept” (this usage is available in prose as well as speech). But most often it portends an interruption or delay. That’s why the alternate sense of this expression — “cling to an idea” — didn’t stay in the running. “Hold that thought” was needed for other things.

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(2000’s | journalese (music) | “reference,” “acknowledgment”; “name-drop,” “mention”)

Compare “shoutout.” Both expressions arose in or around the music biz; they are pretty close lexically, and they can be used in many of the same contexts. There are some differences: “shoutout” usually addresses a person or group; name-checks can consist of product names or places, as well as other people. Both terms can be treated as noun or verb, but “name-check” became a verb much more quickly and easily than “shoutout.” Name checking may be regarded as tiresome (as in the case of excessive name-dropping) or ethically dubious (as in a sponsor getting prolonged exposure in a film or television show), but a shoutout is always pleasing. Logically speaking, a shoutout is always a name-check, but the reverse isn’t true; “name-check” has a wider range of referents.

According to LexisNexis, the phrase showed up first in the British music press in the late eighties. Before that, “name check” was another word for “background check.” (It still is; “name check” also commonly refers to the act of determining whether a proposed business name or domain name has already been claimed.) It was something the police did to find out whether a suspect was already wanted for something else, or a spy agency would do to avoid security risks. In that sense, it goes back to J. Edgar Hoover and the old FBI. Up until the late nineties, that remained the meaning of the expression in the U.S., whereas in England it was at least as likely to be used in our more contemporary way — and almost always as a noun. The earliest unmistakable uses in the U.S. are verbs, which had not been true ten years earlier in England. In both countries, “name-check” showed up first in the music press, then wormed its way into other discourses. It is supposed to be hip and slightly advanced.

Most compounds use “check” to mean “verify”: double-check, fact-check, sound-check, even reality check. What sort of check is “name-check”? It seems to have little to do with reviewing and confirming, or anyway I can’t discern a connection. You have to be sure who you’re talking about before you can offer a name-check in the first place; “ol’ What’s-his-name” would not have the desired effect. The law enforcement sense of the term doesn’t seem relevant, either. Name-checks aren’t generally associated with suspicion; they’re usually compliments, not intimations of criminality. Likewise, “check” used to mean “restraint” seems extraneous; a name-check turns loose a name rather than reining it in. I would vote for two other possible origins before any of these: the bank instrument, especially when a name check has actual financial value, or, less literally, when alluding favorably to someone else gives that person greater credibility or marketability. When an established band calls the name of a less popular musician, it can boost record sales. But if the term is a Briticism — and it almost certainly is — shouldn’t it be spelled “name cheque”? My intuition, weak though it is, says that the root concept here is that of the checklist: a name-check is a matter of marking a task completed, checking it off, as it were. That explanation does not satisfy me, but it seems more plausible than those adduced above.

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(1990’s | businese? governese? | “appearance,” “perceptions,” “p.r.”)

While this expression is used mainly in political circles, it may not have originated there but in the business world. Not that there’s a great gulf fixed between them, or anything. “Optics” is a word for how things look, and it is used mainly by officials and journalists, though one comes across sightings in other fields now and then. “Optical” is an occasional adjective variant, or used to be. We’re not talking about binoculars and gunsights, even though “optics” may be used collectively to refer to devices with lenses. “It’s bad optics” means “it looks bad” or “it smells bad” or “it leaves a bad taste” — who would have thought such a humble expression the occasion for synesthesia?

Even though “optics” remains much more common in the Canadian press than in the U.S. press to this day, the earliest hits I found on LexisNexis (1986 and 1987) attributed the usage to American businessmen. It started to sound less exotic in the 1990’s, at least in Canada. Colleagues reported that it was a favorite of Jeffrey Skilling of Enron; he was listened to respectfully in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and his advocacy may have give the word a boost. Macmillan Dictionary’s blogger suggests that 2011 was the year all hell broke loose. I wouldn’t call “optics” in this sense a common word, even today, but you have to know what it means to follow the news. I prefer to think our use of the term comes from Canada; then it would join “cougar,” the only other expression I’ve covered with a clear Canadian origin. Ben Zimmer of the New York Times makes the case.

Part of the point of this word is that the institution that looks good, or bad — usually but not always the government — is assumed to be in control not just of what it’s doing but of how it comes across. Creating a favorable image is part of the job; “bad optics” are caused by lapses. The phrase is confusing, because it ought to mean inadequate vision; it sounds like a deficiency on the part of the observer rather than the agent or creator. But the ocular capabilities of observers are not in question when we discuss the optics of a situation or proposal; everyone can see the results of the latest triumph or gaffe. Attention to outward appearances, deceptive or otherwise, is as old as politics, but in recent years U.S. government officials have become much more open about attributing public resistance or discontent simply to poor “messaging,” as they say nowadays, or “public relations,” as we said in the prehistoric 1970’s. I associate this posture most strongly with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who still refuse to admit that there was a strong case against going to war in Iraq. The fact that nearly everyone else sees it that way only means that they failed to manipulate us effectively.

“Optics” serves the usual political ends of language to some extent; it is mildly obfuscatory, forcing the listener to waste precious seconds figuring out what the spokesperson is actually saying instead of focusing on the malfeasance being covered up. A writer in the Toronto Star (May 19, 1997) noted that the use of the word “optics” itself constituted a “dead giveaway that something unseemly is about to happen.” Politicians must walk a fine linguistic line, burnishing their reputations without committing themselves to anything. That requires in turn a lot of sidling up to what you mean rather than stating it clearly. It’s not a matter of flat-out lying, more a moment of misdirection long enough to distract voters from the latest scandal. “Optics” is just one more expression that helps them do that. But it has become common enough that it doesn’t serve the turn so well any more. New expressions must arise to pull the wool over our eyes.

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(1990’s | businese (finance) | “con man,” “crook,” “trickster”)

A far as I can tell, we owe this one to the Brits, or maybe their ex-colonials. There are very few LexisNexis results from U.S. sources before 1995; nearly all come from Great Britain and the recent colonies. We’re certainly not above borrowing Briticisms and their cousins (“at the end of the day,” “over the moon,” “selfie“) in these parts, and the venerable “-ster” suffix (see below) rolls off the tongue easily in America, the land of gangsters and mobsters.

This word probably is not necessary in either hemisphere, but it does have the advantage of incorporating the very act its embodiments practice. The old equivalents (see above) do not. “Con[fidence] man” is itself a bit deceptive; it really refers to someone you should not have confidence in, and he has to convince you to do so. “Crook” is more general than “fraudster,” but the two words line up pretty well, so it’s rarely jarring to substitute one for the other. A fraudster sees an opening and uses it dishonestly for personal advantage. The word seems indifferent to distinctions like preying on individuals vs. cheating corporate bodies, or large-scale vs. small-scale crime. As the OED (first citation: 1975) notes, “fraudster” denotes in particular one who lies or cheats in the course of a business transaction. But it is not restricted to such use and has already spread out.

I cannot help but wonder if the rise of this expression since the seventies does not result from a simple (or rather geometric) increase in chicanery. It may be that an ever more complicated and less regulated financial system, coupled with increased criminal activity enabled by widespread use of computers, has made it ever easier to pull scams, causing a new expression to erupt, a boon to harassed writers if no one else. It’s such a relief to have a new, yet easily grasped, synonym to haul out once in a while.

The “-ster” suffix repays study. My feeling is that it has had a bit of an underbelly for centuries, but any negative connotation probably became more pronounced in the twentieth century, at least in the U.S. “Gangster” and “mobster” both date back to somewhere around 1900, according to Random House; I suspect that “gangster” relies on “teamster,” an eighteenth-century expression that did not, as far as I know, develop a dark side until the twentieth, when the Teamsters’ Union for a time became synonymous with corruption. (Tapster, tipster, and trickster, all dubious trades, are much older words. Speaking of deplorable occupations, where do “barrister” and “monster” fit into all this?) The suffix doesn’t always have a negative connotation, even today; when connected to a name, it may be affectionate. For example, Tom Bergeron used to call Whoopi Goldberg “Whoopster” on Hollywood Squares. Then again, after fifty years as a compliment, “hipster” finally became a dirty word somewhere around 2000. I’m not enough of a linguist to offer a proper history of the suffix, but “baxter” (female baker) and “brewster” (female brewer) are very old. According to Chambers Etymological Dictionary (thanks, Liz!), “-ster” comes from Anglo-Saxon, where it denoted specifically a female practitioner, but well before the Elizabethan era the gender distinction had disappeared. Chambers also notes that the suffix, originally attached to verbs (bake, brew), as befits an equivalent of the “-er” suffix, now hooks more readily to nouns. It has gone on yoking itself to new words for centuries now, and it usually seems to have something shady or untrustworthy about it. “Fraudster” thus takes its place in a long, rich tradition.

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smartest guy in the room

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “know-it-all,” “show-off,” “genius,” “best and brightest”)

A top-down phrase, “smartest guy (or person) in the room” has from the beginning been applied to powerful politicians by powerful journalists. This expression has been foisted on us by our overlords, and we have accepted it placidly. Yet the phrase seems to have derived significant momentum from the film “Broadcast News” (1987), in which a sarcastic boss asks a stubborn young reporter (played by Holly Hunter) if it’s nice to always think you’re the smartest person in the room. She replies, “It’s awful.” (True enough. The eminent poet and critic John Hollander liked to point out that one of the drawbacks of being intelligent is having to put up with all the blockheads.) This line from the film was quoted by Vincent Canby of the New York Times and by reviewers for the Washington Post and the Associated Press. Even there, a boost from some powerful journalists, or at least journals. Political reporters Helen Thomas and Mary McGrory both used it early on. Broadcast News aside, the phrase didn’t turn up regularly outside of political contexts until the mid-1990’s. Based on my own ear and LexisNexis, “guy” seems to have won out as the most frequently used noun some time after 2000 (“person,” “one,” and “man” are other possibilities, in descending order of frequency). “Guy” in the singular still normally refers to a man, although in the plural it can apply to a group of women, at least among the younger set.

Aside from the question of whether “guy” or “person” sounds more idiomatic, the principal question about this expression has to do with how much self-awareness goes with it. Does the smartest guy in the room have to be aware of his superiority? Further, does he have to ensure that everyone else is aware of it, too? Inherently, there is no reason the SGITR couldn’t be humble and self-effacing, and the phrase is used that way on occasion. Sometimes the SGITR is credited with being a good listener who makes a point of finding out what others have to contribute rather than simply talking over everyone else. And sometimes you will see sentences like, “He’s the smartest guy in the room, and he makes sure everyone else knows it,” a construction that implies the phrase still is neutral. But usually when someone is hailed as the smartest guy in the room, it is assumed that he will make sure that his audience recognizes his intelligence, at length and at high volume. Through use, the expression has picked up baggage: arrogance, vehemence, petulance. It is still possible to use the phrase without the accretions, but it doesn’t happen that often any more.

When aggressive, self-promoting, intelligent people look foolish, this phrase will pop up every time — it has a lot in common with the old idea of being too smart for one’s own good. The first use of “smartest guy in the room” I found it in LexisNexis (1985) applied to David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, who notoriously led the charge for the administration’s tax and (non-war-related) spending cuts, only later to admit that the economic theory — tax cuts lead to greater revenue; spending cuts lead to economic growth driven by the private sector — behind them was completely fabricated. I hoped to discover that Henry Kissinger was the first mucky-muck to whom this term was applied, way back when he was running the world in the early 1970’s, but in fact, Robert MacNamara, whose job it was to louse up the world before Henry Kissinger came on the scene, would have been a better guess. Richard C. Holbrooke, then a young diplomat, used “smartest man in the room” in an essay for Harper’s magazine in 1975. He didn’t apply the phrase to MacNamara explicitly, but it was clear that he could have if he felt like it. The cases of Stockman or MacNamara or the Enron criminals, and those of countless other SGITR’s, reveal that even when the smartest guy in the room is by general consent the most intelligent (smart means intelligent, and then some — quick-witted, ready to speak up, a little sassy) person working on the problem at hand, he can screw up at least as royally as the dumbest, and probably more. Holbrooke: “The smartest man in the room is not always right.” Human intelligence is fragile and unreliable, prone to all kinds of blind spots and dubious assumptions that slither out from under you when you need them most. Sometimes, giving the smartest guy in the room a free hand is the smartest move you can make. But you’d better keep a sharp eye on him. Don’t let him ruin the show.

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Most weeks I write about established expressions, but this time I’d like to present a few novelties or near-novelties for your approval that might fill a crevice or two in the lexicon. All of the phrases proposed and defined below are new — or at least unheralded — and possibly useful, or even amusing, additions to the language. See what you think.


When the boss is an . . . . You see where I’m going with this. (This one isn’t new; it’s been on Urban Dictionary since 2009. But I thought of it independently, and I like it. Celebrity-watchers might prefer “paparazzhole,” but it’s a little strained.)

Eat down

Consume a certain amount, but not all, of a given portion of food, especially leftovers. Complements “eat up.” As in, “I couldn’t finish the leftover broccoli, but at least I ate it down.”

Five-minute expert

Someone who has spent a little time Googling a topic and thinks they know everything worth knowing about it. A lot of people really believe that a few minutes’ poking around on the web conveys a thorough grasp of almost any subject. Five-minute experts are especially quick to shut you down if you try to tell them something significant about the field in question, because whatever you have to say, they already know.


Long “i.” Not just for newspapers any more, now they’re splashed all over finer web sites near you.


Maybe “techpriest.” We’ve all had computers that started acting possessed: incomprehensible error messages, fifteen minutes to open a file, windows popping up at random, that sort of thing. In such cases, a mere techie won’t do; you need a texorcist — or rather, your techie must shed his mild-mannered exterior and drive out the demons. He attacks with antivirals, incantations, mumbo-jumbo and ritual ctrl-alt-deletes until the evil spirit leaves. Could also be applied to an especially skilled computer savant who gains a reputation for fixing the most wayward machines.

I can’t figure out how to spell this word. “Techsorcist” is impossible, but “texorcist” looks too much like Texas, text, or tenor saxophonist. I resisted “texpert” because it sounds lame.

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(early 1990’s | “tidbit,” “fun fact”)

The internet confidently attributes the invention of this word to Norman Mailer in 1973, and I can find no evidence whatsoever that it is wrong (an unusual circumstance). How refreshing to have a word with a single, easily verified origin that is not an eponym.

Mailer defined “factoids” as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.” When the word was used in the 1970’s, it invariably connoted falsehood. A factoid was untrue, and often deliberately deceptive. The important thing about a factoid was it was not a fact — just as a spheroid is not a sphere — but could be mistaken for one. It is dressed up to look like a fact, and in fact to have any life has to resemble one fairly closely, but it just ain’t so. In this sense it recalls propaganda or the big lie (though not spread by the government), something that becomes accepted through repetition in prominent places. A factoid is a little like an urban legend, although it need not spread so quickly and widely. It also resembles Stephen Colbert’s concept of “truthiness,” which feels like the truth but isn’t.

Before I go on, I need to say, “Well hush my mouth,” because the commentary above has little to do with my notion of what a factoid is — “minifact” or “interesting bit of trivia” — even though I admit Mailer’s meaning makes much more etymological sense. (William Safire proposed “factlet” for this sort of thing; I prefer “factette.”) The point of the word changed fundamentally (although it still came with a sneer); a factoid was no longer something false, it was true but unimportant. This shift seems to have started in the mid-1980’s and was largely complete by the end of the decade, or so LexisNexis has it. The turnabout in meaning coincided with increased use; the number of search results on LexisNexis goes up or stays steady year after year from the mid-1980’s to the mid-1990’s. By 2001, it had made the Banished Word List compiled by Lake Superior State University.

Three on-line dictionaries record the two contradictory meanings without addressing or even noticing the contradiction. I’ve been trying to figure out how the later meaning arose and took over with so little fanfare. Oh, some did notice; William Safire bemoaned the change, which he blamed on CNN, in 1993. (Wikipedia also blames CNN.) Another villain is USA Today; I found a couple of examples in the late 1980’s of journalists talking about that publication’s liberal use of factoids. Was it mere sloppiness — a few reporters simply misusing the term until it caught on? Or was it more insidious: the lowered journalistic standards of the new news giants manifesting themselves as lowered linguistic standards? Maybe it was a different kind of pressure on the language. Trivia became a much bigger part of our daily diet in the eighties, and there was no word for a single piece of it. Our need was so great we grabbed the first vaguely related word that came along, however inapposite. I don’t know. I can determine, to my satisfaction at least, when and even perhaps why the revolution occurred, but not how.

A very fine recent article, which I did not discover until the draft of this post was nearly finished, says most of what I have to say in more satisfying detail. It seems the people are awaking from their slumber and demanding an answer to the great “factoid” riddle. Let the times bring forth the lexicographer!

Update: April 12, 2013: It occurred to me that the word “opioid,” which ought to mean “synthetic opiate,” has in fact simply replaced “opiate.” Painkillers with morphine, codeine, etc. are commonly referred to as “opioids” now. I don’t think it would have occurred to anyone to use the word that way forty years ago.

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