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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: language

biome

(1990’s | academese (science)? | “ecosystem,” “zone,” “range”)

A biome is part of what we used to call the biosphere before that became a brand name right around 1990. The defining characteristic of a biome is its biota (living things in aggregate) more than climate or topography. If you can demarcate part of the planet with reference to its plants, animals, and micro-organisms, you call it a biome. Although the word properly denotes a region in the natural world, usually large but limited, it was first used commonly to refer to miniature, artificial environments, as in zoos or Biosphere 2, which was an attempt to create a self-sustaining colony that had some success, depending on whom, when, and where you asked. “Biome” was still primarily a technical term then, but available to the curious or well-read. In today’s language, the term is somewhat more likely to be used to talk about real natural environments (i.e., outdoor and independent of human-made boundaries). The word’s initial bias toward the fake probably resulted from the fact that when Biosphere 2 got going, we needed a word to refer to the distinct regions contained within it — ocean, desert, arable land, etc. — that wouldn’t be readily confused with the words we already had for the real things. Since “biome” was rarely used at the time (mainly in articles about zoos), it came in handy.

Within the last twenty years, “microbiome” and “gut biome” have become popular, building on the miniaturization associated with the parent term and pushing it further. Not that a microbiome is impossibly small, although it is very tiny by traditional biome standards, but that it is populated entirely by micro-organisms. We have them all over the place — on our skin, in various organs (not just the intestines), the bloodstream — and other animals have them, too. One supposes that micro-organisms have their own biomes composed of nano-organisms. But it’s organisms all the way down.

So far I have been trafficking in popular definitions, and I really should be more precise. The human microbiome, according to an NIH paper in 2007, means “collective genomes of all microorganisms present in or on the human body.” That’s much more satisfying phonologically, and tends to confirm a sneaking suspicion that without genomes, there would be no biomes. Although Webster’s Third defines “-ome” as “abstract entity, group, or mass,” in these words it seems to indicate totality.

Ecology has come a long way, baby. Even fifty years ago, we still saw the world in three zones: torrid, temperate, and frigid. (All good words, it’s true.) There were general terms for various ecological regions — savanna, rain forest, wetlands — but our understanding back then of what those terms meant seems so primitive and unnuanced. The rise of microbiology has changed everything. We break the planet into smaller and smaller pieces partly because we keep finding smaller and smaller constituent parts, which perforce alters the way we see and understand the large-scale creatures. First one biosphere became many, and those mini-biospheres begat biomes, which begat microbiomes. Those little suckers may be small, but they’re not too small to study.

Any Hank Williams appreciators out there? Sing along: “Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the biome!” Farther west, it’s biome on the range. But stay away from the atomic biome tests.

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ka-ching!

(1990’s | advertese? | “Ring it up!,” “Rake it in!,” “Score!”)

An onomatopoetic rendering of an old-time cash register — none of this infernal beeping we hear all the time nowadays, just a cheery little bell that rang whenever the cashier opened the drawer. (The sound was also attributed sometimes to slot machines, taxi meters, and pinball machines.) Like many onomoatopoeias, it doesn’t feel quite like a real word somehow, but language comes from many places and need not trace its lineage back to the Mayflower, nor yet the Indo-Europeans. There is also a one-syllable form; how well I recall the introduction to Beard and Kenney’s Tolkien parody, Bored of the Rings, one of many unfortunate childhood influences on my sense of humor, in which the authors freely admitted they were in it for the money and recorded hoped-for sales of the book with a gleeful “ching!” No prefix, which is a more accurate translation of the cash-register bell — although maybe the two-syllable version is descended from an old-time adding machine. My guess is that the opening syllable is an elaboration born of exuberance. “Cha-ching!” is a common variant. It is used most commonly, by far, as an interjection, but it may see spot duty as a noun or verb.

It’s not invariable, but typically “ka-ching” carries a strong suggestion of unseemly greed. One common way to use the expression is as the response of a litany, in which each item of a list of features, services, or transactions is met with “ka-ching!” In such cases there is usually an implication that the items enumerated have the primary purpose of mulcting, rather than helping, the customer. It is a tricky expression to translate into regular ol’ words, which is no doubt why it has been successful. There is no quicker, breezier way to say “someone’s making money off of this” in speech or gesture. (Does the old gesture of rubbing the tip of the thumb against the fingertips mean anything any more? That meant “give me money,” or more poetically, “cross my palm with silver” and implied bribery.) The expression may also have a disagreeably exultant tone when one is enjoying one’s own financial success. It’s not always accusing, but I think that’s predominant.

I found an example or two before 1991 in LexisNexis, but that seems to be the year “ka-ching” took wing through the good offices of young actor Seth Green in a commercial for a fast food chain called Rally’s. After every item the customer ordered, Green (as the cashier) ejaculated “cha-ching” or some variant (one of which was “ba-da-bing,” by the way, Sopranos’ fans). The commercial did not have national circulation, but it did become a hit with New Orleans Saints’ fans, who adopted “cha-ching” as a celebratory expression. Maybe that’s where Mike Myers picked it up, as it completed its journey to the center of the mainstream by way of of Wayne’s World (1992), which also popularized such immortals as “Not!” as an interjection, “hurl” (vomit), and “we’re not worthy.” “Ka-ching” existed before the movie; a 1992 New York Times article cites it as an example of a distinctive phrase from the film. But it doesn’t seem to have been as iconic (or moronic) as “babe” and its derivatives or the once-ubiquitous “party on.” (There are dissertations to be written about the effect of “Wayne’s World” on the language.) By the time the nascent Oxygen Network used it as the name of a show and a web site in the late nineties, the usage was probably still hip but hardly new.

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dream team

(1990’s | athletese | “crack team or group”)

The second moldy oldie in a row, this term was well established by 1980 — it turns up in Google Books before 1950 — but primarily in athletic contexts, as in the high school basketball All-American team. Next came the arts, particularly writing about cinema, in which it referred to a group (usually a pair) of actors that either had appeared together in a film, or the critic merely wished they had. “Dream Team” was the title of a 1989 film, an ensemble comedy about mental patients, and well before that Joe McGinniss had used it as the title of a novel in 1972. So it’s not like there was anything novel about it when the revolution came in 1992, led by the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team. A spike in the use of the term coincided with a modestly significant grammatical evolution: the switch from indefinite article to definite was the inevitable result of THE Dream Team’s hijacking of the phrase. Before that, it was much more common to talk about “a dream team.” Ever since, while it’s still possible to use the indefinite article, you can’t really use the expression without reminding everyone of Magic, Larry, Michael, Scottie, and the rest. Another change: after 1992, the expression has almost invariably referred to a functioning group of players that actually competes against other teams. Before that, it was as likely to mean an imaginary team, like an all-time all-star squad, which could never actually be assembled to play a game.

Because of the longstanding use of “dream” as an adjective to mean “best imaginable,” this phrase doesn’t require a complicated origin story. The rhyme helped make it memorable, of course, like “supergroup” or “Mod Squad.” The most noteworthy thing about “dream team” is that it almost always refers to a temporary or even ad hoc assemblage, usually in response to a singular crisis or at least a big event, like the Olympics. Generally, we envision a roster of standouts in a particular field — doctors, fund managers, musicians forming a band — drawn together by a central agency or just uniting of their own accord for a specific purpose and a limited time, after which the team disbands and everyone goes back to what they were doing.

There are other things that “dream team” could mean, right? It can — but rarely does — signify the sports franchise one has loved all one’s life (“team of my dreams,” like “girl of my dreams”), or some kind of organization devoted to helping kids realize their ambitions. Why not a group of psychoanalysts working over a patient’s unconscious, or a foundation dedicated to ending the practice of judging people by the color of their skin, or a committee committed to passing the DREAM Act? The sense of “short-lived congeries of top performers” has made such plausibilities more or less impossible, not to mention eliminating the entire field of imaginary teams. Maybe of all the possibilities, that’s the signified that most needed a signifier. There are precedents in the movies — “The Magnificent Seven” and “Ocean’s 11” both came out in 1960, oddly enough — and the basic idea is as old as the Iliad. The persistence of the concept has driven out other possible associations. I don’t know anything about science fiction, but wasn’t there a story or novel about beings who work together to get inside the heads of certain characters (or everybody, what the hell) and control their dreams, whether doing emergency repairs like a utility crew or manipulating them for gain like evil geniuses? I have the feeling I’m describing the plot of a sci-fi monument without having the faintest idea what it is. Faithful readers?

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real time

(1970’s | computerese | “clock time”)

Another departure from my chronological standards, “real time” was well established by 1980, though mainly in technical contexts. The expression has a few slightly different meanings that pretty much come down to simultaneity — one system changes more or less instantly as a parallel system does, generally as the result of new information. The other notion it conveys is time neither expanded (as in slow-motion replay) nor compressed (as in time-lapse photography). “Real time” demands strict observance of the clock, giving it still greater power to circumscribe our every thought and sensation.

As the expression has become more colloquial, it has leaned more on a preposition: “In real time” corresponds to “live” or “as it unfolds,” which seems like a perfectly natural development; sometimes it means no more than “up to the minute” or “at this moment.” The expression retains a strong technical bias, but it has been available to arts writers for at least thirty years. The concept is easily grasped and we all labor under the computer’s yoke, so it has become common property; most of us are capable of using the phrase in ordinary conversation, without quotation marks. It’s also available as an adjective. Despite a superficial resemblance, “real time” probably has nothing to do with the older “have a real time of it” — a rough time — which is passing from the scene.

Improving communication speed has been a primary technical goal for many centuries now. The days are over when Cecil Rhodes (according to Mark Twain in “Following the Equator”) could land in Sydney and make a fortune because he caught and gutted a shark that thousands of miles away had eaten a man who happened to be carrying a newspaper with significant financial news — news much more recent than the “latest,” which came by steamship from England and was a month or two old. Those days ended with the invention of the telephone, the first long-distance real-time communications device. (It took several decades before intercontinental telephone calls became feasible, of course.) A hundred years later, in the 1970’s and ’80’s, a lot of money and effort were still being spent to improve data transmission speed and the ability of various kinds of software to incorporate fresh observations or calculations quickly and accurately. Data velocity has not decreased in the years since, and the packages have grown enormous. Files that would have taken days to send thirty years ago, if they could be sent at all without overwhelming the network, now arrive in seconds. The combination of increasing speed and vast volume have made possible dizzying advances in a range of fields, not to mention terrifying information overload.

The changes real time hath wrought — in banking, medicine, journalism, and on and on — are too numerous and well-known to list. We may think of it mainly in economic terms, counting the ways faster movement of bytes and more and more seamless coordination between networks and devices have enabled us to make money. But there are other forces at work. One is simply the drive to innovate and improve, so fundamental to technological advance. The other is its complement, greed for novelty, not necessarily caused by cupidity, which creates the cheering section for the engineers and programmers who find ways to make it all work faster and better. The early adopters, in turn, make it financially possible to maintain the techies by enabling the middlemen to make a profit off their work, and we’re back to money.

If my count is correct, this is the 400th expression Lex Maniac has written about at greater or lesser length. My first association is with the Four Hundred of nineteenth century New York society, perhaps not the most fortunate. Second is auto races, also a little out of place. “Into the valley of death”? Doesn’t sound right, either. An inauspicious milestone.

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economic engine

(1980’s | journalese (economics) | “economic driver,” “principal industry, etc.,” “catalyst”)

Somewhere in there, the mere act of job creation came to justify nearly any form of bad corporate citizenship, came in fact to embody our highest civic values, the framers be damned. “Economic engine,” less noticed but more eloquent, has been swept along in its wake. It made infrequent appearances in the 1970’s, nearly always referring to the U.S. economy as a whole, which was stalled (get it?) for much of the decade. Occasionally a wistful economist would talk about what we need to get the economic engine purring again. Our gross national product (as we called it then) was envisioned as propelling the nation, creating ever more prosperity for more people. The nation was the car; the money the motor.

The term has been demoted since then, even though you will still see it used that way sometimes. Now “economic engine” typically applies to a sector or an industry — even a single company, if it’s a big firm in a small town, or a product line within a single company, like iPhone for Apple. Or it may be an institution like a university or airport, which acts more as a handmaiden to prosperity than as its mother. It’s what helps make hiring and spending and stock prices go up, which makes the economists happy, so they don’t notice the looming crash, which by tradition takes everyone by surprise except the executives who sell blocks of stock just before it all comes tumbling down. But in the periods between crashes, everybody claims credit for being the economic engine, ginning up jobs and disposable income and keeping the money moving around.

It does raise the question of who exactly maintains the economic engine. At the level of a single firm, the economic engine is whatever goods or services bolster the balance sheet, so whoever’s in charge of that wears the mechanic’s overalls. But on a national level . . . Do you ever get the feeling that there are no greasemonkeys, or they’re on permanent break? An engine left to run on its own, without inspection or repair, forever? The trouble with metaphors is that they create their own consequences. And the fuel? Raw materials, a bewildering variety of assets, and . . . us.

job creation

(1980’s | journalese (economics) | “expanding opportunities,” “filling job openings”)

Of course, they created (and destroyed) jobs in the olden days, and “create jobs” was a common enough phrase in the 1970’s, but “job creation” does not seem to have been widespread before 1980. By the end of the decade, it was the benchmark of economic success for public officials, and the solemn duty of businesses small and large, as it remains to this day. You don’t hear “jobs creation,” though it might pass muster in England. “Job destruction” has not become commonplace, but it’s not hard to imagine one candidate abusing another in such terms.

We forget that making a new job that never existed before is actually a lot of work. When a company prospers, more people must help carry the load. So what has to happen? The boss has to authorize a search, you have to interview candidates, the responsibilities of existing employees may need to be shifted around (or at least the furniture), forms filled out and filed, insurance companies notified and placated, etc., etc. “Create jobs” involves an active verb, but “job creation” makes it sound like the whole process just happens magically, with no human intervention. Positions called into being ex nihilo, as Jehovah produced the universe, with no more than a word. All the work of making work is concealed by this phrase.

So what? It only worries me because I’ve seen all of us become more and more alienated (to use Marx’s term) from the fundamentals of economic life as I’ve grown older. Sure, we have our jobs, we pay taxes, we save and spend. But the national economic engine is so huge and so abstract that we no longer have any sense of what’s really going on, or even what it bodes for us. The economists pore over the statistics — if they don’t look so good, don’t worry, they’ll be revised soon — the Fed has its meetings and makes its little adjustments, the mandarins assure us they have everything under control. Then one day everyone (well, almost everyone) goes over a cliff, and it turns out the economists didn’t really understand what was going on, either, or not quite enough of it. Expressions that further the feeling that it’s all magic wrought far out of our reach are dangerous; we need to be more aware, not less.

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data mining

(1990’s | computerese)

I propose we blow up the boring old meaning of this phrase and start using it to mean the act of planting cybertraps in databases that will detect the intrusion of software designed to find patterns and connections within vast assortments of data and mess it up somehow — disable the software, infect it with malware that captures its proprietary information, flood the CEO’s inbox with threatening e-mails, I dunno. Someone who knows something about computers can make better suggestions. If you’re data mining and you step on a mine, what happens?

For “data mining” as we use it has no explosive traces. It is a computer term, pure and simple — always has been since it started turning up in the late eighties and early nineties — denoting the practice of analyzing large accumulations of data quickly with an eye to digging out buried yet useful trends and relationships. “Data mine” is much less common but may be employed as a verb and occasionally as a noun, though normally with an indication that the writer is aiming at drollery. Databases — why do we call them that, anyway? — don’t have ore, veins, or mother lodes, and you don’t freebase data. Data mining need not have anything to do with “undermining,” which goes back to the meaning of mining mooted above, though, when used for nefarious ends, it often does anyway.

One web site points out that data mining is useful in many professions, and we often associate it with marketing in particular. (I take an unwarranted pause to point out that “marketing” still meant “grocery shopping” when I was little, at least among older people. There’s a word that has changed forever.) That accounts for the suspicion we attach to data mining, which after all is capable of being perfectly innocuous (cf. “game the system“) and is often used for laudable ends, such as improving customer service or finding correlations in wide-ranging clinical trials that escape even the most observant doctors. Yet data mining leaves a bad taste in our mouths. How can this be? We resent it when vast, wealthy entities exert power over us, especially when they invade our privacy to do it. Worse yet, we know the data jockeys will use whatever they get to relieve us of our money. First they steal our secrets and then they use them against us. Oh, they’re just making a few recommendations, trying to help, but we know what’s really going on.

As I’ve pointed out before, one of the problems of our culture is that we heap up more data than we can possibly use; the more we have, the easier it is to miss something important. We’re in a permanent state of information overload, which is not the same as “too much information.” Data mining works to defend against such slips, and it certainly ought to be a useful tool. Would better data mining techniques have helped to prevent 9/11, for example? I don’t see how they could have hurt.

This expression was given to me years ago by my old buddy Charles, and I dusted it off in honor of a recent exchange of hospitality. High time.

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promise made, promise kept

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “I (she, etc.) kept my (etc.) word,” “I (etc.) delivered”)

Property of politicians from the first, this phrase has several variants which may involve articles, plural nouns, or even linking verbs, but it seems to have settled into a four-word groove and has become a bit of a meme. (A 1981 ad for the perfume Arpège occurred very early in the history of the phrase and may have provided impetus.) A LexisNexis search shows a gradual coalescing around the four-word version during the 1980’s. When Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, he handed out pamphlets titled “Promises Made, Promises Kept” to staff members; he seems to have been the first president to use the phrase, although I don’t think he ever said it in public. The first politician credited with it in LexisNexis was George Voinovich (1981), then mayor of Cleveland, and it has been a staple ever since among candidates for re-election. Legislators may use it, too, as in the case of House Republicans’ “Contract with America” in 1995, when they boasted of passing all their key legislation in the early days of the 104th Congress. (They blithely ignored the fact that a bill doesn’t actually become law until it gets through both houses and the president, but it’s not like they invented political puffery.) Of course, making good on promises is not the same as making good policy, but in the heat of battle such cool-headed logic may be forgotten. The phrase is no longer the exclusive property of politicians, of course. Certainly by 2000 it was available in several other spheres.

Politicians like the phrase because it forecloses consideration of promises unkept; it’s easy to give the impression that one is simply going down a list, checking things off, and only a churl would point out that certain items are conveniently missing. A number of Christian organizations use the expression, though the best known, the Promise Keepers, borrows and adapts only the second half. Politicians and religious leaders seek to persuade us that they are selfless servants, but the primary note I hear in “promise made, promise kept” is self-congratulation. The phrase almost always bears a prim-lipped smugness that is very difficult to disguise. It also conveys a note of finality intended to convince us that the job is done and it’s no longer necessary to pay attention to the consequences or ask questions. Self-satisfaction dressed up as public service, bragging without the first-person pronoun, AND avoiding discussion of goals unmet? No wonder it’s a politician’s dream.

This tag line has many fathers, or at least putative fathers. The on-line community believes that it goes back to Aristotle, in the form “A promise made must be a promise kept.” I’m no expert on Aristotle, but I do know that the on-line community abounds in dubious attributions. I’ve also seen its paternity assigned to Alexander Hamilton, but in a post-“Hamilton” world, that’s probably inevitable (he also invented the theory of relativity and designed the first mini-skirt, y’know). The twentieth century offers two much more solid examples: Steve Forbes’s line, “A promise made should be a promise kept,” which lacks a certain Aristotelian firmness, and more distant, “A promise made is a debt unpaid,” from Robert Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which was once tremendously popular — my father liked to read it to me, and I can still quote bits of it. Service seems the most likely ancestor, but maybe he stole it from Aristotle.

In spite of myself, I’m in a rut of Trumpisms these last few weeks. This too shall pass, I promise. Back in the nineties, when Trump was mainly a threat to New York real estate, I amused myself by making up names for his most ostentatious buildings: Trump Tower was “pre-Trump-tuous,” the hotel at Columbus Circle was “Trumpalomania,” the tall skinny building near the UN was the “Trumpstrosity,” and the apartment buildings on Riverside Drive that no longer bear his name were collectively “the last Trump.” It all seemed so harmless back then . . . I suppose it was inevitable: America finally elected P.T. Barnum president.

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death spiral

(1980’s | financese (from athletese) | “vicious circle,” “irrevocable decline”)

“Death spiral” is a noun, but as we use it today it is influenced by the verb “to spiral,” as in “spiral out of control.” However auspicious a spiral may be for the quarterback, in most contexts it portends widening disaster, an ever-growing series of calamities, each fed by the one before. I can’t be the only one who hears an echo of Yeats’s “The Second Coming”: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre . . . Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” But maybe I am the only one that finds a resemblance between “death spiral” and “perfect storm.”

In its classic form, the death spiral denotes a financial situation in which the seller faces declining revenues and responds by raising prices. Thereupon even fewer people buy the product or service, leading to untenable losses. The first industry in which commentators adopted the expression consistently was utilities, especially electricity. Now we’re most accustomed to hearing the phrase with reference to the health insurance marketplace; that usage was common long before the Affordable Care Act. In the eighties it appeared in in non-financial contexts, but even today buying and selling still provide the most fertile ground. By now it has spread; I’ve come across references within the past year in articles about opiate addiction, declining sperm counts, Venezuela, etc.

There’s another, more specific, financial use that denotes a particular type of corporate raiding: an equity firm buys into (or lends money to) a small publicly owned company, agrees to lend or invest more provided the stock price doesn’t go below a certain level, then drives the stock price down by selling large blocks of shares — robbing the company of its assets and forcing it into bankruptcy while walking away with a profit. (Ain’t capitalism grand? This is an example of what I call vulture capitalism, except vultures don’t kill their prey first.)

For all that “death spiral” conjures up disaster and political gamesmanship, the expression comes originally from ice skating, not aviation, as I had guessed, though it describes airborne maneuvers occasionally. (How it made the leap from skating jargon to the business world I don’t know.) It denotes a move in pairs skating, where the woman holds her partner’s hand as she circles him, one leg in the air, bent all the while at the waist so that her upper body is parallel to the ice. When well-executed, it’s breathtaking. The “death” part has to do with sheer riskiness, as far as I know, but anyone who knows anything about ice skating — or high finance — is invited to jump in here.

I am indebted to lovely Liz from Queens for providing another expression for the blog. Inspired, as always.

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nuclear option

(1990’s | journalese | “extreme (or drastic or desperate) measure,” “last resort,” “irrevocable decision”)

Gorblimey, china plates, I do believe this expression counts as a Briticism, at least in its contemporary sense. As far back as the sixties, the phrase was widely used in the U.S. to talk about energy generation or weapons. “The nuclear option,” on one hand, was what utility executives urged us not to neglect; on the other, it heralded the development of atomic weapons (for those that didn’t already have them), or different ways it might be possible to use them (for those that did). That was true at least until 1980. Not long after that, one started seeing the odd figurative use, but it was much more common in the U.K. than in the U.S. up until 2004 or so, when the phrase assumed the meaning we hear most commonly today: the majority party in the U.S. Senate taking away the filibuster, the last-ditch means for the minority of derailing legislation. Since then, it has crept into other spheres — trade negotiations, computer maintenance, even sports.

Semantically, I find the phrase surprisingly difficult to pin down. Is it an unanswerable blow? A point of no return? Overkill? Destroying the cause of a problem rather than simply solving it? Nuclear war can only be imagined in terms of all-encompassing destruction, persisting for centuries, at least, so the figurative use has a palette of apocalypses to choose from. But the slipperiness brings starkly into view the loss of force the expression has undergone. Inevitably, the “nuclear option” in negotiation or managing your players involves lower stakes than it does in its more literal senses, even though the literal meanings have not gone away. In time the terror will leach out of it. (Not that eliminating the filibuster isn’t terrifying, but you can’t compare it to thousands dead in a flash.) Grammatically, it’s more predictable: “nuclear option” always takes the definite article; you’ll never hear “a nuclear option,” though that sort of thing can always change.

Today’s Senate is pretty debased, but they have not quite gone the whole hog with the nuclear option, not yet, anyway. Oh, wait, they have, at least as the term was originally understood in 2004. Back then, Republicans threatened to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominees. They didn’t go through with it, and two years later the Democrats took the Senate back. But in 2013, the Democrats did change the rules, exempting only Supreme Court nominees. In 2017, the Republicans finished the job, but so far have stoutly resisted doing away with the filibuster against legislation, Trump’s uncomprehending dismay notwithstanding. The majority party in the Senate has been pointing fingers and making threats at least since the nineties, and minority power has diminished though not disappeared. Those who believe the minority party should not have the power to stop majority-supported legislation may tout government efficiency as their most powerful rationale. I say the last thing we need is efficient government, particularly at the federal level. Efficient governments are dictatorships. Our system has been designed from the beginning to pose obstacles to rushed legislation that we’ll all regret later. The framers weren’t always right by any means, but we would do well to reflect on their wisdom here.

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sabermetrics

(1990’s | journalese (sports) | “percentage baseball”)

Few of my few devoted readers being baseball fans, it behooves me to offer some explanation of this odd word. (Don’t you always look for chances to use “behoove” in a sentence?) “Sabermeterics” refers to rigorous statistical analysis, which begins by establishing a reliable set of numbers measuring the performance of single players and entire teams and then reinterpreting them, taking them apart, recombining them, and generating new statistics, thought to be more revealing than the old ones. The word itself is an eponym, “saber” being derived from the acronym SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, founded in 1971 as a small organization devoted to using statistics to understand baseball history. Nowadays, sabermetrics attracts more attention as a way of helping executives and managers arrive at the most effective ways to evaluate and use their players, or decide how much they should be paid or traded for. Now other sports have been bitten by the bug, and the concept may even be familiar to non-fans; many baseball abstainers have heard of Michael Lewis’s book “Moneyball,” an account of the Oakland A’s under general manager Billy Beane, who adopted sabermetric insights wholesale and built a successful team with limited means. (If you missed that, there was a Simpsons episode in 2010.)

The term has always been credited to one of its leading practitioners, Bill James, who has — not single-handedly — revolutionized our understanding of baseball. (Full disclosure: my copy of his “New Historical Baseball Abstract” is pretty much disbound due to wear.) He began a one-man samizdat in the seventies, producing mimeographed collections of statistics and evaluations of major-league players; within a few years, the annual “Baseball Abstract” was picked up by a major publisher. Since then, he has written several compendious reference books that have laid out new frameworks for understanding how baseball works. In 2003 the Boston Red Sox hired him as a special advisor, a post he retains. He has indeed created some very complex and arcane statistics, but they have become common currency in discussions of baseball.

There are two inspiring stories here: James’s rise from outsider devoid of credentials to respected insider; and the triumph of empiricism and scholarship. The first proves that such storybook careers remain possible, but the latter, it seems to me, has wider cultural import. The SABR scholars, with little to offer except patient, unremunerated toil, have applied a version of the scientific method to baseball, emphasizing observation, data gathering, and statistical analysis in order to reach well-founded formulas for success. And to a great extent, it has worked. Baseball teams can no longer ignore sabermetrics; the insights of those nerdy statisticians — “statistorians” as a pre-James pioneer, L. Robert Davids, called them — have become so standard that ignoring them is a form of malpractice. It may give us a flicker of faith that in the face of a rising tide of obscurantism, that kind of work still proves its worth and compels respect, even in a game as anti-intellectual and tradition-bound as baseball.

Like the sciences, sabermetrics ultimately proves itself through successful prediction. Why is it that sabermetrics gets more credit than, say, climate science, despite the fact that the broad claims made by climatologists thirty years ago have been borne out? It’s a much smaller audience, for one thing; most people don’t care enough about baseball to set any store by ingenious statistical hermeneutics, but nearly everyone has an opinion about climate change. Baseball has a very long tradition of statistical study, and there have always been a few “figure Filberts,” as people like James used to be called; outside of baseball, most people don’t understand statistical analysis and don’t hold with it, unless it happens to confirm what they already believed. In baseball, the goal is to win, and winning is clearly defined and easily measured. That is much less true in the greater world, where a lot more people win by casting doubt on human-caused climate change than by taking issue with sabermetricians.

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