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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: language


(1990’s | journalese? | “demanding,” “needy,” “high-strung”)

Certain traits go along with being high-maintenance in the popular mind: high volume, high emotional intensity, probably a high level of self-centeredness. But none of those is really necessary. You can be affectless and depressed, or even pleasant and calm, while still requiring lots of attention. Though the phrase may go with small children and the elderly — people who have the most trouble taking care of themselves — it is heard more commonly of troublesome people that one is in a close relationship with, family or otherwise. Friends, lovers, employees . . . Sometimes “high-maintenance” applies to the relationship itself. But the lowest common denominator of the expression is extorting effort from others. We often assume that a low-maintenance person is low-key and easy to be around, but it seems to me the true opposite of a high-maintenance person is someone who insists on being left alone.

Various on-line dictionaries tell you that “high-maintenance” as a compound adjective was first applied to machinery, materials, and other products of the industrial age. True as far as it goes, but Google Books and LexisNexis suggest that it was rare before 1980. When it did start to show up as a compound adjective, it modified plants, lawns, and gardens. When first applied to persons, it conveyed something closely analogous: the idea that one needed lots of high-priced care, including but not limited to hours at the salon, workouts, expensive clothes and meals, plastic surgery, etc. (See, for example, this recent exchange between Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, in which Streep credits Nora Ephron with inventing the current use of “high-maintenance.”) Not until well into the nineties did it refer to conduct and personality as opposed to appearance or means of support. “High-maintenance” may also be applied to animals, or activities and processes, especially relationships. When used of a computer program or automobile, it feels less like a survival of the old mechanical applications of the term and more like an offshoot of “He’s so high-maintenance.”

The phrase belongs to a family with other expressions I’ve covered: “drama queen,” “diva,” “control freak,” “workaholic,” and in a backhanded way, “interpersonal skills” (required to deal with the above). A little ghetto of new expressions devoted to the difficult among us. Cf. “passive-aggressive.” “Alpha male,” “foodie,” “hipster” are distant cousins. “Trophy wife” is linked along a different axis; “high-maintenance” (in its slightly older sense of tending lavishly to one’s appearance and requiring expensive goods and services) might as well have been created to describe them. “Trophy wife” also reminds us that the phrase is used more often of women than of men; when used of men, it’s generally athletes, actors, and other performers. One blogger noted recently that the expression is “a not-so-subtle misogynist code word, usually deployed to take certain women down a notch.” An insult, in other words, and “high-maintenance” is used most often as an insult; it is rarely understood as a favorable description. And there is a definite gender distinction at work. When you use “high maintenance” to mean “requiring patience and forbearance of others,” it can be applied to any gender — probably more often to women than men, but the imbalance is not so noticeable. When it means “requiring elaborate efforts to maintain looks and status,” it’s applied only to women. Another unfair double bind: as a society we sneer at the expense and trouble women must incur in order to look as we expect them to, but we dismiss or attack them when they don’t.

The equation above of “high maintenance” and “high-strung” is admittedly questionable, but I think if you took a group of people that would generally be described as high-maintenance and transported them back in time fifty years, a lot of them would have been described by residents of that era as “high-strung.” They aren’t synonyms, but there’s a lot of overlap.

Thanks to lovely Liz from Queens for rescuing this expression from deep storage on one of my lists and moving it front and center!


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ratchet up

(1980’s | journalese? | “turn up the heat, etc.,” “increase (gradually)”)

I first became acquainted with the noble ratchet in my father’s toolbox, and I understood it to be a special type of socket wrench that made it easy to loosen or tighten bolts in narrow places. If you could only move your handle a quarter turn, the ratchet made it possible to keep making that same quarter turn over and over again; each time you returned the handle to its initial position, the socket, and therefore the bolt, didn’t move. Plus, it made a satisfying fast clicking sound when you moved the handle back preparatory to making the next turn in the desired direction. The noble bumper jack uses the same mechanism, or mountain-climbing gear.

“Ratchet” until my youth was a mechanical, industrial term, encountered in patent filings and hardware catalogues. It was used but rarely in a figurative way, though one can certainly find examples during the seventies, and probably before with better corpora. It sneaked first into everyday language through economics, I think, as in the phrase “inflation ratchet,” which denotes the principle that inflation only goes up and can’t reverse direction, closely related to its meaning in the mechanic’s vocabulary. (Inflation did keep going up through the seventies, so the phrase got some use.) The word had then, and continues to convey, a gradual quality; you wouldn’t use “ratchet” in the context of runaway inflation. Economists and political reporters would occasionally use “ratchet” as a verb — it could go before “up,” “down,” or “tighter” — but more often intransitively. Now we use it habitually in the transitive, and “tighter” rarely appears; “up” seems to be the preferred adverbial accompaniment. “Ratchet down” has always complemented “ratchet up” but at a lower frequency.

Funny thing about this phrase: while “ratchet up” may be used, transitively or intransitively, with a wide range of nouns, there are a few that it goes with regularly: pressure, tensions, rhetoric. It’s not invariable or inherent, but I think “ratchet” often has an inexorable quality that becomes aggressive or coercive when used transitively. When a general wants to threaten another nation, or a football coach wants to inspire the defense, or a diplomat aims to use strong language, they reach for “ratchet.” Perhaps because of the phonetic similarity to “rack,” I envision ratcheting up pressure as a kind of slow torture, testing the victim’s ability to endure ever-increasing strain. Maybe the fact that “ratchet” has a mechanical origin contributes to the association with instruments of torture. Intransitively, the verb is less sinister; when no overt agent is doing the tormenting, it can be an impersonal process. “Tensions are ratcheting up between North and South Korea” doesn’t bear the same animus as “North Korea ratchets up tensions with South Korea.”

“Ratchet” has a couple other meanings worthy of note. “Ratchet-jawed” in CB radio slang described a person who talked a lot and talked fast. (It is possible to talk fast but not very much; y’all remember Boomhauer on King of the Hill?) That sense is probably obsolete now. Why not “power jaw” or “rapid-fire jaw”? It’s not an intuitive extension of the normal uses of “ratchet”; neither is the African-American slang use, derived from “wretched,” which doesn’t have to do with misery and privation but disgust and revulsion. I’m not sure there’s semantic relationship with “ratchet up”; if so, it’s not obvious. While “ratchet” has loosened its meaning so that it often is no more than a synonym for “increase,” it has maintained a foothold in our language. I hope it can hang onto traces of its original specificities over time.

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performance anxiety (1970’s | therapese | “stage fright,” “fear of failure”)
separation anxiety (1980’s | therapese | “fear of loss”)

These expressions emerged around the same time, as far as I can make out, say the late sixties? If anything, “performance anxiety” is older, but I’m not about to swear to it. “Performance anxiety” started as a technical-sounding way to say “stage fright” (athletes can have it too, which may be part of the reason for the broader term), but within a decade had come to be used primarily about impotence or other bedroom failures caused by insecurity as opposed to a physical problem. The same dichotomy holds true to this day; therapists for musicians and unconfident lovers alike still use the term. If you google it, links to sites having to do with sex vastly outpace any others, at least in the first few pages of results. (Sadly, Google is probably as good a barometer as we have of what’s preoccupying America this week.) Separation anxiety is generally attributed to kids — it’s nervousness, unhappiness, or acting out that arises when someone important is going or gone, whether an anticipatory tantrum or silent expressions of fear and loneliness after a parent’s extended absence. It may be used to talk of adults or even abstractions (as in discussions of Brexit), but it always has at least a faintly jocular quality in such cases.

The move in meaning from performing in public to performing in private interests me, because it seems so essential but makes so little linguistic difference. At first, there appears to be a great chasm between being shy about speaking in public before an audience of dozens or hundreds and doubting one’s sexual abilities, where the audience is much smaller. The intersection of those two sets is, I suppose, the porn actor, who must set aside both forms of performance anxiety in order to get the job done. But in either case, you’re under pressure — self-imposed pressure, often — to do well and look creditable. “Perform” has a longstanding euphemistic use in discussions of sex, of course. Separation anxiety also involves a small but crucial audience: the person the subject wants to remain close to, along with anyone nearby who is involved in some way. It’s hard to say to what extent a young child is expressing irrepressible feelings versus putting on an act to try to get her way. The older the kid gets, the more one suspects there’s an element of acting involved, or at least a covert eye on the target(s). But it’s not always easy to find the line between genuine emotion and the manufactured variety in an actor’s performance, either.

The “noun + anxiety” formation sounds familiar; there are a few other examples to be found, such as “stranger anxiety” (an infant’s strong adverse reaction to an unknown person) or “illness anxiety” (hypochondria). (Mercifully, “social anxiety” did not come out as “society anxiety.”) Freud’s concept of “castration anxiety,” ironically enough, is the grandpappy of them all. Note that Freud’s term was “Kastrationsangst,” and “Angst” in German lies much closer to “fear” than “anxiety” in English. He wasn’t talking about a short-term attack of nerves, but the kind of salutary terror that causes a kid to get with the program. (Whatever you think of Freud, we can all agree that he has suffered from inept or just plain weird English translations.) Not that anxiety can’t be crippling. And it certainly seems to be much more common among kids than it used to be, from the quite specific disorders mentioned above to generalized anxiety disorder, which is similar to what we used to call “free-floating anxiety.” It’s no good telling people not to worry when they feel surrounded.


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tough love

(1980’s | evangelese? therapese? | “discipline,” “punishment”)

Just as “tough love” was gaining a toehold in the discourse, a television film called “Scared Straight” rocked America, showing what happened when a group of juvenile delinquents (that’s what we called them back then, honest!) was assigned to participate in a state-sanctioned program that took them to Rahway State Prison in New Jersey. Inmates shouted at them, told lurid stories of prison life, even threatened the kids with violence. The cameras recorded it, and the resulting film made a very big noise indeed, winning both an Emmy and an Oscar in 1979. The idea, of course, was to bully dangerous kids into reforming by showing, in graphic detail, what you go through when you get sent up. The film included disturbing images and raw language (remarkably so, for its day) and was shown late at night, mainly on independent channels. I don’t recall watching it, but I remember the hoopla.

“Tough love” was already around, but it was only used, as far as I can tell, by Christian child-rearing specialists and Alcoholics Anonymous counselors. In 1978, an organization called Tough Love was founded by a husband-and-wife team of family therapists, David and Phyllis York. They advocated laying down the law, with strict rules and rigid enforcement, until the kids straighten up and fly right. (Tough love is reserved for children and those deemed unfit to run their own lives — politicians use it to talk of welfare recipients and other inferiors — and in this respect it resembles last week’s expression, “act out.”) By 1980, “tough love” was getting dropped into mainstream press articles. Its niche in the popular mind had been opened by “scared straight,” and they formed a powerful alliance to beat back the malign influence of the permissive, anything-goes sixties, with tough love working to soften and humanize “Scared Straight” and its pornographic violence. And it worked! Reagan got elected, and being respectable became respectable again. Parents buffed their reputations by refusing to take any more crap from their bored, coddled kids. I have no doubt that a lot of kids benefited from a little firmness, but tough love isn’t a cure-all. For one thing, it’s easy to overemphasize “tough” at the expense of “love,” which leads to unfair or even sadistic treatment. And like everything else, it doesn’t work for everybody. As John Hinckley’s father put it, “If mental illness is involved, ‘tough love’ is the worst thing you can do.” It won’t just fail; it will make matters worse.

Before there was tough love, there was “for your own good.” The scene went like this. Parent: You’re grounded! Kid: Aw, Mom/Dad! Parent: It’s for your own good! (Parents who got swept up in the role might add, “You’ll thank me one day.”) It came up any time parents made unwelcome demands on their children, from taking cod liver oil to giving up the car keys. A related adjective was “stern,” which was roughly equivalent to “tough,” strict and unyielding. The point of including “love” in the expression is to draw attention away from its harshness, of course. Tough love cares; it demands obedience out of genuine and abiding concern for the child’s welfare.

Grammatically, “tough love” follows a common pattern, expressing an existing general idea in a new part of speech. In this case, the shift arguably contributes punch and directness and certainly opens up new syntactic possibilities. It always makes me think of “tough luck” and its variants, though it isn’t exactly cognate. (My sister used to say “tough toenails,” which I liked, except when she used it on me.) Such expressions carry disdain, which tough love is not supposed to do, but can’t you just hear a righteously angry parent saying, “Tough love, kid!” It hasn’t made any inroads as an interjection, though.

The few pre-1970 instances of the phrase in Google Books had an entirely different definition: persistent or resilient love that triumphs over obstacles and returns the lost sheep to the fold, or helps a loved one through a bad time. It’s a shame that sense didn’t catch on, if you ask me. It’s much more appealing.


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act out

(1980’s | academese (education)? therapese? | “throw a tantrum,” “lash out,” “kick up a fuss”)

The crux of the matter, as I see it, is whether the new sense of “act out” is fundamentally different from the old. It is certainly flatter, less vibrant. In the old days, “act out,” meaning portray a character or play a dramatic scene, opened up a world of promise, where fancy might reign and a bare stage opened up impossible yet imaginable horizons. But you didn’t need a stage; you might find a way to realize — live out — a dream or ambition, and “act out” was also available to cover such situations. So “acting out” a fantasy is a well-established way to use the phrase, right? Suppose your fantasies are aggressive? Suppose you dream about hogging the toys or hitting the teacher? You’re acting out a fantasy, right? No, you’re just acting out.

“Act out” always had a double life, able to go with real and imaginary phenomena. But its intransitive sense partakes only of the real. Now when someone acts out, it’s intended to irritate or intimidate the people around him. No actor’s wiles needed. I can’t quite articulate the difference between what an actor does and what a bored kid does. Say you have two kids, one of whom is enacting a dramatic situation and the other of which is trying to prevent it from happening by making noise and flailing around. There’s that grammatical distinction between “acting out a scene” and “acting out,” but it doesn’t seem to have much semantic effect; they’re both performing, though one is likely much more conscious of it than the other. Perhaps the difference lies in motivation: the actor is appealing to art and trying to enlighten the audience, or at least entertain; the miscreant is trying to steal others’ attention and prevent them from enjoying the show. Wanting attention is a prerequisite for actors, but except for certain esoteric types of theater, the desire to ruin the audience’s day is not. Maybe it’s mainly a matter of malice.

It isn’t quite true any more, but in the seventies, “act out” was used invariably to talk about kids’ meltdowns. It occurred primarily in education writing, a verb for what we used to call “misbehavior,” and wobbled between transitive and intransitive. It was always troubled kids, too, usually brown — that’s been true from the beginning. The verb may be used of adults now, but typically only those the speaker considers childish or subordinate — prison inmates, drug addicts, Donald Trump. When you describe someone’s behavior as “acting out,” the implication is that they are incapable of expressing themselves intelligibly in words, leaving violence as their only resort (particularly true in the case of traumatized children). This verb has a definite sullen side, and as we learn from “passive-aggressive,” expressions that connote obstinacy or mulishness are applied to children and members of lower social orders, or vice-versa.

When I was young, one still heard “act up” for this sort of carrying on much more often than “act out.” “Act up” was more general and did not necessarily imply anger or violence — it could be hijinks or measured protest — but it was loud and distracting. (“Cut up,” a related term, had to do with clowning, not conniptions.) Now that ACT UP has earned a place in the culture, I sense that we don’t hear “act up” for kids’ shenanigans so much any more.


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regime change

(1980’s | bureaucratese? academese? | “overthrow”)

A phrase that first bobbed up around 1980 in industry publications mainly interested in the business climate in this hotspot or that, or so says LexisNexis (Google Books shows a few examples from the seventies). It grew slowly through the mid-nineties, usually but not always in discussions of foreign policy; Variety used it to talk about boardroom wars in Hollywood, and the business press more generally did the same thing. I even saw it in an article about the weather, deploring a prolonged spell of rain and low pressure. Ronald Reagan used it in 1987 in regard to Libya, but I recalled that a later war or covert action had vaulted the expression into prominence — Iraq (the first one)? Bosnia? Former Soviet Union? Not until 1998 did “regime change” come into its own when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced a revised policy toward Iraq, then led by the much-demonized Saddam Hussein, from containment to “containment plus regime change.” That seemed to give everyone else license to use the phrase more often. The Clinton administration’s strategy of fomenting resistance to Hussein inside Iraq coupled with regular bombings and discreet aiding and abetting from Arab neighbors didn’t do the trick, but the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld axis finished the job a few years later, ultimately handing Iran much greater regional influence and still costing us huge amounts of money. It was heartening to read recently that Trump, like Obama before him, will withdraw most U.S. troops out of Iraq; we’ll see how long he keeps it up.

I tend to think of regime change as imposed from without. One nation (or an alliance) inflicts regime change on another, or at least triggers or sponsors it. But the phrase doesn’t have to be used that way. A regime change may just as well be imposed from within, through an election or coup (either of which may be initiated or influenced by a foreign power, of course). And why does “regime change” have to mean “replacement”? I don’t know, but it does. “Regime change” is never used to refer to an existing government reforming itself. Maybe that should be “regime changes” (as in “going through changes”) — the plural sounds gentler somehow. I’d like to see an expression that gives room for rulers to see the error of their ways and forge a new path.

We do not refer to changes and successions in the U.S. government as “regime change.” That’s because “regime” retains its authoritarian sound, and we do not own up to our authoritarian tendencies, which are not as strong as in many other parts of the world, though they are arguably stronger than they used to be. Trump may covet the power of Putin or Duterte, but he is much more constrained than they. And it’s still hard to imagine any single country, or even several, strong enough to remove the federal government by force. (Taking over Washington would be easy enough, but pacifying Arkansas?) The Russians have had some success recently at undermining it, and, of course, they may have more.

I realized something as I looked through LexisNexis hits from the past month on “regime change.” Throughout the nineties, the results contained a lot of false positives, closely related phrases like “how regimes change” or “if you want the regime to change,” but “regime change” as a compound noun was not common. Now you encounter very few false positives. It made me realize, rather belatedly, that when a new expression takes charge, previous variants get funneled into it. Once “regime change” became the way to say it, the variants all but disappeared, because everyone took to using the new phrase and making whatever grammatical and syntactic adjustments were necessary.


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safe space

(1980’s | therapese | “refuge,” “safe place”)

“Space” has displaced “place,” and it has happened in my lifetime. When I was young, perhaps the relatively advanced used “space” for indoor places, but I still thought of it as an outdoorsy word: “wide open spaces,” “outer space.” And when it went inside, it meant a big area. (e.g., You’ll need a lot of space to set up that home entertainment center.) But by 1985 you might have heard the word with reference to a performing venue, a gallery, possibly even a room in one’s apartment. We still use “space” to denote the rest of the universe, but I don’t think “outer space” sounds as normal as it did, and “wide open spaces” is an anachronism. You might have heard “inner space” in the sixties, though that referred to one’s psyche or whatever passed for it. There has been a change, but why? and how?

By the early eighties, “safe space” had emerged, both as a general term and as a name for institutions serving vulnerable children, particularly victims of physical abuse. By the late eighties, battered women (that expression sounds out of date, doesn’t it?) or LGBTQ people (not that they were known as such then) were developing their own. From the beginning, “safe space” meant a place where one would not be subjected to violence, and the definition grew quickly to encompass other kinds of persecution as well. The phrase is used literally on occasion, even now, about a child’s playground, for example, but in everyday use it’s about more than well-designed swingsets, or even armed guards preventing muggings. A safe space demands a certain attitude or point of view, which means contrary acts and ideas are not welcome. The argument goes that in certain times and places, freedom of expression for some does not outweigh others’ need to feel unthreatened. Sometimes it’s a strong argument, sometimes it isn’t.

A safe space is where you don’t have to defend yourself, or be on the defensive. You don’t have to be particularly empathetic to see why victims of child abuse or gay-bashing would benefit from having somewhere to escape to. But safe spaces, particularly on college campuses, have proliferated in inverse proportion to the actual need for them — the less danger, the more safe spaces. It’s unwise to be glib about this; gays and lesbians remain targets, although younger people are more likely to accept them than in my day, and trans people have no choice but to stay vigilant — partly because they have begun to raise their voices and demand respect from the rest of society. But when I visited a small liberal-arts college in the New York metropolitan area last year with my girlfriend and her daughter, I was struck by the sheer number of safe spaces. Before long, it became clear that the ones who really needed a safe space were the right-wing kids. The traditional scapegoats and targets were amply palisadoed, with safe spaces in every direction — in much better shape than beleaguered College Republicans. (The College Republicans can’t decide if they should proclaim that they have no need for safe spaces or declare themselves victims of left-wing oppression.)

We go on a lot more than we used to about safety and security, with “safety is our number one priority” having become a ritual declaration not just from amusement park operators but from government officials, school superintendents, or hospital administrators. AIDS and terrorism are responsible for a lot of the increased focus on safety; AIDS brought us safe sex and 9/11 brought us Homeland Security. Life generally doesn’t seem more perilous than it was fifty years ago, but we have become accustomed to unctuous reassurance from our officials and leaders and put ourselves in the position of children looking up to our guardians, who protect us without sharing disturbing details about their methods. Now that consumerism has turned us into a nation of three-year-olds, we’re all set to devolve into hero-worship, revering those who protect us even as they take our money and make our day-to-day lives more tenuous. The safe space has had its own little revolution within a much larger one, in which the unattainable goal of absolute safety has replaced our old ideals of freedom and justice. We know there’s no way the government can keep us safe from everything. How hard do we want it to try?

Another chewy expression proposed by Lovely Liz from Queens. C’mon, faithful readers, don’t make her do all the work. Send your suggestions to usagemaven at verizon dot net.

February 5, 2018: Lovely Liz from Queens made a further point on the evolution of “safe space,” which I will make bold to relay: Originally, in therapeutic settings, “safe space” implied freedom to explore one’s emotions, to say what one was not able to say anywhere else — in other words, where it is safe to speak without fear of reprisal. It granted “freedom to.” But now “safe space” grants “freedom from” fear, persecution, violence, etc. It has become a redoubt rather than a field of exploration. What both senses have in common: creating a setting where you can let down your inhibitions and set aside the restraints that make it possible to get through the day in the world at large.


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congestion pricing

(1980’s | bureaucratese)

This week Lex Maniac lops the “e” off “urbane” and goes urban. Congestion pricing is in the news again, at least here in New York, as our solons ready themselves for another push to improve traffic flow. The phrase itself is not new; the first hit I found in LexisNexis dates from 1979. But only a couple of months ago I had to explain it to my father. (No knock on the old man — where he lives the subject doesn’t come up, and besides, we all have expressions that we’ve never heard though they’ve been familiar to everyone else for years.) Congestion pricing involves charging drivers to enter the parts of the city with the highest traffic density (in Manhattan, that usually means below 59th Street, or maybe 96th) at certain times of the day, with the goal of raising money and discouraging people from motoring through the busiest parts of town. The phrase existed before 1980 but remained a specialized term until after 1990, I would say. Even then, it was frequently placed in quotation marks and glossed, but it had become the accepted term for that form of traffic engineering. It remains a technical term without metaphorical implications or traces. It may also be used in reference to regulating airplane traffic — for example, raising landing fees during popular travel times. But normally congestion pricing is more terrestrial.

It’s typically sold as a way to reduce vehicular traffic, prefaced by terrifying statistics, like the average rush-hour speed along 34th Street, or whether a Boy Scout can outrun a crosstown bus. Reduced traffic has other benefits besides getting everyone where they’re going faster. The first time congestion pricing came up in New York, in 1986, the city was in violation of the Clean Air Act and had to find ways to reduce carbon monoxide and ozone. Less traffic means less stress and a healthier environment. What’s so terrible about that?

Officials in charge of high traffic density areas have a ritual of proposing congestion pricing from time to time, only to see it crushed ruthlessly. And that’s probably what will happen this go-round, though the current plan’s backers have tried to address objections made to previous versions. And who knows? Now that “cashless tolling” (another blot on the vocabulary) has settled in, even the skittish have gotten used to the technology. All you need to do is build gantries — so that’s what a gantry is! — at every entry point with a bunch of EZPass readers, just like on the Verrazano Bridge, and watch those virtual dollars pile up.

The principle is as simple as forcing drivers to pay for maintenance of the roads, because without the roads there wouldn’t be any drivers. That makes sense, right? The people who use the thoroughfares should pay for them, and gasoline taxes don’t cover all the costs, certainly not in New York. Road building and maintenance entail significant future costs, so congestion pricing redresses a perennial weak spot of our form of industrial capitalism, which is accounting for future expenditure made inevitable by present actions. Yet there’s little political appetite for infringing the sacred right to drive, so they’re selling the policy as new revenue for the subway. Which will need it if the overcrowded, delay-prone trains are to absorb still more commuters.


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feeling the love

(2000’s | evangelese? new agese? | “do you feel it?”)

Really a complex of expressions here, of which this week’s headword is the most prominent; “not feeling the love” has also earned a spot in our lingo. Then there’s the new way to express discontent, “I’m not loving the . . .” which means “I don’t like it.” The McDonald’s slogan “I’m lovin’ it” has persisted for years and somehow manages to sound friendlier and less fraught than “I love it.” (Never underestimate the power of a good ad writer. But why not “I’m feeling the love”?) And don’t forget “love handles.” My guess is that “feeling the love” has a religious origin, specifically in America’s repetitive history of revivalism and pulpit oratory. It’s so easy to hear in my mind’s ear the braying preacher: “Are ya feelin’ the love of Jesus?” (Which now that I think about it could refer to Jesus’s love for you or your love for Jesus — nice ambiguity there.) It might come from something more new age, too, and it might even be therapese, though I don’t have any evidence. My usual sources don’t provide any clear origin story.

Like the McDonald’s slogan, “feeling the love” adopts the present progressive, combining an auxiliary verb with the present participle to denote current or ongoing action. It is generally used in group situations, whether a church congregation or a concert or Times Square on New Year’s Eve, where everyone present is of the same mind, their hearts of one accord. The crowd may be virtual in these days of social media, but the shared experience must still be heartwarming. In this sense of the phrase, those assembled generate the love themselves, manifested in feelings of warmth and unity. It’s hard to be sure, but the first distinct uses I found in LexisNexis dated from just before 2000. “Not feeling the love” means roughly the opposite; it’s what an isolated individual says when the crowd stands united against him. It really means “feeling the ill will,” or even menace. Both expressions now may come up anent one-on-one events, as in a partner in a relationship “no longer feeling the love,” but such uses have not become the norm yet.

Scrolling through LexisNexis results from the past month has given me the impression that “feeling the love” is starting to degenerate, moving closer to meaning “feeling real good” or just “feeling fine.” There’s still usually some appeal to shared experience invoked when one uses the expression, but my guess is that in ten years, it will be looser and less firmly associated with the defining characteristics limned above. Such a progression is one of the most common stories in linguistic evolution, and it doesn’t have to take a long time. Every now and then a new expression will stake out a narrow band of turf and remain on it through decades and vicissitudes, but slip and spread are much the more common fates. Precision is plowed under through carelessness or inadequate discernment; once an expression has undergone that process, there’s no going back. Sheer growth in use for a new expression doesn’t make up for increasing vagueness and dullness.


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not so much

(2000’s | journalese (arts)? | “less so”)

If I should ever determine the precise features that cause this or that new expression to take off like a rocket, I will be, if not rich, at least pleased with myself. Somewhere between 2005 and 2010, you started to hear “not so much” a lot; it became downright trendy. It reminds us of others; “been there, done that,” “don’t go there,” “glass ceiling,” “tiger mother” all made comets of themselves, boring a brilliant path into everyday language. But “not so much” was not a new expression. The formulation “not so much x as y” was quite common in my youth and for years before that, a verbal means of pointing out that the real culprit wasn’t what you would expect. It wasn’t always followed by an “as” phrase; “but,” “because,” and “whether” were also used. And “not so much” was more idiomatic in such contexts than “not as much.” (“So” often replaces “as” after a negation.) It has acquired a distinctive new use rather than undergone a change in meaning.

There’s no need to spell it out, I suppose, but for the sake of posterity . . . “Not so much” has become a persistent end-of-phrase tag, used to belittle by means of a comparison. (Comparisons are odious, they used to say, and this is why.) A desirable quality is ascribed to Person or Object A, and “not so much” reports the unfortunate fact that Person or Object B does not fare so well in that department. Again, the formula is standard, with only minor variations. While “not so much” may appear before its subject, it usually comes after it and therefore serves as punctuation, appending a bit of extra force and finality. In speech, it is preceded by a no-foolin’ caesura, piling on even more emphasis.

The first hit I found in LexisNexis came from the showbiz magazine Variety in December 2004, but I don’t claim it’s the earliest — the older usage has not disappeared by any means, and I didn’t have time to wade through all the false positives. I don’t remember hearing it before 2000, which means little, and I didn’t find any sign of it in LexisNexis before then either, which doesn’t mean much more. By 2010 it was available, nay, omnipresent, in many different kinds of writing. Gene Collier, who awards the annual Trite Trophy to the most obnoxious sports cliché, wrote in 2009: “‘Moving forward’ would win [the] Trite [Trophy] if I allowed it, and so would ‘not so much.'” Its use has continued to grow since then, but Collier aside it has not brought forth much backlash. It shares a breezy, devil-may-care quality with certain other fast-rising expressions, which may have saved it from the sort of opprobrium attracted by “reference,” “significant other,” or “wellness.”

One expression that was not a synonym but resembled “not so much” was “not so fast,” also normally set off in conversation from the words around it and often standing alone, unless followed by some form of direct address (“Not so fast, buddy.”) There is definitely an echo there, and I persist in believing, with no real evidence, that new meanings or expressions may be helped into the language by phonologically similar existing expressions. “Not so bad” was another one, though it seems less closely related. Of course, “not so . . .” could be used in front of most adjectives, often as a direction or command encouraging moderation, without jelling into fixed phrases. So the skids were greased, as it were, for “not so much” to take its place in our vocabulary.


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