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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: language

live your best life

(2000’s | therapese? celebritese? | “live life to the fullest,” “make the most of one’s life,” “treat yourself right”)

Maybe I should stay away from this expression now that it has been trademarked by Pharmatech, Inc. — if this post suddenly disappears you’ll know why. I did not come across “live your best life” until a couple of years ago, during an odd moment watching daytime television in a doctor’s waiting room. I believe Kelly Ripa uttered it, in what context I can no longer say: “He’s living his best life.” The tone was a touch surprised but accepting, as if to suggest that most people would not consider such a life particularly desirable, but different strokes for different folks. That’s not the original implication; the phrase started as a clarion call to self-improvement, to make strides toward a better you, whether that means doing that which lifts you up or avoiding that which brings you down, or the ideal combination.

The beauty of this expression — always “your, etc. best life,” not “the best life” — is that it can’t be tied to a specific program; you have to decide what your best life is, with help from advice columnists and on-line quizzes, of course. Locking people into a narrow list of procedures won’t work; giving them a broader set of principles might. But even at a high level of generality, the phrase remains vague. Does it mean you’re as happy/joyous/content as you can be, or having the most fun possible? Does it mean you are kind and forgiving toward yourself? Does it mean you are exemplary, or useful to those around you? (Probably not; most best lifers emphasize self-love and self-care over helping others.) One author who titled her book “Living Your Best Life” added the following subtitle: “Ten Strategies for Getting From Where You Are to Where You’re Meant to Be.” Presumably the book will guide you to figuring out exactly where that is, but clearly it is not the same for everybody. There is no single route to happiness that everyone can follow, but there is a path that you personally can tread that will give you a better shot at living your best life. The concept is great for life coaches, because the trick to being an effective life coach is understanding that what works for you won’t work for everybody.

Endeavoring to live your best life raises the classic Epicurean dilemma: Live it up now knowing I’ll pay a price later, or practice self-restraint in the hopes of a long, untroubled life? Epicurus preached moderation, and modern medicine raises plenty of red flags for those who overdo it in youth and middle age. I haven’t seen much explicit discussion of the question among best lifers, but there is an implicit bias toward thinking about long-term well-being. We tend to consider this question in physical terms, but who can doubt that there are mental and emotional patterns that cause us harm down the line?

Some expressions come from movies, and some from magazines. This bit of psychobabble, or sociobabble, is one of the latter. No more suspense: “live your best life” goes straight back to Oprah Winfrey. In 2000, she launched a magazine called “O” (not Jackie, you understand), and on the cover of the very first issue was emblazoned “Live your best life!” Whether she is the author of the slogan I don’t know, but she put her muscle and money behind it; it entered the vocabulary and has hung around ever since. As Oprah defined it at the time: “to see yourself differently . . . peel back the layers of yourself, look at who you really are, read stories about other people who have done it, accomplished, dreamed big, done well, people who failed but kept getting up, people who shared their aspirations with other people and said, ‘This is how you do it. Living your best life.'” It’s notable that she left out bodily health, concentrating on mental and emotional work. But she did indicate the inherently interpersonal nature of lining up your best life: other people offer lessons, you learn, you tell your story, and others benefit in turn. We are social creatures, whether we like it or not, and there aren’t enough isolated caves for everybody to have one. You can’t even be selfish without reference to other people.


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get over it

(1980’s | celebritese? therapese? | “too bad,” “grow up”)

Somewhere around 1990, it became imperative to find pithy new ways to tell others to stop whining and face up to reality. It was part of a backlash against an increase in attention — and sometimes even sympathy — for victims of certain kinds of oppression or bad luck, which many Americans saw as coddling a bunch of weaklings and losers who were trying to escape the consequences of their own actions. It was around the time “political correctness” became another target of privileged people who were tired of having their privilege questioned. “Get over it” soon became a fashionable rebuke, immortalized in titles of a film and an Eagles’ song. It had appeared in print before 1990 — Sammy Davis used it in a 1989 interview, for example — but some submerged cultural dam must have burst around then that made everybody want to tell off everybody else. That river is still in flood.

“Get over it,” meaning recover and get on with your life, is quite venerable. (“Can’t get over it” is an interesting special case, meaning “still marveling at it.”) But “get over it” — imperative — is new. While “get over it” — declarative — is more or less neutral in tone, the imperative is another example of an expression uttered with a sneer, or at least the imputation that the object is unworthy. There’s also a strong whiff of “cut the crap.” “Deal with it” — imperative — arose in print around the same time and means about the same thing in about the same tone. Just as with “get over it,” it started out neutral but the change in mood adds insult to injury. “Get over it” generally goes with rubbing it in; two notables that used the expression in the early nineties were Clarence Thomas and Marion Barry — both political figures inclined to take opposition personally — telling those that opposed them that they had won and there wasn’t a damn thing anyone could do about it. The phrase belongs in a family with expressions like “get a life,” “high-maintenance,” “lighten up,” or “payback,” all of them aggressive or insulting.

“Get over yourself” — stop taking yourself so seriously — had a few sightings before 1990 but was clearly out there by 1995, already common in the worlds of art and fashion. Useful as a response to drama queens or narcissists. It’s obviously related to “get over it,” but it does mean something a little different; the emphasis is more on self-importance and self-centeredness than on self-pity caused by wallowing in perceived mistreatment. It’s a notification that one is trying too hard or blowing something out of proportion. “Get over yourself,” like “get over it,” always carries opprobrium. Unlike “get over it,” it doesn’t seem to have existed in any form before 1980.

The image underlying getting over any pronoun is that of surmounting a three-dimensional object, like a mountain or a fence. Get to the other side, put it behind you, keep going. That sense is very strong in the pre-1980’s meaning of “get over it,” which cast recovery from trauma as overcoming an obstacle. It remains in “get over it” (imperative), and it’s even clearer in “get over yourself,” where the obstacle is one’s own insecurities or selfishness. When you want to help someone get past whatever is bothering them, you speak gently and say, “I think there’s some issues you need to work on,” or “Don’t you think you should respond a little differently?” For reproof, we need short, sharp, memorable phrases. Somehow they always seem to arise when needed, or perhaps we don’t know we need them until they arise.

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take one for the team

(1990’s | athletese | “be a team player,” “do it for the greater good”)

The internet agrees that “take one for the team” derives from baseball, and I haven’t found anything to contradict it. When did it arise? That I don’t know. I don’t remember hearing it as a kid, which doesn’t help much. It does not appear at all in LexisNexis before 1980 and did not become normal in non-athletic contexts until after 2000. There seems to be a casual assumption on-line that it was common in old-time baseball lingo, and I’m not saying it wasn’t, but Google Books doesn’t turn up anything before 1980, either. I have a number of baseball books, but I despair of looking through them all to find the earliest instance. A handful of expressions I’ve covered sound older than they are: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; lesson learned; listen to your body; no harm, no foul; no pain, no gain; pick your battles; promise made, promise kept — not to be confused with “new” expressions that sound old because they are: ramp up, overthink, bloviate, people of color, etc. “Take one for the team” has that same proverbial quality — home truth clothed in words of one syllable. A related term is “wingman,” who is expected to suck it up and selflessly contribute to his buddy’s success at the expense of his own.

“Take one for the team” refers to a batter getting hit by a pitch on purpose, either by failing to get out of the way or by unobtrusively sticking part of your body out where the ball will hit it. (The phrase may occasionally be used of a pitcher who is being hit hard but stays in the game anyway to keep the rest of the pitching staff fresh.) Once hit, the batter takes first base and increases his team’s chance of scoring a run. Our everyday usage hews to that scenario: endure an unpleasant experience for the benefit of the larger group, by giving it some kind of advantage or by sparing other members a similar unpleasant experience. Perhaps it takes the form of deliberately giving up one’s own chance for glory (another venerable baseball concept), or taking on a dirty job so your buddies don’t have to do it. It is not generally treated as a synonym for “take the blame,” though that is a direction in which it might evolve. It can be used wherever people work together, and the ability to do it without complaint is highly valued. And taken advantage of.

In baseball, it’s pretty clear when getting smacked by a fastball is worth it for the boost it gives the offense. In politics and in the corporate world (notice how these two jargons draw once again on athletese), the terrain is much more complicated, and the pain-to-gain ratio won’t be calculated the same way by everyone. Sometimes taking one for the team encompasses absorbing harassment or abuse, or violating a principle. The underlying idea remains steady, but the expression has developed a darker side; the required sacrifice may not be so noble after all.

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it’s not about you

(1990’s | therapese? celebritese? | “you’re not the only pebble on the beach,” “you’re not so hot,” “you keep out of this”)

This phrase reached a turning point in the late 1990’s when it found new life as a standalone expression, ending with a full stop. Before that, it was followed by the parallel clause “it’s about so-and-so” or a participial phrase of the form “being (having, etc.) so-and-so” — if it was used at all. (It was not commonplace in print before 1995.) It’s related to both “get over yourself” and “take one for the team,” but the definition is a little hard to pin down. It generally means “stop thinking only or primarily of yourself.” It isn’t quite the same as “this has nothing to do with you,” because “it’s not about you” suggests that you remain part of the solution to the problem at hand but need to focus on a different aspect of it. Other noteworthy meanings: “don’t take it personally” (i.e., don’t let a perceived insult rankle), or occasionally, “it’s not your fault.”

With a variety of meanings goes a variety of attitudes. The phrase may be peremptory or pleading, snarky or sincere. The tone is usually at least a little exasperated, with a strong suggestion that the addressee is being selfish, though such an implication isn’t necessary. When not exposing excessive self-interest, the expression often serves to deflate self-importance. Those seem to be its predominant functions, which blend easily with righteousness or condemnation, since hardly any tradition or belief system admires selfishness. Christians are fond of the expression, often giving it a hortatory flavor, reminding the faithful that their religion teaches that they are part of an inconceivably great entity that isn’t primarily concerned with their personal happiness. (Indeed, the opening sentence of Pastor Rick Warren’s best-seller “The Purpose-Driven Life” (2002) is “It’s not about you.”)

The expression is potentially puzzling — see, for example, the pedestrian commentary on the usually sharp Stack Exchange — though not unduly so in my view. Normally when we use “about” in similar phrases we mean “pertaining to,” but that isn’t really how it’s used here. It’s more like “it doesn’t involve you” or “you shouldn’t interject yourself” or “act in someone else’s interest.” The use of “about” reminds me of a formula already common in my childhood: It was not unusual to punctuate a discourse on one’s desired goals or preoccupations with “It’s about fairness,” or “jobs,” or “being yourself,” etc. (The resemblance to “it’s about time” is superficial.) It made explicit the central issue under discussion. From there, it’s a short step to “It’s not about . . .” Yet “it’s about you” was never an ordinary instance of that formula, so “it’s not about you” was not a negation of a conventional phrase. It sprang up as a way to put people in their place, a perennial and necessary occupation. In an age of hyperbole and self-seeking, “it’s not about you” tries to tilt the balance back a bit toward humility.

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stand down

(1970’s | militarese | “cease hostilities,” “take a step back,” “give in”)

I concede, first off, that this nasal, phrasal verb may lie well outside my usual chronological constraints. It was current in British English during World War II, and probably before that, meaning “stop fighting.” I don’t think it had entered American military jargon that early, but I’m not sure; it certainly had by the time we were ensnared in Vietnam twenty-five years later. It’s still a common military term, but now it may be used elsewhere. A reporter might be told to stand down in the midst of pursuing an explosive story, or leaders of a political party might be urged to stand down from an unpopular position (a nicer way to say “back down”). Militarese, source of this conventional meaning of the phrase, has recently contributed another: an instructional period. Stand-downs are declared by the brass to impart information to large groups of soldiers about a pressing issue, such as safety, ethics, or health. For construction companies, a stand-down refers to a period of safety instruction in particular. In both cases, the grunts are concentrating on learning and not primarily concerned for the moment with their regular jobs. The expression indicates an organized, deliberate suspension of normal responsibilities. It might be occasioned by a recent mishap or simply be part of regularly scheduled uplift.

As noted, the expression is a Briticism and remains more common in the remains of Her Majesty’s dominions. It has other meanings in British English. One has to do with labor-management relations: “stand down” (transitive verb) means furlough or lay off temporarily; it is something an employer may do to an employee, not the other way around. More frequently, it means “resign,” or “step down,” as we would say in American English. These are both verbs, but “stand-down” has sprouted a hyphen and evolved into a noun — as illustrated in the previous paragraph — and may even take spot duty as an adjective. The nominal usage has not become current in the U.K., as far as I know.

“Stand down” is not the same as “retreat”; the order is issued from a position of strength, or at least parity. Anyway, that used to be true. I sense more and more that the expression may include backing down, or at least backing off, as part of its legitimate field. Whether you lay down your arms in triumph, disgrace, or somewhere in between, you might be said to stand down. We’ll wait and see if the implication of surrender becomes predominant in everyday language, so we gradually start hearing “stand down” as “capitulate” rather than “take a breather.”

There is a book, or many-splendored blog, to be written about the of oddities of English phrasal verbs. “Stand down” is not the opposite of “stand up,” while “stand back” lacks even a notional antithetical such as “stand front” or “stand forward.” (“Stand tall” likewise, though Abba’s lyric “The loser’s standing small” tried to supply one.) “Stand by” and “stand aside” give the same instruction but in opposite moods: the former encourages you to be helpful while the latter just wants you out of the way. “Stand over” has life as an idiom; “stand under” does not. Yet “understand” makes the cut while “overstand” is left out in the cold. Hard to tell where you stand.

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flavor of the month

(1980’s | journalese | “the latest (or newest) thing”)

Lovers of ice cream rejoice, because “flavor of the month” comes from ice cream advertising; the Phrase Finder traces it back as far as 1936. For those of my generation, it’s associated firmly with Baskin Robbins, home of 31 flavors. (That’s one for each day of the month, so the original idea was really a month’s worth of flavors of the day.) The first figurative reference I found dates to 1979, when the great sportswriter Thomas Boswell used it to refer to Kansas City Royals’ reliever Dan Quisenberry at the beginning of his career, before he established himself as an integral part of those great Kansas City teams of the early eighties. Boswell turns up early in the history of at least three new expressions: “game changer,” “hold that thought,” “conflicted.”

The idea with Quisenberry is that his name sounded like an ice cream flavor, get it? Boswell attributed the phrase to Royals’ fans and didn’t take credit for inventing it, but he did use it in print earlier than just about anyone else. And Quisenberry (known as Quiz, as in quizzical) was not only a great relief pitcher, but one of the game’s great characters, in the mold of Jim Brosnan more than Jim Bouton. There is a thin but discernible line of intelligent, quotable ballplayers; Quiz was a member. After his career he became a poet.

In the eighties, the ironic use of the expression emerged first in sports and arts writing, but I found instances in tech and business writing by mid-decade, and by 1990 it could be used almost anywhere. The point of the expression is belittlement; it’s always lightly derisive, bearing the implication that the flavor in question is not only impermanent but unworthy. It’s too insignificant to be a mania — more like a fad. A month seems about right to capture a phenomenon that hangs around long enough to be generally noticed and then fades away. “Day” is too transitory; “year” too enduring.

I wonder if there’s a connection between the advertese origins of this expression and its meretriciousness. From the beginning, “flavor of the month” was just one more way ice cream makers used to get attention and sell more product. When other kinds of writers adopted it, the phrase referred to the results of marketing rather than a tool, but it acquired a contemptuous tone that it had never had before. Advertising, it is true, is essential to our way of life, but most of us understand is that its job is to manipulate us — that is, make suckers of us and take our money — so we tend to sneer at it even when it is successful, and certainly when it isn’t.

This high-butterfat expression was churned out by lovely Liz from Queens ages — well, an age or two — ago. (Those ages go by so fast now.) Thanks, baby!

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welfare check

(2000’s | bureaucratese?)

An expression that has changed meaning quite thoroughly. While the older meaning, familiar in my youth, had to do with government assistance to needy individuals, the newer one has to do with government assistance to individuals who are in trouble, or might be. A less common but significant variant is “wellness check.” The news has been rife with it lately on account of young comedian Pete Davidson, who proved to be o.k. when NYPD visited his apartment after he posted a “disturbing Instagram message,” as good a cry for help as any in these tiring times. Welfare checks are normally made by the police at the request of someone — normally a relative or caregiver — who is concerned about a third party. I can’t think of an older expression, though I suppose police officers and social workers have done this sort of thing for a long time, but if there was a word for it, official or otherwise, I don’t know what it was. Something with “visit” in it, most likely.

There are a couple of obvious reasons that “welfare check” is no longer needed to refer to government payments to the poor. One is that “welfare” is rarely used in official circles to denote that kind of assistance, though regular people still use the word. Another is that it’s been at least two decades since such payments were distributed in check form, making room for an entirely different sense of “check.” The change took place after 2000 — within ten years of Clinton’s circumscribing and restructuring of welfare as we knew it — although I found a few instances in the late nineties where the more recent meaning turned up. The odd thing about the two meanings of this phrase is that when either is used, the other is not acknowledged; even when the cops make a welfare check on a welfare recipient — which happens fairly often — no one seems to notice the coincidence. A welfare check is a welfare check, and never the twain shall meet.

It’s a three-headed transaction, so it requires three sets of verbs. There’s the people who set up the welfare check (request, call for), there’s the people who carry it out (conduct, do, make, perform), and there’s the people whose homes are visited (receive). The story is rarely told from the point of view of the last, much more often from those of the first two. That presumably is why that group doesn’t get as many verbs; we might suggest others: undergo, suffer, endure. If the result is the discovery of a corpse, no such verb is required, of course. When the official visit turns up nothing wrong — no crime, no corpses, just somebody who was too busy to text his mom for a couple of days — then there’s no story, and no one is interested in the victim of the welfare check.

There’s something a little Kafkaesque about it. You’re shoved into the system by someone who (presumably) wishes you well, but who does sic the cops on you. The victim has no say in the matter, and once you’re in a police database you can’t get out, or at least can’t be sure you’re out. When we remember Kafka’s dangerously plausible stories of impenetrable and maleficent bureaucracy, into which one wanders innocently and whose clutches cannot be escaped, the welfare check doesn’t seem quite so benign. I don’t mean to suggest that we should reject welfare checks entirely on libertarian grounds — they are certainly useful for helping law-abiding senior citizens and their families, for example — but I would think long and hard before calling one in on anyone I knew.

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off the grid

(1990’s | counterculturese | “in the boonies”)

Living off the grid started as a left-wing hippie dream but became more of a right-wing thing; I’m not sure why. Partly because the number of hippies has dropped dramatically while the number of passionate right-wingers hasn’t. Almost by definition, being off the grid means fending for yourself, or taking part in a very small community, and that cranky individualism is more attractive on the right wing than the left. Distrust of the government remains a popular pastime on every side of the aisle, but back in the seventies the nation still felt a hangover from the radical sixties, when rebellion came most noticeably from the left (the right got off to a good start but fizzled badly after Goldwater). By now, right-wing rebellion has been the norm for a generation, and revulsion for the official and the approved has moved to the right, too. People who want to be off the grid may not even experience it as rebellion; they seek independence and self-sufficiency, and relying on the local electric company to keep things going does not achieve the goal.

In this day and age, “off the grid” evokes alternative energy as often as remote cabins. Solar panels on your roof probably won’t give you enough current over the long haul to deliver consistent, dependable power, but they might be part of a larger home-based system that does. You still have to be kinda out there to want to go off the grid, but it is becoming more of a middle-class thing, as white-bread enviro-warriors contemplate roofs covered in solar panels and windmills in the back yard. Energy independence is very difficult to achieve if you want to maintain an on-the-grid standard of living, and more and more such people do. It’s also possible to use the phrase loosely to denote a temporary state. If you have a big enough generator and the power goes out, you can be “off the grid” for a few hours until the power comes back on. The expression is not normally used that way, but it may become more common — such loss of rigor is not unusual. Usage note: the shortened form “off-grid” has also become standard. “Go off the grid” may be used to mean “go to ground” or “disappear for a while.” I don’t know if that’s the result of carelessness or the beginnings of a new definition.

The phrase doesn’t show up before 1990 in LexisNexis, though it seems it must have been around before then, at least in specialized circles. (I don’t remember when I heard it first.) “Grid” meaning “electricity supply network” dates back at least to the seventies, when it was usually prefaced by “power” or “electric.” A few blackouts later, we have all learned to respect the occasional unpredictability of our supply lines, and the word by itself has become second nature. In the eighties mainstream press, “off the grid” meant “from the grid,” as in “taking power off the grid.” By now it has acquired, and to some degree already lost, political and moral freight. Our dependence on electricity makes a fine synecdoche for civilization. A common force that binds us all — mysterious power leaking out of our walls that we can all use and benefit from. Abjuring it requires wealth or willpower, and a desire to get away from your fellows. Or just stop being fleeced by the electric company.

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food court

(1980’s | businese (real estate) | “dining area”)

Why “court”? It’s more like a dining mall, but in the early days food courts were found only inside of malls, and a mall within a mall would have caused confusion. And why “mall”? A mall was a wide pedestrian boulevard, often grassy, and it never had anything much to do with commerce — though shopping malls did typically have wide central corridors that one walked along. I haven’t done the research, but it seems to me that “mall” and “court” were adopted for these bastions of plebeian retail because of their grand associations with aristocracy, elegance, and luxury. Not that there’s anything particularly elegant or luxurious about your standard food court, yet “court,” with its echoes of royalty, lends the enterprise a touch of class. A more plebeian explanation is that the word conjures up a big open space, like a basketball or tennis court. Or it’s where you go to judge the food.

One chronicler of the food court lays it at the door of James Rouse, a developer who responded to Levittowns by creating the planned community Columbia, MD ten years before he opened Harborplace in 1980 in downtown Baltimore. (I grew up between those two landmarks, in the heart of Rouseland.) For a developer, he wasn’t that bad, according to the New York Times obituary. It’s not clear if the phrase “food court” is due to Rouse; he may be responsible for “shopping mall.”

Pioneering food courts stirred in the seventies, and by the mid-eighties they were de rigueur, and not just in newly constructed malls — older malls were forced to renovate in order to add them. The term followed quickly, arising in both Canada and the U.S. by the late seventies (the oldest hit in LexisNexis comes from a Toronto paper in 1979). The term came straight out of the oddly buoyant language of developers, but food courts themselves were symbols of adolescence then, understood as places for the disaffected young to get away from their parents and pretend they were adults. The emphasis on fast food (they were sometimes called “fast-food courts”) made them popular with kids. They turned up next on college campuses, heralding a revolution in campus food service. Adults had to get used to eating in them soon enough when they invaded hospitals, airports, and office buildings.

The idea of restaurants and specialty food stores in shopping malls was not new in the seventies, but gathering several of them around a large open seating area was an innovation that demanded a new expression. The malls I went to in my youth didn’t have food courts, but they had drugstore lunch counters and Orange Julius and Baskin-Robbins. I don’t remember fast food restaurants being common in malls back then, but I didn’t get around much and they may have been. (My beloved Gino’s on Frederick Road wasn’t part of any mall, I’ll tell you that. Now it’s a McDonald’s.) Some chains — Sbarro’s, Panda Express — really took off with the advent of food courts.

I find them more than a little repulsive, personally. The open space — bare except for nondescript tables and chairs and people who don’t want you anywhere near them — always feels hostile, and there’s nothing I want on any of the menus. Then there’s the indignity of figuring out how to punch the order into a machine that doesn’t work half the time. Whatever I order, it’s cold by the time I find a seat, and it wasn’t all that good when it was hot. Plastic furniture, plastic cutlery, and the food . . . Everything predictable and disposable. That’s partly why food courts are becoming passé after a thirty-year reign, as “food halls” supplant them. It’s the same idea, only the restaurants on offer are more varied and quirky (and pricier — this is about consumption, after all). “Food hall” makes more sense as a name, “hall” being a word for large open area with action at one end, but “food court” should remain in the language for at least another generation or two.

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got you covered

(1980’s | athletese? | “backing you up,” “helping you out,” “taking care of you”)

got your back

(1980’s | athletese | “looking after you,” “watching your back,” “behind you”)

Odd thing about these two expressions. They don’t, or didn’t, mean the same thing, but there’s no reason they couldn’t, and they appear to be growing together. (Sometimes you even see “got your back covered.”) They arose in their latter-day definitions around the same time — “got you covered” a few years earlier, according to LexisNexis — and they both have rather unsettling antecedents. “Got you covered” was something police officers shouted when they had their guns drawn, and it followed “Don’t move” or “Put your hands up.” That use was out there at least as early as those listed above, if not earlier; it has developed a friendlier side. “Got your back” was once more often than not followed by “against the wall,” or perhaps “to the onrushing train (or whatever),” that is, in some kind of danger. Shorn of the prepositional phrase, it means the opposite: guard someone’s blind spot, or more generally keep them safe from harm. Both expressions seem to have taken root in athletese first, particularly “got your back,” which as far as I can tell was used mainly by African-Americans in the nineties.

The two expressions threaten to merge when they have both pivoted as far as they can from their risky cognates. “I’ve got you covered” can mean “I’m protecting you.” But it is used more in a jocular vein, not as a matter of life and death but as a matter of offering more choices to the customer than one’s rivals. It’s a matter of being all things to all people. “Got your back” traditionally carries higher stakes. At least in its youth it was not said lightly. It’s what a bodyguard says; it suggests a real threat. It is often used as an assertion of mutual loyalty, reminiscent of the older expression “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” (Definitely not “got your back up,” which meant irritated or offended.) But it doesn’t have to; no reciprocity is required.

More and more in everyday use, “got you covered” and “got your back” are becoming interchangeable, although the process is not complete and the two phrases retain separate identities. Most commonly, “got your back” is used to mean “got you covered”: I’m here to help rather than “I’ll protect you.” The misunderstanding may occur during discussions of holiday gift-giving, for example, coinciding with the way “got you covered” is used by purveyors of goods and services. Without evidence, I suggest that the blurred distinction stems more from carelessness than from anything else. Yet why shouldn’t they merge? “Got you covered” sounds like something an insurance company would say (it was an Allstate slogan in the late seventies), and what does an insurance company do if not protect you against bad luck and disaster? Why couldn’t the adjuster have your back as well as having you covered? Two similar expressions, born around the same time and in the same place, gradually coming to be used in the same way despite the original distinction. We owe the confluence of the two expressions to consumerism rampant; “got you covered” went over to the dark side long ago, and “got your back” has become a good example of merchandese.) One wonders if there will be any distinction left within a generation.

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