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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: language


(1990’s | miltarese | “arm,” “turn into a weapon”)

The use of “weaponize” to mean “convert into an effective implement of destruction” goes back to the first decades of the atomic age, when intercontinental ballistic missiles raised the stakes of nuclear conflict; a lumbering B-29 was no longer needed to deliver the payload. One writer traces the term to Wernher von Braun in 1957 in precisely that context. Germs and toxic chemicals may be placed on warheads, too, but weaponizing them usually involves placing them in a medium or solution in which they can be spread around a large area quickly and reliably. The concept may require more than simply creating a weapon — it is closer to taking an existing weapon (an atomic bomb, say) and making it easier to wield and capable of still greater damage.

This term seems to have effloresced as a result of 9/11, or anyhow, that’s how many observers saw it at the time. It wasn’t admitted to the Oxford English Dictionary until 2003, but several glossaries of 9/11-related terms compiled in 2002 included “weaponize.” That wasn’t because of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — there was an opportunity to refer to “weaponizing” the passenger jets, though no one did — but the anthrax scare that followed on its heels, when letters containing the spores were mailed to various government officials and journalists. One question that emerged from the long and unsatisfactory investigation was whether the anthrax spores had been “weaponized.” That is, had they been mixed with other chemicals (such as silica) to make them more likely to do harm? I think that was how most Americans first became fully aware of the word, although it had seen modest use before then mainly to mean “stock with weapons” — a common example occurred in debates over whether or not to “weaponize space,” debates we are still having, although not in those words. Proportionally, at least, it is much less ordinary now to use “weaponize” that way; you still see it, but it seems slightly old-fashioned.

It’s not quite true to say that 9/11 was the day “weaponize” stopped going with “space” and started going with “anthrax” (or some other chemical agent), but only because the anthrax scare began a week later and it took a month or two for the newish term to stake its claim. To this day, writers who try to uphold a sense of prose tradition might put “weaponize” in scare quotes, marking it as a new and suspect word. Like “incentivize,” “weaponize” has a discordant, jargony sound, another example of a widely decried means of creating a verb where there was none before. The “-ize” have it! Or rather, us grumpy grammarians have had it with “-ize” verbs.

By 2010, the expression was in figurative use, and now I would venture that such usage predominates. Always a term with political implications, it appears now in overtly political contexts, another grenade deployed to disable those who disagree with you, like “hive mind” and “word salad.” In particular, we talk of any commodity or quality used offensively or aggressively as being weaponized; fear, the Bible, information, the First Amendment, bond holdings, diplomacy, and many more have all been so denominated recently. A hint of carelessness has crept into the way we use this word, but mostly it embodies the notion of taking something not normally thought of as a means to attack others and going on the offensive with it. The word therefore has lost its technical shading in favor of an accusing tone and imputations of low-down and uncivil conduct.

Honors go to scintillating Pern of Los Angeles, who proposed this week’s expression. The West Coast is rising!


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(1990’s | “dinosaur”)

At least a few of my readers are young and may not realize that for most of its life, “raptor” had nothing to do with dinosaurs. Nothing. It’s the first thing we think of now because of a certain film (recently sequelized for the fourth time), preceded by a certain book, that made the velociraptor, soon shortened for convenience to “raptor,” an unforgettable villain — even though the design of the velociraptors in the film was based on a different species of dinosaur, says Wikipedia. The original meaning of “raptor,” dating back to the seventeenth century, is “rapist” or “robber.” The word began flocking with predatory birds (not any other kind of animal, for some reason) in the second half of the nineteenth century, saith the OED. It appears under that definition in Webster’s Second (1934 edition), but not in any of my older dictionaries, although some related words do, like “raptorial” and “Raptores.” As late as 1980, it was not unusual for reporters to gloss the word when they used it, and I don’t remember learning it in school, though I may have. The classification encompassed majestic hawks and eagles and lowlier owls and vultures; now new family trees and relationships have been codified. “Raptor” has not surrendered its old meaning, so it applies now to both birds and dinosaurs with equal tenacity.

Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” was published in 1990, but the floodgates didn’t open until Spielberg’s film version opened in June 1993. Suddenly raptors were everywhere, not the old familiar birds of prey, but spiffy new animatronic dinosaurs instead! (As paleontologists love to remind us, birds and dinosaurs are closely related.) Now, Raptors are everywhere: an NBA team, a sub-model of Ford Ranger pickups, a fighter jet. My favorite: Raptor Eggs were a kind of candy created to coincide with the original film’s release, described by the Associated Press as “orange-flavored chewy eggs” (presumably merely egg-shaped, not actual eggs). I was too old to be paying attention to candy trends by then, but I’ll bet I’d remember them if I were twenty years younger.

While I’m slinging taxonomies around, “raptor” belongs to a select group: new expressions from movies. Over time, I have concluded that this category holds fewer members than most of us think; of the 450 or so expressions I have covered to date, only a few became widespread after being used in movies: “bucket list, “wingman,” “don’t go there,” “you’re toast,” “meltdown,” “perfect storm,” “-whisperer.” Like “raptor,” all were available before appearing in the film that made them famous.

The old words are the best words, to adapt an old proverb, and “raptor” is a fine example. In the last paragraph of the entry on “task,” I listed a number of expressions that had been around for a long time before bursting into recent prominence. A few expressions, such as “ramp up” and “overthink,” are as old or older, but none has quite the same evolutionary trail as “raptor,” which gained wings in the nineteenth century and then lost them again in the late twentieth, acquiring a new primary definition which later underwent a significant mutation. “Hurtful” and a few others had a long period of relative eclipse and emerged in the second half of the twentieth century as new words; “bloviate” all but disappeared in the mid-twentieth century but has come roaring back. “Raptor” never went away, but those old-time biologists would never have guessed that some day it would be in the mouth of every child, the coolest dinosaur of them all.

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secret sauce

(1990’s | journalese? | “secret ingredient,” “secret formula,” “magic (trick),” “trade secret”)

Back in the day, only food writers used “secret sauce,” usually in reference to this great chef or that. By the eighties the expression had acquired an association with fast food, probably prompted by the “Colonel’s secret recipe” for Kentucky Fried Chicken and the McDonald’s mantra anyone my age can still rattle off: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.” True, that was “special sauce,” not “secret sauce” — which isn’t secret any more; there’s a recipe in Woman’s Day — but some linguistic cross-breeding was inevitable, and over time the expression has acquired the taint of the Golden Arches. Whether concocted by Escoffier or a corporate chemist, your secret sauce enhances the other ingredients and makes the dish unforgettable, so diners keep coming back. It’s what gives you an edge over the competition.

And that’s the figurative meaning, too. It may be a person, or a bit of wisdom won through observation, or just something you know that the others don’t. Whatever form it takes, it’s the catalyst or the solvent; that is, it makes the heterogeneous elements on the job, in the dugout, or in the studio work together toward superior results. A 2014 article in USA Today defined it thus: “that thing that you do that is unique, different, and special.” It is used strikingly often in the negative to remind us there are no shortcuts to success — it’s mostly hard work and trial and error. (In 1990, NBC Television executive Brandon Tartikoff observed, “Once you reach a certain level of success in this job, people start to believe you have a secret sauce. They want to know, why isn’t that sauce spread across the whole [programming] schedule?”)

We started using “secret sauce” figuratively right around 1990, as far as I can tell; there were a few tentative examples before that, but it started to show up in quantity then. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious channel from the literal to the figurative use. Its earliest avatars tended to turn up in entertainment reporting (including sports). Somewhere back there, someone got the idea of taking the old culinary expression, which had already dropped a brow-level or two through persistent association with fast food, and applying it to non-comestible situations. And it stuck, then spread into more and more contexts like a béarnaise slowly smothering your entrée.

A new adjective, “awesomesauce,” has recently come to my attention. It’s still a young person’s word, I think, that sounds strange to older people like myself, though I suppose the built-in rhyme makes it catchier. Also used as an interjection, the word implies a state of felicity beyond mere awesomeness, tending toward exhilaration or delirium. It first showed up in Urban Dictionary in 2005 (they spell it with a space), but those people are early adopters, and I doubt it was in general use that soon. It’s not in general use now, for that matter, but I’ve come across it and I’d guess most alert readers have as well. Can “criss-cross awesomesauce” be far behind?

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how cool is that?

(1990’s | journalese? | “isn’t that great (or amazing)?,” “excellent!,” “cool!”)

This is not one of the those tedious questions intended to elicit a factual answer. It’s purely rhetorical, and if you respond, “Not very cool, at all, actually,” you have misunderstood the transaction. There are minor variants, from “how cool is this (or it)?” to “how cool is so-and-so?” (James Dean, etc.), which one saw before “how cool is that?” started showing up in the first half of the 1990’s. In general its field of use is quite limited. Almost always a response to something or someone occurring or appearing — not an abstraction — it conveys gung-ho enthusiasm along with a certain naive quality. It’s the affirmative ring and sentiment worn on the sleeve that lend the expression its character. It comes with a question mark, but it should wear an exclamation point.

I just wish I knew where this phrase comes from. There were a number of hits from the nineties in LexisNexis (more later in the decade), but they were scattered throughout different genres of journalism — arts, politics, sports, etc. — and not concentrated anywhere. It’s one of those expressions that has become an idiom despite the lack of a colorful origin or indeed any syntactic interest, which could occur in natural language without anyone noticing particularly. What are these expressions that sound like ordinary language yet harden into set phrases? I’ve covered some examples: “be careful out there,” “has left the building,” “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” “play well with others,” “my work here is done.” The first three have a distinct origin and were attributable to a single moment if not a single person; the others have a more diffuse history. They all have in common a lack of fancifulness, and (except for the last one) a notable lack of irony. Like “how cool is that?,” they are used straight, almost invariably without sarcasm. Perhaps it is that persistent literal shading that gives these expressions their unusual force.

“Cool” has changed quite a bit in the last seventy years, with the first big shift taking place in the 1960’s. In postwar urban jazz culture (stop me before I sociologize again), “cool” had a pretty specific meaning: aware but detached and laid-back. It described a very particular kind of affect and behavior. In the sixties, it came to refer to anything agreeable, although a shadow of that more restrained meaning remained. As time went by, “cool” became just another word for “wonderful, for any old reason,” and that is the sense firmly enshrined in “how cool is that?” and its siblings.

Many thanks to lovely Martha from Queens for proposing this week’s expression! My devoted readers make it all worthwhile.

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(1970’s | militarese | “(friendly) warning,” “word to the wise,” “alert”)

The coupling of this phrase with the indefinite article is a relatively new phenomenon, first becoming noticeable in the late seventies. (One of the problems with my research methods is that they give me no way of estimating how long a given expression has been in oral circulation before the press gets wind of it.) As far as I can tell, we owe it to the military-intelligence complex, with the earliest instances I found of “heads-up” or elaborations like “heads up alert” — attributed to intelligence agents in a 1979 Washington Post article — all invoking that sort of source. LexisNexis suggests that it did not become ordinary until after 2000; my memory is uncertain, but that seems right. “Heads-up” (not everyone hyphenates) struck me recently as I was composing an e-mail to my boss, with whom I typically use fairly formal language and tone. But under the circumstances, “heads-up” was the only expression that fit, which caused me to realize that it has filled, or possibly created, a niche in our speech. That is not true of every expression I cover.

Baseball players have been using “heads up!” as an imperative, or interjection, for over a hundred years, and it has always meant something closely related: look alive, or be ready for anything. Or as an adjective: “heads-up play(er),” for example. Only the noun is new, and it seems such a logical extension that it’s hard to cavil at. (The verb, when one accompanies the noun phrase, is invariably “give” or “is.”) One of the defining characteristics of the heads-up is that it be informal; not quite defining but pretty standard is the idea that it comes from an ally and that it is given quietly, without fanfare. Like its cousin “wake-up call,” it portends bad or at least sobering news; something’s about to happen that you have to deal with, like it or not. (A “wake-up call” is a heads-up on a mass scale, only unfriendly and very public.)

“Heads Up” gets used fairly often as a name. Google dug up the following examples, hardly an exhaustive list: a 1929 Broadway musical, a marketing firm in Atlanta, a New York Times travel section column, a “child development center” in the Bay Area, a bicycle safety program in New York City, and several beauty salons. (Shouldn’t they be called “Heads Back”?) A long-lived blog called “HeadsUp” critiques mainly right-wing political journalism. And it’s a game made popular by the Ellen DeGeneres Show, which resembles the game show “Password” from my youth, except you have to guess celebrities instead of plain old words. If you ask me, the components of this gallimaufry have very little in common, and little reason to use such a potent expression as “heads-up” in their titles. Because the phrase effectively orders the audience to pay attention to what happens next, using it is a cheap trick — when you hear it, you can’t help but listen for a minute, until you realize you’re being manipulated. No doubt forgivable in an ancient Broadway show, but shouldn’t we be above it now?

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talk smack

(1990’s | athletese | “throw or trade insults,” “banter”)

throw shade

(2010’s | celebritese? | “cut,” “belittle”)

Years ago, RuPaul tweeted, “Throwing shade takes a bit of creativity, being a bitch takes none.” I wouldn’t say that sums up the difference between “talk smack” and “throw shade,” but talking smack is much the less refined, devoid of the elegance required to throw shade. Yet both expressions take a decidedly derogatory aspect and are understood as elaborations on the insult, or diss, which ought to have a blog entry or two of its own.

“Talk smack” is older; it came along about the same time as “trash talk” but took a bit longer to get settled. (Also an athlete’s expression, by the way, but politicians and others use it happily.) It has not acquired a wide range of definitions, though it does come in a range of flavors, from playful to quite serious. “Smack talk” is the noun form; the verb phrase usually takes “on,” “about,” or no preposition at all, and the object is usually a person or small group. Now and then you’ll see it used as a rough equivalent of “play the dozens.” In whatever part of speech, the phrase probably arose from African-American youth culture. Major’s African-American slang dictionary (1994 edition) defines “smack,” among other things, as “flirtatious talk, ‘nonsense’ talk.” Not a precise synonym, but it seems distinctly related and does require talking, which Major’s other four definitions do not. The fact that “talk smack” was popular among wrestlers and their fans made me wonder if there’s a primal connection with “smackdown,” but now I’m inclined to doubt it.

Many of the characteristics of “talk smack” go with “throw shade” as well, but as noted above, they are still used in different settings. In a piece titled “Celebrity Slang,” Huffington Post defined “throw shade” thus: “To insult someone, especially in a haughty or condescending manner.” In practice, smack talk often conveys the express or implied sentiment that the target is inferior, but that’s not essential, and peers talk smack to each other. When you throw shade, you are taking the mantle of superiority, social or otherwise. You can find examples here and there before 2000, but this phrase did not come into its own until well into the new millennium (as I recall, I harvested it a few years ago from one of the family teenagers). It still sounds kind of fresh and up-to-date and may even be glossed occasionally. Its prepositions are “on” and “at,” possibly “towards.” Literally, “throw shade” is what trees do when they are in full foliage, and our expression’s origin most likely springs from that, related to the notions of overshadowing or looking down on. To “put someone in the shade” (sounds a little archaic now, doesn’t it?) meant to make their efforts or achievements seem puny, towering over them (metaphorically) so much as to block out the sun. “Shade” is one of those words that has pleasing associations in its literal sense, but gets underhanded in the figurative.

“Throw shade,” like “talk smack,” has a cooler and hotter temperature, running from “bring down a peg” to “sneer at.” It can also mean “cast doubt on,” which is still unusual but may make itself felt as an accepted definition in the next decade or two. “Talk smack” remains a bruiser of a phrase, at least for now, relying on brute force rather than la-di-dah pretension. “Smack” is a noisy word, after all, that descends easily into violence. No subtlety required.

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(1990’s | athletese | “mulligan,” “redo”)

This week’s expression probably arose among athletes, or sportswriters, and it is closely related to “mulligan” (according to one lexicographer, an equivalent term was “shapiro”), a golf term that referred to other players agreeing to let one of the foursome have another tee shot after a poor drive, particularly on the first hole. Needless to say, mulligans occur only in friendly games — an on-the-spot handicap that allows a player to avoid falling too far behind too early. I’m not a golfer, but I believe the word could be used to cover different shots and situations now. “Mulligan” is a little older than “do-over,” but not a lot; the first citation in Lighter dates from 1949, and it doesn’t seem to have penetrated other fields for at least thirty years after that. “Do-over” followed a similar historical pattern, but more condensed. I found a few instances in the late eighties, all in sports talk; by the mid-nineties, political and financial journalists were using it without hesitation. Today it is quite common, used all over the language, and available as an adjective.

There is an important distinction between “do-over” and “mulligan.” Mulligans are casual — a quick, informal consensus reached within a group of peers. “Do-overs” are decreed by a higher power, such as the referee or a government official. In the earliest instances I found, the purpose of a do-over was righting a wrong. The previous play, or the outcome of a competition, was nullified because one side’s rights were taken away somehow, or because a sudden change of condition resulted in an unfair advantage that tainted the result. It was up to the officials to determine what level of injustice or mishap required a do-over. While this sense has remained, the word need not suggest a fundamental injustice any more. Sometimes it’s intended to correct a flaw or problem created by previous action, and sometimes it tries to recast an unwanted, as opposed to an unfair, situation. A recent example: Stephen Colbert offered Bill Clinton another chance to address questions about his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky after he botched an earlier one. While Colbert used the word “do-over” to describe the offer, it was really a mulligan. In effect Colbert was saying, “We’re all friends here, Bill; take another whack at it and we won’t count the first one.”

I don’t recall using or hearing “do-over” (does it have anything to do with “make-over”?) on seventies sandlots, but one writer suggested it originates in children’s games, where often the easiest solution to a problem on the field is just to expunge the previous play and do it over again. I think in such cases we said “Doesn’t count; do it over,” or possibly “replay it,” but I don’t have any clear recollection. Maybe simply “do over!,” easily recast as a noun and any other part of speech you want. There’s something innocent about a do-over in its pure form, a childlike faith that you can remake the past. But in the real world, that faith leaves out too many complexities, which leaves it vulnerable. It will fade and even dissolve if the arbiters decide to grant do-overs based on one side’s advantage rather than uphold fundamental fairness.

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baby on board

(1980’s | “child in car”)

Strictly an eighties phenomenon in the U.S., these signs, designed to stick to the inside of a car window and look like miniature roadside warnings of sharp curves and other hazards, were imported from Germany (“Baby an Bord” or “Kind [child] an Bord”), where they were in use by 1980. By 1985, they were a fixture on American roads, and by 1986, the backlash had begun, both in the form of innumerable parodies and law-enforcement crackdowns, justified on the grounds that the signs obstructed the driver’s view. The manufacturer, ironically, touted them as safety equipment, and there were two common arguments for their use: they alert other drivers to be solicitous of the precious cargo inside, and they alert police and paramedics to ditto. (In my suburban youth, it was common to see stickers on house windows telling the fire department where the children’s rooms were.) Unbelievers tended to ascribe obnoxious parental officiousness to those who so decorated their cars, an uncharitable interpretation, but probably not far wide of the mark in many cases. The fad rose quickly and fell slowly; “Baby on board” remained common in back windshields for some time, though you see them much less often now. But they have never shed the taint cast by the quick rise and reaction of the eighties.

Parenthood has become more demanding since my parents were in the business, and “Baby on board” was part of that evolution — yet another precaution parents might fail to take, thus endangering their children instead of protecting them. I’ve commented before on the oppressive growth of parenting as competitive sport, or competitive anguish, and on changes in standards and expectations for those unlucky enough to give birth. Whether intended as a sinister marketing scheme or not, “Baby on board” signs did their bit to harass new parents, promising increased safety, or at least a chance of it, at a low price. It wasn’t just fear of losing a young child because you hadn’t told first responders to look for him. It was a quick, cheap way of avoiding the appearance of negligence, and what parent wouldn’t want that?

Why doesn’t “baby on board” mean pregnant? Now it does, sometimes, but I don’t recall anyone using it that way, or understanding it that way, even in a fit of explication du texte. Khloe Kardashian used it to mean “having very young babies in the house” in a trailer for the next season of “Keeping up with the Kardashians” (a modern-day soap opera), alluding to the newborns produced by members of the clan, and it may be used, with a hint of jocularity, to refer to expectant mothers as well (as in “if you have a baby on board, you can expect . . .”). It feels to me like the shift to this usage has been slower and less general than you might expect. For reasons unclear to me, some expressions never stray far from their original senses, while others fan out far and wide. “Baby on board” strikes me as an example of the former that ought to be an example of the latter.

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(2000’s | bureaucratese | “accompanying,” “staff”)

LexisNexis doesn’t show any evidence that anyone used “embedded” to refer to war correspondents treated as part of military units before Donald Rumsfeld in 2003, so chalk this one up to the Bush administration. Before 2000, the word was available in figurative senses and used regularly in writing about finance, computer science, and the arts, and those uses persist. But Rumsfeld gave it a lasting and memorable twist, changing the face of journalism. (NPR recently created a series called “Embedded” in an effort to make respectable a term journalists have always been queasy about.)

It’s worth pausing over the meaning and implications of “embedded” in the Rumsfeldian sense. He presented the concept as a way to counter Iraqi war propaganda and give the lie to Saddam Hussein, a neat bit of misdirection. His real goal was giving the appearance of endorsing the freedom of the press to cover the war while placing restrictions on its ability to do so, and eliciting more favorable reporting by increasing the likelihood that the inkstained wretches would sympathize with the soldiers. These are classic examples of authoritarian strategy to blunt and curtail freedom, and Rumsfeld succeeded in feigning respect for the First Amendment while limiting the damage its free exercise might do to the war effort or his own reputation. Reporters fell into line when it became clear that the non-embedded would be subject to the same restrictions without comparable access to the military’s spokespersons. In 1968, of course, war correspondents did their work with or without cooperation from the authorities — but Vietnam taught the authorities to fear the press, and they have tried various means since then to constrain war reporting. Embedding is just the latest example.

Why “embedded,” anyway? There’s a passing resemblance to “embattled,” but more importantly, it lacks the possible connotations of “planted,” which sounds dishonest, or “ridealong,” which sounds frivolous, or “team,” which sounds mundane (the last two, being adjectives, lose some of the force of the past participle). Bringing in a less obvious word has advantages, such as avoiding prejudices built into more familiar or intuitive expressions. What “embedded” does connote in this sense is a bit of a mystery, though. Traditionally, the word was used to imply that something was firmly, even immovably, fixed in something else. In computer jargon, it often took on the sense of “built-in.” All very cozy, right? The timid correspondents, tucked securely in the benevolent bosom of the regiment, relaying only fair and honest progress reports to loyal Americans back home. The suspicion that embedded reporters are sell-outs has never been completely quieted, and that is partly because the word suggests that they passively accepted a compromised position imposed by someone else — they did not embed themselves; they were embedded. Before Rumsfeld, people did not get embedded in anything, except as the result of a horrible mishap. Now, if you’re a journalist, it’s part of the job.

Thanks one more time to lovely Liz from Queens, who so often proposes blog fodder but this time did it unawares, while discussing artists in the days before photography who went along on expeditions to paint whatever natives, flora and fauna, etc. they discovered, so there would be a visual record of exotic dwellers in other climes. When she described them as “embedded,” I realized right away that it was just the right word, and certainly a modern one. No way she (or anyone) would have used “embedded” that way thirty years ago.

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(2000’s | athletese | “strong suit (or point)”)

A nautical term, you say? As we use it today, it comes out of baseball lingo, where it dates back at least as far as 1959, according to Dickson’s Baseball Dictionary. I remember hearing it in my childhood. It is the part of the strike zone (usually) from which the batter can hit the ball the hardest. If a batter hits a home run on a belt-high fastball, the announcer will say, “He got one in his wheelhouse,” or something along those lines. That sense is identical, mutatis mutandis, to the way the word is used today in arts, politics, corporate life, even sports other than baseball. It’s your area of greatest strength or talent, what you do best. The spread seems to have happened between 2000 and 2010, according to LexisNexis; I don’t remember hearing “wheelhouse” in such contexts until after 2010.

Funny thing about this word, baseball-wise. Only hitters have a wheelhouse, not pitchers or fielders. No matter how many times Ozzie Smith made a diving stop in the hole, no announcer ever said, “Another ground ball in Ozzie’s wheelhouse!” So your wheelhouse is a matter of offense, not defense, and in fact a power hitter is much more likely to have one than a singles hitter. The other thing about a wheelhouse is that’s it’s personal. Every hitter, and therefore every singer, mid-level administrator, and aspiring governor has their own. Although a baseball team might be successful if most of its players have similar wheelhouses (just about everybody likes a belt-high fastball), no organization can be. Even a small business requires people who are good at different things. But otherwise the resemblance holds: an assignment or issue in your wheelhouse is your chance to do your part for the team, excel at your share of the work, in short, to succeed.

As hinted in the opening sentence, “wheelhouse” is not even really a baseball expression to begin with. It’s a synonym for “pilothouse” on a boat, which is more like the nerve center than the part where you bash away at your favorite task. But, as one writer suggests, “when a captain is in his or her wheelhouse, that’s a place of command and control. If you’re in your wheelhouse, that’s any situation in which you feel comfortable.” That’s plausible, sort of, but the truth is the identification of a wheelhouse with the batter’s preferred location for a nice, juicy fastball doesn’t make any sense. Dickson suggests that it has to do with a hitter wheeling the bat around with a strong swing, which is not very convincing.

Why, then, have arts writers and artists embraced an unintuitive and relatively obscure baseball expression? Baseball has infiltrated our language to a great extent, it’s true — no one who has spent much time in America fails to understand “three strikes,” “off base,” or “screwball” — but artists and their camp followers normally spread therapese across the language, not sports talk. (Although “raise the bar,” popular among educators, is an exception.) I can’t think of other contemporary examples of this sort of thing. Some sporting expressions have become general property, even if the spread didn’t start with arts writers: “slam dunk,” “dream team,” “real MVP.” I doubt it’s a matter of sounding sweaty and manly; it’s probably more about sounding ruddy and vigorous. Athletic locutions tend to pack punch, pizzazz, and a touch of passion, or at least vehemence, which makes them attractive to anyone looking to add pace to their prose.

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