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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: law enforcement


(1980’s | advertese? | “ambitious,” “wishful,” “desirable”)

Aim high. Think big. Look beyond yourself to a higher goal, a greater good. It is an odd thing about “aspire” and its derivatives. If you look up “aspiration” in the OED, most of the definitions have to do with breathing. (Any time you see a verb with “spire” in it, that’s where it comes from, even “inspire” or “perspire,” which may not at first call up images of respiration.) Then, right there in the middle of six or seven definitions is “steadfast desire or longing for something above one.” It looks like it must be related to the French “espérance” (hope), yet it too goes back to breathing: the idea is that you long for something so badly you’re panting. It should not be confused with “aspiring,” for it is not a synonym. To illustrate the difference, take the phrases “aspiring customer” and “aspirational customer.” The former is one who is not a customer but wants to be. The latter may already be a customer, specifically one interested in better or more elaborate merchandise. The trick about “aspirational” is that it may modify the consumer or the goods.

Indirectly, “aspire” confused me in a different way when I was young. When I first read the Latin phrase “ad astra per aspera,” I thought “aspera” was related to aspiration, as in “to the stars through lofty aims.” I would have been closer if I had thought of “asperity.” It really means “to the stars through difficulties,” in other words, overcoming obstacles to reach great heights. (It’s the state motto of Kansas, whatever that says about Kansas.)

“Aspirational” actually goes back centuries, but does not show up often before 1980, when apparently a gradual and persistent increase in use began. LexisNexis suggests that in the 1980’s, it was most prevalent in advertising, where the idea was to inveigle people into paying more for the product by convincing them it would confer higher status. In this sense it is closely related to another eighties coinage: upwardly mobile. That usage is still around, but now “aspirational” doesn’t only mean striving for something more or less attainable. Now we often use it to mean hopeful, but in an ineffectual way — or even flat-out delusional. When you do something aspirational, you’re acting on a belief that you wish were true. In effect you are trying to impose your will on the world and force everyone to abide by your cherished theory or desire.

Even in the 1980’s, you could find the word in politics, business management, and ethics. In the last field it had a particularly baneful meaning. One way to let government malefactors off the hook was to rule that certain ethical standards were “aspirational,” meaning that no one was really expected to follow them, so violations were not punishable. One of Reagan’s attorneys general, Edwin Meese, was exonerated of some of his numerous ethical lapses on exactly those grounds. If you want to see where that sort of moral relativism ends up, look around. Republican presidents, at least since Nixon, have reserved special contempt for the office of Attorney General, regularly nominating obviously corrupt hacks who equate their boss with the law and have no taste for equality, justice, or moderation. When Clinton was on the rack, Republicans loved to laud a government of laws, not of men. They don’t say that any more. They’ve fallen in behind Trump’s utter contempt for the law — something to be evaded or used as a weapon against your enemy, but in no case to be respected. Trump ignores the law any time he thinks he can get away with it, and most Republicans — even lawmakers! — profess allegiance. The notion that these power-mad toadies care, or ever cared, about the rule of law or the Constitution is more nauseous than laughable.

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(1970’s | legalese? | “quarantine”)

A grim word. Before 1970 or so, “lockdown” pertained to hardware, describing a mechanism that held something firmly in place. During the seventies, lawyers and prison wardens began using the term to talk about a way to control prisoners by confining them to their cells, forbidding gatherings, visits from the outside, etc. The usage became standard quickly, commonplace in the mainstream press by the mid-eighties. At some point in the nineties, the word kicked over the traces and spread to other contexts, anywhere there was unrest (just as prison lockdowns were a typical response to riots or smaller-scale violence). Some incidents in the late nineties in particular gave the word a boost — the Columbine High School shootings, the WTO protests in Seattle — each of which drove a spike in sightings of “lockdown.” It was already shifting from something imposed by corrections officers to something enforced by police. At the same time, lockdowns took on the flavor of safety and security rather than punishment.

It was arguably a safety measure even when first discussed. (What was the old word for it? Was there one?) To us, “lockdown” suggests an entire building or at least a wing, but in the seventies, it was not unusual for a single prisoner to be put in lockdown (solitary confinement) if they got a little too crazy. The whole premise of prison is that you get put away in a holding pen, away from society, and that’s just another level — prison squared. But soon lockdown became a much more general affair, imposed on hundreds of prisoners at a time. That does have to do with safety, of the guards if nobody else. But as in the case of a single prisoner, it’s very easy to confuse with retribution. When you lock down a school, a civic building, or a whole neighborhood because there’s a killer roaming loose nearby, we’re all supposed to have a warm feeling, like everyone is doing their job and protecting the kids from harm.

We already used “lockup” as a synonym for “jail” — for some reason, you don’t hear “lockup lockdown” — if we hadn’t, “lockup” might have become the accepted term instead. I don’t know exactly why, but “lockdown” works better somehow. It sounds more drastic, more final than “lockup,” and therefore better suited to widespread danger and panic. (Cf. “shutdown,” “breakdown,” or even “patdown.”)

The spread of “lockdown” to hospitals, hotels, or even entire cities demonstrates two things. One is that lockdown is primarily a response to contagion, whether of violence or disease. That’s why it sounds strange when sportswriters use it to describe an outstanding defensive player; we understand but it sounds a little off somehow. But the continuing creep of the term into other fields (itself a form of contagion) reveals the seductiveness of the concept. Here’s an easy way to prevent harm to the defenseless, and who wouldn’t be for that? The fact that it also represents an expansion of power — of government or administrators of private institutions — doesn’t seem so important against the backdrop of pious evocation of security for all. Pretty much everyone would agree that lockdowns are at least occasionally necessary to prevent dangerous situations from getting completely out of hand at prisons, hospitals, or schools. But how often? Should we carry them out as preventive measures rather than as responses to unfolding crisis? Is it true that the more lockdowns that occur within a society, the more authoritarian it becomes?

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person of interest

(1980’s? | bureaucratese | “suspect,” “(material) witness,” etc.)

Virtually no use outside of law enforcement, but inside it “person of interest” has spread from its original field — big-time operations combating organized crime, terrorism, anti-war activism, etc. — to any old local crimefighting, though you would expect persons (not “people”) of interest only in complicated or dramatic cases. Aside from the rather stiff and formal plural, the phrase has other quirks; for example, in the singular it takes only the indefinite article — because if there were one person of interest, as the definite article suggests, that would be the suspect. But the whole point of persons of interest is that they are not necessarily suspects (as educators are not necessarily teachers). The term is vague; it could refer to a witness or someone with pertinent information, someone who can help with the investigation or who might even, with luck, turn into a suspect. If the person is only a blurry image on a surveillance video, the cops may not even know who it is.

I wouldn’t have thunk it, but the New York Times records instances of this expression in the early seventies, usually in quotation marks, invariably in articles covering law enforcement actions on a national scale. In 1970 the Times offered a definition: “those citizens, many with no criminal records, whom the government wants to keep track of in effort to avert subversion, rioting and violence or harm to nation’s leaders.” Now it might be said of anyone who, to adopt a courtly old expression, assists the police with their inquiries. I’m not sure when it entered everyday vocabulary, or how. It seems like one of the many outstanding, or not so outstanding, cop shows between 1980 and 2000 should have played a role, but if so I don’t know which one(s). Faithful readers? By 2000 it came up often enough in the mainstream press that most of us probably had heard it.

The components of the expression are deliberately bland and ordinary; there’s no fanfare here, no chest-beating — hardly surprising in bureaucratese. The blandness diverts our attention from intimidation, and excessive accumulation of personal information. Every person of interest goes into the database, and anything they say can be used against them. This term makes unobtrusive both the browbeating of those the cops don’t like, and the amassing of data in government hands. If they keep rounding up persons of interest, they’ll have the dirt on all of us eventually. The expression has another advantage for the people who deploy it, in that it has a certain amount of ass-covering built in. It looks bad when the cops have to turn a suspect loose, but excusing a mere person of interest will hardly be noticed. When there is more than one or two of them, it suggests strongly that the investigators are not making much progress.

The expression does not seem to have acquired any particular ironic or figurative life, or any life at all outside of quite literal-minded law-enforcement contexts. I would plump for more variety, more interest, as it were, attached to this unassuming phrase. Shouldn’t a “person of interest” be a crush, or at least someone you’ve found beguiling in the break room? Just the right degree of coyness, a good mix of optimism and realism. More prosaically, why doesn’t it mean someone who has a stake in an enterprise (i.e., one who holds an interest), or, more narrowly, someone who stands to gain or lose from an executive or judicial decision? Or, more narrowly still, the legislators or judges themselves. Seems like there should be any number of financial applications. I could even hear it as an ironic term for loan shark, in the euphemistic manner of “goodfellas” or “godfather.” Fellow citizens! Let’s take this phrase back from Big Brother!

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ask (n.)

(2010’s | athletese? | “request,” “appeal”)

I still don’t know for sure, but it looks to me like “ask” first grew as a noun in Australia, as far back as the eighties, mainly in sports lingo. It may have happened earlier, it may have happened somewhere else, but by 1990 it was not hard to find the nominal “ask” in the antipodal press, often in the phrase “big ask” (which meant simply “a lot to ask”). In the U.S, it didn’t occur often before 2000, and it seems to have leached into the language over the next ten years through that eternal pursuit, fundraising. Political candidates, hospital executives, church ladies all must eventually “make the ask” of donors (put the bite on, we used to say irreverently). To this day, it turns up most in financial contexts; an ask generally involves money and is directed to an individual, though it could also be made of a charitable institution.

“Ask” is still used far more often as a verb, and that should remain true for a long time. But the noun is out there now, getting a bit more normal-sounding every year. It’s not very interesting semantically, simply filling space that once belonged to “request” or “appeal.” The noun tags along behind the wealth of phrases involving the verb, e.g., “a lot to ask,” “not too much to ask,” “asking price” (well, that’s a participle), or more picturesque entries like “ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”

So “the ask” really doesn’t add much to the language except another thorn in the side of traditionalists. That and opportunities for wordplay. Imagine a situation in which a fundraiser from one organization calls a donor shortly after one from another organization has gotten a sizable commitment. Wouldn’t that be a “tough ask to follow”? Top fundraiser for the year? The Askmaster! Medical research? “The Ask of the Red Death” (why not “The Ask of Amontillado”? ask the Poe-lovers). And it need not be reserved for filthy lucre. Students of antiquity may dwell quietly on the possibilities of Cleopatra’s ask, or Balaam’s. Then there’s “ask-backwards,” but that’s pushing things too far, trying to make an adjective out of it. Never fear, we’ll get there some day. Will “ask” beget “asky” (not to be confused with “ASCII”) — possible meanings: demanding, importunate, chancy — as “judge” has begotten “judgy”?

tell (n.)

(2010’s | athletese (poker) | “giveaway,” “telltale sign”)

This noun we owe to card players by general agreement. The OED cites a first instance from 1974, the second from 1998, both from commentary on poker. When the noun started to turn up shortly before 2010, writers often suggested that it was a poker term. It certainly seems plausible when you consider that poker players make their living by interpreting revealing behavior from their tablemates. A man named Mark Bouton published a book called “How to Spot Lies like the FBI” in 2010 in which the expression appeared often. The fact that a tell betrays that which one would rather hide causes it to be used to imply unsavory or deceptive behavior: lying, bluffing. Or a revelation of shame or vulnerability, as the gun shop owner who looks for “tells” suggesting that a buyer wants a gun in order to commit suicide. You can use another’s tell to help or harm them, but harm is more likely.

Apparently it’s no more than an abbreviation of “tell-tale sign.” I suppose it has the appeal of all shortenings, which is a higher meaning-to-syllable ratio. Like “ask,” “tell” portends little of semantic interest, but that doesn’t keep devotees of the latest vocabulary from embracing it. Then again, it may have a more capacious side, as in this from Gawker in 2007: “Restaurants, like poker players, have certain tells, minute signifiers that betray a whole constellation of facts.” Not one ho-hum revelation, but a peek into a universe of certainties deduced from one minor detail. Perhaps that’s a bit too Holmesian, but there is a sense in which “tell” opens up not just one surface inference but any number of supporting circumstances. A good tell reader will get more out of your tic or gesture than just the knowledge that you’re lying. (What are the words for the person issuing the tell and the person discerning it, anyway?)

I’ve done a couple of other words that have to do with unwelcome revelations: exposure, unpack. “Unpack” and “tell,” one a verb and the other a converted verb, are sort of opposite sides of the same coin, both related to getting underneath the obvious and extracting deeper significance. But in this case the unpacker can’t let on. Part of the point of noticing and correctly interpreting a tell is that the “teller” doesn’t know you’ve done it, doesn’t realize he has clued you in through an involuntary or unconscious movement. On the other hand, unpacking is normally a public process, in which the actor wants everyone to know what she’s doing. Maybe “tell” is really the opposite of “TMI,” betraying oneself with a small but highly significant hint rather than sheer garrulousness.

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racial profiling

(1990’s | legalese | “discrimination”)

The verb “to profile” has a relatively complicated recent history, even if you set aside the usual literal or technical meanings from geology, engineering, esthetics, etc. For most of the twentieth century, the most common usage had to do with interview-based journalism — describing a worthy individual or organization in detail. Usually an actor or comparable cultural phenomenon, hence the phrase “celebrity profile.” The word was available as both noun and verb, but from either angle it seems an odd choice. The classical meaning of “profile” — a face seen from the side — would seem, on the face of it (sorry), to have little to do with a revealing biographical portrait. To carry the metaphor to its logical conclusion implies that the reporter has left out half the relevant information, as a profile leaves out half the visage — although an art critic might argue that sometimes the profile is more revealing than a full-face view, and there’s no denying some faces are far more interesting in profile. Sometimes “profile” means little more than “categorize,” as in a corporate profile that provides statistics grouped under various measures of performance. In African-American slang, “profiling” was another word for “showing off.” But when we use the term in African-American contexts today, it has an entirely different slant.

Our use of “racial profiling” today is descended from the more sinister practice of psychological profiling; the OED lists its first example of this usage in 1951. The goal is to see beneath the surface presented by the soldier, teacher, or employee, the psychologist’s trained eye constructing an account of each personality that understands the subject better than she understands herself, or at least better than the boss understands her. Inevitably, it occurred to the criminal justice system that such a thing might be useful in dealing with malefactors, and the idea of profiling this depraved criminal or that deranged terrorist entered the mainstream in the seventies and eighties. By 1990, the concept had undergone further refinement in the form of DNA profiling, by which the expert found a unique way to identify any individual through a bit of hair or saliva, again finding a distinctive marker that was not apparent to the unaided eye or brain. A DNA profile is a hyper-detailed diagram constructing a definitive portrait that cannot be confused with that of anyone else. Though the technology is often used in the context of medical research, it turns up much more often in news accounts of criminals, which has paved the way for “racial profiling,” now the dominant locution in which “profiling” appears. (I append the ACLU’s definition along with a reasonably non-partisan discussion of various kinds of profiling.)

The extraordinary thing about the new expression is that it has turned the old idea on its head. Racial profiling dispenses entirely with a painstaking account of the individual, teasing out a detailed map of characteristics, and replaces it with a simple question: Do you belong to this or that dangerous group? (Profiling based on religion or nationality is also possible, of course.) On one view, the change in usage is a complete reversal, but from another it is more or less seamless — profiling is merely one more weapon in the eternal war against the bad guys — and therefore it may be entitled to a certain poetic license.

The illogic of widespread, systematic profiling has been proven so often that the practice has few defenders but many adherents. When Americans feel threatened — some of us don’t even have to feel threatened — we disregard the studies and the logic and reach for the easy, satisfying answer. If a few people from a certain group mean us harm, make all of them suspect. For that to have any chance to work, the group must be very small, but preferred objects of unequal treatment in our society number in the millions, most of whom are law-abiding and just trying to do their jobs and pay their taxes. Having been mistreated by the justice system, such members of minority groups have no incentive to work with police and a quite reasonable desire to avoid them. Police departments around the country have learned this the hard way. (An exchange between Sam Harris and Bruce Schneier may flesh out the argument sketched above.) But their experiences have not dissuaded an uncomfortably large percentage of us, who demand that the law be simple and punitive. In America, foolish and failed policies can be enacted over and over again, if they benefit — or harm — the right people.

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zero tolerance

(late 1980’s | bureaucratese | “no exceptions,” “strict enforcement,” “to the full extent of the law”)

A bit of regulatory history, if you please. This term arose in the 1950’s and 1960’s as a way of saying there was no permissible minimum amount for certain chemicals, specifically in processed food. The phrase was often applied to pesticides; a federal law called the Delaney Clause (“No additive shall be deemed to be safe if it is found to induce cancer when ingested by man or laboratory animals or if it is found, after tests which are appropriate for the evaluation of the safety of food additives, to induce cancer in man or animals.”) hit the books in 1958 and established a “zero tolerance” — i.e., any measurable amount is too much — for carcinogenic food additives. That definition held up until the 1980’s. Since it referred to specific chemicals, the construction “a zero tolerance (for pesticide X)” was not unusual, even though it sounds very odd today.

From the standpoint of linguistic evolution, the interesting thing about this usage is that it rests at least partly on the third definition of “tolerance” given in Webster’s Third: “allowable deviation from a standard.” But the notion of no margin for error or no leeway is of course what survives in our latter-day use of the phrase. Another holdover: the association between this particular expression and the regulation of chemicals. In the early 1980’s, the U.S. Navy adopted a policy of “zero tolerance” toward illegal drug use, meaning no excuses or second chances. A few years later, late in Ronald Reagan’s second term, anti-drug rhetoric and enforcement surged, following the First Lady’s “Just say no” campaign. “Zero tolerance” became high-stakes federal policy, permitting officials to seize boats, cars, etc. if even small amounts of an illegal drug were found, with the presumption that the owner must prove innocence to get it back — contrary to longstanding legal principles. (The fact that the Iran-Contra scandal and a recession were both in full swing by 1988 may have suggested to Reagan’s handlers the wisdom of fanning public anger over a completely different problem.) After a couple of yachts were seized, the policy was hastily reconsidered. But the new punitive usage obscured the old sense, so that the phrase became a simple stand-in for “we absolutely will not tolerate x.” Tolerance is now understood to refer to the act of permitting or putting up with, not as a deviation from a standard. They are closely related, but they feel different.

Today, the term is applied to many, many undesirable things. From the first two months of 2011, LexisNexis disgorged the following zero-tolerance campaigns, great and small: illegal drug use (still the most popular target), drunk driving, underage drinking, weapons in school, bullying, hazing, anti-Semitism, racial epithets, domestic violence, and prostitution. That’s not a comprehensive list. But it shows how ordinary, how ubiquitous the phrase has become — and how much we take the concept for granted. It sounds satisfying. There are many actions that nearly everyone recognizes as harmful to others, and we are always tempted to believe that relentless law enforcement will eliminate them. Who wouldn’t be against “swift, certain, and just punishment” (Ronald Reagan’s phrase)? Who doesn’t want to make sure that vicious criminals can’t harm innocent people?

In most times and places, it quickly becomes clear that such procrustean, draconian punishments may hobble the malefactors, but they also hurt a lot of people who haven’t really done anything wrong, and such policies are moderated, if only implicitly. America’s record over the last twenty years has been spotty, however, and zero-tolerance codes have gained ground, particularly in school districts and in laws directed against users of illegal drugs. I can see how the sheer simplicity of zero-tolerance policies makes them attractive. You break the rules, you get nailed, and it’s a perfectly mechanical, incorruptible meting out of punishment — the same for everybody every time. Except when it isn’t. The wheels of our justice system do not grind as fine as they might, and over time people with influence find ways to walk away, and people without, however harmless, get socked with disproportionate, crippling penalties. Let’s not forget — we have a legal system in the first place because the talion yielded the wrong answer too often. But some of us can’t see past theoretical efficiency to practical consequences. Until you try it, unyielding application of the law seems like a great idea.

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