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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: media


(1990’s | computerese? | “old,” “out-of-date,” “inherited,” “left over”)

I fear I am easing into a spell of griping over grammatical shifts. A few weeks ago it was “step up” idly taking a formerly unknown intransitive sense. “Legacy” has gone further, opening a whole new adjective department, one which is as far as I can tell based in computerese, worse yet. It has come to mean “hard to maintain because superannuated, but still useful or needed.” For example, an old computer that has to be kept around to run some indispensable software, or an old recording that has to be digitized. “Legacy” can be digital or analog. It is similar to other johnny-come-latelys such as “classic,” “retro,” and “vintage,” but more technical. It has spread; in politics “legacy issue” means “problem inherited from one’s predecessor,” turning the word into a convenient way to blame the previous administration. The noun “legacy” is still used literally and figuratively to refer to that which one leaves behind — something of value left in a will or, more often, an inspiration that lives on after one passes from the scene, or a series of achievements that needs to be preserved and augmented.

The academy offers another possible source for the concept of the legacy, in the sense of “descendant of an alum.” Phrases like “legacy preference” and “legacy admission” had appeared by 1990 but do not seem to have been common before then. The arrival of the adjective around the same time in computerese may be simply parallel evolution, or there may be some kind of connection. Both uses evoke the dead hand of the past, but in the academic context the state of being a legacy is desirable. That’s not how tech people use it.

“Legacy” sounds attractive, raising associations of class and financial advantage. But in computerese it is anything but a compliment, denoting a thing to be tolerated at best and a damnable nuisance at worst. The world is older than the personal computer, and it still has things in it that must be made legible to the machine brain. That’s legacy data, or legacy media, which may be thousands of years old, or as little as a decade. But the swath left by widespread computer use, after only about forty years, is already littered with many generations of hardware, software, operating systems, and standard file formats. Almost everyone who does a lot of work with computers has a legacy component somewhere, or has to help out someone else who does. The wages of computers is obsolescence. Concentrated and continuous technical advance must produce generations of disused hardware and outgrown software — even if they still work. But everything doesn’t die at the same time. Just as you can keep an antique car going far beyond its normal lifespan, so you can still run Windows 95, with all its limitations. The mere act of operating and maintaining computer systems over time breeds what you might call legacies (which has not become a collective plural, as far as I can tell, but probably should).

Many businesses prosper by helping corporations deal with legacy problems. There’s something threatening in the (not always implicit) message: if you don’t enlist our services, you will fall irrevocably behind and slide into failure. The problem is, being all state-of-the-art and having your legacy problems faithfully taken care of doesn’t guarantee you’ll be successful; it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition. It’s probably true that you need to spruce up your systems, but doing so doesn’t mean you’ll live happily ever after.

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feeding frenzy

(1980’s | businese?, journalese? | “pigs at the trough,” “every man for himself,” “swarm (of . . .),” “melee”)

This expression had to learn to stand on its own in order to take its place in our vocabulary. It was quite possible in 1980 to use it as part of a simile, almost always juxtaposed with the noble shark. “Feeding frenzy” seems to have been invented after midcentury to describe the way hungry sharks eat; the first citation in the OED dates from 1960. The first citation I found in LexisNexis that dispensed with the sharks occurred in 1981, in the context of corporate mergers. Within a few years, it had come to be applied to lots of other things: the press, government officials, greedy litigants, or investors, for example. (Nowadays it may often evoke criminals or consumers.) It’s my sense that the merger mania of the eighties did more than any other cultural excrescence to propel “feeding frenzy” into prominence. Now the phrase most commonly refers to the press, especially the entertainment press, as in “tabloid feeding frenzy.” We have no trouble envisioning mobs of desperate reporters and photographers competing for the smallest scraps of sensation. But it’s also used to talk about political reporting, at least partly as a result of political scientist Larry Sabato’s 1991 book, “Feeding Frenzy: Attack Journalism and American Politics.” And then, surprise! sometimes it just refers to a lot of people stuffing their faces, as at a barbecue or banquet.

Metaphorically (for now we switch from simile to metaphor), “feeding frenzy” denotes a group of people competing in aggressive or violent ways. The violence may be wholly figurative, and it may be real, as when newshounds or shoppers jostle each other. Feeding frenzies usually arise suddenly and end soon, but always in relative terms — the feeding frenzy following Lindsay Lohan lasts until she can duck into a car, but dueling corporations can keep it up for months.

One highly mutable aspect of this term: when does it have an edge of contempt? When corporate executives snap up profitable firms, it doesn’t seem to bother anyone very much, but when paparazzi hound Princess Diana, the sneer is clear. For profit-minded executives, or consumers on Black Friday, the feeding frenzy is the norm, nay, commendable. On the other hand, some of us cling quaintly to the notion that unchecked intrusion into celebrities’ private business is not a worthy occupation. The expression may call to mind indiscriminate acquisition (especially when referring to wealthy collectors at tony auction houses), crude gorging, or even bestial cruelty. But it may also suggest fierce competition, which we generally celebrate, at least in the abstract. Most of the time, “feeding frenzy” bears at least a touch of scorn, but you have to watch the context. It’s not always there.

Who remembers John DeLorean? His lawyer in 1983 called prosecutors’ pursuit of his client a “feeding frenzy,” but with a twist. He used the image of sharks surrounding a wounded creature, eager to tear it to pieces. Why isn’t this idea more common? Sharks go ape at the scent of blood, right? We’ve all learned from a hundred disaster movies that the minute a drop of blood hits the water, the sharks close in. Real life has something to say about it, of course: Executives prefer to go after a healthy corporation to a hemorrhaging one, and the gutter press doesn’t wait until the movie star is down to start kicking. I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect such similes to hew too faithfully to their referents.

Back to the literal use at last. When we use the term “feeding frenzy,” it’s always aquatic animals, for some reason. Sharks, mainly, occasionally some kind of fish. Why? Rats, coyotes, and other land animals feed in voracious packs, but we don’t use the term in that context. Maybe sharks are just more evocative, or maybe “Jaws” was the most influential film ever, but this continues to seem strange to me.

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race to the bottom

(1990’s | activese? bureaucratese? | “beggar thy neighbor,” “downward spiral,” “how low will you go?”)

According to LexisNexis, the expression originated in a very specific context: banking and financial regulation. The idea was that if banks were not regulated properly, they would engage in progressively riskier practices in pursuit of short-term profits, destroy some banks entirely, and weaken the entire system. That was the early eighties. Only a few years later along came the S&L scandals. Such swift and decisive confirmation of such a straightforward principle is unusual and worthy of note. “Race to the bottom” is commonly still used in political and bureaucratic contexts. President Clinton seems to have helped make it prominent, but it is not as closely associated with him as “shovel-ready” is with Obama, who in 2009 gave us “Race to the Top,” a federal education initiative. (You can tell a new expression has arrived is when it becomes fodder for adaptation and parody.) It was not just a phrase Clinton used regularly; it became a rallying cry for opponents of his trade agreements. Activists bewailed the tendency of nations to gut labor and environmental standards in order to attract short-term investment.

There does seem to be some truth to the proposition that we need governments to rein in our worst instincts where profit is concerned. Some bankers seem to revel in their failure to grasp the consequences of reckless speculation, or at least they convince themselves that they won’t suffer. Some other sap will get stuck with the bill (often as not, the sap is us). Even Bernie Madoff got caught eventually, and it would be nice to think that our financiers would have the brains to avoid hazardous gambles and sharp practice, if only in order to protect the gravy train. But there always seem to be a few.

Of course the use of the term spread, and by 2000 it was readily applied to other targets. Displays of sex, violence, and crassness in popular entertainment, especially television, were taken as evidence of a “race to the bottom” of standards of decency. A related target was tabloid-style journalism. And sometimes the phrase was used to talk about price wars and other familiar forms of economic competition. For the phrase always denotes competitive lowering of standards, each party intending to undercut the other(s). (It is generally understood to be deliberate — meaning that the perpetrator should be held responsible — and not merely an inevitable consequence of the widely acknowledged economic principle that greed causes people to do demonstrably stupid things.)

The race to the bottom is kind of like the slippery slope. They’re both foreboding phrases that describe what will happen, not what has already happened. Both bear relation to an older cliché, “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” because they envision a single event leading inevitably to a point of no return, followed swiftly by irrevocable and ruinous loss. Matters don’t always turn out as badly as advertised, of course. Yet over time decline is real, and its criers are bound to be right a goodly percentage of the time.

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