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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: Michelle Obama

fist bump

(late 1990’s | journalese (sports))

An athletic gesture par excellence that worked its way down to the masses shortly after 2000, as far as I can determine. The fist bump postdates the high five, though it was known as early as the 1970’s; Philadelphia 76ers guard Fred Carter is often cited as an early practitioner, if not the inventor. But the low five — “slap me five” (which is what I remember from childhood, along with a response my cousin taught me: “here’s your change” accompanied by a slap across the face) — and the high five were more the rule back then. Tiger Woods in 1999 gave the first widely reported fist bump (“first bump”?); in 2008, Barack Obama exchanged one with Michelle that excited widespread comment. Time magazine, in discussing the Obamas’ meeting of the hands, listed other terms for it: “‘power five,’ ‘fist pound,’ ‘knuckle bump,’ ‘Quarter Pounder,’ and ‘dap.'” The fist bump encompasses at least two different gestures. One, which involves the upper and lower edges of the fist, is also known by variations on “hammer” or “pound.” You hit the thumb side of your counterpart’s fist with the pinky side of your own; then the counterpart returns the favor. The more familiar form requires knuckle-to-knuckle contact, with the knuckles up and the fist roughly at shoulder level. In 2020, that is how most people would picture it.

What is the difference between a high five and a fist bump? I don’t mean in the act, I mean in their significance. On the surface, the closed fist is more aggressive than the open hand, so it would appear that a high five is more hail-fellow-well-met, while the fist bump might seem more threatening. I have to say I don’t read them that way at all. To me, a fist bump signals restraint and moderation, while the high five exudes exuberance. Partly that’s because the hands are raised higher for a high five; fists have to stay lower for a fist bump to work. But it is also a necessary corrective to the menace inherent in the fist. One must deliberately hold back so as not to appear to be slugging the other person. It’s fine to smack your hands together hard when they’re open, but when they’re closed? Then you have a fight on your hands.

The complex of gestures represented by handshakes, fist bumps, high fives, etc. is indeed complex. There are at least two more in the penumbra that merit mention. One is the Black Power salute from the sixties: a single fist raised high above the head. I’m not sure it’s a direct ancestor, but it lurks in the background of the less militant fist bump. Another is the chest bump, prized among athletes, in which two people leap into the air and bang their rib cages together. It lacks the self-restraint inherent in the fist bump and outstrips even the high five in enthusiasm. Athletes have the extremely difficult task of playing with the utmost intensity until the instant the whistle blows; then they are expected to turn it off completely. Celebratory rituals soak up adrenaline and act as a safety valve, giving all that excess energy somewhere to go.

Although it probably had nothing to do with the original intent, doctors and do-gooders noted long before the coronavirus craze that a fist bump was more hygienic than a handshake. You may remember that in March 2020 the elbow bump took the stage briefly as an even more hygienic alternative, before the six-foot distancing rule became standard. Now we must look to our sports heroes once again; when play resumes, athletes will no doubt concoct new enactments of congratulation and triumph that dispense with physical contact altogether. And we will adopt some of them. Nowadays, even the most sheltered are no longer nonplussed by high fives and fist bumps. It won’t take long to add new elaborations to our non-verbal vocabulary.

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lean in

(2010’s | athletese? | “give your all”)

I sense the need for an anatomy of this odd expression, changed forever by Google and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. The first fork in the family tree branch generates “lean in” and “lean into.” The latter has been used for some time by sportscasters to denote exerting extra force in a certain direction (as a batter leaning into a pitch), or shifting weight on a skateboard or in a car to assist the steering (leaning into a curve). “Lean in” is more complicated. At the simplest level, it denotes a motion or posture understood to express attention, interest, or excitement. That is, it’s another way to say “lean toward.” Some time after 2000, the phrase became an adjective current among advertisers and entertainment executives, as in “lean-in experience” or “lean-in factor.” The latter was typically used in connection with exciting moments on television, conjuring the image of audience members on the edge of their seats, breathlessly awaiting the next utterance. “Lean in” has another application as well, as an antonym of “lean back” or “back away” — that is, as the opposite of taking it easy or retreating. In such contexts, leaning in is a sign of toughness and resolve. That would seem to be the most direct ancestor of Sandberg, but I don’t think it’s much older. The earlier athletic usage has a claim as well.

Sheryl Sandberg published her book in 2013, though she was quoted using the phrase before that. She preached ambition and assertiveness for women in the work force, or, as Lovely Liz from Queens summarized: women need to act more like men. Sandberg’s dicta have permeated the culture and spawned a women’s empowerment movement; the Lean In Foundation is a big organization, helping women all over the world learn from each other and move up the ladder. Yet a Washington Post writer declared the Lean In movement dead at the end of last year, after Michelle Obama drove a stake through its heart. More recently, Marissa Orr published a critique of Sandberg called “Lean Out.” Will “lean out” take its place alongside “lean in”? Will Sandberg’s addition to the lexicon lose momentum? Stay tuned . . .

It all starts with “lean,” which is tricky because it may suggest both a casual or relaxed tendency and much more concentrated force, as in the cases of “lean in” and “lean into.” “Lean” strictly speaking denotes any departure from the vertical in a normally upright object, and at least when people and animals do it, we usually have a specific purpose; we lean toward something or someone. “Lean in” has always shared that sense of purposefulness. To reach its present eminence, it had to lose its appendages, a step in the evolution of several expressions, including “give back” (other examples here). “Leaning in” once was invariably followed by “a certain direction,” “favor,” etc. Now it is a set phrase all on its own. In most similar cases, this slimming process results from a distillation of a number of competing longer phrases into a single shorter one. But in this case, the casting off seems to have come with the establishment of a new definition, imbuing the phrase with attributes of superior dedication and willpower. Not boiling down, but striding forth in a new direction.

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