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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: military life

all in

(2010’s | militarese? | “giving one’s all,” “bound and determined”)

“All in all.” “All-in-one.” “All in the wrist.” “All in your head.” “All in the same boat.” “All in good time.” Or you could just settle for “all in,” shorn of superfluous objects and uttered with quiet conviction. It means we won’t turn back; we won’t give in. But that’s not what it meant in my childhood. Back then “all in” meant “worn out,” “exhausted.” That definition was on its way out then, and the usage we see today represents a revival, doubtless an unnecessary one. In poker, it meant “having put all one’s chips in the pot” (which makes more sense). “All in” was a bit anomalous among the many vigorous expressions for states of lassitude. Most of them are straight predicate adjectives: “beat,” “pooped,” “spent,” “wrecked.” It reminds me a little of “done in,” but literally that means “murdered,” something much stronger. The old usage (citations date back to the nineteenth century in Lighter) is mostly gone, but I believe the term is still current in poker. (Ian Crouch gives a good account of the evolution of “all in” in the New Yorker.) In the modern sense, popularized by David Petraeus’s biography (2012), it also seems related to poker somehow, but in a more positive way — a confidence in the supremacy of your hand that causes you to bet your entire stack of chips without hesitation. But “all in” doesn’t connote arrogance or unseemly displays of power so much as steely resolve or unswerving attention to the task at hand. “All in” is what you are at the beginning of the day; it used to be what you are at the end of the day.

Theoretically it ought to be possible to be “all in” squared — bent on reaching the goal AND too tired to go on. But the effort required to maintain such commitment precludes helplessness born of weariness. Being all in implies that you have enough energy to figure out and make the next move, or enough force of will to overcome the newest obstacle. The other verb that precedes the expression is “go,” which reminds us of how closely it resembles “go all out,” a phrase much beloved of sports announcers in my youth. I don’t listen to play-by-play as much as I used to, but I have the impression we don’t hear “go all out” much any more.

“All” in itself implies a group, so “all in” should suggest effort toward a common goal, as in “we’re all in this together.” It may, but it doesn’t have to. It is possible to go all in on your own private project, but it might sound a little odd. When politicians and military people use it, there’s at least a hint of pulling together. That assumption of camaraderie is made explicit in what may prove to be yet another new meaning for the expression. Penn State University’s “All In” initiative provides an example, the motto being “A Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion.” Here the term is used very self-consciously to express the ideal of a tolerant, easy-going community. Donald Trump’s ascendance has given this sort of communitarianism a boost, and so I suspect we may see the expression used this way more and more. Keep your eyes peeled; “all in” may shed its skin yet again.

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power nap

(1990’s | teenagese? therapese? | “siesta,” “catnap,” “forty winks”)

I grew familiar with this term as businese, through articles about frazzled employees needing a way to get back on track during the workday. That’s probably where you learned it, too, but the phrase more likely saw the light of day elsewhere. It was in use among college students in the late eighties, and still is, but it became much more familiar to the rest of us in the nineties when psychologists started pushing the benefits of resting and recharging at the office. The businese definition has largely won out, yet students even today may assign the phrase a slightly different meaning. Businesspeople use the term to mean a short period of sleep intended to increase alertness, vigor, and therefore productivity. Students use it that way, too, but it can also mean a period of deep sleep without any indication of duration. In 1988, New York Times columnist Richard Bernstein defined it as “deep sleep induced by extreme exhaustion,” and cited it as an example of college slang. That sense has not disappeared completely, though it has been largely eclipsed.

The reason it sounds like businese is that it goes with “power lunch” and “power tie,” which became clichés in the eighties, when the cult of the world-bestriding businessman, brought low for a couple of generations by the Great Depression, ramped up again. Flaunting was in, and executives took pride in asserting their prerogatives. In the early nineties, when psychologists like Dennis Shea, James Maas, and Bill Anthony began writing about the benefits of brief rest periods for white-collar workers, “power nap” made our vocabulary more productive and efficient. (I can’t resist: “Feeling logy at work? There’s a nap for that!”) But powerful people don’t generally sleep on the job if they want to stay that way, and a power nap wasn’t a way to project one’s own muscle (like a power tie) or extend one’s dominion (like a power lunch). The fit isn’t as neat as it sounds, more evidence that “power nap” was not native to businese.

In 1992, the Guardian, reporting on the U.S. military’s methods of keeping soldiers minding sensitive or complex equipment as sharp as possible, noted that those charged with such duties were instructed to rest regularly: “to avoid implications of sissiness, such rests are called ‘power naps.’” Another possible origin story for “power nap,” one I don’t find very convincing. There’s no doubt that our armed forces are a great source of euphemisms (collateral damage, anyone?), and it’s also true that there is a lot of stubborn machismo in the ranks. But even the Army must put aside long-cherished prejudices when science and experience team up to demand it. “Soldier, I order you to take a power nap before your next eighteen-hour shift!” “Yes, sir!”

No matter how many studies demonstrate that short rests during the workday improve employee performance, most bosses still view power naps as proof that workers aren’t serious about their jobs. I’m as prone as anyone to get sleepy after lunch, but I shudder to think of how my boss would react if he caught me in an actual doze. Your average boss just can’t get past that rock-bottom-line calculation: time spent sleeping is time spent not working, and you’re here to work, so sleeping on the job is dereliction, dress it up as you will. American bosses are not, on the whole, a very imaginative or innovative lot. The experts can talk till they’re blue in the face, but the boss knows what he knows. Power naps are for weaklings.

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