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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: music


(1980’s | “from OR of the old school” “classic,” “old-time(y),” “traditional”)

It’s a nice way to say “old-fashioned.” The point is it’s nice; “old-school” is a compliment. It’s not just the old-fashioned way; it’s the right way. It may be used to mean blinkered or backward-looking, but that is unusual; one encounters it much more often in an admiring tone. Some expressions turn sour over time and develop a harsher side (examples: aspirational, comfort zone, game the system, lone wolf), and this one might, but not so far.

Almost certainly a Briticism, the adjective phrase developed from things like the old school tie, where it means something a little different. In that phrase, the main unit is the compound noun “school tie.” (We should also remember the older adjective-noun combination, which usually had a sentimental cast but might also be uttered with regret or mockery.) Now the link lies between “old” and “school,” a compound adjective with or without hyphen. During the eighties it started appearing regularly in the American press in that form, in political and art journalism and no doubt elsewhere as well. Sportswriters and music critics took to it readily to talk about athletes or musicians who emulated performers of previous generations. But it has never settled in one neighborhood of the language; “old-school” can come at you from any side.

Smith Barney commercials from the 1980’s featured John Houseman intoning, “They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it.” The commercial demonstrates why we needed the phrase, even though “old-school” doesn’t actually appear in it. There was no one more old-school than John Houseman. (Though he might be scouted by other old-school types for using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular entity. Then again, if you hear it as “Smith [and] Barney,” it’s plural after all.)

While Americans regularly show a preference for forgetting the past, there is a countervailing tendency to respect achievements and personalities that came before — because they paved the way or had an auspicious effect on later work. It arises from a yearning for a time when we were wiser and more sensible; we look to the past to provide standards and guidance, not just a way to measure our own accomplishments. When it comes to moral superiority, our past has a spotty record at best; some old ways have passed on and cannot be revived. If old-school exemplars want to be successful in today’s world, they have to choose the right practices, customs, and forms of address to hang onto. If you do it well, it still pays off.

Lex Maniac has covered a few other expressions that evoke old times: artisanal, back in the day, epic, retro. They all have the same admiring quality as “old-school,” or at least they did when they started out. I’ll have to come up with some that look back in anger.

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(1990’s | journalese? | “collage,” “medley,” “pastiche”)

It all started with food. The idea of turning potatoes, or turnips, or whatever, into mush, to make them easier to eat or just because you like them better that way, forms the root of this week’s expression. Once we mastered the art of mashing up one item, an adventurous chef decided to combine two items, such as potatoes and celeriac in the manner of Lovely Liz from Queens. That’s a closer analogue to a mashup in music — combining two or more existing songs in an interesting way. The splicing may be done vertically (one track superimposed on another) or horizontally (placing snippets from different songs one after another). As with potatoes, a mashup involves compression and mixing (or meshing — why not “meshup”?), but not the same loss of structure. Mashups can be, usually are, a respectful way to “create something new out of something familiar,” in the words of one commentator. Now videos and other media may receive the same treatment; it will be interesting to see if the term spreads much beyond media.

“Mashup” seems to come from Australia, or anyway some past or present dependency of the British crown. The first clear-cut instance I found in LexisNexis dates from Australia in 1988; by 2000 it was accepted and no longer even particularly hip in the British press. It does not seem to have found its footing in the U.S. until after 2000, although one can find examples before then in arts journalism. Before “mashup” stood on its own two feet, the idea was expressed in transitional forms, such as “mashed up” (adjective) or “mash up” (verb), both of which preceded the noun.

Plausible earlier exemplars may be found, from Charles Ives to Harry Nilsson, but for practical purposes this form as we understand it goes back to rap DJ’s of the 1980’s, who did a lot of work by stitching snatches of songs together. Sampling was essential, and it is the basis of the mashup as well. Plenty of mashup artists have hip-hop roots, though the form has spread far beyond. Digital audio and internet distribution make this sort of thing much simpler, so other favorite villains are implicated. Mashup culture, animated partly by animus to oppressive copyright laws, is a thing.

The analogy doubtless leaves something to be desired, but mashups remind me of fan fiction. Both rely heavily on work others have done, and for that reason both partake of a sense of homage noticeable even when the artist does not intend to be laudatory. Although fan fiction generally demands more creativity of its author, mashups may incorporate original passages. Yet the work has less to do with stirring in your own material and more to do with noticing interesting resemblances, and attending to striking connections or superimpositions. Those are what the artist contributes in these newly potent forms.

How valuable is such derivative art? In a sense, all art is derivative, at least by now, when there is nothing new under the sun even when everything is new. But mashups and fan fiction are so willfully derivative that they may seem cheaper or less worthy somehow — similar to the difference between summarizing an issue in your own words and quoting someone else at length. I hesitate to venture a definitive answer, or even an opinionated one. The culture has made room for such creations, and to some extent the market has as well. It doesn’t matter whether I think it’s worthy or not. Maybe that’s dodging the issue on a technicality, but it’s the best answer I’ve got.

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(1990’s | journalese (arts) | “(offer a) sneak preview,” “whet their appetites (for),” “hint (at),” “reveal OR announce (the existence of),” “tout”)

“Tease” has led a complicated life for some time; its newest definition (see below) follows from existing meanings and adds another layer to the complexity. The most common type of teasing when I was young — commenting ironically on another person’s shortcoming or oddity — could be kind or cruel, gentle or sadistic. The word itself didn’t differentiate. And “tease” occupied another Roget’s slot — not entirely unrelated but not a near neighbor, either — where the primary characteristic was deception. It was promising more than you intended to deliver, or toying with someone’s desires without fulfilling them. Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football formed the ultimate teasing triangle: one child taking advantage of another’s credulity and misplaced hope. Lucy was not just tormenting Charlie Brown but also exposing his weakness. The word went in different directions: cheerful ribbing or calculated meanness; or leading someone on then denying gratification.

Today’s meaning lies closer to the second idea, but the implications of deception and unsatisfactory results have (mostly) been removed. So has the idea that the object of teasing must be a living creature, human or animal. One teases — widely used as verb and noun, but it seems more novel as a verb — a forthcoming event, usually the release of a work of popular art such as a song, album, movie, or television series. It is normally done by someone involved in the project, if not the primary artist. The noun is simple: any acknowledgment of the work, or the act of acknowledging it, counts as a tease, whether it reveals anything or not. (In fact, a tease may reveal only that a project may or may not take place and act simply as a trial balloon.) The verb is more slippery, because it raises a question: Is the work being teased or the audience? In the most common construction, it’s the former: Billie Eilish teases a new song, or Ryan Coogler teases a new movie. They’re not interested in yanking the football away from their fans; they want to entice them. But even in the most innocent cases, a hint remains of playing on your audience’s wishes and getting their hopes up. Somewhere, somebody will be disappointed.

An obvious ancestor is the noun “teaser,” which goes back at least a century in the advertising biz and meant roughly what “tease” means now. That’s no doubt the closest relative, but the interplay sketched above is more interesting. One can find examples of today’s use of “tease” before 2000, but according to LexisNexis it didn’t really take off until after 2010. The new sense bobs up so often now that it seems to be in the process of supplanting the old meaning; when kids make fun of each other it’s called bullying whether intended to be hurtful or not. It’s hard to believe the old meaning will disappear; if it does, it will mark an important change in our understanding of human relations. We will have abandoned the old notions that teasing is good for kids because it thickens their skin or teaches them to handle unpleasant people. Not to mention the notion that a certain amount of chaff may be salutary, even enjoyable, for the recipient.

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in the mix

(1980’s | journalese (business) | “one of a number of options,” “available,” “eligible”)

When you try to pin down the way in which this expression has changed since the 1970’s, it takes on a certain I-know-it-when-I see-it quality. Mainly, you recognize it by what it is not: “in the mixture” or “in the mix of.” As we use it now, it takes no prepositional phrase, and is most often encountered as as a predicate complement ending a clause. Starting in the 1980’s, we began hearing “in the mix” used as an adjective, answering the question “what” rather than “where.” It was already current in two different sources that far back: recording reviews and articles involving construction or other manifestations of materials science. “In the mix” is distinguished by its generality, not be confused with “in this (or that) mix,” which is used only when a specific subject has already been defined. I thought of it as a musician’s term, but political and business reporters were using it by the late 1970’s, more or less recognizably as we do now.

It’s pretty clear that our use of “in the mix” comes out of materials science, where the expression applies to ingredients: When you make concrete, be sure to put gravel in the mix. I would prefer that it came from groovy sixties rock producers, as in “Bring out the horns in the mix.” (If you Google the phrase today, the first results that come up have overwhelmingly to do with music.) But the recording studio usage doesn’t allow for adding instruments that haven’t been previously recorded, unlike the other, which permits adding new components at a moment’s notice. Both senses have in common the idea of being fully integrated with the other people or elements, and that idea persists generally today, although it has become looser and more casual, so one might be simply one of several available companions for a trip to the bar Saturday night, not allied closely with anyone else in the group. “Mix,” it is true, used to be a synonym for “mingle,” as one did at parties, but “mix” in that older sense was strictly a verb, and no one at a party ever said, “I’m going in(to) the mix now.”

Notwithstanding its origins in business prose, the expression has developed and retained a pronounced hip tinge conferred by younger people (or those trying to sound younger) and strongly associated with DJ’s and teenage movies. (There was even a movie of that title in 2005, about a DJ.) I’m not quite sure why. The phrase is short and punchy, which explains part of it; and the music biz may have aided its spread, which presumably would make it more attractive to the younger set. Whatever the reason, it has maintained that quality, so naturally the suits have gotten busy co-opting it; PBS has a television series called “In the Mix,” and any number of radio stations use the title as well. I don’t know what the future holds for this expression, but so far it has shown staying power and a certain amount of range.

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(2000’s | journalese (music) | “reference,” “acknowledgment”; “name-drop,” “mention”)

Compare “shoutout.” Both expressions arose in or around the music biz; they are pretty close lexically, and they can be used in many of the same contexts. There are some differences: “shoutout” usually addresses a person or group; name-checks can consist of product names or places, as well as other people. Both terms can be treated as noun or verb, but “name-check” became a verb much more quickly and easily than “shoutout.” Name checking may be regarded as tiresome (as in the case of excessive name-dropping) or ethically dubious (as in a sponsor getting prolonged exposure in a film or television show), but a shoutout is always pleasing. Logically speaking, a shoutout is always a name-check, but the reverse isn’t true; “name-check” has a wider range of referents.

According to LexisNexis, the phrase showed up first in the British music press in the late eighties. Before that, “name check” was another word for “background check.” (It still is; “name check” also commonly refers to the act of determining whether a proposed business name or domain name has already been claimed.) It was something the police did to find out whether a suspect was already wanted for something else, or a spy agency would do to avoid security risks. In that sense, it goes back to J. Edgar Hoover and the old FBI. Up until the late nineties, that remained the meaning of the expression in the U.S., whereas in England it was at least as likely to be used in our more contemporary way — and almost always as a noun. The earliest unmistakable uses in the U.S. are verbs, which had not been true ten years earlier in England. In both countries, “name-check” showed up first in the music press, then wormed its way into other discourses. It is supposed to be hip and slightly advanced.

Most compounds use “check” to mean “verify”: double-check, fact-check, sound-check, even reality check. What sort of check is “name-check”? It seems to have little to do with reviewing and confirming, or anyway I can’t discern a connection. You have to be sure who you’re talking about before you can offer a name-check in the first place; “ol’ What’s-his-name” would not have the desired effect. The law enforcement sense of the term doesn’t seem relevant, either. Name-checks aren’t generally associated with suspicion; they’re usually compliments, not intimations of criminality. Likewise, “check” used to mean “restraint” seems extraneous; a name-check turns loose a name rather than reining it in. I would vote for two other possible origins before any of these: the bank instrument, especially when a name check has actual financial value, or, less literally, when alluding favorably to someone else gives that person greater credibility or marketability. When an established band calls the name of a less popular musician, it can boost record sales. But if the term is a Briticism — and it almost certainly is — shouldn’t it be spelled “name cheque”? My intuition, weak though it is, says that the root concept here is that of the checklist: a name-check is a matter of marking a task completed, checking it off, as it were. That explanation does not satisfy me, but it seems more plausible than those adduced above.

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play well with others

(1990’s | academese (education) | “cooperate (be cooperative),” “get along well,” “work well with others”)

This expression got my attention when Allan Gurganus published his similarly titled novel in 1997. LexisNexis shows pretty clearly that the phrase, while going back a couple of decades in educational parlance and even political reporting, hadn’t been widespread for more than a few years. In the early nineties, it started popping up in a variety of sources, notably computer magazines and arts writing. In 1982, political columnist Richard Cohen attributed the phrase — in its expanded form “work and play well with others” — to the “education biz.” (In case you were wondering, he was referring to Muammar Gaddafi and using the phrase in the negative, as it so often is.) Cohen was an early adopter, but it turned up occasionally in political journalism throughout the 1980’s. There is little doubt that the expression goes back to that American scholarly institution, the report card. It’s one of the criteria used to evaluate how well small children deal with other kids, so that the self-centered, sulky, or withdrawn ones might be spotted early. With adults, the phrase takes on a more general coloring, so that it denotes someone who is easy to work with, affable, unselfish, responsible, and able to contribute to group efforts, light or serious, without making the rest wish he or she hadn’t. Playing well with others requires good interpersonal skills, to use a term of the same vintage. If you’re not good at those things, then you don’t play well with others. You may be any of a thousand things, but you are always difficult. Prickly, idiosyncratic, egotistical, sullen, whatever — failing to play well with others never connotes commendable individualism. It’s all about orneriness.

A slightly older word for such a person is “team player,” the same verb used in more of an athletic and less of an educational context. Before that, you might have said that a person “pulled her weight,” or that he was a “good scout,” though that was a more general compliment. The phrase has for years frequently been used in businese, most often in articles about how to keep your employees happy, or just how to keep your employees. I’m not sure when or why we started using “play” to talk about what used to be known as work. Elementary irony aside, the shift takes advantage of the original connotation of “play well with others.” Like “on task,” its origins in teachers’ dialect forced on it a patronizing character even after it came into general use. Particularly when used in the negative, the phrase tends to sound snarky, and there is often more than a hint that the target is not just unreasonable, but downright childish. On the other hand, when used unadorned, it seems to have shed most of that tinge by now. By and large, “plays well with others” has evolved into a compliment. The negation has retained its original patronizing inflection, but the affirmative has lost it and become positive over time. At least that’s how I hear it.

You would think the phrase “play well with others” would fall naturally from the lips of musicians, and occasionally you run across a book about ensemble playing or being a good accompanist that uses it in the title. But it still has the air of a play on words rather than a straightforward, literal phrase.

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peace out

(2000’s | teenagese (African-American) | “I’m heading out,” “see you later,” “so long”)

According to Connie Eble in Slang and Sociability (1996), this expression was “made popular by rap.” The book was published by a university press, so it must be true. I’m inclined to agree, actually. The phrase certainly spread from African-American youth culture, not that that was coterminous with rap culture by any means, but it was a black thing, a city thing. It started to turn up in print in the nineties, mainly in the music press, but didn’t really trickle into mainstream white culture until after 2000. (I recall my hip brother-in-law using it well before then.) It went with a gesture originally, as I recall — a chest thump followed by the two-finger salute.

There’s a mildly interesting discussion of the phrase here. I’ve been meditating on the question of whether “peace out” has specific overtones — any contexts in which it is more likely to appear — or if it’s best thought of simply as a neutral “I’m leaving.” In my inner ear, I hear it in a serious voice, at the end of a portentous statement, or uttered following expressions of militancy or menace. It still means “I’m leaving,” but it also shades toward “amen” or “power to the people” in those cases. What it doesn’t mean is “pax vobiscum,” and I don’t think it ever did.

One on-line authority (we’re all authorities on-line) opines that the origin of the phrase is a combination of “peace” used as a greeting and “out” as in “over and out.” Much as I dislike plausible etymologies, I have a hard time arguing with this one. Occasionally you may see it used as a verb (“I’m peacing out now”), even a transitive verb (according to, it can be used to mean “kill”), but it seems overwhelmingly used as a farewell.


(1990’s | teenagese (African-American) | “tip of the hat,” “nod,” “big hello,” “thank-you”)

Unlike “peace out,” which strikes me as a little menacing sometimes, a shoutout is always favorable. Whether it’s a greeting, an acknowledgment, an allusion, an expression of gratitude, or some combination, it’s always friendly. You never use a shoutout to shout down someone, or to outshout them. The word itself is infectious, with its cute little echo, and the thing itself makes everyone feel good; that’s probably part of the reason the word has become so popular. It still sounds like a word of the young, and anyone over 25 sounds awkward when they use it — not that that stops us — but that will not remain true as the originating generation ages.

The term started to appear in African-American publications some time around 1995. Early in 1988, George Bush had a combative interview with Dan Rather which caused quite a stir (it helped Bush overcome the “wimp factor” that had dogged him for years as his presidential campaign got rolling). Newsweek’s coverage was titled “The Great American Shout-Out.” There it seems to have meant “shouting match.” The title was undoubtedly influenced by the Great American Smoke-Out, already a national event by the mid-80’s. That appears to have been a one-shot, though, unrelated to our common usage today. I can’t resist quoting a columnist for Vibe magazine extending an “army-sarge shout-out” to everyone he had written about in 1996. I guess the idea was that the acknowledgment was especially loud or generous. It’s such vigorous phrasing I wish it had caught on. That’s the only time I saw it, alas.

I’m treating the term as one word although the hyphenated and two-word forms are still often seen. The shift is happening under our feet and is no doubt inevitable. “Shout out” is not often used as a verb, but it can be. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland used it in last Monday’s briefing: “First let me shout out to the State Department interns in the back of the room” (a greeting or welcoming gesture in this case). Maybe that’s just more grown-up cluelessness, but it shows up as a verb often enough to merit notice. Newsday’s Glenn Gamboa used it absolutely transitively in an article on the 12-12-12 benefit concert, citing “Billy Joel’s reworking of ‘New York State of Mind’ to shoutout Breezy Point and Oceanside.” I’m not sure how common such usage has become, but it would surprise me if it doesn’t soon take its place alongside the noun.

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