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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: performing arts


(2000’s | “embarrassing,” “appalling,” “repellent,” “disgraceful”)

The reason the word is so effective is that cringing is a very strong, primal reaction of instinctive avoidance. That which is cringeworthy is acutely shameful, disgusting, etc. — not just any old awkward moment or fleeting contretemps. The term so often attaches itself to the least excusable antics or pratfalls of celebrities (or anyone unfortunate enough to be in the public eye). For it is beloved of gossipmongers and social media addicts; anyone can humiliate themselves, but the word turns up disproportionately in celebrity journalism, or so Google makes it appear. Much celebrity journalism exudes more than a whiff of Schadenfreude, and “cringeworthy” suggests a certain pleasure in another’s discomfiture beyond the word’s primary effect of evoking the discomfort in oneself. My sense is that originally “cringeworthy” was used often in artistic contexts, to talk about a song, say, or a performance, that left you feeling sorry for the purveyor, and sorry for yourself for having endured it, too. Over time it has come to apply more often to situations, utterances, or actions that leave the feeling of having experienced something indecent, a low point in another person’s conduct that you would rather not have witnessed and can’t unsee, as today’s kids say.

This expression straddles the line between a strictly personal reaction and a social consensus about what is objectionable and what isn’t, which must go on to rank the objectionable things so we’ll know exactly when to start cringing. When you describe a text or act as cringeworthy, you are appealing to a set of boundaries that most people, or at least most people who have any interest in the field under discussion, would subscribe to. Each of us grimaces and shies away as an individual, but we are animated by a shared understanding of the awful.

“Worthy” as a suffix is not unknown, but seems kind of quaint. Praiseworthy, blameworthy, credit-worthy, seaworthy. It turns up now and then in surnames, as in Galsworthy. “Cringeworthy” was, in fact, the name of a character in the long-running “Bash Street Kids,” a recurring feature in the British comic book “The Beano,” and almost sounds like a name in a Dickens novel, but not quite. The mating with “cringe” works well because it too is an old-fashioned word. I daresay most people know what it means, but you don’t hear it much in casual conversation (the rise of “cringeworthy” may propel it into greater prominence). Two quasi-archaic expressions shoved together — a natural. Had the word been invented in the U.S., it might have come out “cringe-making,” but it is a Briticism; it was common in Commonwealth countries by the mid-nineties, a decade or so before it caught on over here. (A bit more history for them as wants it.) You do hear “cringey” sometimes, which means the same thing.

No mean Anglophile herself, Lovely Liz from Queens proposed this week’s expression. I say, thanks, old top!

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help me out here

(1980’s | journalese (movies)? | “can you explain this to me?”)

This expression is somewhere between a command and a request, which may seem more paradoxical than it is. It is not intoned or phrased as a question, but it also falls short of a demand because of its lightweight character. Fundamentally, it means the same thing as “help me,” but sounds much less desperate, and it sounds more natural than “help me out” used as an imperative. For “help me out here” comes into its own when on its own. While it may be preceded by “can” or “would,” (but seldom “please”) to form a question, it loses some effect that way. Adding “here” adds emphasis but tempers it with casualness, putting the hearer at ease by assuring her that you’re not asking for anything too serious. Just a friendly request for assistance. The tone of voice has to be right — not too peremptory or pleading. We used to call out “little help” on the playground, as when the ball from your game rolled near someone else. It could be uttered with or without an interrogative rise — another expression that couldn’t decide whether it was a request or command.

“Help me out here” started to appear in LexisNexis in the 1980’s but didn’t hit its stride until shortly after 1990; the phrase started swirling thick and fast in the press around then. It probably passed its prime somewhere between 2000 and 2010, but still gets regular airings, no longer primarily among artists, athletes, and movie folk, but among those of all ages or stations. It was associated in its early days with talk show host Phil Donahue.

Phil was a good liberal who believed in working with his guests, and “help me out here” was a way to get past certain defenses. The expression aims ultimately at persuading someone else and has a sneaky Socratic quality. You don’t use it when you’re moving a sofa; you use it during a discussion to signal that the other person just failed to make sense and you are innocently seeking clarification. (The request might be directed at another panelist or even the audience, but it is aimed at your adversary.) Often the not-so-veiled implication is that the other debater is misguided or arguing in bad faith, but you don’t have to come right out and say so. This sort of use comes through most clearly when people are arguing about politics, but the same pattern appears in other fields as well.

Until I started thinking about this phrase, it never occurred to me that there is another place to break it: “help me / out here” (help ME, out HERE) which means “I am outside; please assist me.” I’ve always heard it as “help me out / here” (help me OUT, HERE) where “here” is tacked onto the end of the predicate. “Here” translates as “in this situation.” When you use it to denote a definite location, it sounds a little different. Take this utterance, from Boris Becker (May 25, 1993) talking about a new coach: “I’ve asked him to help me out here and at Wimbledon, and we’ll see how it goes.” The emphasis isn’t the same. “Here” takes much greater stress and loses any jocular quality.

“Help me out here” might be one of those set phrases that’s indistinguishable from ordinary language (see list under “how cool is that?“). But I don’t think it is, because of that pesky “here.” If you ask me, it’s descended from the old comedian’s lament, “I’m dying out here!,” and similar expressions. I just made that up, but doesn’t it sound plausible?

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performance anxiety (1970’s | therapese | “stage fright,” “fear of failure”)
separation anxiety (1980’s | therapese | “fear of loss”)

These expressions emerged around the same time, as far as I can make out, say the late sixties? If anything, “performance anxiety” is older, but I’m not about to swear to it. “Performance anxiety” started as a technical-sounding way to say “stage fright” (athletes can have it too, which may be part of the reason for the broader term), but within a decade had come to be used primarily about impotence or other bedroom failures caused by insecurity as opposed to a physical problem. The same dichotomy holds true to this day; therapists for musicians and unconfident lovers alike still use the term. If you google it, links to sites having to do with sex vastly outpace any others, at least in the first few pages of results. (Sadly, Google is probably as good a barometer as we have of what’s preoccupying America this week.) Separation anxiety is generally attributed to kids — it’s nervousness, unhappiness, or acting out that arises when someone important is going or gone, whether an anticipatory tantrum or silent expressions of fear and loneliness after a parent’s extended absence. It may be used to talk of adults or even abstractions (as in discussions of Brexit), but it always has at least a faintly jocular quality in such cases.

The move in meaning from performing in public to performing in private interests me, because it seems so essential but makes so little linguistic difference. At first, there appears to be a great chasm between being shy about speaking in public before an audience of dozens or hundreds and doubting one’s sexual abilities, where the audience is much smaller. The intersection of those two sets is, I suppose, the porn actor, who must set aside both forms of performance anxiety in order to get the job done. But in either case, you’re under pressure — self-imposed pressure, often — to do well and look creditable. “Perform” has a longstanding euphemistic use in discussions of sex, of course. Separation anxiety also involves a small but crucial audience: the person the subject wants to remain close to, along with anyone nearby who is involved in some way. It’s hard to say to what extent a young child is expressing irrepressible feelings versus putting on an act to try to get her way. The older the kid gets, the more one suspects there’s an element of acting involved, or at least a covert eye on the target(s). But it’s not always easy to find the line between genuine emotion and the manufactured variety in an actor’s performance, either.

The “noun + anxiety” formation sounds familiar; there are a few other examples to be found, such as “stranger anxiety” (an infant’s strong adverse reaction to an unknown person) or “illness anxiety” (hypochondria). (Mercifully, “social anxiety” did not come out as “society anxiety.”) Freud’s concept of “castration anxiety,” ironically enough, is the grandpappy of them all. Note that Freud’s term was “Kastrationsangst,” and “Angst” in German lies much closer to “fear” than “anxiety” in English. He wasn’t talking about a short-term attack of nerves, but the kind of salutary terror that causes a kid to get with the program. (Whatever you think of Freud, we can all agree that he has suffered from inept or just plain weird English translations.) Not that anxiety can’t be crippling. And it certainly seems to be much more common among kids than it used to be, from the quite specific disorders mentioned above to generalized anxiety disorder, which is similar to what we used to call “free-floating anxiety.” It’s no good telling people not to worry when they feel surrounded.

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