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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: politics

leverage

(businese (finance) | “take advantage of,” “turn to one’s advantage,” “exploit”)

A word that has always baffled me slightly. Most words are pretty easy to define with a little thought; I can usually come up with two or three synonyms for an ordinary word, and at least one for the less ordinary. “Leverage” has many definitions, and it has an unusual quality: Just when you think you understand what you’ve got pretty well, some other usage comes along. The word seems too simple to encompass such a large field. I learned it first in the ancient Archimedean sense of having a solid enough base to exert force or pressure in a certain direction. (As a boy, I heard the word pronounced “leeverage,” but in my family we said “levverage.”) I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but it was already available as a verb in businese, whence it has sprawled in ungainly growth. In the financial world, leverage has mainly to do with debt. I’m not a good guide to financial jargon, but the basic idea of leverage, as I understand it, is that you borrow money to put yourself in a position to borrow more money from someone else. So you might borrow money to purchase another company, and you use those funds as collateral for the loans you have to take out to complete the larger transaction. That’s a simplified description of the leveraged buyout, which caused a lot of trouble in the eighties. In this sense, “leverage” seems clearly descended from the Archimedean; the borrowed assets provide means to liberate larger sums, as a place to stand provides means to move the earth. An older way to define leverage is as an institution’s ratio of debt to equity — the higher the ratio, the more debt the company carries. In fact, sometimes “leverage” is a straightforward substitute for “debt” in the financial press.

And that’s the puzzling thing about “leverage.” The thread of debt runs through it — debt, which should be a source of weakness rather than strength — but the word “leverage” itself lends it power. While loans with a reasonable probability of being repaid are the lifeblood of capitalism, when too many people lend too much money at too much risk, things can go south in a hurry, as history has shown time after time. That proves true within single corporations as in entire economies. Money that you can spend now and don’t have to repay until later continues to exert a fascination for any capitalist, and debt carefully managed may lead to substantial gains. Maybe I just have puritan ideas about how money ought to be handled, but I wonder if the notion of gaining strength from debt rather than sapping it is what gives me trouble with this word.

Well, it’s not just for bankers any more, leverage. (Like “monetize,” it is a technical term in economics that has seeped into the greater discourse.) Now it commonly serves as a transitive verb meaning roughly, “make the most of what you have to work with.” So you leverage data gleaned from your web analytics to increase your customer base, or you leverage your skills or talent to create a side hustle. These examples still reek of the financial, but the word is used casually by people far from the industry. It means roughly the same thing as it did in the financial sector in the seventies, when banks leveraged assets all the time — using whatever they could scare up to produce larger gains. Which is still a recognizable echo of our old friend Archimedes. The idea of surprising gain from relatively little effort persists down through the ages. But now the idea seems to be let’s use whatever we have lying around or can generate, whether it provides more bang for the buck or not. Leveraging is successful if it produces any benefit at all, even if everybody has to do extra work. Leverage has lost its ease. (Wait, wouldn’t that be “lvrag”?)

In politics, leverage means brute exercise of power over others for any sort of gain, political or personal. The distinction matters little; leverage can be used on or against anyone for any purpose. Finding the lever that gives you the ability to put your opponent into an untenable position, with very few holds barred. An idea as old as politics, clothed in a new word.

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exit strategy

(1980’s | businese | “way out,” “cutting one’s losses,” “covering all the bases”)

You would think this is a militarese term, but it isn’t, or it wasn’t. Used almost exclusively in the financial press until 1990, its definition was straightforward: a contingency plan to get out of an unwanted obligation, partnership, or any foreseeable situation in the most advantageous way possible. In case everything goes south, figure out an escape route that will spare you penury or embarrassment. Before 1990 it appeared typically in quotation marks, but that was no longer true by the mid-nineties; by the time William Safire immortalized it in a December 1995 column, it was common currency. The financial usage has not disappeared, but in the public mind it has been overwhelmed by the political. Candidates looking to get out of a losing campaign picked it up before 1990, at least in a couple of cases. After 1990, foreign policy analysts grabbed the expression, and it soon became de rigueur for invasion planning. How do you take out the bad guys, bring your people home, and avoid a quagmire?

You don’t have to be an astute observer of foreign policy to know that the advent of the new expression has not made our military leaders any better at formulating or executing workable plans — we are still stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq. Which raises a significant point: In warfare, only invaders need an exit strategy. If you’re being invaded, you just have to sit there and take it, unless you can force the invader out by causing enough casualties and mayhem. (An official of the invaded country might also need an exit strategy, a way to leave town quickly and quietly if the political winds shift.) When a financial institution needs an exit strategy, it’s usually a matter of extricating itself from an internal decision that isn’t working out, or of getting out of a contract between two more or less equal parties. In the military, you have to commit offensive action; there’s no need for an exit strategy if you never leave the base. When one field borrows an expression from another, naturally the meaning may change, but this is quite a twist.

The odd thing about the expression is that it is not used literally. You don’t hear one nervous moviegoer ask another, “What’s our exit strategy?,” in a crowded theater. It doesn’t sound right when you’re talking about a building or vehicle. It may, however, be used whimsically to talk about a job, relationship, or some other important sector of our lives. It’s not hard to imagine two brokers discussing the most effective ways to get away from their employers, or two men discussing how to get away from the girlfriend if she loses her appeal. (Mercifully, Paul Simon didn’t call the song “Fifty Exit Strategies for Leaving Your Lover.”)

It’s a little far-fetched, but I hear in this phrase the echo of stage direction. Here’s how it might be used: Imagine a king suffering a reverse and announcing that he intends to lash out blindly and abandon reason from now on. Like Macbeth, for example. When he finishes, the stage directions say, “Exit King. Exit strategy.” Yes, it is a little far-fetched.

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trickle-down

(1980’s | academese (economics))

Although the Reagan administration gave us many new expressions, it cannot be blamed for this one, which long predates Reagan’s ascent to the presidency. It’s unlikely he ever used it himself, at least in public. But everyone else did, and we continue to associate the phrase with him, especially if we’re my age. The term was accurate in the case of Reaganomics; the much-discussed supply-side theory was a smoke screen to disguise the massive (and ongoing) redistribution of wealth upward, a process well underway before Reagan got in, but which he accelerated, and, more culpably, made to feel normal and inevitable. Now a generation or two of Americans senses that trickle-down economics is just how we do things. Advocates of the theory care far more about the first part — putting more money at the top — than the second — making sure a lot of it actually reaches those who have less. The real point is not that wealth trickles down. The real point is that it gushes up.

No question this expression is older, dating back at least to mid-century. It was not rare before 1980 and therefore ready to hand when Reagan came along. Apparently “trickle-down” did not carry the opprobrium Reagan’s adversaries hoped it would. (John Kenneth Galbraith used the phrase “horse and sparrow economics,” which lacks rhetorical vim but makes the relationship between the tricklers and the tricklees clear.) The word “trickle,” suggesting a sluggish and paltry stream, ought to raise hackles or at least spark discussion, but it doesn’t seem to have bothered very many people back in the eighties, or today, though union spokespersons and political candidates still use the phrase with intent to defame. It may not scare voters very much, but that doesn’t mean politicians advertise their own policies in such terms; it’s one of those expressions you would hear only from an opponent.

“Trickle-down” is not used exclusively to talk about money and distribution of wealth, but that has always been its métier. Today you see it in sportswriting a fair amount, where it comes closer to “ripple effect,” the idea that small changes will be amplified and lead to larger changes. It’s a different axis: “trickle down” insists that the wealthy occupy a higher position, but “ripple effect” is more horizontal and egalitarian. In an economy where more people have a larger share of the money, it washes around; when only a few people have most of the money, it can only trickle down.

The trouble with trickle-down is that it’s deeply un-American. It posits a small aristocratic class that receives large benefits from the king — er, uh, ahem, government — in exchange for a certain amount of fealty and service. The government shovels more and more money onto the aristocrats — a tiny minority of the population — further strengthening their hold on political, and purchasing, power. In theory, anyone can make their way into this minuscule aristocracy, but in practice it’s much easier if you start in the top tax bracket, or in the right family (yes, bloodlines still help). Now there have always been prominent American politicians and philosophers who preferred aristocracy, and they have wielded considerable influence since 1789. But each go-round they seem to get a little more immune to the masses’ resistance. Or maybe that’s just hubris repeating itself. After all, ruthless, amoral greedpigs make mistakes like the rest of us.

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branding

(1980’s | businese | “marketing (strategy),” “image”)

You are wondering about the connection between branding oneself or one’s organization and branding cattle, so I will tell you. They are both ways of marking salable property. Your brand is the quality, whatever it may be, that sets you apart from the competition, just as branding a calf designates it exclusive property. A possible intermediary would be “brand” used as a verb meaning “accuse someone of being,” as in “he branded his opponent a liar.” (The occurrence of “as” in between the object and the article was already possible in 1980, though perhaps less common then.) “Branding” in this sense is the act of pinning a disagreeable attribute on someone, but “brand” does not refer to the scarlet A that dogs the victim (à la Hawthorne). Nowadays, individuals and organizations improve their brands — which would have sounded very strange back on the range — in order to increase their appeal, rather than repulse customers. It is the flavor or feature or je ne sais quoi that renders them more worthy of the sacred ritual of opening the wallet. It must be tenderly nurtured and aggressively developed, with much overtime and expensive consultation.

Not just for-profit businesses; universities, foundations, hospitals, even nations are expected to burnish their brands in order to attract more people and make themselves more relevant — that is, closer to the money spigot. Just as IT departments became necessary a generation ago, branding consultants (or in-house staff) are now de rigueur for any business serious about staying in business. Anything an organization does to increase its status or revenue might qualify as a branding venture. For now, at least, it remains grounded in consumer behavior; the true measure of branding success is consumer appeal. Thus such projects tend to take on an anxious or abject tone; consumers are capricious gods whose whims must be catered to in order to part them from their money. Americans have seen a steady erosion of their political power for a century or more. To some extent it has been replaced by consumer power, but consumers don’t get to hire and fire corporate executives.

“Brand” and “branding” broke new ground in the eighties; it was rare before then to see either term as we use it now. By 1990 they both showed up regularly in the business press, though not perhaps in everyday vocabulary. One team of researchers defined “brand” as consisting of three components: “physical make-up, functional characteristics, and characterization — i.e., personality.” “Branding” goes with words like “messaging” (conveying a selling point) and “positioning” (proving yourself superior to the competition). “Brand” meaning simply “name of manufacturer” or “name of particular product” has been superseded, though it has not disappeared. It’s not enough to be Heinz or Kleenex any more. Heinz and Kleenex have to get out there every day and prove they’re better, or at least more compelling. You can’t just maintain a good reputation and rest your name on it. You have to build, respond, and work, work, work to make sure you remain irresistible.

There seems to be a strong tendency in corporate America to find or create new methods and theories of improving sales or employee retention or customer loyalty (cf. the recent entry on “emotional intelligence“). They don’t all involve branding directly, but they do involve purchasing books, hiring consultants, and supporting researchers who seem more and more like a parasitic class, feeding off their high-powered hosts and justifying it by dispensing advice that doesn’t — and can’t — work most of the time, because in most fields winners must always be in the minority. Even if you follow your consultant’s report to the letter, it probably won’t improve your market share much. But another consultant will come along next year, and you’ll have to shell out for that one, too. It’s just another way to make the money trickle down, I suppose, but one can’t help but wish that all these corporate geniuses might put a bit more effort into innovation and investment than convincing us by more or less fraudulent and manipulative means that we should buy their product. Maybe it will turn out that the best long-term branding strategy is finding a gizmo nearly everyone uses and making it better than anyone else can. But it’s a lot easier to talk about what the logo should look like and where it should go than to re-envision the entire chain of people and duties required to improve the merchandise. The point is not the product, it’s your ability to convince the gullible to pony up. I’m beginning to think we should put P.T. Barnum on our money, not George Washington or Harriet Tubman.

This is the five hundredth expression I have written about, assuming I’ve counted correctly. I encourage everyone to head over to the alphabetical entry list and look around to see if I’ve covered a favorite expression, or a pet peeve. If so, comment! If not, send it in (usagemaven at verizon dot net).

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emotional baggage

(1970’s | therapese | “emotional scars,” “trauma”)

At least in the seventies, when “emotional baggage” wormed its way into demotic language, it could be the property of persons, as it normally is now, but it might also trail along behind a political issue, analogous to what an older generation would have called “freight.” So certain matters of public policy — abortion, capital punishment, affirmative action, anything a lot of people get worked up about — were said to have emotional baggage. Today I think that such usage would sound rather odd, though the meaning would not be unclear. When pundits rather than therapists resorted to the phrase, it took a patronizing cast, indicating that all those simpletons needed to calm down and let the experts analyze the issue dispassionately. One wished to set it aside or get rid of it entirely. That’s true of emotional baggage bogging down an individual, too, but the tone is usually more sympathetic. One’s demons are presumed difficult, and even unsuccessful efforts to cast them out are deemed worthy. It is dangerously easy to recognize and cluck over others’ emotional baggage even as we go right on tripping over our own.

Other common phrases bearing “baggage”: “personal baggage,” which weighs down politicians in particular — past statements and votes, but more juicily, their peccadillos, magnadillos, or killerdillos — Ted Kennedy had a lot of it, for example. “Mental (or intellectual) baggage” also holds you back, but specifically because it consists of outmoded preconceived notions (cf. Wordsworth’s “creed outworn”). Emotional baggage treads the same path — it gets in your way AND takes its lessons from past experience that need not apply to your present or future — yet you continue to carry it with you.

The common denominator of “baggage” is that which weighs you down, but its earliest figurative uses encompassed other meanings. The earliest seems to have been “prostitute” — from Shakespeare’s time — later it went on to mean “saucy young woman,” which persisted into our era. But it could also mean “worthless man” or “nonsense,” neither of which corresponds very well to how we use it now. “Baggage” meaning “impediment” goes back at least to the late seventeenth century and has an extensive historical pedigree. Its most familiar avatar in the twentieth century was probably “excess baggage,” used to denote whatever people or things slow us down or get in the way: could be family, past history, or whatever you’re unable to cast aside. The word has never lost its negative connotations when used metaphorically, but they became less venomous somewhere back there. “Baggage” has a more complicated history than you might suspect, but by now certain strands have crowded out the others, and most old associations of “baggage” seem unlikely to return.

Further usage note: Something immutable, like genetic heritage, would not generally be called “baggage.” “Baggage” is not exactly voluntary, but the implication persists that we can get rid of it, or at least work around it, if we want to bad enough.

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zero-sum game

(1970’s | academese (mathematics) | “winner take all”)

An expression that’s actually a bit old by Lex Maniac’s standards, “zero-sum game” was well-established by 1980 in political and economic journalism, and it retains a technical or bureaucratic flavor to this day. Its origins lie in mathematics, specifically game theory. In a zero-sum game, the gains of one side must be exactly matched by the losses of the other(s), so when you add the two together, you get zero. It might come up when finite resources are at stake, or to talk about election results or currency trading. A notable feature of this expression: the frequency with which it was glossed when it started to show up in the mainstream press in the 1970’s. As I remarked recently, most new expressions come with explanations some of the time, but virtually every instance of “zero-sum game” yielded by LexisNexis from the seventies included some sort of definition, even if only rough-and-ready. Certain terms draw our attention as they enter the discourse because they are glossed either rarely or nearly always (most new expressions fall somewhere in between, making the extremes noticeable). I can’t divine any shared characteristic that accounts for either state.

Like every economic or social science model, the zero-sum game is a simplification of what goes on in real life — a way of reducing complicated situations to a small number of “essential” characteristics, which makes solving the equations much easier. Sometimes the simplifications clear away irrelevancies and point the way to a clear answer. More often, they leave out significant factors and present a misleading picture of the underlying issues. It is important, in other words, to know how to recognize when the zero-sum game makes a good approximation of the problem at hand, and when it misrepresents it in more or less crucial ways. For the temptation to resort to zero-sum analysis is powerful, particularly among those who take a harsh view of society and human relations. It’s a great tool for social Darwinists — those who see human culture as an arena in which the quick and strong trample the slow and weak, figuratively if not literally — because the zero-sum game demands winners (the fittest) and losers (everyone else). The zero-sum approach is commonly equated with negotiating methods that emphasize imposing losses on the other party, rather than trying to give both sides part of what they want. Donald Trump is often derided, with some justice, for treating certain issues — immigration and trade come instantly to mind — as zero-sum games when both theory and experience show that they are not.

The zero-sum game does best in discussions of athletic or gambling competitions, where the winning and losing sides are easy to discern. (Note, however, that in sports such as golf and auto racing, the concept is less useful, because there are a number of participants in the prize pot, so finishing first does not knock everyone else out of the winners’ circle.) But athletic competition is itself a simplification that creates an arena in which we can sail past the immense complexities of everyday life and root wholeheartedly for our side, without equivocal undercurrents. That makes the zero-sum game a simplification of a simplification — that is, a distortion of a distortion — two removes from what happens in the real world, even when it looks like a good match for the zero-sum model. We need models, but we also need means of measuring their results and recommendations against what’s going on outside. Otherwise it’s easy to make progressively worse decisions until it all ends in catastrophe.

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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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abundance of caution

(legalese, bureaucratese | “uncertainty,” “fear”)

A venerable lawyerly expression, I grant you, which also does duty as a financial term. Hasn’t it become much more abundant in recent decades? LexisNexis shows steady growth since 1980, when the phrase was uttered occasionally by a sonorous bureaucrat explaining why his office would do nothing whatever about the problem. Those were quieter times. Let’s go ahead and blame a litigious society and a world governed by actuaries for creating conditions in which this phrase must become more common. If something goes wrong, there will be liability, so let’s make sure nothing can wrong, even if in doing so we prevent anything from going right. When in doubt and determined to avoid risk, this is the phrase you reach for.

I have remarked before on a shift in the culture toward playing up safety and security as the primary function of government in all its forms, and in the private sector, too. There are grounds for skepticism that we are less safe than we used to be; it may simply be that the oligarchy plays this card more often, having discovered its effectiveness. New menaces arise all the time — Ebola (which sparked an increase in use of the phrase “abundance of caution”), or mass school shootings. Some events are so undesirable that we go to great lengths to forestall them; if there’s even a chance something cataclysmic will occur, we take unusual measures to prevent it. And so the phrase is subject to the usual abuses, which a fellow blogger has anatomized.

In effect, this expression is a backdoor way to say, “there’s really no problem here; we’re just so concerned for your welfare that we’re taking this drastic step.” The phrase has become de rigueur in product recalls, for example. The auto manufacturer or the produce supplier, upon learning of a fire here or an illness there, hauls the whole lot back out of an abundance of caution, that is, more than is truly required by the circumstances. Only a short step to a superfluity of caution. The suggestion of a private company acting in the public interest, even at some cost, may help explain the appeal of this phrase. As regulations have gotten tighter (thank heavens!), suppliers have been compelled to take action when it becomes clear that their product is unsafe. When that stops being generally true, we are all in trouble.

One slightly odd point about this expression is that it is used with “out of,” not “with.” Which is to say it points a way to avoid something, not a way to do something. You don’t defuse a bomb with an abundance of caution, or back away from a wild animal, or cross a raging river. You act with an abundance of caution to prevent a problem from occurring, or keep it from getting worse. I can’t think of any linguistic reason that should be so, but it is.

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elephant in the room

(1980’s | therapese? | “touchy subject”)

Another expression that may sound older than it is — though Lovely Liz from Queens suspects it has been around for a long time, Google Books can’t find any examples before 1990. As far as LexisNexis can tell, elephants began shyly sneaking into rooms some time not long after 1980, and there are some good examples before 1990, but “elephant in the room” didn’t truly arrive until after that. It got exposure in advice columns thanks to an eponymous brief essay on mourning the death of a loved one by Terry Kettering — the elephant in the room being the brute fact of the death, which one rigorously avoids by means of trivial conversation. A lot of people read advice columns, so that probably had an effect. Sometimes the elephant is adorned with a color — pink or white — but that is an unnecessary elaboration. It’s a significant issue or event that no one wants to bring up — even though all participants know it is there — because it is sure to provoke discomfort, awkwardness, or guilt. Around the family dinner table, at a party, at church, at a political convention — the phrase has private and public dimensions. It may be used to suggest disingenuousness (because you’re maliciously avoiding the crucial point), but generally isn’t. The expression always implies that everyone involved is ignoring the issue willfully, but typically with good intentions, however misguided.

If “elephant in the room” is not an old expression, how did we say it before? I haven’t been able to come up with a really precise, idiomatic equivalent, but I might suggest related concepts, such as the verb phrase “tiptoe around a subject” (which might involve walking on eggshells) or the adjective “awkward,” which we still use to describe an unpleasant social situation.

The proverbial huge animal that I remember from childhood is the 800-pound gorilla, who sat wherever it wanted, a metaphor for the ability to compel others to do your bidding. The elephant in the room exerts a more subtle power by trammeling up conversation, effectively prohibiting discussion of a fact or situation that has a material effect on every other topic of discussion. That sort of suppression usually benefits someone, often those who already have an advantage of one kind or another. Maybe another way to look at it would be that the elephant in the room is the person who is powerful enough to compel others to avoid a sensitive subject.

As the noble elephant horns (or tusks) into the language in one more guise, I can’t resist rifling through the trunk (sorry) for others. The most common associations are sheer physical size, the Republican party (in the U.S.), and unnaturally good memory. If brain size is truly correlated with intelligence, elephants must be a lot smarter than we are. We also have pointless extravagance (white elephants), the D.T.’s (pink elephants), Dumbo, the Elephant Man, and the heartbreak of elephantiasis, a faintly comic disease as long as you don’t have it. “Elephant in the room” seems to be a simple appropriation of the most obvious of them, sheer size. If it’s not a big, overwhelming subject, it can’t be the elephant in the room.

They are not closely connected, but “adults in the room” echoes this expression and arose later, apparently during the G.W. Bush administration. A political expression par excellence from the beginning, it has gotten a considerable workout in the Age of Trump. The phrase attributes superior knowledge or more measured judgment to the “adults” who must mind the children that the voters have put in charge (if you remember the British sitcom “Yes, Minister,” you get the idea). But you don’t have to be especially smart, judicious, experienced, or wise to qualify as an adult in the room, just slightly moreso than the politicians. It’s all relative, and the standards can plummet in a hurry.

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influencer

(2010’s | advertese | “endorser,” “influence”)

I came across this word in the arts world, of which I am a loose member, but of course it is far more common in the realm of advertising, particularly on social media, where influencers have grown a multi-billion dollar business. It’s a nice word for “shill.” As in the old days, they may be celebrities, but they may just as well be previously little-known people (and who knows? maybe the occasional bot) who have developed a potent on-line presence. The work is done by cultivating a following on Facebook, or Amazon, or somewhere, and convincing some brand to pay for plugging its products, if you don’t have a brand of your own. Then influencers weave their spells, convincing mobs of hapless sheep to buy the product just by kvelling over it on Instagram. The more loyalty an influencer inspires, the more dollar signs light up vice presidents’ eyes.

The concept of the recommendation is much older than advertising but has always held an honored place in it. What could be better than finding out exactly what you need from a friend or a respected authority? Like everything old made new again by the internet, such an adviser must have a new name. Am I the only one that thinks “influencer” sounds like a villain of some sort? Like “the fixer” or “deep throat” in a political thriller, a name people utter reluctantly, in a hushed, slightly awed tone.

In the arts world the concept is similar but a bit less crass. Influencers have the ear of the people with money, the people on the board who decide what to program and whom to hire. So if you want to promote something, you need to worm your way into their good graces. This sense is closer to how the word was used in the eighties (when used at all). An influencer was similar to an éminence grise or power behind the throne. They didn’t get the credit or the spotlight, but they got their way. That idea remained in use in advertese up to the social media revolution, but seeking out the one right person who can make your project happen is quite different from persuading millions to whip out their credit cards.

I’ve covered a number of new expressions that end in “er,” denoting agency of some kind. Some of them have a touch of the poetic: headhunter, rainmaker, -whisperer. Some lack any sort of distinction: deal-breaker, fraudster, server. “Influencer” belongs to a group composed of awkward, hyper-literal formations that strike the ear as bureaucratese or jargon: caregiver, early adopter, facilitator, first responder, warfighter. Adding an “er” suffix is one of those linguistic shortcuts — like pasting “ize” on a noun to create a verb, or adding “ment” or “ness” to go the other way — that help establish that quality. Such affixes are the last refuge of those with no ear or sense for language who just need to come up with a new word for whatever it is. Even the more literate may resort to an “er” nonce word after painting themselves into a grammatical corner.

Influencers have become a thing in recent years, and advertisers have embraced them heartily, as excited articles pile up in trade journals analyzing the most effective means of employing their services, rules to live by, practices to shun. Micro- and nano-influencers have shorter lists of followers but may be potent within those limits; they have begun to attract their due. These things rise and fall, but we seem poised to hear ever more about influencers in the near term, at least.

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