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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: politics

in it to win it

(1980’s | advertese | “playing for keeps,” “playing to win,” “in the game”)

My limited investigations suggest that this expression was born of the fizzing brains of the New York State lottery’s advertising agents (specifically Lerner King Associates), but LexisNexis does show a surprisingly large number of Australian instances in the eighties. Did a forward-looking Aussie get wind of it early and cause it to catch on quicker over there? Or did it originate independently down under? There were lotteries in Australia then, but I haven’t found any connection with local publicity. Two New York lottery commercials, on the other hand, one from 1982 and the next from 1983, suggest an origin story. In the first, a group of Lotto players sings a catchy jingle that includes “to win it, you gotta get in it.” In 1983, the expression appears in its present form, spoken, to close another Lotto commercial. In Maryland where I grew up, the state lottery adopted “You gotta play to win,” which meant the same thing: in order to have any chance at all of taking a prize, you have to participate. So get out there and buy a ticket.

And that’s what the phrase meant then. Now it is more likely to mean “determined to win,” which still acknowledges the need to get in the game in the first place but conveys something much stronger than a tiny, notional chance of winning. (There’s an intermediate stage, which connotes being not just good enough to have reached the finals but to have a genuine chance of defeating the other team — “in the hunt,” as it were.) The newer meaning may also be signaled by adding “only” at the beginning of the phrase. It’s the difference between the subjunctive and the imperative, between recognizing what you have to do and actually doing it. The change was well underway in the nineties; athletes, politicians, entrepreneurs, and others who live by competition all used the expression in its “bound for victory” sense, while the older sense of merely being eligible to win was still in play. And that is still the case today, though my sense is that the latter meaning has become less common. In 1999, John McCain used a variant à propos our intervention in the Balkans that was frequently quoted: “we’re in it, and we have to win it.” A BBC television show about the National Lottery that debuted in 2002 borrowed the expression for its title.

The phrase has not become a cliché, exactly, but perhaps a catchphrase, a fitting fate for an advertising slogan. The little feminine rhyme gets your attention, and the scansion relies heavily on stressed syllables — four out of five, to be exact. “In” and “it” don’t usually bear a lot of weight in poetry or everyday speech, yet here they do, which may be one factor in the relative success of the phrase. True connoisseurs will catch the resemblance to the opening of a double dactyl, only one syllable shy.

“In it to win it” has taken on a distinct hortatory character since the eighties, and now it is often used to whip up the troops involved in group efforts. No question the expression has more intensity than it used to — it’s not about taking a light-hearted flyer any more. When used in the past tense, it’s usually triumphal; it would be odd to hear “we were in it to win it, and then we lost.” Most of the time, all the competitors are playing to win (note the difference from “play to win” as cited in the first paragraph), but only the ultimate victor is permitted to say so.

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promise made, promise kept

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “I (she, etc.) kept my (etc.) word,” “I (etc.) delivered”)

Property of politicians from the first, this phrase has several variants which may involve articles, plural nouns, or even linking verbs, but it seems to have settled into a four-word groove and has become a bit of a meme. (A 1981 ad for the perfume Arpège occurred very early in the history of the phrase and may have provided impetus.) A LexisNexis search shows a gradual coalescing around the four-word version during the 1980’s. When Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, he handed out pamphlets titled “Promises Made, Promises Kept” to staff members; he seems to have been the first president to use the phrase, although I don’t think he ever said it in public. The first politician credited with it in LexisNexis was George Voinovich (1981), then mayor of Cleveland, and it has been a staple ever since among candidates for re-election. Legislators may use it, too, as in the case of House Republicans’ “Contract with America” in 1995, when they boasted of passing all their key legislation in the early days of the 104th Congress. (They blithely ignored the fact that a bill doesn’t actually become law until it gets through both houses and the president, but it’s not like they invented political puffery.) Of course, making good on promises is not the same as making good policy, but in the heat of battle such cool-headed logic may be forgotten. The phrase is no longer the exclusive property of politicians, of course. Certainly by 2000 it was available in several other spheres.

Politicians like the phrase because it forecloses consideration of promises unkept; it’s easy to give the impression that one is simply going down a list, checking things off, and only a churl would point out that certain items are conveniently missing. A number of Christian organizations use the expression, though the best known, the Promise Keepers, borrows and adapts only the second half. Politicians and religious leaders seek to persuade us that they are selfless servants, but the primary note I hear in “promise made, promise kept” is self-congratulation. The phrase almost always bears a prim-lipped smugness that is very difficult to disguise. It also conveys a note of finality intended to convince us that the job is done and it’s no longer necessary to pay attention to the consequences or ask questions. Self-satisfaction dressed up as public service, bragging without the first-person pronoun, AND avoiding discussion of goals unmet? No wonder it’s a politician’s dream.

This tag line has many fathers, or at least putative fathers. The on-line community believes that it goes back to Aristotle, in the form “A promise made must be a promise kept.” I’m no expert on Aristotle, but I do know that the on-line community abounds in dubious attributions. I’ve also seen its paternity assigned to Alexander Hamilton, but in a post-“Hamilton” world, that’s probably inevitable (he also invented the theory of relativity and designed the first mini-skirt, y’know). The twentieth century offers two much more solid examples: Steve Forbes’s line, “A promise made should be a promise kept,” which lacks a certain Aristotelian firmness, and more distant, “A promise made is a debt unpaid,” from Robert Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which was once tremendously popular — my father liked to read it to me, and I can still quote bits of it. Service seems the most likely ancestor, but maybe he stole it from Aristotle.

In spite of myself, I’m in a rut of Trumpisms these last few weeks. This too shall pass, I promise. Back in the nineties, when Trump was mainly a threat to New York real estate, I amused myself by making up names for his most ostentatious buildings: Trump Tower was “pre-Trump-tuous,” the hotel at Columbus Circle was “Trumpalomania,” the tall skinny building near the UN was the “Trumpstrosity,” and the apartment buildings on Riverside Drive that no longer bear his name were collectively “the last Trump.” It all seemed so harmless back then . . . I suppose it was inevitable: America finally elected P.T. Barnum president.

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nuclear option

(1990’s | journalese | “extreme (or drastic or desperate) measure,” “last resort,” “irrevocable decision”)

Gorblimey, china plates, I do believe this expression counts as a Briticism, at least in its contemporary sense. As far back as the sixties, the phrase was widely used in the U.S. to talk about energy generation or weapons. “The nuclear option,” on one hand, was what utility executives urged us not to neglect; on the other, it heralded the development of atomic weapons (for those that didn’t already have them), or different ways it might be possible to use them (for those that did). That was true at least until 1980. Not long after that, one started seeing the odd figurative use, but it was much more common in the U.K. than in the U.S. up until 2004 or so, when the phrase assumed the meaning we hear most commonly today: the majority party in the U.S. Senate taking away the filibuster, the last-ditch means for the minority of derailing legislation. Since then, it has crept into other spheres — trade negotiations, computer maintenance, even sports.

Semantically, I find the phrase surprisingly difficult to pin down. Is it an unanswerable blow? A point of no return? Overkill? Destroying the cause of a problem rather than simply solving it? Nuclear war can only be imagined in terms of all-encompassing destruction, persisting for centuries, at least, so the figurative use has a palette of apocalypses to choose from. But the slipperiness brings starkly into view the loss of force the expression has undergone. Inevitably, the “nuclear option” in negotiation or managing your players involves lower stakes than it does in its more literal senses, even though the literal meanings have not gone away. In time the terror will leach out of it. (Not that eliminating the filibuster isn’t terrifying, but you can’t compare it to thousands dead in a flash.) Grammatically, it’s more predictable: “nuclear option” always takes the definite article; you’ll never hear “a nuclear option,” though that sort of thing can always change.

Today’s Senate is pretty debased, but they have not quite gone the whole hog with the nuclear option, not yet, anyway. Oh, wait, they have, at least as the term was originally understood in 2004. Back then, Republicans threatened to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominees. They didn’t go through with it, and two years later the Democrats took the Senate back. But in 2013, the Democrats did change the rules, exempting only Supreme Court nominees. In 2017, the Republicans finished the job, but so far have stoutly resisted doing away with the filibuster against legislation, Trump’s uncomprehending dismay notwithstanding. The majority party in the Senate has been pointing fingers and making threats at least since the nineties, and minority power has diminished though not disappeared. Those who believe the minority party should not have the power to stop majority-supported legislation may tout government efficiency as their most powerful rationale. I say the last thing we need is efficient government, particularly at the federal level. Efficient governments are dictatorships. Our system has been designed from the beginning to pose obstacles to rushed legislation that we’ll all regret later. The framers weren’t always right by any means, but we would do well to reflect on their wisdom here.

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wonk

(1980’s | journalese (politics) | “bookworm,” “grind,” “nerd,” “whiz,” “expert”)

No one seems to know where the word comes from. It is “know” spelled backwards, but that may be a coincidence. It has nothing visible to do with “wonky” (wobbly or unreliable), British slang that gets an occasional airing in the U.S. In the eighties, most people who speculated on the subject were pretty sure it was college slang, which still makes the big jump into grown-up language from time to time — “love handles,” “go commando,” possibly “power nap.” In 1992, the great Russell Baker called it “a terrible, ugly word.” Wonks are detail-oriented, passionate about acquiring knowledge but not necessarily about using it in humane ways, and have poor social skills. The roughly equivalent “nerd” was around when I was a kid, though to my recollection that word didn’t necessarily imply excess intelligence or hunger for data; “dweeb” is newer, and “geek” didn’t generally have that connotation in my youth, though we may have used it it that way sometimes. (I first understood “geek” to refer to the guy who bites heads off chickens at the carnival.)

“Wonk” was in circulation before Bill Clinton came along, but for some reason the expression chose his coattails to ride into everyday language. Before 1992, it turned up infrequently, often in discussions of college slang (it was a particular favorite of William Safire, who explicated it as early as 1980); late in 1992 it became the word du jour to describe Clinton and his associates, all of them brimming with arcane knowledge. This despite the fact that Gary Hart in 1988 called himself a wonk; he seems to have been the first presidential candidate to adopt the term. Yet the credit goes to Clinton. I have commented before on new expressions due to presidents or arising within their administrations. I haven’t covered many of Clinton’s so far — “boots on the ground,” “on message,” maybe “race to the bottom” — and this is one of the best-known. By 2000, the word had advanced beyond political reporting, and other sorts of people might merit the label, such as programmers, scientists, financial advisors, or football coaches.

Clinton aside, most policy wonks are more or less inhuman, and don’t generally combine, as Clinton did, an intelligent mastery of issues with a folksy, empathetic demeanor. The expression may apply alike to someone with a broad or a narrow range of interests, as in a chess wonk or security wonk — not a recognized authority necessarily, but someone who knows everything worth knowing about a particular subject. In politics, single-issue focus isn’t necessary; it’s obsessive interest in policy details, to the exclusion of normal political preoccupations like graft and adultery. (Here again, Clinton was an exception.)

“Wonk” usually attaches itself to Democrats in national politics: Gore, Kerry, and Obama also attracted the opprobrium at one time or other. (On the GOP side, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is reputed to be a wonk.) Since Nixon, only highly educated Democrats with an encyclopedic grasp of the issues have been elected president, while Republicans must not only be dumb, but proudly and aggressively dumb. (George H.W. Bush was an exception, but no one ever called him a wonk, and before his son came along he was not regarded as particularly bright.) Populism need not imply hostility to scholarship and study, but now it does, and with a vengeance. Our pleasure in sneering at savants does mean we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again; Santayana was right about that. But it gets worse. For fifty years and more, the Republican message to the base has boiled down to “follow your resentment wherever it leads” and “if you disagree with the experts, they’re wrong.” With voters like that, small wonder bullies, meanies, and pinheads are the only ones who can win.

Thanks to my father for nominating “wonk” several years ago. Sorry for the delay, Dad, not that you lost any sleep over it. Rest assured, Lex Maniac never forgets.

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if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

(1970’s | journalese (politics) | “leave well enough alone,” “don’t rock the boat,” “let sleeping dogs lie”)

So is this phrase proverbial or not? It sure sounds it, and there’s no shortage of people ready to claim it as a fine old example of down-home southern wisdom. (One early citation claimed it came from descendants of Swedes in Minnesota, also pretty down-home.) I’m not saying it isn’t, but there are precious few examples of it in print before 1977, when it emerged from the mouth of Bert Lance, Jimmy Carter’s budget director, and quickly became a bromide. (Here‘s a good history of the phrase.) Sure, Lance probably was not the first person to utter it, and if you scroll down enough discussion boards you can find folks who remember hearing it as far back as the fifties, and if you press them, they will brandish a newspaper clipping from oh, say, 1976, that den of antiquity. Why can’t it just be a new expression, people? Why can’t we just give Bert Lance the credit? Well, it sounds proverbial — a complete sentence, words of one syllable, down-to-earth advice about everyday nuisances that achieves a wider scope, and that strategic “ain’t,” which assures us of the speaker’s sincerity. I’ve covered other instant proverbs in this vein: no pain, no gain; no harm, no foul; pick your battles; be careful out there; listen to your body, think outside the box.

The expression counsels restraint and even a bit of humility (in embarrassingly short supply these days), but it is also a great hymn to inertia; critics have a point when they warn against complacency. There are several elaborations on the phrase, many of which have to do with seeing problems coming and correcting them before they get out of hand. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” will come back to haunt you if you ignore dangers on the horizon. The expression is effective in debate because the only way to top it is with a quick and convincing reply: “It IS broke, and here’s why.” We want to believe it’s true; in its short(?) life the phrase has risen to the level almost of an axiom, or a law of nature. We prefer to think of such rules to live by as the result of centuries of refinement, because they seem less debatable that way — part of the appeal of an anonymous or group pedigree.

Thanks to Lance, this particular adage has generally been considered a member of the sub-species dixieii (I heard it first from my Tarheel mother, who used it with relish). Meddlers who want to change things that are working perfectly fine have assorted names in the South, all of them bad: carpetbaggers, busybodies, reformers (which, if you back off the first syllable a bit can sound a lot like “foreigners”), progressives. In the South as elsewhere, politicians cozy up to local prejudices with dog whistles, double meanings, and high-flown rhetoric — because they work — and it’s my guess that southerners are more vulnerable to such things per capita than people from the rest of the country, but not a lot. Of course, very few Americans of any region welcome uninvited visitors who aim to mess with their way of life.

Both Reagan and Bush used the phrase around the time of the 1980 election, lending it a right-wing flavor that to my ear, at least, it still has (cf. nothing-burger, truly needy, junk science, zero tolerance). It is indeed conservative wisdom — a direct descendant of the Hippocratic Oath, which ought be enough of a pedigree for anyone. Conservatives do have a reputation for sitting on the status quo, not to be confused with modern-day right-wingers ripping society apart to take us back to the idyllic (for whom?) eighteenth century, or fourteenth, or whatever. But it suits today’s right-wingers to clothe themselves in conservative garb on occasion, and this expression is one of many that rings the right changes with their loyal voters.

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full disclosure

(1990’s | legalese | “telling the whole story,” “full accounting,” “clean breast”)

It’s a formula now, a ritual. The reporter states affiliations, preferences, or beliefs closely related to the topic at hand, prefaced invariably by “Full disclosure,” or “In the interest of full disclosure” for the orotund. Fair enough; journalists remain essential channels of information even when no one believes them, and we have as much need to know what commentators might be hiding as what politicians are. The expression has been around a long time, after all. It shows up often in Google Books often between 1800 and 1840, usually in bankruptcy cases or parliamentary debates, but it could crop up anywhere; one might make a full disclosure of feelings or past exploits as well as assets. For what it’s worth, Google Ngrams shows a noticeable increase in use after 1980, after a long period of relative neglect.

A bit more history: William Safire titled his 1977 novel “Full Disclosure.” In the eighties “full disclosure” turned up often in political reporting, as officials were asked to lay bare their financial dealings so voters could hold them to account for conflicts of interest. Since then, the phrase has made itself at home in other contexts, especially discussions of relationships. Journalists began to use it in the nineties, as far as I can tell, and within ten years it was everywhere. (Despite a few showy successes, efforts to drive money and influence out of government at any level have been notable failures; now Congress is populated largely by millionaires who get away with revealing little about who’s paying them for what, particularly when campaigning, now a permanent activity. And it turns out most voters don’t care. If a guy is smart enough to represent us, he’s smart enough to get around ethics rules.)

There’s nothing new about compelling people to make a complete accounting of assets or donors, but whereas journalists used to be the ones demanding such transparency, now they feel compelled to assure skeptical readers that they are clean themselves. It’s easier to force ink-stained wretches to show their hands than wealthy elites, and public distrust of “the media” has been increasing for decades, so they have become targets. And of course it’s true that reporters, like anyone else, may use the phrase deceptively. It’s easy to disguise a partial disclosure as a full disclosure, leaving out material facts; the very solemnity of the expression may make us reluctant to scrutinize the revelations offered. Deceptive or not, journalists use the phrase as a pre-emptive strike; it means “you don’t have to pry this information out of me; I’m going to tell you up front.” Which may also increase its effectiveness as a tool for misleading others. I’m not suggesting that newshounds are more likely than anyone else to use the term deceptively, by the way, probably less. The real movers and shakers will always have more to hide, and have greater means to hide it from the rest of us.

“Full” makes it sound like you’re spilling every last bean, but in legal and financial circles full disclosure requires only that relevant facts be adduced; it must pertain to the question at hand, whether it’s the materials and processes embodied in a patent, possible influence on a legislator, or anything a bankrupt is able to liquidate. When the principle of full disclosure justifies revealing anything a public figure would rather conceal, the investigation turns into a witch hunt. Maybe we should rename it “pertinent disclosure.” It might make the phrase less ubiquitous, if nothing else.

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word salad

(2000’s | journalese (politics) | “gibberish,” “incoherent speech,” “obfuscation”)

This expression recently underwent a significant change after a hundred stable years. The first citation I found dates from a psychiatric handbook of 1907, where it occurs in a discussion of dementia precox, the old name for schizophrenia, more or less (they weren’t exactly the same, but that’s the closest term in modern mental health vocabulary). It hasn’t changed meaning in that context; a textbook published in 1970 gave the following: “A jumbled, unintelligible mixture of words, usually containing both real words or phrases and neologisms. This disturbance in verbal communication is most frequently found in advanced schizophrenic reactions.” By 1980, arts writers used it now and then to talk about writers like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, both of whom were considerably more artful than your average schizo, but somewhat less syntactically or semantically forthright than Mickey Spillane, say. It took thirty more years before the expression came to characterize political speeches; the first consistent victim was Sarah Palin in 2008, but in 2016, both Trump and Clinton, widely different speaking styles notwithstanding, were accused of producing word salad. (Somehow this expression doesn’t take to the plural.) The older uses are still found, but in ten short years the phrase has become quite common in political commentary, in which it was never used before Sarah Palin took the national stage. Merriam-Webster On-line provides a history with plenty of examples.

Like “hive mind,” “word salad” has become a favored term of abuse, but it need not be an insult. When used to refer to the ramblings of the mentally ill, it probably was always implicitly insulting — and that origin continues to be felt as we use the phrase today — but literary critics may treat it as a neutral descriptor. Not long before the move into political discourse, “word salad” took on two new uses: one referred to a technique of creating spam e-mails that used blocks of unconnected words in order to fool the filters; more significantly, it started to imply deception, pointing the way to politics. The crucial difference has to do with volition; the schizophrenic babbles uncontrollably, but the purveyor of catch-phrases strung together so as to defeat interpretation is doing it on purpose. In political discourse, it may take either shading, and they’re equally insulting — a variation on the old Reagan cleft stick: if he knows what’s going on, he’s a criminal; if he doesn’t, he’s too out of it to be president. Whether you think Trump just doesn’t know any better or is deliberately snowing us, you probably think he shouldn’t have the job.

Now that “word salad” is firmly enmeshed in political journalism, it is anyone’s guess whether psychiatrists will continue to use it; they may be forced to find a new phrase if the old one changes connotation for good. As late as the nineties, it was pressed into service as the title of a computer game and an on-line poetry magazine, suggesting that it might yet be considered favorable, or at least eye-catching. Those days appear to be over.

Why salad, anyway? The idea of several heterogeneous ingredients, mixed but not blended together, seems to be at the bottom of it, though the expression probably hails from German or French originally, and I’m not certain “salad” carries the same mental picture in those languages. I’ve seen “word hash” offered as a synonym, but if there ever was a contest, “word salad” has won. It’s more memorable than “jumble” or “logorrhea,” that’s for sure (personally, I’d like to see “word avalanche”). And I like the idea of pouring oil (and vinegar) on troubled word salad.

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play the race card

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “appeal to one’s worst instincts,” “stir up trouble”)

Apparently a Briticism, which came as rather a surprise to me, considering the expression smacks so richly of American penchants for prejudice and poker. The earliest appearances in LexisNexis began in the U.K. ca. 1986 and didn’t show up in U.S. sources until 1990, though it took root very quickly (see penchants noted above). No hits from any country in Google Books before 1985, either. I would love to have a fuller understanding of the origin of “play the race card.” Few expressions have a clear origin or single inventor, but normally one finds isolated early examples preceding a flowering, or similar expressions serving as transitional forms. (In this case, an example might be Nixon’s references to playing the China card, presumably part of an old China hand, as one source suggests.) But in this case it seems to have caught on more or less instantly, at least by linguistic standards. Some sources suggest that the O.J. Simpson trial lent it ubiquity in the U.S.

The other surprise came out of the discovery that in those early British instances, and in many early American ones, too, the race card was played by the majority, fomenting suspicion and hatred of a minority group. I’ve grown used to hearing the practice imputed to members of minorities, trying to claim special privileges based on past discrimination. But it was originally a left-wing attack phrase, used of nationalist or anti-immigrant parties in England. Jesse Helms’s 1990 campaign for Senate against Harvey Gantt (who was African-American) ran an ad accusing him of favoring racial quotas, whereupon Helms was condemned for “playing the race card.” It worked; he came from behind to win a close election. By 2008, Republicans routinely accused Obama of the tactic; actually, right-wingers are happy to claim anyone, black, white, or red all over, is playing the race card. No matter which side does it, it is more than a breach of etiquette; it is dishonorable, a matter of taking unfair advantage. (It also constitutes a form of intimidation.) Which is a little strange, because in poker (or, more likely, bridge, as Lovely Liz points out), there’s nothing suspect about playing a card; it’s part of the normal course of the game. When transposed into politics, it becomes a low-down act, but maybe that says more about politics than cards.

The expression has spawned a few imitators; one hears occasional references to the “gender card,” “religion card,” “terrorist card,” or other nonce cards — but none as common, or quite as venomous, as “race card.” One rarely acknowledges playing the race card oneself; it is an accusation. Nor does one admire deft use of the race card, even when played effectively. Like negative campaigning, push polling, and plenty of other dubious political practices, everyone deplores it but will happily engage in it if it has any chance of working. Who says bipartisanship is dead?

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risk-averse

(1980’s | academese (economics) | “cautious”)

This expression carries a couple of odd dichotomies considering how straightforward it appears. The most obvious pertains to that which it modifies; either persons or corporate bodies — whatever the Supreme Court says, they’re not the same — may be risk-averse, though presumably the risk-aversion of a corporation is ultimately traceable to individuals, whether executives or independent shareholders. More interesting is the fact that risk-averseness may proceed from two entirely different kinds of experience. A conservative corporate board avoids sudden shifts and grand initiatives because they feel prosperous; there’s no incentive to rock the boat. Yet it is a tenet of pop psychology that those who have lived through times of deprivation are suspicious of all but the safest investments, and, in extreme cases, may refuse even to keep their money in banks. (Both sides have in common assets to protect; if you have nothing to lose, there’s no point in being risk-averse.) But then there’s an absent dichotomy that one might naively expect to find in an expression beloved of bankers: the distinction between sensible risk likely to pay off and a crazy scheme. The risk-averse will stay away from both, desiring only the steadiest and safest.

The expression comes out of the discipline of economics and was most used originally in finance, starting in the sixties and becoming commonplace by the eighties. Soon it came to be used often of politicians and lawyers. Among corporations, insurance companies attract it the most; their risk-aversity comes from a visceral understanding of actuarial tables. Yet any stodgy company merits the term. Slowly but surely over time, it has spread into other kinds of prose, with movie reviewers and even the odd sportswriter resorting to it nowadays. More kinds of writers use it to describe more kinds of people — it’s not just for stockholders any more. The point of the compound seems to be neutrality; it strives to avoid any imputation of prudence or cowardice, and largely does, as far as I can tell.

In a previous post I remarked on the curse of capitalism — if one guy works harder, everyone has to work harder — and risk-aversitude bears the seeds of a different manifestation of it. In competitive markets, each company watches the innovations of others like a hawk. When they succeed, the other competitors follow; when they fail, everyone else drops plans to do something similar. Television works this way, though maybe less so now, when there are so many networks (an obsolete word, I know). Any change — introducing a new character into a popular series, or a new show about a controversial subject — carries with it a chance that your audience will flee in terror. But if it pays off, your competitors take note and resolve to do the same damn thing, backed up by shareholders who noticed that it made big profits for the other guy. Within a season or two, everyone is sick of the no-longer new gambit, and most of the imitators have made no headway. Whereupon they lose advertisers, another risk-averse group famously shy of causing offense, taking the money and running at the first sign of any immoral or objectionable acts that might result in lost market share. (Bill O’Reilly is only the latest in a very long line of such embarrassments.) Sometimes, what looks safe turns out to be dangerous. Risk avoidance, like any other strategy, is subject to misuse born of misunderstanding or bad timing, whether by the humblest investor or the loftiest board of directors.

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hive mind

(1990’s | science fiction | “zeitgeist,” “will of the people,” “conventional wisdom,” “groupthink”)

It all started with the bees. The British apiarist H.J. Wadey probably did not invent the term, but he used it in the 1940’s to describe the process by which lots and lots of bees, each of which has next to no mental capacity on its own, work together to create an intelligence that cannot be accounted for simply by adding up the microcapacities of each bee in the colony. There was something a bit mystical about it, and that transcendent quality was picked up by other authorities on bees. From there it became property of science fiction writers, for whom the concept was tailor-made. In their hands, it could retain the sense of a purer intelligence emerging from the collective, or it could be a means of imposing zombie conformity and obedience on the rest of us. Science fiction runs to utopia or dystopia anyway, and the hive mind can be used to exemplify both, even in the same book. The phrase had not become common outside of science-fiction circles; I doubt most Americans were familiar with it when I was young.

There the matter rested until the mid-1990’s, when the expression received the benefit of two cultural megaphones: first Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine, then the film Star Trek: First Contact. Kelly saw the hive mind as the result of amplifying human capability with computers (preferably implanted) to enhance our collective intelligence and create a larger force, human yet superhuman, that would change everything for the better — although individual drones might not fare so well. A year or two later, Star Trek: First Contact came out, which featured the Borg as the villain. The Borg had appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation (the Patrick Stewart cast, which also populated the film), but this seems to have been the first time the phrase “hive mind” ever appeared in the script. The Wired geeks and the Star Trek geeks between them formed a critical mass, and “hive mind” emerged from the sci-fi shadows and began to be encountered much more often. The onset of social media certainly didn’t slow the spread of the phrase; here again, the concept may be beneficent or noxious.

Kelly was an optimist, positing that the computer-aided hive mind would lead to a much greater capacity to solve human problems, whereas the Borg represents the dark side, gobbling up plucky individualists and producing numbing conformity while enriching its own hive mind with the contributions of other civilizations (sounds like imperialism, or the one percent). My sense is that today the pessimists are winning; “hive mind” has become a favored grenade to toss across the political divide, as stalwarts of the right and left accuse their opponents of stupidly parroting the sentiments put forth by their respective opinion makers. On this view, the hive mind is simply an overlord to which the bad guys pledge dumb fealty. (Of course, both left and right have their share of unreasoning myrmidons, but I wonder if they may be more characteristic of the right wing. “Dittohead” is no longer fashionable, but it’s worth noting that only right-wingers called themselves “dittoheads,” often with pride.) Even if the insulting use predominates right now, the more hopeful meaning may rise again. Take UNU, for example, which promises to help us “think together” by setting up a “swarm intelligence.”

Once you get away from the notion of a literal superbrain, the metaphorical uses of the expression come quickly into view. A single brain can itself be seen as a teeming hive mind, with neurons equivalent to drones, each doing its tiny duty but producing prodigious results by subordinating itself. (A more recent issue of Wired showcases an example of this sort of analogy, which has no counterpart for the queen bee.) More generally, the hive mind may serve as a symbol of our politics, in which millions combine to create and support a unified national government. (If that idealized picture makes you snicker, you’re not alone.) Our national motto, E pluribus unum, means “out of many, one,” and that’s not a bad summary of how a hive mind works. No single individual knows everything or can do it all by herself; the nation must muddle along making the most of whatever contributions it can get from hard-working citizens, who create the polity by banding together, at least partly unconsciously, to assert a collective will.

This post was inspired by the one and only lovely Liz from Queens, who nominated “hive mind” only last week, thereby sparing me the trouble of coming up with a new expression to write about. Thanks, baby!

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