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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: politics

cognitive dissonance

(1970’s | academese | “ambivalence,” “confusion”)

“Cognitive dissonance” is what happens when facts confront beliefs. The expression has a single author, psychologist Leon Festinger, who sought to prove that people “need to maintain consistency between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors” (so says britannica.com). If forced to absorb an event or idea that runs counter what we believe, say, or do, we must do extra mental work (which may translate into action) to resolve the conflict, which in turn suggests a state of tension or uncertainty that Festinger likened to an auditory phenomenon. Festinger began work on the theory in the 1950’s, and by the late 1970’s the expression turned up now and then in the press. Psychologists often define the concept in terms of what happens when we have a certain idea about ourselves but do something that calls it into question, as in this recent example from Psychology Today — “you see yourself as smart but can’t believe you made such dumb stock investments.” This sort of usage keeps it all in the family, but the pundit thinks of cognitive dissonance as something that impinges directly and invariably on the body politic.

The problem with “cognitive dissonance” as a political concept — not simply comparing your self-image with your latest blunder — is that very few people are actually distressed by it. Blame what you will — deteriorating public education, the rise of fundamentalism, the internet — many Americans are dumb as dirt and proud of it. They aren’t about to be bothered by huge flaming contradictions among or within their most cherished beliefs; in fact, they may not discern them at all. “Dissonance” implies pain, or at least discomfort, and that seems to be what the inventor of the phrase meant to suggest. But if you’re placidly unaware that there’s anything amiss, you won’t be bothered. It’s not just the dissonance you’re missing; it’s the cognition as well. Yet “cognitive dissonance” has become yet one more weapon in our political wars, generally used when one side rips apart the other side’s position and then wonders solicitously how the poor dears can endure so much of it. It’s one of those things, like “hive mind” or “politically correct,” that has emerged in political discourse solely to express hostility. I can’t help but wonder if “cognitive dissonance” is secretly related to the French verb “cogner” (fight or beat up). That might explain why it’s become so combative.

Here’s an example of political cognitive dissonance that isn’t there. It actually goes back to the Cold War, though it should be rushing back into vogue any day now. We held fast to two contrary beliefs about Russians: one, they are fiendishly clever schemers, always laying and carrying out insidious plots against us (cf. the outcry over the last presidential election); the other, that they’re drunken bumblers who can’t shoot straight. How can their plots make any headway if they’re too wasted to get out of their own way? Like all thumbnail summaries of national character, it’s not a useful dichotomy; Russia has plenty of room for both the ruthless and the incompetent, and the ruthless can do considerable harm. But it should have produced forty years of cognitive dissonance in the mind of the average American, and it didn’t.

I was an English major, and English majors learn about something called “negative capability,” defined as “[ability to be] in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” The phrase goes back to Keats, and he cites Shakespeare as a great exemplar. Negative capability mitigates cognitive dissonance, not by resolving it but by reducing its unpleasant quality. A person with lots of negative capability recognizes the dissonance but doesn’t find it bothersome, so you roll with it and wait for matters to straighten themselves out. We can learn a lot from the great poets.

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ratchet up

(1980’s | journalese? | “turn up the heat, etc.,” “increase (gradually)”)

I first became acquainted with the noble ratchet in my father’s toolbox, and I understood it to be a special type of socket wrench that made it easy to loosen or tighten bolts in narrow places. If you could only move your handle a quarter turn, the ratchet made it possible to keep making that same quarter turn over and over again; each time you returned the handle to its initial position, the socket, and therefore the bolt, didn’t move. Plus, it made a satisfying fast clicking sound when you moved the handle back preparatory to making the next turn in the desired direction. The noble bumper jack uses the same mechanism, or mountain-climbing gear.

“Ratchet” until my youth was a mechanical, industrial term, encountered in patent filings and hardware catalogues. It was used but rarely in a figurative way, though one can certainly find examples during the seventies, and probably before with better corpora. It sneaked first into everyday language through economics, I think, as in the phrase “inflation ratchet,” which denotes the principle that inflation only goes up and can’t reverse direction, closely related to its meaning in the mechanic’s vocabulary. (Inflation did keep going up through the seventies, so the phrase got some use.) The word had then, and continues to convey, a gradual quality; you wouldn’t use “ratchet” in the context of runaway inflation. Economists and political reporters would occasionally use “ratchet” as a verb — it could go before “up,” “down,” or “tighter” — but more often intransitively. Now we use it habitually in the transitive, and “tighter” rarely appears; “up” seems to be the preferred adverbial accompaniment. “Ratchet down” has always complemented “ratchet up” but at a lower frequency.

Funny thing about this phrase: while “ratchet up” may be used, transitively or intransitively, with a wide range of nouns, there are a few that it goes with regularly: pressure, tensions, rhetoric. It’s not invariable or inherent, but I think “ratchet” often has an inexorable quality that becomes aggressive or coercive when used transitively. When a general wants to threaten another nation, or a football coach wants to inspire the defense, or a diplomat aims to use strong language, they reach for “ratchet.” Perhaps because of the phonetic similarity to “rack,” I envision ratcheting up pressure as a kind of slow torture, testing the victim’s ability to endure ever-increasing strain. Maybe the fact that “ratchet” has a mechanical origin contributes to the association with instruments of torture. Intransitively, the verb is less sinister; when no overt agent is doing the tormenting, it can be an impersonal process. “Tensions are ratcheting up between North and South Korea” doesn’t bear the same animus as “North Korea ratchets up tensions with South Korea.”

“Ratchet” has a couple other meanings worthy of note. “Ratchet-jawed” in CB radio slang described a person who talked a lot and talked fast. (It is possible to talk fast but not very much; y’all remember Boomhauer on King of the Hill?) That sense is probably obsolete now. Why not “power jaw” or “rapid-fire jaw”? It’s not an intuitive extension of the normal uses of “ratchet”; neither is the African-American slang use, derived from “wretched,” which doesn’t have to do with misery and privation but disgust and revulsion. I’m not sure there’s semantic relationship with “ratchet up”; if so, it’s not obvious. While “ratchet” has loosened its meaning so that it often is no more than a synonym for “increase,” it has maintained a foothold in our language. I hope it can hang onto traces of its original specificities over time.

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uptick

(1970’s | businese (finance) | “slight shift upward,” “(small or modest) increase,” “pick-up”)

What is it about this word? From a semantic standpoint it’s not all that interesting; we had many ways to the same or very similar things. Its spread is unextraordinary, irritatingly but not unusually wide. Its formation offers no surprises; “up-” as a noun prefix has been established for a long time, and “tick” is derived prosaically enough from the stock ticker. Maybe it’s the mere sound; it conjures in me a variety of associations. Savor the words it resembles: optics, Updike, upchuck (I’ve heard “sick up,” but never “upsick,” alas). Quite a range there. Invert the syllables — this is a tick-up! Because it’s stressed on the first syllable, it wants to be heard as “upt-ic,” the adjective form of the noun “upt” (o.k., I made that part upt). “Tick” is rich: blood-sucking parasite, mattress filling, time passing. None of it sounds like much reason for optimism, even with “up” in front of it. But then upticks aren’t always desirable; it can be your retirement savings but it can also be the unemployment rate.

Any given uptick may make us feel better or worse depending on where it occurs, but they are usually hailed as blessings, particularly in bad times. The word acquires an aura of hope when the economy has been contracting, or temperatures are low. Experts huddle hopefully around the first upticks, vying to see who can make them more portentous, or can prove more convincingly that they are meaningless. Under normal circumstances, an uptick is a little thing, nothing to get excited about. But “uptick” may be slipping, used more and more often to refer to moderate or larger increases. Even so, the related expression “spike” generally refers to changes of greater magnitude. Originally, I believe, “spike” was reserved for sharp upward motion followed by a sharp shift downward, forming a characteristic pattern on a graph from which the expression presumably took its new meaning. Upticks carry no expectation of a downward sequel; they can continue for months or even years in a situation where everyone is satisfied with gradual progress.

“Uptick” has its origins in the stock market, meaning the smallest possible upward movement in share price, generally an eighth of a point (an uptick is much smaller than an upswing). “Downtick,” never as common, remains in occasional use. “On (the) uptick” meant “rising slowly.” “Uptick” is also used in the name of an SEC rule governing the short sale of stock. By the seventies, it was in wide use in economic or political reporting; Safire offered a tidy and efficient history of the word in 1984. To this day, it is frequently used to talk about statistics — this rate or that total. I’d say it’s better not to use “uptick” for that which you can’t represent definitively in numbers — civic pride, percentage of the population suffering from mental illness or opiate addiction — though many people do. Even then, there are indirect methods of measurement that provide some statistical basis for detecting an uptick.

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soft money

(1980’s | journalese (politics) | “slush fund,” “dirty money”)

An example of a venerable expression that has seen boom times lately, in this case with a significant change in primary meaning driven by a change in circumstances, always a goad to new expressions. In the nineteenth century, “soft money” meant paper money, as opposed to hard money, which was precious metal formed into coins (sometimes known as “specie”). It took several decades before the now taken for granted consensus emerged that paper money is o.k., still not a universal belief. And it is true that if a government goes belly-up, the money it has issued goes with it, whereas gold is always worth something. Nonetheless, we have proven to most people’s satisfaction that it’s possible to run an economy on paper money, untethered to gold or anything at all except the government’s willingness to print it and the people’s willingness to exchange it, even through some heavy-duty financial disasters. (Print money, in this day and age? Now it’s not even visible — nothing more than numbers on a server somewhere. Oops, hope it didn’t get hacked.) Of course, history hasn’t ended, but we’ve kept it up for more than a century now.

When Lovely Liz from Queens nominated this week’s expression (thanks, baby!), I saw at once that she was offering me an opening for more of my brand of acidulous commentary, and it’s impossible to avoid in the case of this term, drenched as it is in political chicanery and malefaction of great wealth. Before we get there we must continue to trace its history, as we note a growth of use in this near-dormant expression in academic circles in the 1960’s. Following a couple of decades of lavish research grants, both public and private, “soft money” came into use to describe funding from such sources as opposed to funding provided for in university budgets. Soft money, while abundant, was subject to vicissitudes; government funding might be reduced upon a change of administration, or corporate funding might find a more useful target at some other school. By the mid-sixties, college administrators were warning each other against excessive dependence on soft money.

In 1979, an apparently minor change in federal campaign finance law introduced soft money as we know it today. In brief, Congress removed caps and eliminated disclosure requirements on donations to state party organizations, while maintaining limits on direct contributions to candidates. But there was nothing to keep state organizations from helping candidates for federal office, so corporations, unions, and PAC’s (political action committees, a brand-new phenomenon) as well as individuals could pay much more for influence than they had before, just in time for the 1980 election. It took a couple of cycles before the new order became a familiar fact of life, but within a decade everyone knew what soft money was. And the rich, whom we now call the one percent, were able to invest astronomical sums in their preferred candidates — almost always right-wing — and force officeholders into servitude, elected by the people at large but owned by only a vanishingly small number of them. By an unfathomable coincidence, wealth has become concentrated at historic levels since the dawn of the soft money era, but that must be an act of God, or the invisible hand, or something. And it’s true that politics is so awash in private funding that when soft money was outlawed by the McCain-Feingold act in 2002, it took little time and less effort for those torrents of contributions to find new channels. Recent Supreme Court decisions have opened the spigot further, and soft money has recently passed the torch to dark money, whose sources are not required to reveal their identity. Could be the Koch Brothers, could be George Soros, could be the Russians. The justices, or some of them, leap to the defense of our sacred right of freedom of spending secured by the First Amendment, while ignoring the public interest in honest politicians, or, if we can’t have that, our need to know who’s buying our elected officials.

Wealthy donors may, of course, withdraw their support; through all its changes of referent soft money has never lost that sense of impermanence. They can decide that they don’t get enough return on investment, or wish to avoid being tied to someone a majority of voters loathe. Better to pour that money into stock buybacks, dividends, and executive compensation than to spend it on unreliable politicians. Hard to imagine the puppetmasters pulling the plug, but it could happen. Especially if the current Republican tax bill, which massively favors the rich as every across-the-board tax cut must, fails to pass, which would require only two or three senators to undergo a spasm of conscience, or fear reprisal at the ballot box. But the reason they’re pushing so desperately to pass a tax cut in the first place is fear of reprisal from wealthy donors.

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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 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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