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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: politics

failure is not an option

(1980’s | “we have to get this right,” “we can’t afford to fail, lose, etc.,” “we have no choice”)

This expression remains forceful despite its evident falsehood. As long as Murphy’s Law holds sway, very few prospects are so free of defect that failure is impossible. “Failure is not an option” runs directly counter to that earliest of childhood maxims — everybody makes mistakes — which turns out to be one of the only reliable absolutes we have. If enough people screw up, any enterprise can misfire, and it usually takes only a small percentage of the personnel to bring on downfall. Of course, naïve logic is not all there is. The phrase is effective because it reminds everyone that we really might fall short, and we really, really don’t want to. That’s why the phrasing is crucial; if you say “there’s no way we can fail,” the staff will slack off.

The main thrust of the phrase is inspirational — a signal to all involved that they must exert every effort. The sports cliché “must-win game (or situation)” is quite similar. It’s also a bit like “you can do this” as we use it now, which has replaced “you can do it.” (It is more distantly related to “everything on the table.”) If the boss can convince you, or you can convince yourself, that no other outcome is tolerable, you will do what’s necessary to bring home the prize. The phrase may bear a hint of “no holds barred.” Sometimes it’s no more than false bravado. It would be interesting to figure out how many times a military campaign, business initiative, athletic team, or curriculum has failed after the brass said, “Failure is not an option.” If it’s intended as an incantation to ward off disaster, it doesn’t work a lot of the time.

This expression is one of a small number that have roared into popular consciousness from the movies: “Apollo 13” (1995), a fictionalized account of the safe landing of a badly damaged lunar capsule carrying three astronauts. According to Wikipedia, the exact phrase was invented in the nineties, derived from a longer utterance of a NASA flight controller named Jerry Bostick by screenwriter Bill Broyles, who knew a winner when he encountered it. That is not to say that the full phrase had never appeared before; I found examples as far back as the late eighties, but not very many. The film must take credit for popularizing if not introducing it. Bill Clinton soon picked it up; thereafter it became more common. It is still around today, beloved of all who would sound resolute. But there’s no getting around the fatuity (or futility, if you prefer) of the phrase understood literally. “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley,” said the poet, and sounding resolute doesn’t change that.

Lovely Liz from Queens scores again; she is by far the all-time leader in expressions nominated. Let’s not always see the same hands.

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(2000’s | politese? businese? | “change course,” “turn one’s attention from/to,” “shift,” “crucial point”)

From an Old French word for “hinge” imported into English in the sixteenth century. For a long time, it was nothing more than a special case of “revolve,” denoting movement around a fixed point, not necessarily smooth, or the fixed point itself. I learned the word first from basketball, where it refers to the movement a player is permitted to make when holding the ball and not dribbling. (In this case, the fixed point was called the “pivot foot.” To this day, “pivot” is used in Spanish and French to mean the center on a basketball team.) As the word has evolved, it has lost its connection with revolution and now refers to any change of strategy or objectives. This new sense, now widespread, did not really take hold until after 2010; I found only a few examples before then, primarily in political coverage.

The prominence of the term in politics is easily understood, considering that officials generally have to alter their policies when they butt up against the real world. As old words for this sort of thing grow stale and predictable, new ones arise, and “pivot” has certainly had its fifteen minutes. Often it’s not just a matter of doing something different; the notion of pivoting in politics contains an element of distracting the audience in an effort to make them forget the debacle that caused you to pivot in the first place. The word probably hit its political peak in 2016, when NPR decried it and many observers cited it as a buzzword. But if this looser definition of “pivot” originated in politics, it has come on strong in the business world, particularly in discussion of startups of various kinds; you pivot if your initial business model fails to generate adequate profit. My sense is that it is primarily businese now, but it remains available in other contexts.

The connection with the original meaning shows through in the following definition: “change directions but stay grounded in what [one has] learned” (source). Past experience and lessons learned remain the pivot, and keeping one foot there gives you a firmer foundation from which to launch. When a politician or business owner announces a pivot, part of the point is that they have considered the matter carefully and are making a deliberate change, not flailing around mindlessly. Or at least that’s what they want you to think. (Then again, another commentator remarked that “pivot” is a word used by executives who can’t admit they’ve made a mistake).

“Pivot on,” a substitute for “turn on” (as in “hinge on” or “depend on”), has likewise grown more common in recent years. Compare “pivotal,” meaning “essential.” “Pivot on” often carries that same implication of necessity, even urgency; with “pivot” they are in the background yet not absent. “Pivot” occurs more frequently in contemporary language and has become much less precise. Usually when that happens to an expression I sense that it has been trivialized or cheapened, but not in this case. The word has hung onto a bit of dignity and mystery, even as it has become clichéd.

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(1990’s | academese | “reconceive,” “recreate,” “start anew”)

Part of a complex with “reinvent,” so let’s start by teasing that out. “Reinvent” came on-line earlier, already fairly common in the seventies, particularly in the idiom “reinvent the wheel.” But that particular cliché refers to unnecessary work that replicates what has already been done. Any other time you use “reinvent,” it suggests imaginative power that produces something new and startling. “Reimagine” has followed in the footsteps of “reinvent” and is used in pretty much the same way. It comes out of philosophy and literary criticism originally. The OED yields citations from the nineteenth century, when it could have a literal shading: you had already imagined something and then had to do it again because you forgot it, or conditions changed, etc. Up until 2000 or so it was found largely in arts journalism and sparingly elsewhere. One did it with Greek mythology, or Hamlet, or the mystery novel, or a historical event, and at bottom it implied a new way of looking at whatever it was — a synonym for “reinterpret.” In the last twenty years, it has moved outward but never abandoned its ancestral ground.

“Reimagine” goes nearly always with abstractions (though sometimes, even before 2000, one might speak of reimagining a building). As of 2000, it could apply to a different class of abstraction, such as politics or government, which have far more immediate impact on our lives than a new staging of Oedipus Rex. Today it goes with even more personally consequential abstractions; we talk comfortably of reimagining ourselves, our way of life, our relationships, our cities, or the organizations we belong to. When you hear the term, you tend to think of large, imposing questions, whether on a personal or social scale; it would sound odd to reimagine your route to the grocery store. But it might not be too grandiose to reimagine your meal planning or the organization of your closet. A word like “reimagine” teaches us to attend to different types and levels of abstraction. Some strike us very near the heart (or wallet), while others operate at more of a remove. Some affect only a small number of individuals, however strongly; other abstractions embrace us all.

“Reimagine” is getting heavy use now thanks to the pandemic; our leaders are convening panels of experts and demanding that everyone put on their thinking caps and start figuring out what life will look like in the new normal. (It’s a favorite of New York’s Governor Cuomo, and he has been leaning on the word pretty hard recently.) Why not remake, reshape, reform, rethink, redesign, re-envision, revolutionize? you ask. “Reimagine” not only partakes of creativity and invention — a necessity in times like these — it also has an optimistic, forward-looking sound in response to challenging circumstances. The world has changed irrevocably, and we must come up with answers that would not have occurred to us before. The same old same old simply won’t suffice. But there is no such thing as neutral when it comes to social organization; one reimagines with biases and favorites, with different ideas about who needs what. While the identities of the winners and losers may change over time, the fact of them apparently never does. Reimagine that!

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even a stopped clock is right twice a day

(1980’s | businese (finance)? politese? | “who woulda thunk it?”)

I had my suspicions about this phrase. I believed it was a recent coinage masquerading as hoary proverbial wisdom — like “no pain, no gain” or “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” — but Google Books proved me wrong, tossing up examples from as far back as 1880. More than one source traces the concept, if not the wording, back to Lewis Carroll, who set the following puzzle (the sources differ on the details): Would you rather have a clock that shows the correct time twice a day, or a clock that does so once every two years? When you opted for the one that was right twice a day, he presented you with an inoperable (twelve-hour) clock. The other clock lost or gained a minute each day, so it took 720 days before it displayed the actual hour and minute. The phrase, or something like it, has also been attributed to John Steinbeck, Franklin Roosevelt, Gloria Steinem, and a Chinese (or Russian) proverb.

“Even a stopped clock is right twice a day” is often presented or cited as an old saying, and the idea, even the exact phrase, is relatively venerable, but it never rated the rank of proverbial and never competed with “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” or even “a stitch in time saves nine.” (Not even “a face that would stop a clock”!) I found very few uses in any context of the phrase, or its variants, before 1985. I’m not sure why it was so uncommon for so long. It is a bit long and cumbersome, I suppose, and the tenor of the adage — even the weakest or most inflexible mind will hit on a good idea occasionally — is not as fundamental as those of the proverbs turned clichés, though by now it has become a cliché itself. So what happened around 1990 to lodge this phrase in the language? I’ve noted elsewhere, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the emergence around that time of a national need for everybody to tell off everybody they disagreed with; maybe this expression tagged along. Or it may have been as simple as a few prominent people using it in temporal proximity. I don’t remember hearing it until I was an adult, maybe from Al Sharpton, though LexisNexis does not record Sharpton using the phrase.

It doesn’t seem in the least unlikely that Carroll’s resolutely logical mind produced the stopped-clock paradox, and philosophers and logicians have deployed his example to introduce related puzzles and arguments. But the phrase has taken a more malicious turn as weaponized in finance and politics. Around 1980, says LexisNexis, commentators gradually began using the expression to suggest obduracy, or sheer mental deficiency, in the target. The phrase came to suggest that a certain person was exceedingly stubborn or old-fashioned but nonetheless had come up with an approach or solution that the speaker happened to agree with. The implication was that it was dumb luck or a once-in-a-lifetime shot, unlikely to be repeated later that same day or ever. That is the expression at its most sophisticated. Sometimes it just means “Can you believe so-and-so said something intelligent?,” more of a brute-force model. Famed British interviewer David Frost in 1990 attributed the phrase to his father, who meant by it “everyone has something to teach us.” That is an unusually gentle interpretation. We prefer to use this dubious proverb with a side of snide.

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first-world problem

(2000’s | journalese? | “silly little thing”)

“First world” and “third world” are outdated now (the second world was the Communist bloc); they were still current in my youth. The exact phrase “first-world problems” appears for the first time in LexisNexis in 1992, when it was used quite literally to draw the distinction between the kind of problems societies in the grip of late industrial capitalism have and the kind that plague places lacking money and control over their resources. Third-world nations (now “developing countries”) aspire to first-world problems, because they are less onerous and easier to solve than the kind they have at home. One also heard sometimes “real-world problem” — a practical rather than theoretical difficulty — which may have been a phonetic if not semantic ancestor.

The phrase took on an ironic tinge around 2000, and its ambit changed as it started to refer to personal inconveniences rather than broad social issues. By 2010 it was fashionable in hip circles, having emerged as a meme and social media staple. The expression is closely associated with white people; I have seen “white whine” cited as a synonym but don’t recall ever encountering it. Americans and other subscribers to the western way of wealth use it apologetically; the mixture of irony and apology confers a self-mocking tone. It’s a way of saying “I know how trivial this is, but it still bugs me and I have to say something about it.” If you use it about another person’s problem, it will likely be less tolerant and may be used with genuine scorn, but the smack of the trivial remains. For a first-world problem is not only frivolous, it arises from a frivolous cause. It has to do with Starbucks, tanning beds, or internet access that isn’t quite fast enough, not with food, shelter, or rock-bottom standards of living (it happens despite your standard of living, not because of it). Even with a self-mocking air, the phrase conveys self-congratulation as well. The less significant the problem, the more smug and awful it sounds. It’s related to that old favorite of baseball coaches, “a good problem to have,” when you have two productive left fielders, for example — a situation that must be resolved, but all whose likely outcomes are desirable.

In the eighties, you sometimes heard in political commentary “first-world nation with third-world problems,” usually pasted on borderline first-world countries like South Africa or Brazil. It meant that the society had a fairly advanced financial system and urban centers, but also a high percentage of truly poor and oppressed people. Since I’m in the habit of editorializing, I’ll point out that it’s not a bad description of the U.S. today. The federal government has pretty much abandoned its proper functions in favor of funneling money to the rich and propping up defense contractors, and the results show: failing infrastructure everywhere and no serious political will to repair it. Now that a couple of generations of Americans have been trained to believe unquestioningly that no good can come from government — even as they benefit in various ways from government largesse — it’s hard to see how we might pull together and solve some general problems with the general welfare. Maybe the coronavirus crisis will do it, but I’m not optimistic.

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step up

(1990’s | athletese | “rise to the occasion,” “step in,” “do your part,” “take a stand”)

I’ll tell you what’s up: “Step up” used to be transitive. Now it has a well-established intransitive use. That sort of thing happens now and then, but I think not very many people notice. We grumpy grammarians, on the other hand . . .

It was still transitive most of the time in 1990, but the intransitive had emerged, primarily among athletes. Other verbs, including “ramp up” and “ratchet up,” have made space for “step up” to meander into another meaning. “Step up” meant “increase” or “augment,” also sometimes “increase the pace of.” These senses have not disappeared, but they have been joined by “step up” shorn of all its appendages, used to mean take charge of handling a problem or situation (it crops up a lot in crunch time). When it was transitive, even if it didn’t have an object, it was followed by a prepositional phrase, notably “to the plate.” That expression is likely the progenitor of today’s use, which may be followed by an infinitive, as in “step up to make sure the job is done,” but more often closes a clause or sentence.

As so much athletes’ vocabulary does, this has spread to politicians and businessmen. “Who will step up?” has a ring to it, it’s true, although “step up” also sounds like a kind of baby dog. To me it evokes a medal-winning Olympic athlete mounting the podium, or the older expression “step forward” (think of a line of soldiers, a few of whom have stood forth to volunteer for a dangerous assignment). Stepping up emphasizes crucial duty more than unpleasant duty, but the latter implication can definitely creep in. I’ve covered a couple other locutions like it — “designated driver,” “real MVP,” “take one for the team” — that express a blend of solidarity and heroism that may be found in the humblest office or in the seventh game of the World Series. I haven’t covered “stand-up guy” (not “step-up guy”) but that’s part of the group, too.

It’s not easy to pin down precise opposites. (“Step down” is not one of them, although you might step down after failing to step up.) The most direct, I think, are “flop” or “fall down on the job” — not nearly so pithy — and a less closely linked but still related antonym is “stand down,” which refers to disengagement, which may in turn result from failure. You can try to go above and beyond and fall short, or you can simply back away from the problem and leave it to others; either would constitute a failure to step up. When you use the past tense, you’re implying pretty strongly that the intervention was successful; it isn’t nearly so common to say “so-and-so stepped up” when he gave it his best shot but didn’t pull it off. (“He gave it his best shot” wouldn’t make a bad epitaph, would it? Some rich ambiguities there.)

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(1970’s | therapese | “exchange-based”)

First there was transactional immunity, a legal concept having to do with grand jury testimony, where a witness may be compelled to testify about a crime he was involved in with a promise that he won’t face prosecution. Traditionally, the witness was assured that no prosecution would follow for a crime described in testimony, and that was known as “transactional immunity.” Congress changed the law so that a witness could be prosecuted for such crimes, but the witness’s grand jury testimony could not be used as part of the prosecution (“use immunity”). A complicated distinction with big ramifications.

In the seventies, along came transactional analysis, encapsulated in the book “I’m OK, You’re OK” by Thomas Harris, which led a fad in the middle of the decade. I don’t remember being aware of the term at the time (though I was aware of the book), and the definition seems to have been rather vague, but the idea was to examine how you dealt with other people in order to improve such encounters (transaction = interaction). In practice, that meant you did role-playing exercises to help you deal more pleasantly with others and learn more reliable methods of engaging with them. Transactional management, which emphasized maintaining an existing system through rewards and punishments, invoked a related concept in businese.

Today the catch-phrase is transactional data, which is what Google and Amazon want: detailed records of your purchases, on-line or otherwise, so they can wring more money out of you. Here we have a straightforward adjective formation meaning “of or pertaining to a transaction,” which has been around a long time and represents what is probably still the most common guise of “transactional.” In the seventies it was not used often; it’s much more common now.

Despite the continuing prevalence of the business usage, the real story here is the shift from the legal and financial to the human, which began with Harris. The word is often used now to talk about the ways we treat each other, related to the older concept of “keeping score” in a relationship. A connection between two people, like any other kind, does require some scorekeeping. Any relationship I’ve ever seen, healthy and successful or otherwise, involves a certain amount of paying attention to who has done what for whom lately and making adjustments accordingly. But a predominantly or purely transactional bond doesn’t last very long, because it forces you to focus on the wrong things. Instead of making the most of your partner’s pleasing or compatible traits, you wonder whether you’re getting enough for what you’re giving, and that line of thought leads to dissatisfaction and resentment.

A recent example from the wider world of politics: several commentators described as “transactional” Michael Bloomberg’s apology for excessive stop-and-frisks by the NYPD during his term as mayor. The word conveys the idea that the apology was insincere, a kind of bribe offered without any real reflection or concern about the effects of the policy. It’s safe to say that Bloomberg’s move asked for a quid pro quo; he was in effect asking African-Americans to reconsider him and even give him their votes. In larger social contexts as in smaller personal contexts, the transactional requires an ongoing series of exchanges, which must involve calculation and record-keeping (writing, humanity’s pre-eminent means of keeping records, developed out of commerce, after all). Now that the term has moved into social science jargon to talk about the interpersonal, it is firmly anchored in two realms and seems unlikely to budge from either.

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plus one

(2000’s | journalese (society page)? | “date,” “guest”)

Now a staple of the younger set, “plus one” is a companion, usually temporary, for a social event, such as a wedding. No particular connection is implied; in fact, the term may suggest casual relations at best, maybe even just the only person you could scrounge up. (But it’s also possible to have a regular plus one who becomes a reliable escort, or to bring a good friend to an event they would enjoy.) Occasionally the phrase is used when a stronger connection is understood, and that related but distinct meaning may be gaining ground gradually. It bears some relation to “arm candy,” but whereas arm candy has to be attractive, the plus one has no particular attributes. Arm candy is a plus one, but a plus one probably isn’t arm candy.

“Plus one” could easily devolve into meaning any companion for a social occasion; the implication of the ad hoc acquaintance, sufficient for this party or that bowling night, may disappear into a broader, sloppier term. Another usage note: “plus one” is used sometimes to refer to an accessory (as in make-up or jewelry) — in that case, the connotation changes and the plus one becomes more of a sine qua non, required whenever you’re out in public.

The phrase may be a Briticism, but I can’t tell. The earliest example coughed up by LexisNexis is from 1998, in a British source, but it turns up in both U.K. and U.S. press, and I couldn’t trace a distinct origin. Some early uses suggested a different meaning in context — something like a ticket or pass that one is granted so that one can bring a friend — but it is not plain to me that that was ever a true definition of the term. There’s something frustratingly inconclusive about this expression. Can’t tell where it came from or isolate variant meanings. Some nerve.

plus size

(1980’s | businese (fashion) | “full-figured”)

Not present in the mainstream press in 1980, but definitely there by 1990. “Plus-size” has become a relatively neutral way to refer to women (as far as I can tell, the term is applied invariably to women) who are normal-size Americans or larger, or their apparel. For decades, we are told, designers made clothes only for thin women; anyone bigger than size 6 had to settle for cheap sweaters, or dowdy stretch pants, or spend the money to have their outfits custom-made. (Lane Bryant was a pioneer in selling clothing designed for such women, and it’s still around. The male version of that is the “big and tall store.” But “plus-size” doesn’t modify “store.”) Somewhere around 1980, couturiers noticed that a lot of women fit that description, and decided to see if they would pay for designer clothes. There is still some bias toward skinny models in the fashion industry, but plus-size women have come a long way since 1990. That’s an old American story: for decades, centuries, we’ve discriminated against this or that group of people for whatever reason. One day, someone notices that those people have money. Then the gold rush begins, the market is cultivated, and a few decades later, it is no longer o.k. to discriminate against that group. Groups that don’t have money, of course, remain on the shit list.

The plus-size revolution isn’t only a matter of business. It has gone along with a movement encouraging women to accept their bodies without guilt or mortification of the flesh. Part of that is finding expressions that are not off-putting or down-putting (if that’s a word); it’s difficult to think of older terms that did not bear at least some condescension. Customers will spend more freely if they feel welcome, reason the advertisers, who more adeptly than just about anyone else avoid offensive language or imagery, not out of civic motives, but from a desire to keep the income rolling in from as many wallets as possible. The hypersensitive left is generally blamed for the ascendancy of political correctness, and the righteous right uses that story very successfully for fundraising purposes. But advertisers have a lot more power to drag society in one direction or other than a few thousand professors, foundation heads, activists, and politicians.

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kiss up, kick down

(1990’s | bureaucratese?)

I don’t have a good story for the origin of this expression — I usually don’t — but it requires a hierarchical organization and therefore crops up frequently in business, government, and the military. It seems likely that one should get the credit, but I don’t know which. The phrase entered our vocabulary decisively in 2005 thanks to John Bolton, Trump’s recently axed National Security Advisor. It is unusual, if not historic, to find an expression so closely associated with an identifiable individual. NSC official Carl Ford pasted the label on Bolton during hearings on his nomination as UN Ambassador. Ford did not invent the phrase, which appears as early as 1995 in LexisNexis but saw scattered use at best before 2005. After 2006, the frequency died down again — Bolton’s return to officialdom did not portend a revival — but remains higher than pre-2005 levels.

Bolton’s nomination failed, although Bush finagled him into the post briefly with a recess appointment, long enough to make the rest of the world grateful for the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. (Republicans have an odd trick of hiring people for high-up positions who believe the position should not exist, which is like Ford or GM hiring only executives who think automobiles should be banned.) Bolton, too irascible and doctrinaire to be confirmed to a prominent federal post in 2006, now finds himself insufficiently venal and worshipful to survive in Trump’s White House.

“Kiss up, kick down” is trouble; it describes a person who flatters and fawns on superiors while bullying those below, usually with the emphasis on mistreating underlings, who resent the effects more. Such an attitude is most often ascribed to bureaucrats and bosses. The beauty of this sort of management style is that the people who can hurt you and the people you are hurting are carefully segregated; mistreating subordinates is not particularly dangerous unless you break certain rules, and maybe not even then. Those who abuse their authority probably think of themselves as strong and tough. To the rest of us they seem weak, bullying others to avoid confronting their own insecurity. I don’t know of another expression as comprehensive, that captures the two-pronged obnoxiousness of certain executives. I’ve also seen it used once or twice to refer not to a person, but to economic policy, that is, the kind that funnels money to the rich and keeps it mostly out of reach of everyone else. That’s a sidestep worth watching.

“Kiss up” was established, if not common, by my college days, but not much before that; the first citation in Lighter’s slang dictionary dates from 1965. (“Suck up” is older.) “Kick down” is not a common phrase on its own and doesn’t sound especially idiomatic, but it does sound enough like “kiss up” to produce some cheap euphony, and the meaning is not hard to decipher. “Kiss up” conveys the right amount of scorn, while viciousness and inhumanity radiate from “kick down.” So it works despite the awkwardnesses.

This post goes out to Steve from Eastchester, who inspired it. Everyone needs a little lexicography now and then . . .

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(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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