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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: pollution

forever (adj.)

(1990’s | “permanent,” “interminable,” “endless,” “unstoppable”)

“Forever” has long done time as a noun, an adverb (“forever young”), even an interjection (forever and ever, amen). What was left? Adjective. And it is coming to pass, led by three expressions detailed below. We shall see whether we can make a verb of it.

“Forever war,” familiar to anyone who has been following the news lately, apparently got its start as the title of Joe Haldeman’s science fiction novel (1978). According to LexisNexis, it took more than twenty years for the expression to gain currency in political commentary; it started appearing in the aughts, the decade in which we launched two prolonged, costly, unsuccessful wars in the name of a third, the war on terrorism. Its recent popularity, owed largely to Joe Biden, is spawning spinoffs; Eric Alterman gave us “forever warriors” and “forever nonsense” in the title of a recent column.

“Forever family” is first spotted in LexisNexis in the late eighties, attributed to foster children hoping to land in a stable environment. Here it has a wistful, aspirational sound, softened further by its connection with children in difficult straits. “Forever home,” which seems to have trailed it by a few years, is very similar, used for both children and pets who would benefit from adoption. Recently it has taken on another meaning, analogous to the old expression “dream house” — where a family intends to settle down. In the early seventies, Lady Bird Johnson used “forever home” to mean “childhood home,” not a particular dwelling so much as the place or region one can always go back to, a perfectly logical interpretation that has not stood the test of time.

Those three are established in everyday language. So far, “forever” hasn’t adopted many other nouns. The term “forever chemicals” (in polluted groundwater) seems to be spreading slowly, like the chemicals themselves. I’ve seen “forever prisoners” and “forever commitment.” The Forever Project in New Zealand devotes itself to mitigating the effects of climate change. The Forever Purge, a film about a white supremacist uprising, has done well at the box office this year. The adjective seems poised for greater things as we tremble on the verge of a forever pandemic.

“Forever” has a strong religious echo, yet earnest teenagers use it all the time, too (as in “BFF”). The word may at times denote the full span of eternity, but more often we use it to mean “as long as you or I live.” In “forever war,” it doesn’t even mean that — more like “taking an unreasonably long time to end.”

Lex Maniac has worked a whimsical vein lately, so here are more things “forever” could modify beyond death and taxes: beta version (I’m looking at you, Google), interim coach or other official (sometimes they hang around for a while), speech, movie, line, or wait (it works better in front of one word than in front of several). Then there are more serious possibilities: friend, pension, budget deficit, shortage. Some things do last forever, or come so close they might as well.

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congestion pricing

(1980’s | bureaucratese)

This week Lex Maniac lops the “e” off “urbane” and goes urban. Congestion pricing is in the news again, at least here in New York, as our solons ready themselves for another push to improve traffic flow. The phrase itself is not new; the first hit I found in LexisNexis dates from 1979. But only a couple of months ago I had to explain it to my father. (No knock on the old man — where he lives the subject doesn’t come up, and besides, we all have expressions that we’ve never heard though they’ve been familiar to everyone else for years.) Congestion pricing involves charging drivers to enter the parts of the city with the highest traffic density (in Manhattan, that usually means below 59th Street, or maybe 96th) at certain times of the day, with the goal of raising money and discouraging people from motoring through the busiest parts of town. The phrase existed before 1980 but remained a specialized term until after 1990, I would say. Even then, it was frequently placed in quotation marks and glossed, but it had become the accepted term for that form of traffic engineering. It remains a technical term without metaphorical implications or traces. It may also be used in reference to regulating airplane traffic — for example, raising landing fees during popular travel times. But normally congestion pricing is more terrestrial.

It’s typically sold as a way to reduce vehicular traffic, prefaced by terrifying statistics, like the average rush-hour speed along 34th Street, or whether a Boy Scout can outrun a crosstown bus. Reduced traffic has other benefits besides getting everyone where they’re going faster. The first time congestion pricing came up in New York, in 1986, the city was in violation of the Clean Air Act and had to find ways to reduce carbon monoxide and ozone. Less traffic means less stress and a healthier environment. What’s so terrible about that?

Officials in charge of high traffic density areas have a ritual of proposing congestion pricing from time to time, only to see it crushed ruthlessly. And that’s probably what will happen this go-round, though the current plan’s backers have tried to address objections made to previous versions. And who knows? Now that “cashless tolling” (another blot on the vocabulary) has settled in, even the skittish have gotten used to the technology. All you need to do is build gantries — so that’s what a gantry is! — at every entry point with a bunch of EZPass readers, just like on the Verrazano Bridge, and watch those virtual dollars pile up.

The principle is as simple as forcing drivers to pay for maintenance of the roads, because without the roads there wouldn’t be any drivers. That makes sense, right? The people who use the thoroughfares should pay for them, and gasoline taxes don’t cover all the costs, certainly not in New York. Road building and maintenance entail significant future costs, so congestion pricing redresses a perennial weak spot of our form of industrial capitalism, which is accounting for future expenditure made inevitable by present actions. Yet there’s little political appetite for infringing the sacred right to drive, so they’re selling the policy as new revenue for the subway. Which will need it if the overcrowded, delay-prone trains are to absorb still more commuters.

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