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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: privacy

wand (v.)

(1990’s | enginese? bureaucratese?)

I don’t believe “wand” ever did duty as a verb in a Harry Potter book, but I never read one and I could be wrong. That part of speech had been available for some time by the time J.K. Rowling rocked the world in 1997. The first cites in LexisNexis date from the late eighties and have to do with stocking shelves with the help of a bar code scanner. An employee “wands” the bar code (actually, the verb was almost always used passively, as in “the bar code is wanded”) at the shelf or the cash register, and the central warehouse sends over another hundred units. Bar code readers are not generally called “wands” now, but hand-held metal (or explosives) detectors have borne the name since at least 1980, and it is there we turn for the evolution of the verb. In 1991, two sporting events provoked writers to use it, the Super Bowl (long a favored occasion for introducing stricter security measures) and the monarch of Great Britain’s visit to a baseball game in Baltimore (long known as the queen city of the Patapsco drainage basin). At Memorial Stadium, not only spectators but even the popcorn had been wanded. Time marches on, and now every spectator must be wanded at every major-league game. No one has tried to blow up a stadium since the policy was put in place a few years ago, which proves it works and has to be kept. Not that anyone had tried to blow up a stadium before the new regulations took effect.

I would venture that now most of us associate wanding with airport checkpoints, and the practice became more popular, or at least tolerated, after 9/11. As the equipment and procedure became enshrined in TSA parlance and practice, the use of the verb grew and it began to sound more normal. “Wander” and “wandee” don’t seem to have become words yet, but these things can change quickly. The pomposity of bureaucracy works against such locutions nosing into the language, of course; what agent or specialist would want to be known as a nine-days wander?

The apparatus of security is immune to whimsy, and the humorous potential of wanding has not been exploited. How about some good old-fashioned male wanding at the ol’ ballpark? Next time you get pulled aside for extra screening at the airport, try telling the friendly agent, “I wand-a be alone.” Maybe the agent will don a conical wizard’s hat and will throw in an incantation or two with your wanding. The practice is oddly egalitarian; all us normal people who fly or go to ballgames undergo it, but the rich and famous — even Henry Kissinger — must also submit to it when attending soirées thrown by, or in honor of, heads of state or billionaires. Presumably the wanders for big celebrity events are better trained and more deferential than the brusque shlubs at the ballpark.

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harvest

(1990’s | enginese | “collection”)

There is a little complex of phrases here: “harvest [v.] data,” “harvest [n.] of data,” and “data harvest [n.].” None was in common use before 1980; LexisNexis and Google Books both suggest that they hadn’t made much headway as late as 1990. “Harvest [n.] data” originally referred to quantities of crops reaped or game hunted, and often still does. The first citations in today’s sense, which appeared sporadically in the eighties, mostly seemed to come from the space program, often as “harvest of data” from a telescope or spacecraft. The implication was abundance; when scientists uttered it, they were usually boasting about the capabilities, or hoped-for capabilities, of a new piece of equipment that was going to provide us with all kinds of new observations. That’s positively innocent when set alongside the more sinister sense the phrase has acquired in the internet age.

Somewhere in the mid-1990’s, computer industry executives began talking about harvesting data about what people were doing on-line, which was simply an expansion of a longstanding practice — market research — into new fields. That was when the term came to mean corporate, computer-driven aggregation and storage of personal information, which we now take for granted. I did encounter one anomalous use in a Washington Post article in 1994 about internet access service offered by the state of Maryland that permitted the user to “harvest data” about the state. That heartening notion of empowered consumers using the web to collect information has not persisted, and now we think of puny proletarians plucked clean of every potentially pertinent preference, practice, or pattern, permanently pinned in the pitiless panopticon produced by predatory purveyors.

Just about everyone harvests data now, and you have to be pretty oblivious not to know that your every on-line move is tracked and stored by multiple agencies, government, corporate, or mom-and-pop. Thanks to the wonders of taxes and advertising, we pay for all of them; by now we are long accustomed to underwriting our own exploitation. True, it’s worse when flat-out criminals steal our data through hacking and malware, and without question that is different from what Google does. But Google and its colleagues are no paragons, either; they rely on unreadable terms of use agreements to which we give ostensible consent. In the real world, whether it’s stealing or not has nothing to do with whether we really want our private information in the hands of someone else.

“Data harvest” reminds me of “organ harvest,” also a relatively new expression with unsavory implications. In both cases, the purposes are legitimate, perhaps even commendable, but the way they are carried out leaves a bad taste. The connotations of “harvest” are changing from comforting and wholesome to devious and greedy. For thousands of years, a successful harvest was cause for thanksgiving, a time to rejoice and look ahead to better days. Even a poor harvest marked the end of an annual cycle and might spark hope for the future, in the manner of Dodgers’ fans crying “Wait till next year!” But now the harvest feeds only a select few; most of us sow but do not reap.

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baby bump

(2000’s | journalese (gossip) | “belly”)

Definitely a Briticism, which is not something I would have guessed. It appeared rarely in the U.S. press before 2005, says LexisNexis, by which time the Brits didn’t even consider it cheeky any more. “Baby bump” is a creature of the gossip pages and has generally been the property of celebrities. By now it is possible to use the phrase with reference to any pregnant woman, but it still turns up on the gossip pages an awful lot. Presumably the American expression “baby boom” acted as a midwife helping “baby bump” enter the language. Alternative usage note: In recent years demographers have begun using the phrase to denote a temporary increase in the birth rate, using “bump” to mean “spike” or “uptick” rather than protuberance.

My sense is that the rise of the expression paralleled the decline in baggy maternity dresses, which were still the norm in my childhood. Pregnancy has become glamorous and has perforce developed its own style, at least among those who consider style important. Flaunting the physical changes wrought by pregnancy, rather than concealing them or at least blurring the outlines a little, is a change in fashion as well as mores, and the strong association with celebrities confirms that the baby bump is regarded a built-in accessory which women can dress, decorate, and display to attract attention to themselves and their blessed state. Then again, some celebrities may not want the extra attention. Chrissy Teigen recently responded to on-line speculation about her pregnancy by telling fans to “get out of my uterus.” I suspect the offenders thought they were just doing their job; it’s refreshing to learn that at least some celebrities miss the sensation of privacy.

When I was young, it was customary to talk about pregnancy as a state of being, not as a feature or possession. We said an expecting woman was “showing,” or “visibly pregnant,” but I don’t think there was really an equivalent for “baby bump.” The reluctance to show or mention manifestations of pregnancy was passing away even then, reflecting deeper changes in the intersections of individuals and society. Now the swollen belly has become just one more part of the body to show off, cheapening the sanctity of motherhood. That’s the moralist’s interpretation, anyway. It’s also possible to view the shift less censoriously as an evolution of convenience, offering an informal way to refer to a common physical condition, creating a different part of speech in the process and thus permitting greater variety and flexibility in sentence-making. (Many new expressions fall into this category.) Or simply a restless pressure to expand the language; writers are always looking for new ways to say old things.

Back in disco’s heyday, we did the bump. “Fist bump” has replaced “slap me five,” and chest bumps have become much more common. Why shouldn’t “baby bump” signify two prospective mothers bouncing their bellies together, in greeting or in solidarity? I guess that would be “belly bump,” wouldn’t it? Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to start a new fad.

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gated community

(1990’s | businese (real estate)? | “walled town,” “stockade”)

I know what you’re thinking, but gated communities are not always for the rich, though they certainly started out that way. Some retirement communities are gated, and they are not generally set aside for the wealthiest among us. Still, a gated community does suggest a minimum, fairly high, standard of affluence.

It’s a very old idea. Walled cities date back to the ancient world. Pioneers moving west built stockades to keep out Indians and some of the wind. It’s true that a good stout wall and a locked gate will prevent a lot of dangerous people from getting in. Occasionally someone will slip through, of course, and gated communities do little to deter identity theft and other white-collar crime. No sooner do you find a way to thwart violent crime than crime of an entirely different sort, against which walls and gates have little effect, fills the gap. Lovers of irony rejoice.

Gated communities as we know them are a California phenomenon that got going in the eighties, although there were one or two around before then. Outside of California, a few cropped up in Florida that early, but they didn’t take off in the rest of the country until after 1990. The enclaves can be built around whatever perversions the rich may prefer — golf, landscaping, horses — or have no particular core. Their more genteel partisans talk about their love of privacy, but safety and exclusivity, states best guarded by keeping the wrong people from getting in, are the real reasons that gated communities continue to thrive. (Personal privacy — another benefit now more likely to be compromised by someone thousands of miles away than by an intruder sneaking into your basement — pertains to both of those justifications, so partisans like to bring it up early in the discussion.) The point is to control access, repel intruders, and feel secure. Not all gated communities have guards, but they all have walls and restricted entrances. Another feature, noted as long ago as 1983 in the New York Times: “Gated communities tend to be fairly strict. If regular cities would pass some of the restrictions they do, everything would be in an uproar.” It’s not just about keeping the bad guys out; it’s also a matter of preventing residents from doing anything that might lower property values.

There is something fundamentally anti-social about the whole idea of building a walled-off island in the midst of the hurly-burly. This is the sort of thing that leads to private police forces and a deliberate withdrawal from the larger society, especially in urban areas. A small group of people pooling (i.e., hoarding) their wealth and resources — most of which have come out of the rest of our pockets one way or another — and deciding that they will secede, in effect, and avoid responsibility for anyone outside their own very small group. It’s undemocratic, but hardly anyone seems to get too exercised about the startling growth of the gated community — it’s become an unquestioned privilege of the rich, part of their obligation to disregard the common good in favor of their own narrow interest.

The term appears in LexisNexis for the first time in 1979, and it does not seem to have been much in use before then. The most plausible surmise is that it was invented by a real estate agent (like “gentrification“). “Gated” hints at keeping the riffraff out without being too obvious about it, and “community” is what we all want to be a part of, right? A community of people a lot like us, with a lot of the same beliefs and values — people who believe in keeping their standard of living to themselves. No mention of walls or guards or security codes is necessary to get the point across. Realtors are better than anyone else, except possibly ad writers, at softening disagreeable concepts by wrapping them in a mantle of inoffensiveness. (As one source proclaims, “‘Gated communities’ is a euphemism.”) But I don’t have any evidence that a realtor did it, and maybe someone else invented the phrase. It has not developed any metaphorical life, and no poet has leapt up to declare, “No man is a gated community, no man stands alone.”

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