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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: progress


(1990’s | computerese? | “old,” “out-of-date,” “inherited,” “left over”)

I fear I am easing into a spell of griping over grammatical shifts. A few weeks ago it was “step up” idly taking a formerly unknown intransitive sense. “Legacy” has gone further, opening a whole new adjective department, one which is as far as I can tell based in computerese, worse yet. It has come to mean “hard to maintain because superannuated, but still useful or needed.” For example, an old computer that has to be kept around to run some indispensable software, or an old recording that has to be digitized. “Legacy” can be digital or analog. It is similar to other johnny-come-latelys such as “classic,” “retro,” and “vintage,” but more technical. It has spread; in politics “legacy issue” means “problem inherited from one’s predecessor,” turning the word into a convenient way to blame the previous administration. The noun “legacy” is still used literally and figuratively to refer to that which one leaves behind — something of value left in a will or, more often, an inspiration that lives on after one passes from the scene, or a series of achievements that needs to be preserved and augmented.

The academy offers another possible source for the concept of the legacy, in the sense of “descendant of an alum.” Phrases like “legacy preference” and “legacy admission” had appeared by 1990 but do not seem to have been common before then. The arrival of the adjective around the same time in computerese may be simply parallel evolution, or there may be some kind of connection. Both uses evoke the dead hand of the past, but in the academic context the state of being a legacy is desirable. That’s not how tech people use it.

“Legacy” sounds attractive, raising associations of class and financial advantage. But in computerese it is anything but a compliment, denoting a thing to be tolerated at best and a damnable nuisance at worst. The world is older than the personal computer, and it still has things in it that must be made legible to the machine brain. That’s legacy data, or legacy media, which may be thousands of years old, or as little as a decade. But the swath left by widespread computer use, after only about forty years, is already littered with many generations of hardware, software, operating systems, and standard file formats. Almost everyone who does a lot of work with computers has a legacy component somewhere, or has to help out someone else who does. The wages of computers is obsolescence. Concentrated and continuous technical advance must produce generations of disused hardware and outgrown software — even if they still work. But everything doesn’t die at the same time. Just as you can keep an antique car going far beyond its normal lifespan, so you can still run Windows 95, with all its limitations. The mere act of operating and maintaining computer systems over time breeds what you might call legacies (which has not become a collective plural, as far as I can tell, but probably should).

Many businesses prosper by helping corporations deal with legacy problems. There’s something threatening in the (not always implicit) message: if you don’t enlist our services, you will fall irrevocably behind and slide into failure. The problem is, being all state-of-the-art and having your legacy problems faithfully taken care of doesn’t guarantee you’ll be successful; it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition. It’s probably true that you need to spruce up your systems, but doing so doesn’t mean you’ll live happily ever after.

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junk science

(1980’s | legalese | “quackery”)

This is an expression with an agenda. We began to hear it regularly a little after 1990; a Washington Post editorial referred to “what some are beginning to call ‘junk science'” in March 1996. Google Books and LexisNexis cough up several instances from the eighties, and even this diamond in the rough from 1903: “But that conceited laugh of junk science, how laughable it is after all” (Peter Burrowes, “What is truth?” in Revolutionary Essays in Socialist Faith and Fancy, Comrade Publishing Co.). Whatever Burrowes may have meant, both the meaning and connotation of this expression were pretty clear when it came into its own at the other end of the century. The term was most often used by lawyers to complain about so-called expert witnesses purveying unsubstantiated theories about harms to plaintiffs and driving up the cost of judgments against well-meaning, God-fearing corporations. The phrase generally reared its head in discussions of tort law, that is, lawsuits filed to obtain compensation for wrongs not covered by criminal law. And it was generally used to assail dubious medical or technical testimony that swayed gullible juries (or judges).

It isn’t always so clear what “good” science is, even in our everyday Newtonian world; practicing scientists with good credentials may disagree vigorously on the interpretation of a piece of evidence even in simple cases. Attacks on junk science often rely on the unstated assumption that proper science is easily defined and recognized, not subject to controversy among scientists. That is true most of the time, but not all the time, and it does foreclose the possibility of finding value in the new or unconventional. The Supreme Court has ruled that scientific evidence should be peer-reviewed but stopped short of setting absolute limits on what can or can’t be presented in the courtroom.

No doubt many verdicts have been influenced by doubtful expert testimony. Peter Huber cited and documented several with relish in “Galileo’s Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom” (Basic Books, 1991); the subtitle probably played a role in popularizing the phrase. His plaintiff-bashing set the tone; it took several years before “junk science” came to be applied regularly to any doubtful theories propounded by big business. In its early days, junk science always had a bleeding heart, causing courts to fall for sob stories bolstered by expert witnesses who were far too sure of themselves. Crazed environmentalists, quack psychiatrists, doctors on the take — they were the ones who relied on junk science to con the scientifically illiterate. Nowadays, the phrase is comfortably used in a much wider variety of contexts, but it still seems to be favored by the right wing, though it is no longer solely their property. (I shudder when I ponder future semantic possibilities given the recent rise of “junk” as a slang term for “genitals.”)

The funny thing is that you would expect the forward-looking lefties to brandish science against the backward righties, but they got in first on this term, which fit neatly into their strategy of attacking people seeking redress for injuries allegedly caused by corporate negligence. The web site Junk Science, opened in 1996, is unabashedly right-wing and contemptuous of the scientific establishment, debunking climate change, solar power, and other usual suspects, particularly government participation in scientific research. (Ironic, because the original definition of “junk science” as propounded by lawyers depends on conformity with scientific consensus.) The phrase allows right-wingers to dismiss a favorite left-wingers’ trump card and beat them at their own game. References to science make you sound serious and learned, and who’s going to make you explain why the object of your scorn violates this or that scientific principle? It has become one more way to say, “Shut up. You’re wrong.” But then, it never really was anything else.

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shake out

(1990’s | businese? | “work out,” “turn out,” “pan out,” “come out”)

Now normally a verb, the phrase was more common as a noun or adjective in my youth, used thus almost exclusively, in fact. It meant something similar but had much different force. A “shake-out” (it’s still used this way) was an active process that meant rough times for at least some participants (cf. “shake up,” “shake down,” “shake loose”; phrasal verbs derived from “shake” generally connote violence). Now the phrase has more of a “que sera, sera” feel to it. It conveys a sense of standing back and seeing what happens — you don’t use it when you know the outcome in advance. It’s another expression that has lost its muscle, like “tweak.”

In the 1970’s, “shake out,” when it didn’t refer to tablecloths and so forth, had two predominant meanings. One was akin to “break out” or “shake off,” as in a baseball team “shaking out” of a slump, like someone waking up in a hurry (it could be used transitively in the same way). The other meant something more like “enforced reorganizing” or “cleaning out deadwood.” It was used primarily in the corporate press, especially during tough times in a particular industry. In this sense, it was generally a noun, though it showed up as an adjective occasionally (as in “shake-out period”) or even a verb. You might ask how a “shake-out” in such cases differs from a “shake-up,” and the answer is not much. A “shake-out” implies something a little more permanent — not just rearranging the pieces but jettisoning some of them. In a shake-out, some companies are going to go under. These old senses have not disappeared, but they have been outstripped by the new one.

The latter meaning above seems the more likely ancestor of our everyday usage now. “We’ll see how it all shakes out” means “We’ll see what the results are” or “We’ll see how things look when the dust settles.” Often used with an indefinite subject like “it” or “things,” the phrase now is more likely to be used with slightly more concrete nouns: story, discussion, plan. Usage note: “How” is the only word it goes with; you don’t hear “when/where/if it all shakes out.”

I found a couple of examples of a still newer meaning of the phrase that may be creeping into the language, as in the following example from the Frederick (MD) News-Post (December 22, 2012): “That shakes out to $123 for each home in the town” in a report on the cost of a lawsuit against the local government. Here again, “work out” is a precise replacement; “come out” works, too (but not “turn out”). I don’t know if this meaning will catch on or not; if it does, it will be one more small, sidewise step in the evolution of this slippery, deceptively simple phrase — whose history boasts a series of small, sidewise steps that continue to nudge its meaning a little further each generation from the primal tablecloth.

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(early 1990’s | “up to the minute,” “avant-garde,” “most advanced”)

Maybe there’s no more to the evolution of this term than the adoption of a new part of speech, a hyphenated adjective. It has commonly been used as a noun for ages, often quite literally; the “cutting edge” was what a knife or guillotine has; the idea was that it was sharp and designed to slice, not that it was at the head of the pack. When it was used figuratively, same thing — the tenor of the metaphor was the keen, whetted blade; the sense of leading the way was secondary at best. There is an obvious overlap, and it’s not hard to see how one sense might have given way to the other. As the eighties wore on, the noun phrase referred more and more often to the “leading edge,” and this meaning had taken precedence by 1990 or so. At that time, the noun probably occurred more often the adjective; now I would venture to say the situation is reversed, although phrases like “on the cutting edge” are not unusual even today.

Unlike “state of the art,” “cutting-edge” can apply comfortably to almost any field of endeavor. Technology, research, science, yes, yes, and yes. But also in the arts and social sciences. “Cutting-edge sculpture” or “cutting-edge fashion” is a meaningful concept. In the arts, it’s whatever the avant-garde is doing this year. In the social sciences, it’s the newest theory about abnormal psychology or macroeconomics. The latest thing, in other words, in any field that relies on a sense of some sort of development.

There’s a cute paradox in the use of the term “state of the art” being restricted to technology while “cutting edge,” which sounds industrial or mechanical, can be used to talk about art, social movements, or almost anything. “Art” could refer to lots of things with a technical aspect (is shop class still called “industrial arts”?), but “cutting edge” just doesn’t go the other way. Yet it has resisted being funneled into one single niche much more effectively than “state of the art.”

state of the art

(1980’s | enginese? | “very latest,” “top of the line,” “most advanced”)

Not a new expression by any means, but its use as an adjective phrase was just getting going in the late 1970’s and now I think has taken over. It’s hard to hear this phrase as a noun any more. The “state of the art” means simply “where we are now” in a particular field or area of knowledge — how far we have advanced. The funny thing about it is that it’s rarely used in reference to one of the arts. You don’t hear about state-of-the-art sculpture, music, or blown glass. While it’s true that the arts do not evolve in the same purposeful way that engineering does, they do undergo technological innovation and evolution just like any other field of human endeavor. (If you talk about a “state-of-the-art film studio,” for example, it doesn’t mean the most advanced films are made there, but that it boasts all the latest equipment.) There’s a mild irony in the use of the word “art” in an expression habitually applied to science, technology, or business.

The phrase now has taken on a gee-whiz quality that wasn’t necessary in the old days. Sometimes the state of the art was deficient; a scientist would lament that we couldn’t do what we needed to do because the technology just wasn’t there. Now it serves always as a compliment, part of an effort to puff up whatever innovation happens to be under discussion. It’s as good as it gets; it’s the most advanced technology available, even if it’s merely the best we can do until something better comes along. But the phrase does seem to have acquired a relentless optimism in the last thirty years, which suggests that we’re less critical than we used to be about the power of technology to solve our problems. And it’s not just for nuclear physics any more. A new umbrella promises “state of the art protection from sun, wind, and rain.”

The adjective phrase had started to turn up in the late 1970’s, and it became a favorite of the promoters of the personal computer revolution. It was well-established by the time Circuit City (now defunct) adopted it in the early 1990’s: “Welcome to Circuit City, where service is state of the art.” It took advantage of the persistent association of the phrase with technological advances and made for a memorable, long-lived slogan. But in this case, the advertiser followed rather than led. The phrase used after the verb rather than before the noun may have cemented the adjectival usage in the public ear, but it wasn’t genuinely new.

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