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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: public relations

sounds like a plan

(1990’s | “good idea,” “I like it,” “makes sense,” “agreed”)

I’ve thought it over for, y’know, like, five or ten minutes, and I’ve concluded that what’s notable about this expression is how invariably it is used in an encouraging, affirming, or favorable way. Nearly always, it betokens assent, even pleasure, in another’s proposal. Occasionally it partakes of subtle irony, but rarely is it used in flat-out sarcasm in the manner of “my work here is done.” But it easily could be. Starting the phrase with “sounds like” invites the rejoinder “but it isn’t!” And then there’s that plan — not much to hang your hat on. (Forget the plan; let’s see some results!) But despite the snark signals, the expression connotes approval; when used interrogatively, same thing — you’re making a proposal that you expect to be accepted. Even though the phrase is still available in normal discourse, as in “sounds like a plan to/for/that . . .,” it has become a fixed expression, with well-established usage patterns and spoken intonation (accent on “sounds,” with “plan” taking the secondary emphasis and “like a” an appoggiatura between them).

It started to show up in LexisNexis around 1990, with no obvious origin; it may have been most common among sportswriters at first. It crept in over the course of the decade and was generally available by 2000, though it seemed relatively new even then. Now it’s not unusual for a new expression to lack a plain, satisfying etiology, and the ones that do are generally more striking semantically than this one, which can’t even really be considered an idiom. If it has a story, I haven’t found it.

The acronym is SLAP, which I didn’t notice until I googled the expression and discovered a company called “Sounds Like a Plan Promotions,” or SLAP Promo. Not bad, but SLAP has not made its way into the ranks of texting abbreviations, as far as I know (again, there’s no reason it shouldn’t have). There is also a board game titled “Sounds Like a Plan,” but apparently it’s out of print. The expression may have passed its peak; LexisNexis didn’t turn up many examples from the past year. I still hear people say it now and then, but it doesn’t have the cachet it used to. It’s possible that in a generation kids will not understand it. And what will they make of it if they come across it on Maybe they will understand it as ironic and push it in the direction it always wanted to go (according to me, anyway) but never did.

A prize to lovely Liz from Queens for nominating this expression! And for putting up with me these ten years.

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talking point

(journalese | “campaign promise,” “key issue”)

On this expression, I stand confused. Most dictionaries, including all three of my printed unabridged models, will tell you that this phrase means something like “selling point” or “persuasive zinger.” Most on-line dictionaries agree, although the Business English Dictionary sponsored by the Cambridge Dictionary Online gives a more complete picture of how we use the word nowadays. It’s not that that usage is extinct, but I do think it’s receding, even though most on-line dictionaries don’t say so even now — one expects printed volumes to lag behind, but these on-line editors today are just lazy, if you ask me. My prediction: in the next twenty years, “talking point” will lose the sense of “statement intended to convince,” or “kicker,” supplanted by a definition related but distinct: “item from a list of statements to reiterate.” A statement will be considered a talking point because it appears consistently in the speeches of a politician, or in commercials for similar products, or in public relations campaigns, whether it’s persuasive or not.

There’s an obvious connection to make here, and Wikipedia makes it. Those attempting to persuade others will invariably use the strongest, most convincing arguments in their favor, so when politicians use “talking point” to mean “item from a list,” it’s understood that the slogan has been carefully chosen to bolster the positions of the people who made the list. Granted. If political strategists, or jingle writers for that matter, were infallible, we would have a distinction without a difference. But they’re not, and a talking point can easily backfire, either because it’s misstated or misguided, causing voters to roll their eyes and make a mental note to vote for the other guy. It’s part of the job for each candidate to take apart the the other candidate’s talking points and show why we shouldn’t allow ourselves be bamboozled.

“Talking point” does have several other meanings. One is most commonly employed in diplomacy, meaning simply “agenda item.” Each side has a list of issues to raise, and if you’re going to have talks, you have talking points. (I don’t think you hear “talks” as much as you did in the seventies, when the word was used endlessly with reference to arms reduction negotiations with the Soviet Union.) The OED On-line offers “topic suitable for or inviting discussion or argument,” that is, anything worth bringing up in the first place. It seems also to mean “center of attention” occasionally. I ran across an instance in an essay on Rudolf Nureyev by distinguished critic Clive Barnes: “Before his escape he had been the talking point of the first Western season the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad had given in Paris. He had the kind of stardom that notoriety might enhance but could never create” (Life magazine, May 12, 1967). It’s using “point” to mean locus rather than proposition, and there’s no possible interpretation other than “cynosure.” Maybe it’s idiosyncratic, but I’ve seen a few other things like it. I would call it an unusual but legitimate variant meaning.

Random House Dictionary, so useful for its fearless dating of new entries to the American language, saddles the second decade of the twentieth century with the appearance of “talking point” (as “selling point”). The OED On-line cites Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922); the context suggests that the term is an example of obnoxious new business jargon. My guess is that this term did originate in advertising, although now it comes up most often in political journalism, if LexisNexis is anything to go by. It’s also noteworthy that the popular news site Talking Points Memo covers politics and nothing else.

Your “talking points” are what you repeat when you’re “on message.” In today’s politics, the humble talking point plays its part in the demoralization of voters and decay of debate alluded to in my entry on the latter phrase. Politicians are lavishly rewarded for sticking to the script — by their advisors, by the press, and often enough by voters — and excoriated for departing from it. Reducing political campaigns to the brute repetition of a few themes, be it ever so effective as an election strategy, negates our duty as citizens to pay attention and stay informed. Mere sloganeering can never give us the information we need to make intelligent decisions about our government.

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on message

(late 1990’s | journalese, governese | “following the script,” “sticking to the point,” “keeping it simple”)

This idiom seems to have wormed its way into the language during the 1992 presidential campaign, when Bill Clinton’s staffers used it to describe the candidate’s strategy. It was all a matter of “staying on message” — harping on the same issues again and again and saying the same things about them. If it didn’t work or Clinton didn’t do it right, there was “getting back on message.” It bobbed up again during the 1996 campaign and gained a permanent foothold in political discourse. There’s no doubt this expression was the property of politicians before the PR industry. (What’s the difference? I know, I know.)

Now it can be heard in business, too, or anywhere people need to manage the impression others have of them. A charity, an athletic team, the local PTA, or a lawyer trying a case all need to keep a careful eye on how they are seen by others, so everybody involved has to remain on message. But if LexisNexis is anything to go by, this phrase is still used most freely in political journalism.

Politicians who stray off message may be their handlers’ despair, but they are much more valuable to voters. The point of staying on message is not to engage voters but to subject them to Orwellian repetition of a small number of themes, prescriptions, and phrases. Debate is ruled out of court — opposing positions are not acknowledged and questions are not entertained. Politicians have always behaved this way, but it seems to happen on a grander scale now. Every cog in the machinery of national political campaigns does its part to suppress the lively debate always claimed to be at the heart of our system of democracy. It’s a little sinister, if you ask me.

on task

1990’s | academese (education) | “diligent,” “businesslike,” “disciplined”)

This phrase comes from educational jargon, says an Associated Press story from 1988, and Google Books affirms resoundingly. “On task” arose in the late 1970’s in studies of student performance, shortly after the phrase “time on task” became important to educational researchers. “Time on task” was a measurement of how much of a given class period a student spent doing work that contributed to his or her education. (Or, less commonly, how much time a teacher spent instructing the students in the subject at hand.) “On task” turned up now and then in the mainstream press in the late eighties and early nineties, nearly always in discussions of education. The phrase got a lot of play right after the Columbine shootings in 1999 because a court officer had used it in an earlier report on shooter Eric Harris. It didn’t emerge as a word commonly applied to adults (or non-students) until after 2000.

It hadn’t occurred to me that “on task” might mean anything other than it does — applying oneself to the work at hand — but here’s a road not taken from the pages of Nuclear News (December 1989): “One of the problems encountered during the earlier . . . project at San Onofre was ‘getting people to stay on task’ because of the tendency to ‘throw humanity’ at plant problems as they occurred.” In other words, if you keep running new people at a problem, no one will learn how to solve it properly. Keeping your people on task isn’t about making sure they don’t goof off at work, but making sure someone gets enough experience to do the job right. That usage seems never to have caught on.

“On task” even today is most likely to be used in talking about students and learning, but it has moved outward and can refer to any of us. It doesn’t have to retain a patronizing tinge, but I think it normally does. Being complimented for “staying on task” is the verbal equivalent of being patted on the head. The phrase may be becoming more neutral and shedding its supercilious side as we watch, but it’s not surprising that it persists, considering the expression has from its beginnings been used of pupils.

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