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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: real estate

food court

(1980’s | businese (real estate) | “dining area”)

Why “court”? It’s more like a dining mall, but in the early days food courts were found only inside of malls, and a mall within a mall would have caused confusion. And why “mall”? A mall was a wide pedestrian boulevard, often grassy, and it never had anything much to do with commerce — though shopping malls did typically have wide central corridors that one walked along. I haven’t done the research, but it seems to me that “mall” and “court” were adopted for these bastions of plebeian retail because of their grand associations with aristocracy, elegance, and luxury. Not that there’s anything particularly elegant or luxurious about your standard food court, yet “court,” with its echoes of royalty, lends the enterprise a touch of class. A more plebeian explanation is that the word conjures up a big open space, like a basketball or tennis court. Or it’s where you go to judge the food.

One chronicler of the food court lays it at the door of James Rouse, a developer who responded to Levittowns by creating the planned community Columbia, MD ten years before he opened Harborplace in 1980 in downtown Baltimore. (I grew up between those two landmarks, in the heart of Rouseland.) For a developer, he wasn’t that bad, according to the New York Times obituary. It’s not clear if the phrase “food court” is due to Rouse; he may be responsible for “shopping mall.”

Pioneering food courts stirred in the seventies, and by the mid-eighties they were de rigueur, and not just in newly constructed malls — older malls were forced to renovate in order to add them. The term followed quickly, arising in both Canada and the U.S. by the late seventies (the oldest hit in LexisNexis comes from a Toronto paper in 1979). The term came straight out of the oddly buoyant language of developers, but food courts themselves were symbols of adolescence then, understood as places for the disaffected young to get away from their parents and pretend they were adults. The emphasis on fast food (they were sometimes called “fast-food courts”) made them popular with kids. They turned up next on college campuses, heralding a revolution in campus food service. Adults had to get used to eating in them soon enough when they invaded hospitals, airports, and office buildings.

The idea of restaurants and specialty food stores in shopping malls was not new in the seventies, but gathering several of them around a large open seating area was an innovation that demanded a new expression. The malls I went to in my youth didn’t have food courts, but they had drugstore lunch counters and Orange Julius and Baskin-Robbins. I don’t remember fast food restaurants being common in malls back then, but I didn’t get around much and they may have been. (My beloved Gino’s on Frederick Road wasn’t part of any mall, I’ll tell you that. Now it’s a McDonald’s.) Some chains — Sbarro’s, Panda Express — really took off with the advent of food courts.

I find them more than a little repulsive, personally. The open space — bare except for nondescript tables and chairs and people who don’t want you anywhere near them — always feels hostile, and there’s nothing I want on any of the menus. Then there’s the indignity of figuring out how to punch the order into a machine that doesn’t work half the time. Whatever I order, it’s cold by the time I find a seat, and it wasn’t all that good when it was hot. Plastic furniture, plastic cutlery, and the food . . . Everything predictable and disposable. That’s partly why food courts are becoming passé after a thirty-year reign, as “food halls” supplant them. It’s the same idea, only the restaurants on offer are more varied and quirky (and pricier — this is about consumption, after all). “Food hall” makes more sense as a name, “hall” being a word for large open area with action at one end, but “food court” should remain in the language for at least another generation or two.


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assisted living

(1980’s | doctorese? businese?)

But one of the host of expressions born in the last fifty years to cover the plights of the senior citizenry, but one of the most common. There were a number of rough synonyms when this expression was new, back in the eighties: “residential care,” “custodial care,” “catered care,” “respite care” (for people recovering from surgery). But then there were all the other terms that formed the ecosystem of which “assisted living” became such a prominent part. “Congregate housing” (i.e., dormitories with dining halls) and “barrier-free housing.” “Continuum of care” and “life care.” All manner of buildings, amenities, and services required to run the gamut from independent living to the dreaded nursing home (now there’s a continuum). Today, sprawling complexes for the elderly (“retirement communities,” an old expression, or “continuing care facilities”) offer a breathtaking array of options, designed to make progress toward the grave as pleasant as possible.

As usual, we need a lot of different terms (I’ve but scratched the surface) to match the growth in the number of ways to accommodate the elderly — it’s important to distinguish them precisely. (Many families take care of their oldest members at home, and those endeavors have produced new expressions like “caregiver,” but we don’t call it “assisted living.” It’s all a matter of who provides the care, and where.) In the industry, two acronyms have become current: ALF = “assisted living facility”; “ADL” = “activities of daily living,” normally plural. If you’re my age, you’ll remember a certain lovable sitcom character and the Anti-Defamation League when you hear those abbreviations. As the baby boom turns into the elder boom, who knows? Old understandings of acronyms are subject to replacement by new ones. In the 1930’s, NRA meant something completely different.

It was early in 1989 when the Washington Post announced an “important new American housing trend” whose “name is unknown among the general public and little known even within the home-building industry.” There were several instances of “assisted living” in the 1980’s press, actually, but it does appear that the phrase was pretty specialized for its first ten years or so. I don’t recall if I knew the expression before 1990, but if not, it probably wasn’t long after. Definitions of “assisted living” vary around the edges, but generally include help with basic living needs (food preparation, bathing, dressing) and housekeeping, social and recreational activities, maybe transportation, maybe some kind of licensed medical personnel on the premises, if only an unregistered nurse. The point is that you’re in a house or apartment, not a foul-smelling bed in an institution, but there’s always someone on hand if you need help. The goal is to preserve some crumbs of autonomy for people who can’t quite take care of themselves any more.

It seems irreverent to bring it up, but “assisted living” is not the opposite of “assisted suicide,” also a term not in general use before 1980. Not strictly speaking, anyway. The connection lies in the purpose of assisted living, which is to keep the old and infirm out of nursing homes and thereby discourage them from contemplating assisted suicide. Ethically, they’re on different planes. Assisted suicide makes nearly everyone at least a little uncomfortable, but only people who think the elderly ought to be put to sea on ice floes are troubled by assisted living. It’s hard to object to giving older people a chance to keep some cheer and dignity for a little longer. Which is why the elderly are big bucks now and getting bigger, and why investors concern themselves with housing the aged. There is no federal regulation of assisted living facilities, and not much at the state level, so levels and standards of care can vary wildly, and a local scandal blows up now and then. But a growth industry is a growth industry and serving retirees has been one for over thirty years now. As the vocabulary proliferates, the dollars proliferate, too.

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feng shui

(1980’s | journalese | “ancient Chinese wisdom”)

Many ancient east Asian concepts have been watered down, not to say altered beyond recognition, in their journey westward. I don’t know enough about feng shui to know where all the depredations have been wrought, but some diminution has surely taken place. LexisNexis yields few instances from the seventies, more from the eighties, in U.S. publications. By the late eighties, in fact, one commentator suggested that feng shui had effected a revolution in American interior decorating. A dead giveaway, because feng shui, incorporating concepts and practices that go back thousands of years, has nothing to do with arranging furniture. Yet most American references to it, then and now, involve home design, real estate, or good fortune; sometimes it devolves into naked consumerism, nothing more than buying good-luck charms and strewing them oh-so-precisely around your dwelling.

The expression seems to have become widely known in the U.S. during the nineties; before then it was more of an elitist thing. It’s used most often as a noun, but one certainly may encounter it as a verb, as in “how to feng shui your bedroom.” The Chinese pronunciation(s) is beyond me; I’ve always said “fung shuee,” but the articles that ventured an opinion back in the early days advised us to say “fung shuay.” Most sources agree that the literal translation is “wind [and] water,” suggesting a much closer connection with the natural world than with your apartment. There are different versions of the Chinese characters to be found on-line, so I’m reduced to showing options at Google Images, with no guarantee that the menu is exhaustive or accurate.

When the idea was still unfamiliar in these parts, more enlightened publications spoke darkly of geomancy and qi (also rendered “chi”), showing some grasp of feng shui’s primary principle, which is harmony with the natural world. Qi does not seem to be entirely translatable, but it involves currents of energy and force fields that western physics does not account for. Chinese philosophers regard the movement of qi as at least somewhat predictable, making it possible to study a landscape and understand where favorable and unfavorable energy are coursing. Astronomical and other data may be factored in. While feng shui may help determine the location and orientation of man-made structures, that is merely a corner of what it’s about. Just as westerners don’t have the proper understanding of the universe to grasp karma, we can’t make much sense of feng shui, so we dumb it down to a means of telling us where to put the sofa.

While feng shui in the west has become primarily an occasion for consumption, like everything else, feng shui consultants may do very well, too, collecting hefty fees and even preventing others from earning their share. Say a consultant advises against purchase of an expensive house because of its relation to the path of qi or some other ill omen, doing a real estate agent out of a good commission. I would certainly be skeptical if some old fart deprived me of thousands of dollars with some rigamarole about cosmic energy or facing southeast. I don’t know of any serious empirical evidence that feng shui “works,” whatever that might mean, but plenty of people are more than willing to subscribe to ancient Chinese wisdom, no matter how debased. Once you’ve subscribed, you will screen out evidence that feng shui is useless and exalt evidence that it brings you good fortune — such anti-empirical mental habits make up one of religion’s great tools.

Lovely Liz from Queens points out that Lex Maniac has covered very few foreign expressions, and she is right. By my count, this is the fifth — agita (probably Italian), glitch (Yiddish), karma (Sanskrit), and retro (French) being the others — out of about 425 so far. English has been in the business recently of bombarding the global village with new expressions, but we are returning a favor, having absorbed more than our share from other languages.

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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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