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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: religion

the science

(2000’s? | “the (scientific) consensus,” “(the best) scientific evidence,” “the latest studies”)

Trust the science. Follow the science. Believe in the science. Government policy will be determined by the science. (“Data” gets the same treatment; you must do what the data tell you. The article is less obtrusive in front of “data” than “science.”) The prescription has drawbacks, most notably that science can’t make up its mind right away and will issue conflicting decisions and rules as the evidence continues to roll in. This lack of certitude does create problems, which scientists themselves may exacerbate by showing certainty before it is warranted or just by talking down to the rest of us. Such problems are not permanent, however; one indication of good medical research is that it gets both more accurate and more sure of itself over time, leading to more effective diagnosis and treatment. Besides, given the complex and uncertain world we live in, the power to adapt to new information ought to inspire confidence rather than undermine it.

One trick of the definite article is that it suggests that science says only one thing, so that it can be counted on for unambiguous guidance. We have all encountered exceptions, but in the case of the coronavirus that has been largely true, I think. Dissension does arise within the scientific ranks; for the most part it is resolved as more tests are run and more results produced.

Of course it has always been possible to plop down a definite article before “science.” But it was almost always followed by something further — the science center, the science headlines, the science of . . . . But science solus has been lumbered constantly with the article during the pandemic, as doctors and public officials implore us to heed infectious-disease specialists. “The science” has become a mantra of sorts, asking us to accept medical research as a reliable source of knowledge that offers maximum protection from a weird and frightening virus. Not everyone wants to listen, of course, and COVID has confounded the experts from time to time, eroding their claim to be the most trustworthy voice.

The plea to “trust the science” is a quasi-religious gesture; we are enjoined to hope that scientists have our best interests at heart and will perform competently. That’s a watered-down version of what Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe about God. Most of us do not understand how the scientists arrive at their results any more than we understand the Lord’s mysterious ways, so our level of helplessness is about the same, for all that scientists can adduce a much longer list of verified empirical results than priests can. Science has what I think is a built-in problem: the more advanced it gets the more it looks like magic, which resembles religion in that it wins loyalty by producing wonders that defy comprehension. Contemporary physics is almost perversely counterintuitive, producing theories that flout what we thought were fundamental principles. Western medicine, whatever its shortcomings, continues to produce cures unthinkable a few generations ago. We can look up almost anything instantly on a cheap handheld device. What comes with these advances? An abandonment of earthbound common sense, and a profession of faith in a select group of mandarins who alone understand how the universe works. That’s not what Paine and Voltaire had in mind.

Ah, the humble definite article — let us not overlook its semantic power. (And prosodic: articles make the iambic a characteristic English meter, even though most of our words are accented on the first syllable.) In English, unlike many European languages, “the” transforms nouns from general to particular. (E.g., “keys” vs. “the keys.” Note that this rule holds in the case of “the science,” if you hear it as a reference to work in epidemiology or another specific branch of medicine.) Sometimes definite articles are indispensable — “make bed,” “walk dog,” or “rock boat” all sound ridiculous — yet other languages get along happily without them. (And their misuse is a quick way to recognize a non-native speaker.) We scatter them thoughtlessly and pay them no mind. We would do better to reckon with the power of “the.”

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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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portal

(1990’s | computerese)

Another computer term borrowed from religion, albeit with a weaker association than “avatar” or “icon.” Temples had portals in olden times, so there is a definite connection. I don’t have the knowledge or patience, and the field is ever-shifting, but someone needs to buckle down and put together a complete dictionary of computer terms, each with a full etymology that establishes its origins. That’s in the cases where computerese has borrowed existing English words, and in cases where it hasn’t. Does “byte” look familiar by any chance?

“Portal” until fairly recently was used to impart a touch of majesty, or at least class. Public buildings have them, or even mansions. A large, ornate door or gate that symbolized wealth or power, designed to be humbling — in its original sense — and impress on those who went through it that this is no ordinary place. (It’s a grand entrance, but not a “grand entrance.”) And it had a figurative meaning, too, a non-physical echo, suggesting access to an exclusive club or organization of some kind, even if no literal ingress is involved. “Portal” had specialized uses as well; a mine or tunnel entrance might be called a portal, for example. The word could bear an otherworldly touch when it referred to the passage to a magical land of some kind, such as Oz or Narnia. That shading has persisted in video games, I understand.

The computerese use, which attained currency in the nineties, has not strayed far from the old meaning. Today, a portal is an entrance to either the internet as a whole — the Yahoo page that lets you get your e-mail, read news, and search the web — or to a restricted, well-defined part of it, such as a site that posts links to other sites within a particular field; OR it is an introductory screen for a large, complicated site or series of sites that will help you navigate what follows (an “employee portal” as part of a corporate site, for example, or “patient portal” for a medical practice). In every case, the notion of a gateway remains — “gateway” in fact is a synonym — and perhaps a glimmer of grandeur, however attenuated, or if nothing else sheer size.

Indulge me in a bit of whimsy: Doesn’t “portal” sound like how a sailor ought to say “porthole”? And a porthole is a portal of sorts. Just as “foc’s’le” (forecastle) sounds rather like “foxhole.” I don’t like sailing and know nothing about boats, but I always had a soft spot for nautical vocabulary.

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iconic

(1980’s | journalese (arts) | “classic,” “legendary,” “exemplary,” “representative”)

We have become so poundingly familiar with this word that we no longer think about what it means. The best informal definition I can come up with is “widely recognized and been around for a while” (at least a generation). It was hardly an unknown word in the 1970’s, but it was much less common and more technical. As for what it meant back then, I would hazard “visually representative.” (Then as now, it might modify an abstraction such as power or beauty.) The word was common in discussions of signs and symbols: “iconic” meant representing an object with a two-dimensional picture that resembled it somehow. In the memorable language of a U.S. army technical report (April 1977), “In iconic representation the symbol ‘looks like’ the feature it represents — it may simply be a pictorial representation of the ‘real thing.'” (Love those scare quotes.) It was not a word, or symbol, that had an arbitrary relation to the thing it denoted. It appealed more directly to the senses, and therefore was harder to misinterpret.

How matters have changed since then. From technical term to hellishly overused buzzword, a swirl of meanings has continued to engulf “iconic.” In the eighties, there was a transitional sense visible in the arts press, applied to objects that were both naively pictorial and had a patina of greatness or perfection. A sterling example was Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can, and Warhol was an early example of an “iconic” figure as we use the word today. The first pop icon, as lovely Liz from Queens points out, Warhol embodied in his art and persona a balance of representation and representativeness; that is, his art both looked like what it depicted AND captured the Zeitgeist, or came as close as anyone. “Icon” in this sense was available by the late seventies and widespread by the late eighties. The adjective followed along a bit more slowly, but not much. By the late eighties, “iconic” in the transitional sense outlined above was well settled, and the word continued to spread in the nineties over ever wider fields of language. The decisive turn toward the way we use it today took place then. Now it modifies everything: persons, places, images, buildings, bridges, brands, events, and on and on.

To understand the shift in usage, consider the phrase “iconic interface.” (Apologies for lapsing into computerese, but computers themselves are iconic, y’see.) Ca. 1990, that would have been understood to mean a computer screen that relied on little pictures to tell you where to click. It was iconic because it used images rather than words or arbitrary symbols. If you heard that now, you would think it meant something else, right? An iconic interface would be a touch old-fashioned, but still recognizable, and it would represent somehow an ideal form of the user interface. Iconic really means Platonic.

Am I right in thinking that even now, in its decadence, “iconic” still bears traces of its old mystic force? When we call it iconic, aren’t we endowing it with a superior standing? Or at least asking it to hold out hope that somewhere outside the cave there are higher standards and greater deeds? Let’s celebrate when someone really gets it right and creates something that we all respect or remember fondly, that becomes a point of reference. We want to honor that, and we reach for a religious term that begs to grant superhuman power to an entirely human thing.

If I have counted correctly, this is the six hundredth new expression I have written about. While I’m preening, I am also nearing the tenth anniversary of Lex Maniac (March 23), and this is my 497th post. A near-confluence of round numbers. I always thank my readers in moments like these, and I’ll do it again, especially the regulars — never hesitate to fire off a comment, folks. I hope you’re enjoying the show.

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throw under the bus

(2000’s | politese? athletese? journalese? | “blame,” “sacrifice,” “humiliate,” “throw to the wolves,” “leave for dead”)

Many on-line sources relay definitions of this phrase and speculate on its origins. The definitions center on harming another to advance one’s own interest, often with an implication of treachery or betrayal of trust, even a deliberate attempt to destroy the other person. Most sources specify that personal gain has to be involved (e.g., Urban Dictionary). That is generally true, although sometimes the gain is indirect, as when you throw someone under the bus just to get them out of your hair — ridding yourself of a pest more than acing someone out for a promotion. The phrase has a wider range of meaning than it is usually given credit for. It can also mean “abandon,” as an elected official turning away from a constituency she courted during the campaign, and “to scapegoat,” without imputation of backstabbing. These shadings are not obligatory but may rise to the fore. The primary fields of this rather vigorous idiom are politics and business, though it may be used most anywhere by now; it has caught on fast.

Some of the more adventurous language blogs trace the phrase well back into the twentieth century, but without any real evidence; the citations generally do not match our wording and seem at best to be collateral ancestors. I didn’t find any instances of the term before 2000 in LexisNexis, or anything similar. There are old jokes about such predicaments — There’s a bus leaving at 7:30, sonny. Be under it. — but the addition of “throw” was rare at best before 2000, and I can find no sign that the fixed phrase existed before that. In the spring of 2008, there was much speculation over whether Barack Obama would throw the Rev. Jeremiah Wright under the bus, and that probably gave the phrase its final push into mainstream language. (Note that in 1992 no one used the expression to describe Bill Clinton’s disavowal of Sister Souljah.)

The vocabulary used for this sort of situation once had a religious cast: scapegoat, sacrificial lamb. Now we look to the agent rather than the victim; the one who does the throwing gets attention while the patsy is forgotten. And a modern mechanized replacement seems fitting for the mysterious process of redemption through ritual burnt offerings. It’s a significant note that in popular culture buses are unpleasant — cramped, smelly, and none too clean. Surely it would be much nicer to be thrown under a limo. If the expression does in fact originate in politics, it may refer simply to the campaign bus, still a staple in the twenty-first century, at least until this crazy year.

One of the oddities of this phrase is the word “under,” which won out over more sensible choices like “in front of,” “off (of),” or “out of.” The former preserves the violence, the latter two the sense of exiling the victim. A couple other odd notes on this odd phrase: 1. The definite article is used a very large majority of the time, as if to say it is not just any old bus. 2. It is normally used of people or groups of people, but that isn’t obligatory, either. Single businesses or whole sectors of the economy may get the sub-bus treatment. After an unfavorable court decision, losing counsel might say that a law or principle has been thrown under the bus. And when a judge willfully misreads law or precedent, that is a betrayal not only of the law but of the people.

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thoughts and prayers

(1970’s | journalese (politics) | “(heartfelt) good wishes,” “(heartfelt) condolences,” “deepest sympathy”)

In the U.S., and presumably in other countries as well, presidents and their administrations are a rich source of vocabulary. In my lifetime, Ronald Reagan has done the most of any president to augment the roster of expressions we reach for habitually. Yet this expression we owe to his predecessor Jimmy Carter — the first openly born-again president in living memory — who spent a lot of time talking about prayer and other Christian virtues. Less than two months after his inauguration, Carter told the family of the Rev. James Baker that they were “in my thoughts and prayers” after his passing. (Other Carter-era new expressions: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” “in the loop,” and partial credit for “human capital” and “workaholic.”) The Iran hostage crisis soon gave us more chances to throw around thoughts and prayers. In March 1981, when Reagan was shot, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau offered thoughts and prayers, and the phrase was well launched. It soon became clear that there were plenty of opportunities to express sympathy, the world being what it is, and that thoughts and prayers are a quick, easy way to do it. Something for everyone: Thoughts for the secular, prayers for the religious. It sounds solemn without being too lofty or high-toned. It sounds empathetic without smarm or gush.

Sounds noble but is also cheap and easy. That may explain why “thoughts and prayers” has become a can’t-miss incantation, the first resort and last refuge of anyone called upon to sympathize with sufferers from almost anything. (The victim must be worthy, of course; you don’t send thoughts and prayers to the survivors of Moammar Gadhafi upon his inglorious death.) Hurricane came through? Thoughts and prayers. Plane crash? Thoughts and prayers. High school shot up? Thoughts and prayers.

Broadly speaking, there are two different ways to convey thoughts and prayers, and the distinction is subtle but not insignificant. “In my thoughts and prayers” was standard originally, up until the mid-eighties, at least. Today, we are much more likely to send them — an active verb. This gives the impression of doing more than dispensing ritual sympathy, but it also changes the target. When someone says, “You are in my thoughts and prayers,” it means that person is thinking about you and giving God a reminder that you need help. When the same person sends thoughts and prayers, it’s more like directing mental energy toward those who need it. That sneaks in the implication that you are taking positive action, when in fact, all you are doing is making a gesture that, if not entirely empty, requires little effort and has little effect. Norman Vincent Peale thought that “the human brain can send off power by thoughts and prayers,” but such a postulate was essential to the gospel of positive thinking. No one nowadays thinks they will do any good beyond making some of the intended recipients feel better. And making the sender look better.

There has been some pushback lately against the “thoughts and prayers” mantra after mass shootings; many people no longer feel shy about observing that such invocations, however well-meant, have done nothing to prevent or eliminate them. It’s a fair point, one seized upon by right-wingers to protest yet another attack on religion. Hardly. That mass shootings have become more frequent and destructive despite an ever-increasing volume of thoughts and prayers is an indisputable observation that does not require irreligious tendencies. If defenders of religion want the rest of us to show their particular god(s) more respect, they need to come up with one who does some visible good, the kind you don’t have to be a convert to see.

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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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avatar

(1990’s | computerese | “totem,” “alter ego”)

Occasionally a word will just flip around. For thousands of years, “avatar” meant corporeal embodiment of an abstraction, often a god (the word comes from Sanskrit and is mainly associated with the Hindu god Vishnu). What does it mean now? An incorporeal representation of a flesh-and-blood person. Now your avatar is a tiny image file that stands for you in the on-line universe –- on Facebook, in a role-playing video game, or on a blogger’s profile. It could be a portrait but usually isn’t, and there are dozens of sites that will give you some raw material and a little coaching to help you make your own. Another word for it is “icon,” which is a little different but not that far off. “Avatar” was definitely available in its present form by 2000, though perhaps not all that widespread in the days before everybody needed one to keep up a virtual social life. Now it is all over everywhere.

Is it odd that both terms have a distinctly religious cast? By the time you’ve settled on which South Park character you want to represent you on your social media pages, the sense of majesty and mystery that religion must command has pretty well worn away. Both “avatar” and “icon” have had non-religious uses for at least a century now, or at least “avatar” has, but there’s still a distinct whiff of it. You might also argue that technology, the most up-to-date religion we have going, has simply appropriated sacred vocabulary and repurposed it.

The question leads to a favorite pastime of mine: constructing narratives of cultural decline. “Avatar” once had a mystical tone, associated either with the gods themselves or people who live out philosophically pure distillations of noble principles. Now it’s a few pixels thrown together that allows you to play video games. A decided downward drift, and all in my lifetime! A quick scan of search results does confirm that Google, for one, doesn’t think old-fashioned religious uses of the term count for much — though, of course, the results are skewed by the 2009 blockbuster film. I didn’t see it, but from what I gather the eponymous characters in the film had at least a touch of the guru or sage about them. (I remember the movie as being about blue characters who weren’t Smurfs, but that just shows you how primitive my cinematic consciousness is.)

On-line avatars remind me of choosing your token at the beginning of a Monopoly game (we usually called it simply a “piece,” but if I remember correctly, the rules used the word “token”). The dog, the shoe, the little car, etc. (I liked the wheelbarrow myself.) Most people had a preference, whether they considered it lucky or somehow apt. True, you couldn’t cobble your own avatar together in Monopoly; you had to take what Parker Brothers gave you. But those were the boring old days, my children. Image files are not my strong suit, but I came up with a few related user names, free to a good home. Want to be an actress? Ava Tardner. Fond of the Middle Ages? Avatar and Heloise. For fans of ancient video games, Avatari. For a historical touch, how about Amelia Earhart, avatrix? That’ll light up the chat boards.

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crunchy

(1990’s | counterculturese? journalese? | “hippie” (adj.), “tree-hugging”)

“Crunchy granola” (adjective or noun) is a common variant. I remember hearing “nutty-crunchy” first around 1990, and I had to have it explained to me. (Even then, your humble maniac was hard at work.) It’s not clear to me when this expression arose, but surely not before 1980. One is expected to suppress mental cross-references to the old sense of “nutty” (crazy), but detractors of the environmental movement cheerfully let them creep in. In fairness, some exponents also emphasize the “nutty” in “nutty-crunchy,” taking pride in their purity. But “crunchy” is the word you have to watch, for its overtones have changed. At first, it referred to environmentalists, with the implication that they lived off the land or at least made their own stuff. Now the implication is a little more rarefied, especially in the term, “crunchy (granola) mom”: someone who gives birth with the aid of a midwife, breastfeeds, uses cloth diapers, makes her own organic baby food (but need not grow the vegetables herself), won’t eat meat, and maybe co-sleeps or refuses vaccinations. Not being a big player in the parenting game, I wasn’t familiar with this phrase until I started looking around, but we may measure its ubiquity by the number of on-line quizzes telling new mothers how crunchy they are.

A digression on “crunchy granola” used as an adjective: It continues to sound strange to me, but you do hear it; it may obliterate “nutty-crunchy,” which I sense has become less common. The short form, “crunchy,” at least sounds like an adjective. The full-length form reflects a certain exuberance — the “I’m weird and proud of it” attitude characteristic of the counterculture, the weirdness extending to the eccentric use of “granola” as an adjective. It is not clear to me whether this expression arose from the believers or the mockers, but in practice it may not matter, since the former steal from the latter all the time. The other odd thing about the yoking is the fact that the connection between granola and the counterculture does not hinge on crunchiness. “Organic granola” would make more sense, or even “nutty granola.” “Crunchy” is more evocative than either of these, and “chewy” would be worse, but I haven’t quite figured out why it became the preferred shorthand for one who is environmentally conscious, or fanatical about one’s health or childrearing practices.

Crunchy beliefs and behavior do not belong exclusively to the left or right; they are where both extremes converge. A 2006 book by Rod Dreher, “Crunchy Cons,” points out that many right-wingers do crunchy things, too. The specific manifestations may differ — right-wingers seem to do more home-schooling, for example — but both modalities boil down to rejection of the way most people obtain the necessities of life and raise their children, powered by the middle-of-the-road scientific consensus that tells us how to live our lives in a thousand minute, complicated ways. It’s an old idea in this country, though in some instances it has relied on science rather than keeping it at bay. In the nineteenth century (the word “granola,” originally a trade name, goes back to 1875) we had Graham and Kellogg; before them countercultural ideas about nutrition or lifestyle often stemmed from outlying sects like the Shakers. I’m old enough to remember Euell Gibbons, who shilled for Grape Nuts (there’s that nut again). The sixties gave natural living another boost, and the tradition goes on.

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big box store

(1990’s | journalese?, businese?)

“Big box store” succeeded “superstore” (late seventies) and “megastore” (mid-eighties). The superstore was copied from the French hypermarché, where you could pick up a box of cereal, a television set, a new blender, some nice flowers for the wife, AND pay your electric bill, all in one trip to the grocery store. “Supermarket” already meant something else, and while “hypermarket” has gained some currency in the business press it has never caught on elsewhere. A megastore — the term was popularized by Virgin Records, most likely — didn’t boast the same variety of goods, but it still promised a wide selection within a narrow range. As early as 2001, a Maryland Department of Planning document listed “superstore,” “megastore,” and “big box store” as expressions that meant the same thing.

A big-box store — it seems to appear hyphenated or as two separate words about equally often — could be either a superstore or a megastore. It has to do with the size of the emporium (big) and shape (boxy). If you find that explanation too boring, maybe it referred originally to the crates from which one pulled items to place in one’s outsize, unmaneuverable shopping cart. In the classic suburban incarnation, it’s a mammoth one-story building with little in the way of decor or ambience but rich in utilitarian charm. (It pains me to report that Home Depot on W. 23rd Street in Manhattan has two stories. In the city, those boxes have to be stackable.) When the term came into vogue in the nineties, it referred at first to warehouse-type stores where one buys in bulk (Sam’s Club, Costco), and the fact that they looked like warehouses was part of the point. Home Depot took advantage of the same esthetic standards — the concrete floors and pallets sagging under bricks inspired trust in the home handyman. Best Buy or Bed Bath and Beyond had to work a little harder for their customers. Wal-Mart lies somewhere in between. Big box stores back in those days were often part of a “power center,” which could be either a mall or shopping center, only on steroids. (“Shopping center” was what we called a “strip mall” in suburban Baltimore, ca. 1975.) Today, the big box store embraces a wider field, including things like Target (which is basically a cheap department store), Pier 1, T.J. Maxx, Sports Authority (any of which might have been considered megastores in 1990). There is a move afoot to conflate the term “big box store” with “anchor tenant.” Any big, popular chain store rates the term, except perhaps a traditional department store like Macy’s or J.C. Penney. In 2006, a Chicago law defined big box stores as those “that occupy more than 90,000 square feet and are part of companies grossing more than $1 billion annually.” Merchandise and ambience no longer matter — only sheer size.

Like all forms of overgrown retail, big box stores have always had vociferous opponents, and a backlash soon formed, with the job savers lining up against the bargain hunters. The urge to find a bargain has driven American shoppers for a long time, and big box stores can certainly undersell their competition. But in modern times, there’s more to it than just finding a soul-satisfying discount. Shopping has become in itself an act of worship. I remember the first time I walked into a Bed Bath and Beyond and realized that such emporia are our cathedrals. Huge, high-ceilinged buildings filled with row upon row and shelf upon shelf of gleaming goods. The opulence, the vastness, the hush, the concentrations of shoppers comparing similar bedsheets, say, each creating a catechism out of cotton and microfiber, queen-size and king-size, 300 and 600 thread count. Mammon was the first American idol.

Not to get all nostalgic, but when I was a boy, you could still go to the dime store, which had similar stock to that of dollar stores nowadays (or the fussily named ninety-nine cent stores). Yes, we had big supermarkets, but they didn’t try to multitask. We didn’t have as many discount stores then, except in the form of outlet stores — factory seconds! We didn’t need them. Enough places stocked enough cheap merchandise that there was no need for special stores set aside for non-millionaires. Everything about retail has skewed higher since the seventies, even at the low end.

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