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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: Republicans


(1980’s | advertese? | “ambitious,” “wishful,” “desirable”)

Aim high. Think big. Look beyond yourself to a higher goal, a greater good. It is an odd thing about “aspire” and its derivatives. If you look up “aspiration” in the OED, most of the definitions have to do with breathing. (Any time you see a verb with “spire” in it, that’s where it comes from, even “inspire” or “perspire,” which may not at first call up images of respiration.) Then, right there in the middle of six or seven definitions is “steadfast desire or longing for something above one.” It looks like it must be related to the French “espérance” (hope), yet it too goes back to breathing: the idea is that you long for something so badly you’re panting. It should not be confused with “aspiring,” for it is not a synonym. To illustrate the difference, take the phrases “aspiring customer” and “aspirational customer.” The former is one who is not a customer but wants to be. The latter may already be a customer, specifically one interested in better or more elaborate merchandise. The trick about “aspirational” is that it may modify the consumer or the goods.

Indirectly, “aspire” confused me in a different way when I was young. When I first read the Latin phrase “ad astra per aspera,” I thought “aspera” was related to aspiration, as in “to the stars through lofty aims.” I would have been closer if I had thought of “asperity.” It really means “to the stars through difficulties,” in other words, overcoming obstacles to reach great heights. (It’s the state motto of Kansas, whatever that says about Kansas.)

“Aspirational” actually goes back centuries, but does not show up often before 1980, when apparently a gradual and persistent increase in use began. LexisNexis suggests that in the 1980’s, it was most prevalent in advertising, where the idea was to inveigle people into paying more for the product by convincing them it would confer higher status. In this sense it is closely related to another eighties coinage: upwardly mobile. That usage is still around, but now “aspirational” doesn’t only mean striving for something more or less attainable. Now we often use it to mean hopeful, but in an ineffectual way — or even flat-out delusional. When you do something aspirational, you’re acting on a belief that you wish were true. In effect you are trying to impose your will on the world and force everyone to abide by your cherished theory or desire.

Even in the 1980’s, you could find the word in politics, business management, and ethics. In the last field it had a particularly baneful meaning. One way to let government malefactors off the hook was to rule that certain ethical standards were “aspirational,” meaning that no one was really expected to follow them, so violations were not punishable. One of Reagan’s attorneys general, Edwin Meese, was exonerated of some of his numerous ethical lapses on exactly those grounds. If you want to see where that sort of moral relativism ends up, look around. Republican presidents, at least since Nixon, have reserved special contempt for the office of Attorney General, regularly nominating obviously corrupt hacks who equate their boss with the law and have no taste for equality, justice, or moderation. When Clinton was on the rack, Republicans loved to laud a government of laws, not of men. They don’t say that any more. They’ve fallen in behind Trump’s utter contempt for the law — something to be evaded or used as a weapon against your enemy, but in no case to be respected. Trump ignores the law any time he thinks he can get away with it, and most Republicans — even lawmakers! — profess allegiance. The notion that these power-mad toadies care, or ever cared, about the rule of law or the Constitution is more nauseous than laughable.

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(1980’s | academese (economics))

Although the Reagan administration gave us many new expressions, it cannot be blamed for this one, which long predates Reagan’s ascent to the presidency. It’s unlikely he ever used it himself, at least in public. But everyone else did, and we continue to associate the phrase with him, especially if we’re my age. The term was accurate in the case of Reaganomics; the much-discussed supply-side theory was a smoke screen to disguise the massive (and ongoing) redistribution of wealth upward, a process well underway before Reagan got in, but which he accelerated, and, more culpably, made to feel normal and inevitable. Now a generation or two of Americans senses that trickle-down economics is just how we do things. Advocates of the theory care far more about the first part — putting more money at the top — than the second — making sure a lot of it actually reaches those who have less. The real point is not that wealth trickles down. The real point is that it gushes up.

No question this expression is older, dating back at least to mid-century. It was not rare before 1980 and therefore ready to hand when Reagan came along. Apparently “trickle-down” did not carry the opprobrium Reagan’s adversaries hoped it would. (John Kenneth Galbraith used the phrase “horse and sparrow economics,” which lacks rhetorical vim but makes the relationship between the tricklers and the tricklees clear.) The word “trickle,” suggesting a sluggish and paltry stream, ought to raise hackles or at least spark discussion, but it doesn’t seem to have bothered very many people back in the eighties, or today, though union spokespersons and political candidates still use the phrase with intent to defame. It may not scare voters very much, but that doesn’t mean politicians advertise their own policies in such terms; it’s one of those expressions you would hear only from an opponent.

“Trickle-down” is not used exclusively to talk about money and distribution of wealth, but that has always been its métier. Today you see it in sportswriting a fair amount, where it comes closer to “ripple effect,” the idea that small changes will be amplified and lead to larger changes. It’s a different axis: “trickle down” insists that the wealthy occupy a higher position, but “ripple effect” is more horizontal and egalitarian. In an economy where more people have a larger share of the money, it washes around; when only a few people have most of the money, it can only trickle down.

The trouble with trickle-down is that it’s deeply un-American. It posits a small aristocratic class that receives large benefits from the king — er, uh, ahem, government — in exchange for a certain amount of fealty and service. The government shovels more and more money onto the aristocrats — a tiny minority of the population — further strengthening their hold on political, and purchasing, power. In theory, anyone can make their way into this minuscule aristocracy, but in practice it’s much easier if you start in the top tax bracket, or in the right family (yes, bloodlines still help). Now there have always been prominent American politicians and philosophers who preferred aristocracy, and they have wielded considerable influence since 1789. But each go-round they seem to get a little more immune to the masses’ resistance. Or maybe that’s just hubris repeating itself. After all, ruthless, amoral greedpigs make mistakes like the rest of us.

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