Skip to content

Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: Ronald Reagan

promise made, promise kept

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “I (she, etc.) kept my (etc.) word,” “I (etc.) delivered”)

Property of politicians from the first, this phrase has several variants which may involve articles, plural nouns, or even linking verbs, but it seems to have settled into a four-word groove and has become a bit of a meme. (A 1981 ad for the perfume Arpège occurred very early in the history of the phrase and may have provided impetus.) A LexisNexis search shows a gradual coalescing around the four-word version during the 1980’s. When Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, he handed out pamphlets titled “Promises Made, Promises Kept” to staff members; he seems to have been the first president to use the phrase, although I don’t think he ever said it in public. The first politician credited with it in LexisNexis was George Voinovich (1981), then mayor of Cleveland, and it has been a staple ever since among candidates for re-election. Legislators may use it, too, as in the case of House Republicans’ “Contract with America” in 1995, when they boasted of passing all their key legislation in the early days of the 104th Congress. (They blithely ignored the fact that a bill doesn’t actually become law until it gets through both houses and the president, but it’s not like they invented political puffery.) Of course, making good on promises is not the same as making good policy, but in the heat of battle such cool-headed logic may be forgotten. The phrase is no longer the exclusive property of politicians, of course. Certainly by 2000 it was available in several other spheres.

Politicians like the phrase because it forecloses consideration of promises unkept; it’s easy to give the impression that one is simply going down a list, checking things off, and only a churl would point out that certain items are conveniently missing. A number of Christian organizations use the expression, though the best known, the Promise Keepers, borrows and adapts only the second half. Politicians and religious leaders seek to persuade us that they are selfless servants, but the primary note I hear in “promise made, promise kept” is self-congratulation. The phrase almost always bears a prim-lipped smugness that is very difficult to disguise. It also conveys a note of finality intended to convince us that the job is done and it’s no longer necessary to pay attention to the consequences or ask questions. Self-satisfaction dressed up as public service, bragging without the first-person pronoun, AND avoiding discussion of goals unmet? No wonder it’s a politician’s dream.

This tag line has many fathers, or at least putative fathers. The on-line community believes that it goes back to Aristotle, in the form “A promise made must be a promise kept.” I’m no expert on Aristotle, but I do know that the on-line community abounds in dubious attributions. I’ve also seen its paternity assigned to Alexander Hamilton, but in a post-“Hamilton” world, that’s probably inevitable (he also invented the theory of relativity and designed the first mini-skirt, y’know). The twentieth century offers two much more solid examples: Steve Forbes’s line, “A promise made should be a promise kept,” which lacks a certain Aristotelian firmness, and more distant, “A promise made is a debt unpaid,” from Robert Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which was once tremendously popular — my father liked to read it to me, and I can still quote bits of it. Service seems the most likely ancestor, but maybe he stole it from Aristotle.

In spite of myself, I’m in a rut of Trumpisms these last few weeks. This too shall pass, I promise. Back in the nineties, when Trump was mainly a threat to New York real estate, I amused myself by making up names for his most ostentatious buildings: Trump Tower was “pre-Trump-tuous,” the hotel at Columbus Circle was “Trumpalomania,” the tall skinny building near the UN was the “Trumpstrosity,” and the apartment buildings on Riverside Drive that no longer bear his name were collectively “the last Trump.” It all seemed so harmless back then . . . I suppose it was inevitable: America finally elected P.T. Barnum president.

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

word salad

(2000’s | journalese (politics) | “gibberish,” “incoherent speech,” “obfuscation”)

This expression recently underwent a significant change after a hundred stable years. The first citation I found dates from a psychiatric handbook of 1907, where it occurs in a discussion of dementia precox, the old name for schizophrenia, more or less (they weren’t exactly the same, but that’s the closest term in modern mental health vocabulary). It hasn’t changed meaning in that context; a textbook published in 1970 gave the following: “A jumbled, unintelligible mixture of words, usually containing both real words or phrases and neologisms. This disturbance in verbal communication is most frequently found in advanced schizophrenic reactions.” By 1980, arts writers used it now and then to talk about writers like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, both of whom were considerably more artful than your average schizo, but somewhat less syntactically or semantically forthright than Mickey Spillane, say. It took thirty more years before the expression came to characterize political speeches; the first consistent victim was Sarah Palin in 2008, but in 2016, both Trump and Clinton, widely different speaking styles notwithstanding, were accused of producing word salad. (Somehow this expression doesn’t take to the plural.) The older uses are still found, but in ten short years the phrase has become quite common in political commentary, in which it was never used before Sarah Palin took the national stage. Merriam-Webster On-line provides a history with plenty of examples.

Like “hive mind,” “word salad” has become a favored term of abuse, but it need not be an insult. When used to refer to the ramblings of the mentally ill, it probably was always implicitly insulting — and that origin continues to be felt as we use the phrase today — but literary critics may treat it as a neutral descriptor. Not long before the move into political discourse, “word salad” took on two new uses: one referred to a technique of creating spam e-mails that used blocks of unconnected words in order to fool the filters; more significantly, it started to imply deception, pointing the way to politics. The crucial difference has to do with volition; the schizophrenic babbles uncontrollably, but the purveyor of catch-phrases strung together so as to defeat interpretation is doing it on purpose. In political discourse, it may take either shading, and they’re equally insulting — a variation on the old Reagan cleft stick: if he knows what’s going on, he’s a criminal; if he doesn’t, he’s too out of it to be president. Whether you think Trump just doesn’t know any better or is deliberately snowing us, you probably think he shouldn’t have the job.

Now that “word salad” is firmly enmeshed in political journalism, it is anyone’s guess whether psychiatrists will continue to use it; they may be forced to find a new phrase if the old one changes connotation for good. As late as the nineties, it was pressed into service as the title of a computer game and an on-line poetry magazine, suggesting that it might yet be considered favorable, or at least eye-catching. Those days appear to be over.

Why salad, anyway? The idea of several heterogeneous ingredients, mixed but not blended together, seems to be at the bottom of it, though the expression probably hails from German or French originally, and I’m not certain “salad” carries the same mental picture in those languages. I’ve seen “word hash” offered as a synonym, but if there ever was a contest, “word salad” has won. It’s more memorable than “jumble” or “logorrhea,” that’s for sure (personally, I’d like to see “word avalanche”). And I like the idea of pouring oil (and vinegar) on troubled word salad.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

victory lap

(1980’s | athletese | “bow,” “youthful exuberance,” “rubbing it in”)

I’m not quite sure when the custom originated of taking a victory lap after a race. The first instances of the phrase I’ve found turn up in the context of auto racing in the fifties and sixties, but runners have probably been taking them at least that long. (Victory laps are reserved for runners and drivers; horses are spared.) For all I know the Lacedaemonians or Athenians made an extra circuit of the stadium after trouncing the other, and being Greek, they must have had a word for it. The purpose of the act seems simple enough: it gives the adrenaline a little time to subside and the athlete a little time to soak up adulation. As late as 1980, the expression was restricted to track, racing, or occasionally non-athletic contests, like the Miss America pageant, already a small deviation from the literal.

In its figurative sense, the term is used most often by political journalists, though not exclusively; musicians and fashion designers may take them, for example. (In student slang, a “victory lap” refers to a year of high school or college beyond the usual four.) The first specifically political use I found appeared in the Washington Post, describing Reagan’s meetings with assorted government officials after he won his first term in 1980 (he pledged “cooperation with all,” as new presidents customarily do). Non-racing athletes also rated the term around the same time; I was somewhat startled to discover that as early as 1983 Reds’ catcher Johnny Bench’s last season was referred to as a “victory lap.” When a well-known athlete announces retirement far enough in advance, he may reap respectful send-offs at opponents’ stadiums as well as his own. Sometimes it’s called a “victory tour” to give the whole exercise a grander sound; either way, it’s all about adoring crowds, which is what politicians are after, too. Even today, “victory lap” denotes the acts of elected officials more often than not. As far as I know, neither man used the term, but the post-election travels of both Obama and Trump were widely described as “victory laps”: Trump’s thank-you tour and Obama’s last round of visits to European capitals. In the latter case, the phrase didn’t evoke any particular triumph so much as a sense that it was Obama’s last chance to talk up his achievements.

The rise of this expression in political journalism has given it an unsavory connotation. Victory laps used to be joyful celebrations, perhaps not always spontaneous, but at least a moment of innocent exultation shared by athlete and audience. A certain amount of self-congratulation was involved, to be sure. But the politician’s victory lap generally has more to do exaggerating an achievement or rubbing salt in the wounds of the defeated. It is a thoroughly calculated gesture, at worst malicious and at best indulged in purely for its own sake. Politicians are forever being taken to task for taking crass advantage of such opportunities for self-promotion, either because the victory is illusory or because the victor is crude and ungracious. That tendency hasn’t changed and seems unlikely to.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

in denial

(1980’s | therapese | “hiding one’s head in the sand”)

My guess is we owe today’s prominence of “denial” in psychological lingo to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. I doubt we would have “in denial” without the predecessor; the phrase as we use it now didn’t turn up before 1970 anywhere I looked. The term and associated concept — refusing to believe that which is clear to others, as by failing to acknowledge an emotional or psychological state, or even sheer physical reality — were already in existence, but Kübler-Ross’s “On Death and Dying” (1969) was very influential; one of its effects was to make the experience of denial common to nearly everyone. Not long after, the term became popular among counselors of alcoholics and other drug addicts who refused to admit they had a problem. “In denial” may be merely a compressed version of “in a state of denial.” It appears to be the most common phrase descended from “denial,” but not the only one; Pam Tillis hit the country charts in 1993 with a song about Cleopatra, Queen of Denial (though I’m pretty sure the redoubtable Rev. Billy C. Wirtz had used the joke before then).

“In denial” has been in use for a long time in other contexts, but the grammar is new. Now the phrase is most common as a predicate complement (e.g., “You’re in denial.”), possibly followed by “about,” but not “of.” In the old days, when it followed a verb it had to be active (e.g., “result in denial” or “engage in denial”). Of course, it appeared everywhere in legal prose (e.g., “in denial of the motion”), and it started to bob up in political contexts in the eighties, particularly around the time the Iran-Contra revelations were unraveling Reagan’s second term. It was kinder to say Reagan was in denial than to contend that he really didn’t know what was going on. Maybe this is one of the many terms Reagan helped into the language directly or indirectly, or maybe it would have happened anyway. By 1990 it had made its mark, though ace sportswriter Thomas Boswell put it in quotation marks as late as that spring. No surprise that it became popular — it’s compact and it packs a punch. The expression conjures a state of passive malignity or dangerous indifference, willful or not; like “passive-aggressive,” it’s always an insult.

Now “in denial” is entirely standard, eligible to be adapted to all sorts of uses, including humor, irony, and wordplay. (Here’s a bouquet of suggestions for compilers of rhyming dictionaries: “infantile,” “spin the dial,” “undefiled,” “linden aisle.”) I haven’t heard “SO in denial” or “in deep denial,” but I don’t get around much; both certainly lie within the universe of possible utterances. Or “Live in denial,” which may also be heard “living denial” (as in “Girl, you are just living denial 24/7“). “Oh, he’s such an old in-denial crocodile” could be the next catch phrase. “Hit denial on the head” might be a self-help slogan, meaning something like overcoming obliviousness and seeing the world without illusions. Why not “The In Denial 500,” which pits the nation’s most noxiously clueless bachelors against each other to see who can act the most idiotic? For you tongue-twister fans out there, it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do: Say “undeniably in denial” five times fast.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

blank on

(1990’s | journalese (arts? politics?) | “forget (temporarily),” “(have it and) lose it”)

I’m not very rigorous about it, but in everyday conversation I try to avoid using the kind of new expressions I write about here, just as I try to avoid using such new expressions in posts except to refer to them directly. But this one is an exception, and I catch myself using it fairly often. It has a host of predecessors. Probably descended directly from “draw a blank on” (be unable to remember whatever it is), it also recalls “blank look” and “let your mind go blank” (or the more involuntary “my mind is a blank”). The word implies a temporary but vertiginous mnemonic malfunction, a moment of vacuity that may lead to a deer-in-the-headlights look. A related verb is “blank out” in its intransitive sense, though that may cover a longer time span. “Blank on” means forget something and then recover it, a short-term lapse, more like a senior moment. It may also mean, on occasion, “fail to respond.” (“Shooting blanks” means something entirely different. “To blank” in sports lingo normally refers to holding the opposing team scoreless. Then there’s that charming if now unnecessary euphemism, “blankety-blank.” It is one of those linguistic oddities that “blank,” descended from the French word meaning “white,” looks and sounds much more like “black.”) “Blank on” has so many ancestors that some don’t even involve the word “blank”; doesn’t the phrase “(totally) blanked on it” remind you of “bank on it”? I continue to maintain, without proof, that such phonological resemblances influence new entries into the language.

One does hear occasional variations in meaning when this expression is used, but they never seem to catch on or persist. I saw this sentence recently in a food column in the Dayton Daily News: “Pasta is always a conundrum as a side dish. I want to pencil it into my weekly meal plan, but then I blank on how to sauce it: Cream? Tomato? Lots of cheese?” Here the emphasis falls on inability to choose among alternatives rather than failing to remember them. This usage may prove a solitary exception to the rule, but the contretemps is one we find ourselves in often enough that another word for it may be welcome.

The verb really did not exist before 1980, as far as I can tell. It started to turn up occasionally afterwards; in one of the first uses I found Reagan was the subject of the verb, and this may be yet another expression to which his presidency gave a boost, on the strength of his well-known absent-mindedness rather than policy initiatives. It had entered the language pretty definitively by 1995, often used by politicians and press secretaries, but actors also use it a lot. During the latest presidential campaign, it quickly became the standard verb to denote Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson’s inability to address the significance of Aleppo. As is often the case when a new phrase resembles an old one, or several old ones, the trail into everyday language is not well-blazed and it may be impossible to determine, even in retrospect, how it wormed its way in.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

guest worker

(1980’s | bureaucratese? | “migrant worker,” “bracero”)

An import, “guest worker” is a literal translation of the German “Gastarbeiter.” Early occurrences in the New York Times confirm a German origin. Like the signifier, the signified is imported — an imported worker. In both English and German, the term is a euphemism devised to speak politely about a group of people no one really likes. Until 1980, it was used almost entirely in reporting on other parts of the world, mainly Europe, where waves of laborers from poorer countries (southern and especially southeastern Europe) moved to richer countries to fill temporary labor shortages. Early in his first term, Ronald Reagan proposed a limited guest worker program along similar lines: Mexican laborers could spend a few months here picking crops and then be shuttled home until next year. This sort of limited-time, manual and/or seasonal labor was what we thought of when we thought of guest workers for at least twenty years thereafter. Somewhere around 2000, it became possible to use the expression to talk about skilled laborers, meaning programmers and engineers, usually from Asia. Now both levels are available in everyday discussion, and there doesn’t seem to be much difference in frequency.

When presidents talk about sanctioning (now there’s a fine example of a word that can have two opposite meanings) guest workers, it’s usually one prong of an immigration strategy that also includes stricter border control and acceptance of workers who are already here illegally. In other words, we want to make it harder for people to sneak in from now on, but we know there’s not much we can do about the ones already here that isn’t incredibly expensive and incredibly intrusive. But then we need guest workers to replace the stream of illegal immigrants. Reagan and G.W. Bush both proposed a version of this plan, and so has Obama. Immigration goes right on fueling a long-simmering debate in the U.S., where second-generation immigrant groups are always ready to pull up the ladder once they get established, and there are always plenty of upstanding citizens ready to look askance at more recent ethnic arrivals. The right can appeal to national unity; the left to jobs and job security stolen from American workers (actually, right wingers often talk about jobs, too). As for the guest workers themselves — who are making their way to America the same way we’ve been doing it for 400 years, and for the same reason: it’s where the money is — they remain an easily exploited group of utterly expendable people, forever victims of injustice or worse, so destitute they must endure all sorts of privation and danger to give their families a slightly better chance of a slightly better life.

I alluded above to the class divide among guest workers, which can be roughly summed up by the difference between two U.S. workers’ visas, the H1-B (high-tech) and the H2-B (low-tech). It may be an overbroad generalization, but I find the class divide applies not only to the guest workers, but to those who use the term “guest worker.” When executives or members of Congress use the phrase today, they’re usually talking about highly educated workers, ostensibly needed to prevent the U.S. high-tech industry from collapsing in the face of foreign competition and an inadequate domestic educational system. When small-town or middle-class people use it, they’re talking about the harvesters and landscapers who take a toll on public services and depress wages for everyone, besides taking jobs away from folks who’ve lived around here all their lives. Of course, both usages are available to both sides of the divide, but doesn’t this sound like some new class-based vocabulary? Wait: You mean the same word can mean different things to the rich and the poor? When you put it that way, it doesn’t sound like a new idea at all.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

damage control

(1980’s | militarese | “putting out fires,” “keeping things from getting out of hand,” “making the best of a bad situation,” “backing down”)

“Damage control” harks back to “walk back” (q.v.). I skipped a couple of weeks, but I got there.

Before 1975, this phrase came up in two contexts: destruction caused by animals — a federal law was passed in 1931 called the Animal Damage Control Act, and a division of the Department of the Interior is devoted to Animal Damage Control — and repairing problems on board ships (“Damage Control Officer” was a naval title). Somewhere around 1975, it started to turn up in political discourse. When something went wrong with a policy, strategy, or press conference, the politician himself or his staff had to do damage control. In politics, it appears almost exactly contemporaneous with “in the loop” or “out of the loop,” Carter-era terms that became more common after 1980. William Safire, in a 1982 language column, posited a naval origin for the term (he says nothing about harm caused by animals, but that’s obviously a dark-horse etymological candidate, anyway). Because the term sprouted in political journalism, searching “damage control” in LexisNexis during the late seventies and eighties pulls up every blunder, untruth, and scandal of the Carter and Reagan administrations, each of which forced the president’s loyal minions to take steps to make the results look better than they really were. This sort of thing led finally to White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan’s infamous evocation of “a shovel brigade that follow[s] a parade down Main Street cleaning up.” Regan didn’t use the term “damage control,” but a Washington Post headline (November 18, 1986) reporting his comment did. By that time the expression was also available for corporate use, notably in the case of Johnson & Johnson’s response to poisoned Tylenol capsules (1982), widely regarded as a successful damage control effort.

The case of Johnson & Johnson introduces another dichotomy more interesting than the government/corporation dyad (two sides of the same coin at the best of times). “Damage control,” particularly in politics, is often a matter of fixing a self-inflicted problem, as in Regan’s example. The president, or someone, said or did something we’re getting attacked for, so we have to get out there and quell the uprising. But in the case of Johnson & Johnson, the point wasn’t that they could have prevented someone from tampering with bottles of Tylenol; their packaging was no better or worse than anyone else’s. You may lay traps for yourself or be victimized by circumstances beyond your control — either way, sooner or later you will need to do some damage control. In the seventies, when the phrase gained currency, it could be used in a proactive sense to mean addressing a problem before it arose. But that didn’t last long, and “damage control” has held a firmly post hoc meaning for a long time now.

Any institution may need damage control: government at any level and corporations, but also a small business, a sports team, a university, a church. If an individual feels a need to practice damage control, it’s probably a celebrity — it would still sound a little overblown to refer to a husband’s effort to patch up a quarrel by bringing home chocolate and flowers as “damage control.” But you could, because that is primarily what damage control is in practice. It is making the entity you have offended feel better, smoothing ruffled feathers or papering over a disagreement. It’s a way of getting people off your back, whether friends or adversaries, whether it involves a retraction or a new policy to counteract the effects of an old one.

The way an act of damage control is received says much about it and generally demands interpretation. If it isn’t managed well, or if it is required too often, it raises a red flag. It may suggest that you have no principles, or that you are weak and vacillating, because any adverse reaction causes you to change course. Sometimes too much damage control just means you shoot yourself in the foot too often. Yet effective damage control buries the problem and convinces observers that the organization (or employee) is capable and can be trusted to handle whatever comes up.

The term has continued to grow in popularity since the eighties. It still is used most often to talk about institutions getting on top of difficult circumstances, but it is finding a use in medicine: “damage control resuscitation” refers to a way to handle patients in hemorrhagic shock. The treatment relies on large-scale transfusions and preventing further blood loss; restoring blood volume and circulation is the highest priority.

As a bonus for those of you who’ve made it this far, I can’t resist a New York Times summary from May 9, 1974, plagiarized straight from LexisNexis. It contains one of the earliest uses of “damage control” I’ve found, and a lot of other fascinating nuggets. The speaker is now a well-known political journalist: “Dr. John McLaughlin, Jesuit priest who is special assistant to Pres. Nixon, holds extraordinary news conference to deny charges by Sen H. D. Scott and other Republicans that, as Scott put it, the Watergate transcripts portray ‘deplorable, disgusting, shabby, immoral performances’ by Pres. and his aides. . . . McLaughlin, in theological analysis of transcripts, says that any conclusion that they are amoral or immoral ‘is erroneous, unjust and contains elements of hypocrisy.’ Holds Nixon acquitted himself throughout discussions with honor. Holds Nixon’s concern in keeping Watergate scandal from spreading to White House was merely exercise of ‘damage control.’ Says language has ‘no moral meaning’ and use of profanity by Nixon and his aides served as form of ’emotional drainage,’ an understandable ‘form of therapy.'” This is what they teach in seminary?

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

lighten up

(1980’s | journalese | “don’t be (so) uptight,” “get off your high horse,” “take it easy,” “stop and smell the roses,” “cool it”)

“Lighten up” signals that someone is overdoing it. Which means it’s basically an insult — patronizing or sneering or exasperated. This is a fixed phrase now, used intransitively (unusual before 1980) and imperatively (likewise), and directed at a specific person or group. In the old days, “lighten up” meant simply “make lighter,” in weight or color or mood, and it was usually transitive, often used as a substitute for “brighten up.” When it was used imperatively, it was much more literal; it meant “lay off,” that is, exert less pressure or throw less weight around. The new meaning revolves around mood or demeanor: don’t be so sensitive, or angry, or humorless, or obsessive, so it’s closer to “chill out” than “stop busting my chops.” It’s clear that our expression is descended from the older meaning and not that much different from it. But “lighten up” before 1980 almost always meant “brighten,” or “loosen,” or “abate,” not “take yourself less seriously.”

The origins of our specialized form of the phrasal verb probably lie in the sixties, among either hippies or African-Americans, who didn’t overlap much. Early mainstream uses occurred mostly in reporting on entertainment. Articles about pop stars and movie personalities contained the earliest examples I found; Oliver Stone and Louis Gossett, Jr. both were quoted using the expression in the early eighties, and it made the script of Bill Murray’s film “Stripes” (1981). Johnny Carson used it on the air in 1986; in 1987, Washington Post television critic Tom Shales remarked, “If this odd little decade has a credo, it is probably ‘Lighten up.’” Infrequent in 1980, the phrase had arrived by 1990.

It’s worth asking why Shales chose “lighten up” as the motto for the eighties. I blame everything on Reagan, who definitely had a light-hearted, or perhaps light-brained, quality about him. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to go for the wisecrack, or to admit that you don’t understand everything that’s going on. Hey, it’s morning in America, and we don’t have to sweat the details — David Stockman will take care of that. More generally, the eighties does seem to have been an unusually superficial decade, to the extent that such generalizations mean anything. The sixties were terribly earnest all across the political spectrum, and it took twenty years to shake all that off and decide that what really matters is partying and acquiring worldly goods rather than inner, or even outer, peace. In the sixties, we were self-centered in order to improve, or save, our world; in the eighties we were self-centered because it was easy and fun. Telling someone to lighten up may mean telling them to be less concerned about solving the world’s problems, but it’s also a way to say, “stop gazing at your navel.” Get out more, have some fun, live it up. And while you’re taking everything else less seriously, take yourself less seriously, too.

Google suggests that “lighten up” has become increasingly popular, almost standard, as a way of naming or referring to weight loss programs. Gyms, bloggers, government agencies all use it to encourage the rest of us slobs to slim down. The vocabulary of fitness continues to evolve. “Losing weight” has shrunk to “losing,” and “loser” is carving out space for itself as a compliment. There’s something inspiring about the way Americans fight back against obesity — one television show, or one slogan, at a time. Speaking of slogans, November 14 is “Loosen Up, Lighten Up Day,” a reminder to relieve stress through exercise and humor. “Lighten up” has loosened up. It may mean as little as “have a good laugh,” and it seems to be heading for “relax and unwind.” How wide can it glide?

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

blessed, humbled

humbled (1990’s | journalese (politics?) | “honored”)
blessed (2000’s | celebritese? | “fortunate”)

Up until 1990 or so, you were humbled when something bad happened to you. “Humbled” meant “chastened” or “brought low,” occasionally “awed”; sportswriters liked to use it to mean “trounced.” Both sides had to be specified then; your boss humbled you or one team humbled another. By 2000, it was commonplace to use the word when something good happened, as an acknowledgment of an award or a new job (especially political office), or just the fact that lots of people wished you well or recognized your contributions. The old uses are still available, but less natural, as “humbled” has become a word powerful people use to convey their satisfaction at their own success. It gives them a perfect way to pretend they are modest and hardworking rather than power-hungry parasites living off the rest of us — without being forced to lie about it. That makes the word a politician’s dream. Being “humbled” is not the same as being “humble,” after all — it’s a temporary state rather than an essential part of one’s character.

It can have other implications: one is the acute awareness of new and taxing responsibilities. When the new president says he is humbled (cf. “your humble servant,” “public servant”), we are to understand that he understands the challenges ahead and aims to get right to work for the voters. But the word need not carry any such implication. In the earliest instance I found on LexisNexis (October 23, 1989) — not an exhaustive search — Ronald Reagan said he was “humbled and deeply honored” upon being inducted into the Grand Cordon of the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum by the Japanese government, an accolade utterly devoid of duties. Reagan, who went far trading on his humble upbringing, understood the power of the word. I’d like to think he originated today’s use of “humbled.” Reagan was adept at using Christian vocabulary, and humility as a fundamental attitude toward God and toward other people is an important Christian virtue.

“Blessing” is another essential Christian concept, meaning a reward from the Lord. “Blessed” (two syllables) is a mainstay of the King James Bible (“Blessed are the meek . . .”) but has not formed part of informal American speech for over a century now except as a substitute for “damned” in curses. “Blest” is archaic and was last used with any frequency in ejaculations like “I’ll be blest!” Every time someone alludes to a sneeze, you are blessed, or you might be blessed (one syllable) by a member of the clergy. A new baby used to be called a “blessed (two syllables) event.” But although the word has not shed its religious origin, the way we use it now has taken it far from old-time Christianity. We use “blessed” (one syllable) simply to mean “lucky.” Maybe because you have loyal friends or family, maybe because you worked hard and were kind to animals, maybe because you won the lottery. Good fortune doesn’t have to come from the creator of the universe, or any specific source.

“Blessed” as it is thrown around today may just be short for “blessed with.” It has long been customary to say one is “blessed with” children, a good job, etc., and it’s really just a polite way to say “lucky,” so it seems the obvious ancestor. The rise of “blessed” may simply be a matter of creating a new expression that takes on a life of its own by eliminating the object, in the tradition of “give back.” In a culture that values fast-paced, short-winded verbiage, briefer is always better. Except on my blog.

One feature “blessed” and “humbled” share, aside from religious roots, is they are both backdoor ways of thanking people who have helped make you what you are. Both “humbled” and “blessed” as we use them now suggest gratitude without directly expressing it. In the old-time religious sense, the gratitude is implicit but definitely real, because the believer offers thanks to God for blessings and humblings alike. As these two words have diffused into secular speech, they retain a vestige of that old force. This is particularly clear in the case of “blessed”; when you say, “I’m so blessed because I have a wonderful family,” it isn’t hard to construe the sentence as expressing thanks to your relatives. When a politician is “humbled” upon winning an election, it’s not as obvious, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see that as expressing thanks to the voters. Either way, one avoids openly acknowledging a debt to anyone else. Again, a politician’s dream.

“Humbled” and “blessed” are both significant terms in Christianity, and it may seem a triumph for religious activism when its vocabulary is adopted by the general population. Yet the co-opting of more or less sacred language to mark good fortune without divine origin does religion no favors. Casual, widespread use of such expressions quickly diminishes their power and mystery and drains them of significance, so they cannot help being cheapened even in the eyes of believers. “Blessed” — along with “humble” and its alternate forms, “humbled” and “humbling,” now used to mask deep and abiding arrogance — has suffered this fate. That is part of the reason many devout people have championed strict separation of church and state over the last three centuries. When religious organizations take too active an interest in worldly politics, they may damage the government, but they will infallibly damage themselves.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

smartest guy in the room

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “know-it-all,” “show-off,” “genius,” “best and brightest”)

A top-down phrase, “smartest guy (or person) in the room” has from the beginning been applied to powerful politicians by powerful journalists. This expression has been foisted on us by our overlords, and we have accepted it placidly. Yet the phrase seems to have derived significant momentum from the film “Broadcast News” (1987), in which a sarcastic boss asks a stubborn young reporter (played by Holly Hunter) if it’s nice to always think you’re the smartest person in the room. She replies, “It’s awful.” (True enough. The eminent poet and critic John Hollander liked to point out that one of the drawbacks of being intelligent is having to put up with all the blockheads.) This line from the film was quoted by Vincent Canby of the New York Times and by reviewers for the Washington Post and the Associated Press. Even there, a boost from some powerful journalists, or at least journals. Political reporters Helen Thomas and Mary McGrory both used it early on. Broadcast News aside, the phrase didn’t turn up regularly outside of political contexts until the mid-1990’s. Based on my own ear and LexisNexis, “guy” seems to have won out as the most frequently used noun some time after 2000 (“person,” “one,” and “man” are other possibilities, in descending order of frequency). “Guy” in the singular still normally refers to a man, although in the plural it can apply to a group of women, at least among the younger set.

Aside from the question of whether “guy” or “person” sounds more idiomatic, the principal question about this expression has to do with how much self-awareness goes with it. Does the smartest guy in the room have to be aware of his superiority? Further, does he have to ensure that everyone else is aware of it, too? Inherently, there is no reason the SGITR couldn’t be humble and self-effacing, and the phrase is used that way on occasion. Sometimes the SGITR is credited with being a good listener who makes a point of finding out what others have to contribute rather than simply talking over everyone else. And sometimes you will see sentences like, “He’s the smartest guy in the room, and he makes sure everyone else knows it,” a construction that implies the phrase still is neutral. But usually when someone is hailed as the smartest guy in the room, it is assumed that he will make sure that his audience recognizes his intelligence, at length and at high volume. Through use, the expression has picked up baggage: arrogance, vehemence, petulance. It is still possible to use the phrase without the accretions, but it doesn’t happen that often any more.

When aggressive, self-promoting, intelligent people look foolish, this phrase will pop up every time — it has a lot in common with the old idea of being too smart for one’s own good. The first use of “smartest guy in the room” I found it in LexisNexis (1985) applied to David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, who notoriously led the charge for the administration’s tax and (non-war-related) spending cuts, only later to admit that the economic theory — tax cuts lead to greater revenue; spending cuts lead to economic growth driven by the private sector — behind them was completely fabricated. I hoped to discover that Henry Kissinger was the first mucky-muck to whom this term was applied, way back when he was running the world in the early 1970’s, but in fact, Robert MacNamara, whose job it was to louse up the world before Henry Kissinger came on the scene, would have been a better guess. Richard C. Holbrooke, then a young diplomat, used “smartest man in the room” in an essay for Harper’s magazine in 1975. He didn’t apply the phrase to MacNamara explicitly, but it was clear that he could have if he felt like it. The cases of Stockman or MacNamara or the Enron criminals, and those of countless other SGITR’s, reveal that even when the smartest guy in the room is by general consent the most intelligent (smart means intelligent, and then some — quick-witted, ready to speak up, a little sassy) person working on the problem at hand, he can screw up at least as royally as the dumbest, and probably more. Holbrooke: “The smartest man in the room is not always right.” Human intelligence is fragile and unreliable, prone to all kinds of blind spots and dubious assumptions that slither out from under you when you need them most. Sometimes, giving the smartest guy in the room a free hand is the smartest move you can make. But you’d better keep a sharp eye on him. Don’t let him ruin the show.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,