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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: sarah palin

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.


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back atcha

(1990’s | “the same to you,” “likewise, I’m sure,” “it’s mutual”)

As I look into the origins of this phrase, I keep having the feeling that I’m missing something. It doesn’t show up in LexisNexis until the early 1990’s, and then it had more to do with getting back at someone — vengeance or returning fire — than with returning a compliment, which is how we’re more likely to use it today. Perhaps LexisNexis does not have the best data to mine for this rather slangy expression, which has not shed its hipness entirely as it has spread. I had an insurmountable feeling that I had seen it in Doonesbury during my childhood but despaired of digging through my old books to try to find it. Then Google worked one of its little miracles (miroogles?), and within five minutes, I was looking at a comics page from December 4, 1974. Joanie Caucus is greeted by her roommate’s boyfriend, and she replies, “Mornin’ back atcha, Clyde!” I would have guessed Zonker or Mark would have been the one to use it. Nearly forty years later, Garfield supplies an example of how we do it today.

Joanie’s utterance exemplifies syntax that is still pretty common: “back atcha” preceded by a greeting or certain nouns (e.g., love, hugs). “Right back atcha” is a common variant. But “back atcha” can stand on its own, as a friendly reply, or still occasionally hostile, even today. That shading didn’t start to fade until after 2000, and you still hear it sometimes.

Widely scattered sightings in Google Books go back to the 1970’s. I didn’t pick up a clear trail to an origin. African-Americans? Teenagers? Hippies? but there seems to have been some pop music push down through the years. A disco duo called Two Tons o’ Fun (later known as the Weather Girls) released an album entitled “Back Atcha” in 1980. (I didn’t remember the album, but I did remember “I’m So Excited,” one of their hits.) In the 1990’s, hip-hop artist Freq Nasty released “Booming Back Atcha” (1997), and probably more decisively for its general spread, the Spice Girls had a song called “Right Back Atcha” in 2000. It wasn’t a big hit, though, and it didn’t provoke a stunning spike in the use of the phrase.

As I noted recently, some new expressions really just don’t seem necessary, inasmuch as we had so many ways to say the same thing before. “Back atcha” falls into that category. (Since I quoted some comic strips already, I’ll throw in my favorite mid-century pre-back-atcha objurgation, from Pogo: “The same to you with sour apples on it!”) Aside from the examples above, you could return the favor, or concur, or append “yourself” to a recently expressed greeting (that one could also be pleasant or menacing), or in those fraught childhood moments, “I’m rubber and you’re glue!” “Back atcha” has an undeniable appeal. Quick and sassy, cheerful and brisk, lean and menacing, it can be cutting or welcoming. It’s the kind of phrase that could get annoying if you heard it all the time, but it hasn’t taken over yet — because there are so many other ways to say it. It hasn’t filled a void so much as jumped into a crowded pool.

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man up

(2000’s | athletese | “be tough,” “take it like a man,” “do your duty,” “rise to the occasion”)

Here’s one more word that politicians have made ubiquitous, but its athletic origin is pretty well established. In an excellent column on the origin and development of the term, Ben Zimmer points to “cowboy up” (from rodeo slang) and “man up” from football and basketball. The rodeo term means “take punishment and keep going,” but “man up” is a little more technical, meaning “play man-to-man defense” or maybe “guard your man closely.” In these senses it was also common among athletes in Great Britain and Australia. Before the sports usages, “man up” meant “increase manpower” — hire more personnel to meet demand in an industry.

In October 2010, it got a big boost when it cropped up several times during political debates. (Zimmer’s column had appeared in September — is this another case of the baleful influence of the mainstream media?) Sarah Palin challenged the Republican establishment to “man up” and embrace the Tea Party. Sharron Angle of Nevada told Harry Reid to “man up” and admit that Social Security is going broke. Kendrick Meek of Florida used it against Charlie Crist during the governors’ race; then he used “leader up” in the same sentence for good measure. (Meek also gets credit for one of the earliest uses I found among politicians, from 2002: “The governor [Jeb Bush] needs to ‘man up’ and come out and say he’s against it.”)

The angles of the phrase remain to be explored. First, it always goes with a touch of contempt. “Man up” means “you’re not manly enough,” in whatever direction that might be. And there are several. “Man up” means “do what a man’s gotta do,” but what exactly? It means “beat the crap out of that guy” or “keep your woman in her place” or “don’t let on that you’re hurting” or “accept your punishment and make amends” or “admit that you’re wrong” or “meet your obligations” or “do the honorable thing” or “be a mensch.” There are as many definitions as opinions about how men ought to behave, and that terrain has become vexed indeed in the last fifty years.

I hear behind “man up” two older phrasal verbs that I think have influenced its rise: “suck it up” and “own up.” Then there’s one expression I don’t hear but might have had an effect: that old athletes’ euphemistic standby for God, “the Man Upstairs.”

Finally: The “noun + up = verb” construction may be on the verge of becoming a phenomenon. I’ve seen “lawyer up” (get legal advice, especially high-powered legal advice) and even “luck up” (get lucky) once. Only today I saw “neighbor up” on a subway ad. Zimmer mentions a few other examples. This could be a quick-burning fad or it could spread — for the moment, it’s still on the cusp, but that will change. Other examples? “Suit up” and “gum up” have been around for a while (thanks, Liz!). “Ramp up” might be one, but I’m not sure. You might hear “camp up,” but that would normally be transitive: a director might say to the cast, “Let’s really camp this scene up.” “Juice up” sounds to me like “juice” is really being used as a verb, like “power up.” I’m not sure about “pony up.”


(1990’s | enginese | “(make a) minor adjustment”)

This word has meant “pinch” for a long time, and it often meant something stronger: grab and twist violently. When Hamlet, in one of the earliest recorded uses, says “[he] tweaks me by the nose,” it’s no playful pinch. The tweak is intended to be not only painful but humiliating.

The word has added a new figurative meaning every so often. “Prostitute” came in soon after the first recorded uses but was out-of-date by the eighteenth century. “In a tweak” meant “agitated” or “excited.” When I was a lad, “tweak” meant something like “needle” (v.) or “offend slightly” (cf. “twit” in British English); your sensibilities or your amour-propre might be tweaked, but not your procedure for cleaning the garage. The word crept into larger discussions; there was much talk of the superpowers “tweaking” each other, deploying troops somewhere, concluding a mutual defense treaty with a third country, or otherwise making pests of themselves. The violence had leached out of the word, but a tweak remained an irritant; it was aggravating and provocative, whether you were brazenly twisting someone’s nose or getting in a subtle dig.

Today’s meaning seems to have originated among mechanics and engineers with the sense of a small, quick change to a control or a setting (like the gas pedal or the temperature in a chemical reaction), which lies suspiciously close to “twitch.” (Another ancestor was “tweaking” an engine, or part of an engine, meaning something like “getting a little extra out of it.”) I have a notion that “twitch” helped pave the way for its rise among engineers. While I’m making things up, here’s the other half of it: “tweak” took root as a word specifically denoting a small or minor change owing merely to its resemblance to “weak” or “squeak,” engineering types not being noted for their grasp of linguistic subtleties but showing the odd flash of Joycean creativity.

“Tweak” has shed the last vestiges of its old trappings. That sense of irritation and provocation is gone — it refers now to almost any kind of minor adjustment, and it can be comfortably used with more abstract objects, like a computer program, a speech, or even an attitude. It’s certainly a lot easier to say “We tweaked the regulations” than “We made a minor adjustment in the regulations.” But it has lost its magnitude as well as its power to vex. “Tweak” today is a small word for a small thing. Once it was an affront, an insult, fightin’ words. Now it’s just a quick fix, you’ll never notice, there! we’re done. I’ll bet it’s because it sounded like a couple of more common words — only one of which it’s actually related to — and took on their coloration through semantic slippage and devolution, the destruction of longstanding distinctions through ignorance or carelessness.

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