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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: slang

sucks to be you

(1990’s | “(gee), that’s too bad,” “that sucks,” “I’d hate to be in your shoes,” “that’s rough”)

A fixed phrase that goes back to the 1990’s, as far as I can tell, although it does not seem to have become ordinary until somewhere around 2005. It follows the relentless march of “that sucks” into the language. The first significant appearance of the phrase came in the form of a song title by the Canadian band Prozzäk (1998). I don’t recall hearing it until well after 2010 myself, but it was thoroughly established by then.

Most on-line sources — and there are many — agree that “sucks to be you” usually has an insulting or dismissive tone. A few of them even pull out the fine old German word Schadenfreude (pleasure in others’ misfortune). I have heard it used with sympathy, however, or at least bemusement. Even then, I think there is a sense that the addressee’s problems are intractable, and sympathy doesn’t help much. The expression is reserved for those with genuine troubles, except of course when you’re using it ironically to minimize another’s trials and tribulations. That’s where the sarcasm comes in. The ambivalent quality is reminiscent of “the struggle is real” and a few others: “aspirational,” “cougar,” “inner child.” Another echo, if you’ll indulge me: I hear in “sucks to be you” a tenuous connection with “my bad,” which cannot shake its flippant tone, so it doesn’t serve well as an apology. “Sucks to be you” doesn’t serve well as sympathy, for similar reasons. Another factor at work is the use of the second-person pronoun. “You” always sounds more aggressive, especially when emphasized, and to my ear “sucks to be you” suggests that the speaker is blaming the victim at least a little. “My bad” makes it sound like the speaker is accepting responsibility, when he really isn’t. “Sucks to be you” turns the blame back on the other person.

What about “sucks,” anyway? It replaced “stinks,” which is what we said when I was young but is much less common now. The New Partridge slang dictionary says it became current in the sixties, but that it was considered a dirty word at first because of its “sexual connotations” (don’t you love lexicographers?). There is an older British insult, “sucks to you, etc.” that may be an ancestor, but maybe not; that was never commonplace in the U.S., and our use of “suck” seems to be an American phenomenon. I think I learned the word at a Harry Chapin concert in 1979 or 1980 (anyone out there remember “Thirty Thousand Pounds of Bananas”?), when it was already pretty common. I doubt you ever heard it on television back then; it remained a semi-bad word, one that family newspapers had to remove from quotations, long after it invaded and conquered spoken language. Hardly anyone turns a hair any more.

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(2000’s | African-American | “cool,” “nice,” “great,” “excellent”)

A rich old word, at least two centuries old. Descended from the Dutch word for “sauce” and related to “dip,” it generally meant gravy or another thick liquid (lubricants, etc.) in the nineteenth century. (That sense, now rare, survives in the practice of calling sundae toppings “dopes.”) I doubt anyone says it any more, but in the South it long denoted Coca-Cola (or other fountain sodas), from the rumor that it contained cocaine. Somewhere around 1900, in a puzzling development, “dope” came to mean information or gossip (as in “latest dope”). Somewhat more understandably, also around 1900, “dope” took on medical uses, as it became popular to refer to drugs licit and illicit (the distinction was less rigid then). The homey term made the exotic and dangerous seem more familiar and acceptable. During the twentieth century, it became an all-purpose word for any illegal drug, most often marijuana or an opiate. From there “dope” merged with another meaning: slow or stupid person; “dopey” still means “stupid” or “out of it.”

Now, for some reason, the culture has adopted from African-American youth the practice of calling anything really awesome “dope.” (See many examples on Urban Dictionary.) Major’s dictionary of African-American slang reports that the usage was current in the eighties among young people; it does not seem to have entered white mainstream print or consciousness until after 2000. Today it is still characteristic mainly of the younger set, but it is creeping into middle-aged mouths and will continue to do so. Already it has shown more staying power than most youth slang, which is usually pretty ephemeral, and it may yet make the roster of long-term vocabulary. Today I saw a t-shirt that said, “God is dope.” At least it didn’t say “Dope is God.”

I wonder why “dope” has held onto the new meaning. (For starters, why an adjective?) The normal purpose of kids’ slang is to confuse adults. The normal way to do that is to take a relatively harmless word and substitute it for whatever you’re trying to conceal. It goes right over the grown-ups’ heads, at least for a while, and then another misleading word comes along. But as late as 2000, “dope” would have had negative associations for many older people — so why turn to it? It does meet the standard of causing confusion, which helps account for its success. Didn’t most of us have to have it explained the first time we heard it? Eighties slogans like “no hope in dope” still ring in my ears, and I would never have guessed “dope” meant “the greatest” unless it was unmistakable from context. The only connection I can imagine runs through potheads admiring a new variety, raving about how good the dope is. “That’s real dope, man” might become “That’s really dope, dude” without too much effort.

My old buddy Charles supplied this week’s expression. It is slangier than the usual subjects, but it’s such a fun word that I couldn’t pass it up. Charles hasn’t steered me wrong yet.

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(1980’s | businese (finance) | “drop,” “go downhill (in a hurry),” “plummet”)

Lex Maniac is slow but sure. I had almost finished my last post (“crater”) before I realized “tank” has a very similar meaning and history, and I resolved then and there to cover it next. The two verbs are generally interchangeable, but there is one notable divergence: it’s easier to recover from tanking. More drastic action is required to recover from cratering. A stock may tank and spike again; if it craters, it probably won’t.

Both expressions seem to have arisen during the 1980’s, mainly in financial writing, although “tank” has its origins in athletese. Sportswriters have used “tank” for decades to mean “lose deliberately,” originally at the behest of gamblers, though that implication has worn away. Its reach has broadened over time to include entire seasons rather than single games or matches. Towards the end of last year’s NFL season, the word got quite a workout in discussions of whether the two weakest teams in the league, the Jets and Jaguars, would lose games deliberately in order to finish with the worst record and therefore get the top draft pick. Players asserted, as they must, that they weren’t tanking; columnists wondered if the coaches and front office were. “Tank,” once associated primarily with sports like boxing and tennis, is used often now to talk about teams rather then individuals.

The financial usage does not suggest intentional failure; a stock price or the entire economy may tank for reasons beyond anyone’s control. It has become standard if still a bit slangy (slang adds tang). Lately the word goes often with “fortune,” and you read about a fortune tanking when someone loses a lot of money. The arenas of sport and finance seem to require such words of ill omen more than others, where abasement may replace jubilation with lightning speed. Politics, too, of course. When your fortune tanks, you’re out a lot of money. When your fortunes tank, your public career is over.

“Tank” has other meanings that probably have nothing to do with this one, so what the hell, here are two: communal jail cell (drunk tank), and communal intellectual effort (think tank). The idea seems to be that because the tank is enclosed, it fosters interaction and therefore teamwork, or at least drunken banter. “Get tanked,” by the way, means “get drunk,” and “tanked” is used occasionally to mean drunk. (Not, alas, an echo of “tankard,” but possibly related to “drunk tank.”) “In the tank” is another way to say “gone to the dogs” or “in the toilet.” These seem closer in spirit to the sports and financial uses. There is no apparent lineal descent from either “tank town” (old-fashioned term for small and insignificant place), or the weapon. In fact, none of the manifold definitions of “tank” seems to have much to do with our verb, with the possible exception of “in the tank.” Maybe that’s the connection, though it doesn’t seem very satisfying. Why should “tank” mean throw a game? Or “fall hard and fast”? It isn’t very plausible. “Crater” makes much more sense.

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don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining

(1990’s | “what do you take me for?,” “I’m not stupid”)

More or less arbitrarily, I’ve adopted the Judge Judy form of this expression, which takes other wordings as well. I can’t say for sure it is the most common, and it certainly is not the original, but it gained pride of place after she took it as the title of her 1997 bestseller. Another version is “Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining,” used in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (YouTube to the rescue again). Examples, variants, and euphemisms may be found as far back as 1900, also in the form “don’t spit in my face and tell me it’s raining.” As formidable language blogger emeritus Michael Quinion pointed out, “piss down one’s back” is found in Grose’s late-18th century slang dictionary, where it is defined as “to flatter.” Assuming, as Quinion does, that our modern variants are descended from the older vulgarism involves some twists and turns. There is a pretty firm on-line consensus about the meaning of the phrase. Most loosely, it means “don’t expect me to believe you when you’re obviously lying.” More precisely, it means “don’t act against my interests and then pretend you’re on my side.” Common to both is “don’t mislead me by pretending you’re a better person than you really are.” That is flattery in reverse, or at least akin to it — a means of gaining ground through deceit, taking advantage of another’s soft heart, or head.

While it has never become especially common, and it is not strongly associated with any particular field, “don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining” has made a place for itself. Most people have no difficulty understanding it, certainly not in context. Forceful and memorable, it usually elicits a guffaw, and that esprit makes it attractive. If you have to accuse someone of a brazen lie, a little humor helps. Still, we hear in it the voice of outrage — a rebuke, but also self-defense. You are definitely pinning a lie on someone else, but you are emphasizing your ability to detect the deceit. It traffics in indignation and incredulity as well.

The urinary tract has been a great source of vocabulary; if you look in any good slang dictionary you’ll find at least a couple of pages for “piss,” some old, some new. “Piss off” is the champ, at least in the U.S., where “pissed” means angry rather than drunk and “piss off” means “irritate” rather than “scram.” We all have our favorites. I like “(full of) piss and vinegar” (vim and vigor), “pissing match” (a disagreeable contest), and “go piss up a rope” (go fly a kite). Honorable mention goes to “I wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire,” which contrasts nicely with the phrase under discussion. Although “pissed off” has several substitutes, such as “ticked off” or “teed off” — but never “peed off” — most such expressions lose their point without the vulgarism. But as Judge Judy has shown, in this case you can slide “pee” in there without losing much.

“Piss” is a very old word and was not regarded as particularly heinous during its first several centuries; my sense is that it is more acceptable now than it was in my childhood, when George Carlin included it among the seven words you can never say on television. But I would still be a little surprised to hear it in mixed company.

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talk smack

(1990’s | athletese | “throw or trade insults,” “banter”)

throw shade

(2010’s | celebritese? | “cut,” “belittle”)

Years ago, RuPaul tweeted, “Throwing shade takes a bit of creativity, being a bitch takes none.” I wouldn’t say that sums up the difference between “talk smack” and “throw shade,” but talking smack is much the less refined, devoid of the elegance required to throw shade. Yet both expressions take a decidedly derogatory aspect and are understood as elaborations on the insult, or diss, which ought to have a blog entry or two of its own.

“Talk smack” is older; it came along about the same time as “trash talk” but took a bit longer to get settled. (Also an athlete’s expression, by the way, but politicians and others use it happily.) It has not acquired a wide range of definitions, though it does come in a range of flavors, from playful to quite serious. “Smack talk” is the noun form; the verb phrase usually takes “on,” “about,” or no preposition at all, and the object is usually a person or small group. Now and then you’ll see it used as a rough equivalent of “play the dozens.” In whatever part of speech, the phrase probably arose from African-American youth culture. Major’s African-American slang dictionary (1994 edition) defines “smack,” among other things, as “flirtatious talk, ‘nonsense’ talk.” Not a precise synonym, but it seems distinctly related and does require talking, which Major’s other four definitions do not. The fact that “talk smack” was popular among wrestlers and their fans made me wonder if there’s a primal connection with “smackdown,” but now I’m inclined to doubt it.

Many of the characteristics of “talk smack” go with “throw shade” as well, but as noted above, they are still used in different settings. In a piece titled “Celebrity Slang,” Huffington Post defined “throw shade” thus: “To insult someone, especially in a haughty or condescending manner.” In practice, smack talk often conveys the express or implied sentiment that the target is inferior, but that’s not essential, and peers talk smack to each other. When you throw shade, you are taking the mantle of superiority, social or otherwise. You can find examples here and there before 2000, but this phrase did not come into its own until well into the new millennium (as I recall, I harvested it a few years ago from one of the family teenagers). It still sounds kind of fresh and up-to-date and may even be glossed occasionally. Its prepositions are “on” and “at,” possibly “towards.” Literally, “throw shade” is what trees do when they are in full foliage, and our expression’s origin most likely springs from that, related to the notions of overshadowing or looking down on. To “put someone in the shade” (sounds a little archaic now, doesn’t it?) meant to make their efforts or achievements seem puny, towering over them (metaphorically) so much as to block out the sun. “Shade” is one of those words that has pleasing associations in its literal sense, but gets underhanded in the figurative.

“Throw shade,” like “talk smack,” has a cooler and hotter temperature, running from “bring down a peg” to “sneer at.” It can also mean “cast doubt on,” which is still unusual but may make itself felt as an accepted definition in the next decade or two. “Talk smack” remains a bruiser of a phrase, at least for now, relying on brute force rather than la-di-dah pretension. “Smack” is a noisy word, after all, that descends easily into violence. No subtlety required.

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(1990’s | teenagese (surfing) | “psyched,” “thrilled,” “fired up”)

Every now and then, an old word sprouts a new meaning — cougar, default, enable, flag — usually more or less related to at least one of its old ones (though not always in an obvious way). “Stoked” has taken on a new definition, all right, one that reverses centuries of practice by carelessly becoming intransitive. Even more important, its weight has changed. By acquiring its new meaning within the lingo of an evocative component of American (or at least Californian) culture, the word has become lighter, spread wider, and veered away from its stolidly literal roots.

I don’t know when surfers began using “stoked,” or why. The earliest instance cited in the OED dates from 1963, so it’s likely to be older than that. Based on the few early quotations I found, the term had a somewhat mystical cast back in the sixties. “Stoked” was more like ecstatic than merely excited — so blissed out by surfing that you graduated into an exalted state, which some surfers adopted as a way of life. In that light, it sounds suspiciously like “hooked,” but “stoked” is not normally used to mean “high” or “buzzed,” nor should it be. “Ev’ryody must get stoked” ain’t how the song goes. Whatever American Heritage says, this term has never had anything to do with drug-aided intoxication.

The older metaphorical uses of “stoke” have never disappeared and show no signs of waning even now. Debate, passions, fear, tensions, anger, pride — all subject to stoking, fueling, or building up. The literal use, which has to do with fires and furnaces, has not gone anywhere, either (the older sense of preparing for hard labor by eating heavily is disappearing). Far from supplanting all the old uses of the word, the new one has grown up alongside, like ivy, simply making the word more common in everyday language. It wasn’t until 1990 or so that “stoked” made it out of glossaries of this semester’s college slang and into anything remotely like mainstream discourse; the term was primarily used by young athletes, following their comrades the surfers and skateboarders. Even today, I would say that you still expect the word to fall from the lips of the young and hip; older people don’t use it as much. And it is still characteristic of the entertainment industry (including sports). But now we all know what it means, which wasn’t true twenty-five years ago.

“Stoked” may be the most successful example of surfer jargon penetrating mainstream talk, no longer even slang, exactly, yet retaining a slangy sound. “Wannabe” also grew out of surfers’ lingo, at least partly. There are a few surfing terms, aside from “stoked” — e.g., “bail” (abandon), “dude,” maybe “gnarly” or “rad,” that have shed their dubious wave-borne past and entered the language. Most surfer terms — for instance “hang ten,” “wipeout,” or “amped” (which means the same thing as “stoked”) — are still easily identified as such. You know a slang expression has arrived when most people have become unaware of its origins.

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(2000’s | teenagese | “dangerous,” “creepy,” “uncanny,” “bizarre”)

A new meaning of “sketchy” arose while I wasn’t paying attention, still mainly the property of kids and young adults, though such words invariably become the property of the superannuated fifty years on. Ten years ago, you had to be in college, or younger, to hear it this way. I learned the new meaning from kids within the last three or four years. Last year I asked my niece (then thirteen) if “sketchy” meant “scary” or “disreputable,” and she answered, “Both!” It has taken on a dark shade, and a new set of nouns. “Sketchy” (or simply “sketch”) now describes people or places — very unusual in standard English as late as 2000. (The change seems unrelated to the old use of “sketch” to mean “eccentric person.”) “Sketchy neighborhood” meant nothing thirty years ago, but now it means something very definite: it’s a neighborhood you don’t want to be in. Maybe because it’s ill lit, maybe because it has a bad reputation, maybe because drug deals happen on every corner. An app called SketchFactor encourages users to submit information or impressions about what we used to call bad parts of town; the designers note, “Sketchy means a number of different things. To you, it may mean dangerous. To someone else, it may mean weird.” Just like my niece said.

I have been bedeviled for some time trying to understand how “sketchy” went from inchoate or incomplete to sinister or screwy. But with a little help from lovely Liz from Queens and my own research, I think I get it now. If you search LexisNexis in the seventies or eighties, the overwhelming majority of your results will show the term describing details, statistics, or reports. That usage is quite venerable, and it wasn’t a long step from “inadequate” to “dubious.” But occasionally you would see something a little different, as when “sketchy” modifies accounting practices, or recordkeeping. There are some contexts in which it is not o.k. to be quick and dirty or less than thorough; in such cases to be sketchy is to be unethical or illegal. Another possible contributor is the fact that the word showed up often in early reports on disasters or tragedies, and may have picked up a negative tinge that way. But the truth is “sketchy” has had a bit of an underbelly for decades now; it has been used to mean unsavory or subpar for a long time, as in a sketchy character or reputation. For another example, E.B. White referred to his “sketchy health” in a letter from 1943 cited in the OED. I haven’t tried, but it might even be possible to demonstrate that this aspect of the word has been increasing in frequency for some time and has finally won out among the younger generation.

But maybe more evolution is on the way. “Sketchy” has changed emphasis in the last twenty years, since the dawn of the internet. So we would expect a lot of web sites with “sketchy” in the title to be about scary or disreputable things. There are some; is pretty good, and Sketchy Santas are popular. But Google calls forth a surprising number of sites that confer on “sketchy” still another meaning distinct both from the older and the newer: of or pertaining to drawing. Sketchy Notions and Let’s Get Sketchy are both run by artists. I had high hopes for Sketchy Miami, but right there on the home page it says, “The goal of Sketchy Miami is to create a portrait of every person in Miami.” Sketchy Neighbors? Nope — it’s an artists’ collective in Houston. I don’t have enough examples to determine if this is a new trend or just some silly coincidences, but never doubt the power of earnest artists to change the language.

This is the second, possibly third, week in a row I’ve taken on a recognizably slang expression, which I am supposed to leave to What interests me about “sketchy” is how decisive the change was, and how quick. People under 20, probably even 30, hear some variation on “icky” as the predominant meaning, though most of them also recognize the sense of “dashed off.” I hear kids use the newer sense all the time, the older sense rarely. But “sketchy” was a solid citizen of a word with a decent foundation; “sketch” goes back to the seventeenth century, for Pete’s sake, the adjective almost as far. The old meaning had been standard English for well over a hundred years; the new one most adults would still regard as slang. That distinction, always porous, has become more blurred rather than less over time. There are still arbiters — judges, professors, Associated Press editors — and I wouldn’t say the distinction is dead yet, any more than the distinction between clean and dirty words has disappeared, but the once forbidden, or at least frowned upon, has crept into many more contexts and is getting harder and harder to avoid. The barrier between slang and standard English used to be higher, and it had fewer tunnels undermining it.

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same old same old

(1980’s | “business as usual,” “more of the same,” “same old stuff, etc.”)

Is this expression so uninteresting that there’s really nothing to say about it? Didn’t Safire already say it, anyway? Is this expression as dreary as it appears? As tawdrily chic as “back atcha” or as tiresomely hip as “don’t go there“? Is it extracted from the “same mold same mold”? It certainly doesn’t express anything new, and, given its definition, it would be jarring if it did. New expressions normally show at least a hint of novelty or cleverness, but this one survives on brute repetition. Its sheer stultifaction dramatizes its denotation perfectly. Repetitive? Check. Tedious? Ditto. It is what it has to say for itself.

This phrase often modifies a noun (e.g., people, attitudes), in which case it serves as an intensified version of “same old,” that is, an ordinary, if rather cluttered, attributive adjective. I think it’s more effective when used on its own, usually as a reply to “What’s up?” or as a description of the rut one is stuck in. It carries a whiff of grammatical mystery, partly generated by punctuation, which is surprisingly variable. You see anywhere from zero to three hyphens when this expression appears and sometimes quotation marks sneak in, but you really have to keep your eye on the commas. If there’s no comma, it’s noun-adjective. Is it the new “same old”? No, it’s the same old . . . But if there is a comma, then you have a compound noun that sets new standards for redundancy. Not just the same thing again but the same thing that means “the same thing” and even has the word “same” in it. It’s too tiring to explain . . . (Here the blogger waves a limp hand from a recumbent position on the sofa.)

The first instance I uncovered was a song title for Montego Joe, a cut on a 1965 album called “Warm and Wild.” For the next ten years, Google Books found scattered references, mostly in sources by or about African-Americans. It first turned up in LexisNexis in 1979, in a political context. Ten years later it was clearly out there, if not entirely ordinary, but by the mid-nineties, it was fully established. “Same old same old” never connotes anything nice or pleasant. It never means “comfortingly familiar” or “old reliable.” The phrase generally carries more than a hint of resignation; indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone using it militantly.

And let me count the ways we already had to get the point across. “The usual.” “Just like always.” “Just what you’d expect.” “Old familiar places.” When a voter uses it about a politician, it means “Promises, promises.” My all-time favorite is “same shit, different day,” but that may be newer. These expressions are not always perfectly interchangeable, but they are all pretty close together on the ol’ cladogram. By now “same old same old” has doubtless lost its aura of hipness, but it maintains a healthy presence in everyday language.

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get a life

(1990’s | teenagese? (Valley Girl) | “you jerk!,” “grow up,” “deal with reality”)

An impressive number of on-line sources trace this expression to Valley Girl slang. Actually, that isn’t quite true. One or two somewhat dubious but frequently cited pages give the impression that an impressive number of sources agree on the origin of “get a life.” The Jargon File credits hackers and early Usenet users with diffusion, although it also says the term comes out of ol’ San Fernand. For what it’s worth, I didn’t find “get a life” in any on-line sources from the early eighties (the OED shows one, from 1983), or compendia of eighties slang. The script of the film Valley Girl (1983) contains the expression “In another life,” meaning something like “in your dreams” or maybe “not here, now, or with you.” “Get a life” doesn’t appear in Moon Unit Zappa’s famous song that made us all experts in 1982, either. It’s possible that the phrase arose somewhere else and Valley Girls got the credit — if you weren’t there, it’s hard to understand how pervasive it all was back then, when we all said nothing but “grody” and “gag me with a spoon” for a few months there.

A key event seems to have pushed this phrase into the limelight, which is rather unusual. Most new expressions trickle into the language, establishing themselves quietly before they become widespread. But in this case, we have a pretty clear starting point. In December 1986, William Shatner hosted Saturday Night Live. Playing himself in a sketch, he chewed out a Trekkie convention, telling his ardent fans to “Get a life!” There were a few earlier citations, but it blossomed only after Shatner. People still refer to this moment as a watershed in the annals of celebrities revolting against their fans. In 1990, “Get a Life” was adopted as the title of a short-lived sitcom, and there was no stopping it after that.

“Get a life” is a reproof for people who spend too much time and energy on trivialities, like Trekkie conventions, or it may be addressed to someone who spends too much time at work and not enough time at play. (Wikipedia is surprisingly good on the range of settings in which the phrase may be used.) It always implies inadequacy, and it’s always said with a sneer. It has lost some of its point in the last thirty years and worn down in some cases to “stop being a jerk.” In such cases it may be weary rather than peremptory. It can also mean cut your mother’s apron strings — stop depending on your parents (as we might have said “get your own life” a few decades ago).

The alt.English.usage Usenet group has a very good thread on “get a life.” The authors point to two precursors, “get a job” (which also means “do something to make yourself worthy of respect”) and “have no life,” meaning you are a sorry loser who goes home alone every night to watch reruns and wallow in self-pity. If you have no life, you need to get one, right? Seems simple enough.

Thanks to lovely Liz from Queens for promoting this expression. Keep ’em coming, baby!

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take a chill pill

(1990’s | teenagese | “cool it,” “take it easy,” “pop a downer”)

Maybe this still counts as slang. All the citations in LexisNexis before 1990 cite the phrase as an excrescence of teen lingo, whose purpose, as we all know, is to baffle any adults within earshot. At this the expression seems to have failed resoundingly; even at its origin, it doesn’t seem likely to have mystified anyone. The older generation back then was already thoroughly familiar with “cool it,” and the idea of cold temperatures for slowed-down or relaxed behavior is right out of Chemistry 101.

“Chill pill” used as a noun may refer to a pharmaceutical that calms you down, like Valium or Xanax (that’s what we took in the good old days, anyway). But the full formulation is fully metaphorical, depending as it does on the substitution of “chill out” for “relax.” (You didn’t hear “chillax” back then; I never heard it before the new millennium, but maybe I wasn’t hangin’ in the right circles.) I recall another emphasis, though; “take a chill pill” could be used to mean “don’t be uptight” rather than “don’t be manic.” In other words, you may have a problem with what we’re doing here, but you need to get over it. Squelch your qualms. Rather than applying to actions at a particular moment, it took aim at a larger set of attitudes.

I had the sense that this phrase had pretty well disappeared, but LexisNexis shows a rate of increase over the last two decades that appears to reflect something more than a proliferation of indexed sources. While it hasn’t penetrated formal discourse much (Mr. Secretary, I strongly suggest that you consider ingesting a chill pill), human-interest writers use it all the time. And the august New York Times (January 1, 2010) used it in a review of a book about the evils of prescriptive grammar: “the grammatical doomsayers had better find themselves some chill pills fast.” That is, they’d better take a deep breath and calm down, and get off their high horse while they’re at it. That, is seems to me, is how we use the phrase today; the definition given above (“downer” or “trank”) has pretty much disappeared, eclipsed by the metaphorical. (And while I can imagine a desperate astronaut in a 1950’s science-fiction movie popping “chill pills” as his out-of-control craft barreled toward the sun, that definition has never been in play.)

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