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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: social behavior


(2000’s | “embarrassing,” “appalling,” “repellent,” “disgraceful”)

The reason the word is so effective is that cringing is a very strong, primal reaction of instinctive avoidance. That which is cringeworthy is acutely shameful, disgusting, etc. — not just any old awkward moment or fleeting contretemps. The term so often attaches itself to the least excusable antics or pratfalls of celebrities (or anyone unfortunate enough to be in the public eye). For it is beloved of gossipmongers and social media addicts; anyone can humiliate themselves, but the word turns up disproportionately in celebrity journalism, or so Google makes it appear. Much celebrity journalism exudes more than a whiff of Schadenfreude, and “cringeworthy” suggests a certain pleasure in another’s discomfiture beyond the word’s primary effect of evoking the discomfort in oneself. My sense is that originally “cringeworthy” was used often in artistic contexts, to talk about a song, say, or a performance, that left you feeling sorry for the purveyor, and sorry for yourself for having endured it, too. Over time it has come to apply more often to situations, utterances, or actions that leave the feeling of having experienced something indecent, a low point in another person’s conduct that you would rather not have witnessed and can’t unsee, as today’s kids say.

This expression straddles the line between a strictly personal reaction and a social consensus about what is objectionable and what isn’t, which must go on to rank the objectionable things so we’ll know exactly when to start cringing. When you describe a text or act as cringeworthy, you are appealing to a set of boundaries that most people, or at least most people who have any interest in the field under discussion, would subscribe to. Each of us grimaces and shies away as an individual, but we are animated by a shared understanding of the awful.

“Worthy” as a suffix is not unknown, but seems kind of quaint. Praiseworthy, blameworthy, credit-worthy, seaworthy. It turns up now and then in surnames, as in Galsworthy. “Cringeworthy” was, in fact, the name of a character in the long-running “Bash Street Kids,” a recurring feature in the British comic book “The Beano,” and almost sounds like a name in a Dickens novel, but not quite. The mating with “cringe” works well because it too is an old-fashioned word. I daresay most people know what it means, but you don’t hear it much in casual conversation (the rise of “cringeworthy” may propel it into greater prominence). Two quasi-archaic expressions shoved together — a natural. Had the word been invented in the U.S., it might have come out “cringe-making,” but it is a Briticism; it was common in Commonwealth countries by the mid-nineties, a decade or so before it caught on over here. (A bit more history for them as wants it.) You do hear “cringey” sometimes, which means the same thing.

No mean Anglophile herself, Lovely Liz from Queens proposed this week’s expression. I say, thanks, old top!

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man card

(2000’s | journalese?)

The phrase begins to show up in LexisNexis shortly after 2000. At first, it was typically jocular, something that one lost (or had confiscated) upon saying or doing anything coded as feminine: enjoying a weepy song (or just weeping), watching “The View,” spending time on Pinterest. (See definitions 2 and 4 on Urban Dictionary for further detail.) The idea was to acknowledge one’s own lack of testosterone, or to make fun of someone else’s. The fact that it normally was something you started out with and surrendered is significant, redolent, if you are of the Freudian persuasion, of castration anxiety. (In the case of Bushmaster’s post-Sandy Hook advertising campaign, which became a cause célèbre, the explicit yoking of a big gun and an unimpeachable man card makes the connection embarrassingly obvious.) The usage conventions appear to have changed in the intervening years; now it is perfectly common to talk of earning or restoring one’s man card, and it isn’t always cute any more.

A man card is not something you play — it’s a mythical membership card (if you’re insecure enough, you can get a real one). There is grounds for confusion, because “man card” sounds related to other cards that one might play: “common man card,” “strong man card,” “family man card.” Phrases like “play the race card” have steered the language in new directions and come to affect how we hear such expressions. That kind of influence makes itself felt over time, causing changes in how certain terms are used or heard; perhaps in a generation or two “man card” will succumb and change its meaning.

The idea that masculinity is fully represented by a card you carry in your wallet is part of the joke, of course, with its implication that bureaucracy has gone so far as to define and regulate the oldest difference in the world. Who does the certifying, and who does the judging? What will cause you to earn, or lose, your man card? The answer depends on how your peers define masculinity. Even when the lighter side of the expression is invoked, having your man card revoked remains contemptible. There are sins of commission — reading Harlequin romances — and sins of omission — driving a Prius, because wasting gas is a God-given American right that real men must exercise at all times. Polluting the atmosphere? That’s a two-for-one! Your man card just got bigger! A different set of questions leads to the darker side of this expression. To some men, any hint that they are following a woman’s orders or advice indicates emasculation. Such loss of man cred may lead to an extreme reaction, including violence, against the insubordinate woman. Certifiable male behavior all too often comes down to aggressiveness, stupidity, disregard for others, or all three. Men complain a lot about being made to feel guilty for doing what they’ve always done; what they mean is that it’s a little harder to get away with being an asshole than it used to be. The man card need not evoke this particular tune — it may still be used jokingly or ruefully — but watch out when it does.

Thanks to redoubtable scholar and quondam blogger Mark from Montclair for dropping this expression into a recent conversation, which caused me to tackle it this week. Us mens gotta stick togedda.

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elephant in the room

(1980’s | therapese? | “touchy subject”)

Another expression that may sound older than it is — though Lovely Liz from Queens suspects it has been around for a long time, Google Books can’t find any examples before 1990. As far as LexisNexis can tell, elephants began shyly sneaking into rooms some time not long after 1980, and there are some good examples before 1990, but “elephant in the room” didn’t truly arrive until after that. It got exposure in advice columns thanks to an eponymous brief essay on mourning the death of a loved one by Terry Kettering — the elephant in the room being the brute fact of the death, which one rigorously avoids by means of trivial conversation. A lot of people read advice columns, so that probably had an effect. Sometimes the elephant is adorned with a color — pink or white — but that is an unnecessary elaboration. It’s a significant issue or event that no one wants to bring up — even though all participants know it is there — because it is sure to provoke discomfort, awkwardness, or guilt. Around the family dinner table, at a party, at church, at a political convention — the phrase has private and public dimensions. It may be used to suggest disingenuousness (because you’re maliciously avoiding the crucial point), but generally isn’t. The expression always implies that everyone involved is ignoring the issue willfully, but typically with good intentions, however misguided.

If “elephant in the room” is not an old expression, how did we say it before? I haven’t been able to come up with a really precise, idiomatic equivalent, but I might suggest related concepts, such as the verb phrase “tiptoe around a subject” (which might involve walking on eggshells) or the adjective “awkward,” which we still use to describe an unpleasant social situation.

The proverbial huge animal that I remember from childhood is the 800-pound gorilla, who sat wherever it wanted, a metaphor for the ability to compel others to do your bidding. The elephant in the room exerts a more subtle power by trammeling up conversation, effectively prohibiting discussion of a fact or situation that has a material effect on every other topic of discussion. That sort of suppression usually benefits someone, often those who already have an advantage of one kind or another. Maybe another way to look at it would be that the elephant in the room is the person who is powerful enough to compel others to avoid a sensitive subject.

As the noble elephant horns (or tusks) into the language in one more guise, I can’t resist rifling through the trunk (sorry) for others. The most common associations are sheer physical size, the Republican party (in the U.S.), and unnaturally good memory. If brain size is truly correlated with intelligence, elephants must be a lot smarter than we are. We also have pointless extravagance (white elephants), the D.T.’s (pink elephants), Dumbo, the Elephant Man, and the heartbreak of elephantiasis, a faintly comic disease as long as you don’t have it. “Elephant in the room” seems to be a simple appropriation of the most obvious of them, sheer size. If it’s not a big, overwhelming subject, it can’t be the elephant in the room.

They are not closely connected, but “adults in the room” echoes this expression and arose later, apparently during the G.W. Bush administration. A political expression par excellence from the beginning, it has gotten a considerable workout in the Age of Trump. The phrase attributes superior knowledge or more measured judgment to the “adults” who must mind the children that the voters have put in charge (if you remember the British sitcom “Yes, Minister,” you get the idea). But you don’t have to be especially smart, judicious, experienced, or wise to qualify as an adult in the room, just slightly moreso than the politicians. It’s all relative, and the standards can plummet in a hurry.

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get over it

(1980’s | celebritese? therapese? | “too bad,” “grow up”)

Somewhere around 1990, it became imperative to find pithy new ways to tell others to stop whining and face up to reality. It was part of a backlash against an increase in attention — and sometimes even sympathy — for victims of certain kinds of oppression or bad luck, which many Americans saw as coddling a bunch of weaklings and losers who were trying to escape the consequences of their own actions. It was around the time “political correctness” became another target of privileged people who were tired of having their privilege questioned. “Get over it” soon became a fashionable rebuke, immortalized in titles of a film and an Eagles’ song. It had appeared in print before 1990 — Sammy Davis used it in a 1989 interview, for example — but some submerged cultural dam must have burst around then that made everybody want to tell off everybody else. That river is still in flood.

“Get over it,” meaning recover and get on with your life, is quite venerable. (“Can’t get over it” is an interesting special case, meaning “still marveling at it.”) But “get over it” — imperative — is new. While “get over it” — declarative — is more or less neutral in tone, the imperative is another example of an expression uttered with a sneer, or at least the imputation that the object is unworthy. There’s also a strong whiff of “cut the crap.” “Deal with it” — imperative — arose in print around the same time and means about the same thing in about the same tone. Just as with “get over it,” it started out neutral but the change in mood adds insult to injury. “Get over it” generally goes with rubbing it in; two notables that used the expression in the early nineties were Clarence Thomas and Marion Barry — both political figures inclined to take opposition personally — telling those that opposed them that they had won and there wasn’t a damn thing anyone could do about it. The phrase belongs in a family with expressions like “get a life,” “high-maintenance,” “lighten up,” or “payback,” all of them aggressive or insulting.

“Get over yourself” — stop taking yourself so seriously — had a few sightings before 1990 but was clearly out there by 1995, already common in the worlds of art and fashion. Useful as a response to drama queens or narcissists. It’s obviously related to “get over it,” but it does mean something a little different; the emphasis is more on self-importance and self-centeredness than on self-pity caused by wallowing in perceived mistreatment. It’s a notification that one is trying too hard or blowing something out of proportion. “Get over yourself,” like “get over it,” always carries opprobrium. Unlike “get over it,” it doesn’t seem to have existed in any form before 1980.

The image underlying getting over any pronoun is that of surmounting a three-dimensional object, like a mountain or a fence. Get to the other side, put it behind you, keep going. That sense is very strong in the pre-1980’s meaning of “get over it,” which cast recovery from trauma as overcoming an obstacle. It remains in “get over it” (imperative), and it’s even clearer in “get over yourself,” where the obstacle is one’s own insecurities or selfishness. When you want to help someone get past whatever is bothering them, you speak gently and say, “I think there’s some issues you need to work on,” or “Don’t you think you should respond a little differently?” For reproof, we need short, sharp, memorable phrases. Somehow they always seem to arise when needed, or perhaps we don’t know we need them until they arise.

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it’s not about you

(1990’s | therapese? celebritese? | “you’re not the only pebble on the beach,” “you’re not so hot,” “you keep out of this”)

This phrase reached a turning point in the late 1990’s when it found new life as a standalone expression, ending with a full stop. Before that, it was followed by the parallel clause “it’s about so-and-so” or a participial phrase of the form “being (having, etc.) so-and-so” — if it was used at all. (It was not commonplace in print before 1995.) It’s related to both “get over yourself” and “take one for the team,” but the definition is a little hard to pin down. It generally means “stop thinking only or primarily of yourself.” It isn’t quite the same as “this has nothing to do with you,” because “it’s not about you” suggests that you remain part of the solution to the problem at hand but need to focus on a different aspect of it. Other noteworthy meanings: “don’t take it personally” (i.e., don’t let a perceived insult rankle), or occasionally, “it’s not your fault.”

With a variety of meanings goes a variety of attitudes. The phrase may be peremptory or pleading, snarky or sincere. The tone is usually at least a little exasperated, with a strong suggestion that the addressee is being selfish, though such an implication isn’t necessary. When not exposing excessive self-interest, the expression often serves to deflate self-importance. Those seem to be its predominant functions, which blend easily with righteousness or condemnation, since hardly any tradition or belief system admires selfishness. Christians are fond of the expression, often giving it a hortatory flavor, reminding the faithful that their religion teaches that they are part of an inconceivably great entity that isn’t primarily concerned with their personal happiness. (Indeed, the opening sentence of Pastor Rick Warren’s best-seller “The Purpose-Driven Life” (2002) is “It’s not about you.”)

The expression is potentially puzzling — see, for example, the pedestrian commentary on the usually sharp Stack Exchange — though not unduly so in my view. Normally when we use “about” in similar phrases we mean “pertaining to,” but that isn’t really how it’s used here. It’s more like “it doesn’t involve you” or “you shouldn’t interject yourself” or “act in someone else’s interest.” The use of “about” reminds me of a formula already common in my childhood: It was not unusual to punctuate a discourse on one’s desired goals or preoccupations with “It’s about fairness,” or “jobs,” or “being yourself,” etc. (The resemblance to “it’s about time” is superficial.) It made explicit the central issue under discussion. From there, it’s a short step to “It’s not about . . .” Yet “it’s about you” was never an ordinary instance of that formula, so “it’s not about you” was not a negation of a conventional phrase. It sprang up as a way to put people in their place, a perennial and necessary occupation. In an age of hyperbole and self-seeking, “it’s not about you” tries to tilt the balance back a bit toward humility.

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