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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: social life


(1990’s | journalese? | “demanding,” “needy,” “high-strung”)

Certain traits go along with being high-maintenance in the popular mind: high volume, high emotional intensity, probably a high level of self-centeredness. But none of those is really necessary. You can be affectless and depressed, or even pleasant and calm, while still requiring lots of attention. Though the phrase may go with small children and the elderly — people who have the most trouble taking care of themselves — it is heard more commonly of troublesome people that one is in a close relationship with, family or otherwise. Friends, lovers, employees . . . Sometimes “high-maintenance” applies to the relationship itself. But the lowest common denominator of the expression is extorting effort from others. We often assume that a low-maintenance person is low-key and easy to be around, but it seems to me the true opposite of a high-maintenance person is someone who insists on being left alone.

Various on-line dictionaries tell you that “high-maintenance” as a compound adjective was first applied to machinery, materials, and other products of the industrial age. True as far as it goes, but Google Books and LexisNexis suggest that it was rare before 1980. When it did start to show up as a compound adjective, it modified plants, lawns, and gardens. When first applied to persons, it conveyed something closely analogous: the idea that one needed lots of high-priced care, including but not limited to hours at the salon, workouts, expensive clothes and meals, plastic surgery, etc. (See, for example, this recent exchange between Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, in which Streep credits Nora Ephron with inventing the current use of “high-maintenance.”) Not until well into the nineties did it refer to conduct and personality as opposed to appearance or means of support. “High-maintenance” may also be applied to animals, or activities and processes, especially relationships. When used of a computer program or automobile, it feels less like a survival of the old mechanical applications of the term and more like an offshoot of “He’s so high-maintenance.”

The phrase belongs to a family with other expressions I’ve covered: “drama queen,” “diva,” “control freak,” “workaholic,” and in a backhanded way, “interpersonal skills” (required to deal with the above). A little ghetto of new expressions devoted to the difficult among us. Cf. “passive-aggressive.” “Alpha male,” “foodie,” “hipster” are distant cousins. “Trophy wife” is linked along a different axis; “high-maintenance” (in its slightly older sense of tending lavishly to one’s appearance and requiring expensive goods and services) might as well have been created to describe them. “Trophy wife” also reminds us that the phrase is used more often of women than of men; when used of men, it’s generally athletes, actors, and other performers. One blogger noted recently that the expression is “a not-so-subtle misogynist code word, usually deployed to take certain women down a notch.” An insult, in other words, and “high-maintenance” is rarely understood as a favorable description. There is a definite gender distinction at work, too. When you use “high maintenance” to mean “requiring patience and forbearance of others,” it can be applied to any gender — probably more often to women than men, but the imbalance is not so noticeable. When it means “requiring elaborate efforts to maintain looks and status,” it’s applied only to women. Another unfair double bind: as a society we sneer at the expense and trouble women must incur in order to look as we expect them to, but we dismiss or attack them when they don’t.

The equation above of “high maintenance” and “high-strung” is admittedly questionable, but I think if you took a group of people that would generally be described as high-maintenance and transported them back in time fifty years, a lot of them would have been described by residents of that era as “high-strung.” They aren’t synonyms, but there’s a lot of overlap.

Thanks to lovely Liz from Queens for rescuing this expression from deep storage on one of my lists and moving it front and center!


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sounds like a plan

(1990’s | “good idea,” “I like it,” “makes sense,” “agreed”)

I’ve thought it over for, y’know, like, five or ten minutes, and I’ve concluded that what’s notable about this expression is how invariably it is used in an encouraging, affirming, or favorable way. Nearly always, it betokens assent, even pleasure, in another’s proposal. Occasionally it partakes of subtle irony, but rarely is it used in flat-out sarcasm in the manner of “my work here is done.” But it easily could be. Starting the phrase with “sounds like” invites the rejoinder “but it isn’t!” And then there’s that plan — not much to hang your hat on. (Forget the plan; let’s see some results!) But despite the snark signals, the expression connotes approval; when used interrogatively, same thing — you’re making a proposal that you expect to be accepted. Even though the phrase is still available in normal discourse, as in “sounds like a plan to/for/that . . .,” it has become a fixed expression, with well-established usage patterns and spoken intonation (accent on “sounds,” with “plan” taking the secondary emphasis and “like a” an appoggiatura between them).

It started to show up in LexisNexis around 1990, with no obvious origin; it may have been most common among sportswriters at first. It crept in over the course of the decade and was generally available by 2000, though it seemed relatively new even then. Now it’s not unusual for a new expression to lack a plain, satisfying etiology, and the ones that do are generally more striking semantically than this one, which can’t even really be considered an idiom. If it has a story, I haven’t found it.

The acronym is SLAP, which I didn’t notice until I googled the expression and discovered a company called “Sounds Like a Plan Promotions,” or SLAP Promo. Not bad, but SLAP has not made its way into the ranks of texting abbreviations, as far as I know (again, there’s no reason it shouldn’t have). There is also a board game titled “Sounds Like a Plan,” but apparently it’s out of print. The expression may have passed its peak; LexisNexis didn’t turn up many examples from the past year. I still hear people say it now and then, but it doesn’t have the cachet it used to. It’s possible that in a generation kids will not understand it. And what will they make of it if they come across it on Maybe they will understand it as ironic and push it in the direction it always wanted to go (according to me, anyway) but never did.

A prize to lovely Liz from Queens for nominating this expression! And for putting up with me these ten years.

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(2000’s? | “excuse me!,” “are you crazy?,” “what the hell are you doing?”)

Oh, hell, I don’t know where this came from. Or when, though I recall hearing it in the 1990’s, after I moved to New York. It’s something you hear more often in the city, I would guess. Was it someone’s catch phrase? Another obstacle: I’m not sure how it should be punctuated. It rises at the end, like a question, but it always bears considerable emphasis, so it seems like it should take an exclamation point. The only solution is the old comic-strip stand-by, “?!”

When used in this way, “hello” covers a lot of ground. It always has some edge to it, so it’s never perfectly anodyne, but at the weak end of the spectrum, it’s not much more than an irritated “excuse me.” Its shades go on from there all the way to “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” (Here’s another blogger’s comment on the range of meanings the word may have.) The bottom line, when this expression is used, is something like, “pay attention.” (“Hello?! Anybody there?”) You did something dumb and got in my way, so I need to call out to you across the wide moat of your self-absorption. What better way to do so than with a friendly greeting, only lightly tinged with the exasperation your conduct has occasioned? It’s related to the wake-up call, but on a humbler scale. At least, when we use the word in direct address, that’s a fair summary. But it’s also commonly used in recounting conversations, as in the following hypothetical example: “and he said, ‘That’s not important.’ Hello?! He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” The point is not that the speaker is saying “hello?!” to the jerk, but that she is using the word to comment on his obtuseness to a third party.

Whenever I hear “hello?!” used this way, I flash back to the scene from almost any 1930’s movie in which a harried man in a telephone booth struggles to talk to someone over a bad connection. The intonation is pretty much the same, rising at the end (but a little less interrogative in the telephone booth), and exasperation colors both the old scene and our modern usage. The echo is aural, not semantic, since “hello” means something entirely different as used now. But the phonetic resemblance is so strong that I always expect to hear the victim of an annoyance to say, “Hello?! Operator?”

wake-up call

(late 1980’s | journalese? | “warning (to us all),” “shot across the bow,” “(sobering) reminder,” “attention-getter”)

The transition from a boring, literal term used only in hotels to a flourishing one available in almost any context took place rapidly in the late 1980’s, driven mostly by political journalists, as far as I can tell. I found two quotations from 1984 that likely helped change the course of this word forever, both from men named George. First, an oblique instance: Secretary of State George Shultz (reported in the Washington Post, November 7, 1984) “actually shouting his insistence that we ‘wake up’ to terrorism as ‘an international form of warfare . . . directed largely against us and our way of life.’” The article goes on to refer to Shultz’s “wake-up call,” without attributing the expression to Shultz. Maybe that doesn’t convince you, but here’s a beautiful transitional form from George F. Will’s critique of Ronald Reagan’s debate performance (October 9, 1984): “Rrrrriiiiiinnnnnggggg. ‘Good morning, Mr. President, this is your wake-up call. The time is October and the temperature is colder than you think.’” It is set up as a literal telephone call, but in context clearly denotes “means of pointing out a problem,” as we use it now. Before the fall of 1984, the phrase was almost never used figuratively; afterwards, such use increased greatly until it was quite common by the end of the decade. We must always give credit where it’s due, even to George Will.

This was one of those words that people didn’t bother to define and doubtless didn’t have to. When we need to be roused from our civic slumbers, whether the crisis arises from local zoning conflicts or the international banking system, events have a way of conspiring to do it for us. (Of course, we use the term for private matters, too.) Wake-up calls are invariably delivered by misfortune and alert us only to difficulties and disasters. You’ll never hear, “Gee, the potluck dinner was a big success. That was a real wake-up call. We need to have more potluck dinners.” It’s strictly a term of ill omen.

I recall that this expression got a big workout right after 9/11, and LexisNexis shows a spike in use during September and October 2001, but it didn’t persist. The phrase was already well-established, and in fact almost any crisis will elicit more instances for a while, until we doze off again.

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