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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: sports

old-school

(1980’s | “from OR of the old school” “classic,” “old-time(y),” “traditional”)

It’s a nice way to say “old-fashioned.” The point is it’s nice; “old-school” is a compliment. It’s not just the old-fashioned way; it’s the right way. It may be used to mean blinkered or backward-looking, but that is unusual; one encounters it much more often in an admiring tone. Some expressions turn sour over time and develop a harsher side (examples: aspirational, comfort zone, game the system, lone wolf), and this one might, but not so far.

Almost certainly a Briticism, the adjective phrase developed from things like the old school tie, where it means something a little different. In that phrase, the main unit is the compound noun “school tie.” (We should also remember the older adjective-noun combination, which usually had a sentimental cast but might also be uttered with regret or mockery.) Now the link lies between “old” and “school,” a compound adjective with or without hyphen. During the eighties it started appearing regularly in the American press in that form, in political and art journalism and no doubt elsewhere as well. Sportswriters and music critics took to it readily to talk about athletes or musicians who emulated performers of previous generations. But it has never settled in one neighborhood of the language; “old-school” can come at you from any side.

Smith Barney commercials from the 1980’s featured John Houseman intoning, “They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it.” The commercial demonstrates why we needed the phrase, even though “old-school” doesn’t actually appear in it. There was no one more old-school than John Houseman. (Though he might be scouted by other old-school types for using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular entity. Then again, if you hear it as “Smith [and] Barney,” it’s plural after all.)

While Americans regularly show a preference for forgetting the past, there is a countervailing tendency to respect achievements and personalities that came before — because they paved the way or had an auspicious effect on later work. It arises from a yearning for a time when we were wiser and more sensible; we look to the past to provide standards and guidance, not just a way to measure our own accomplishments. When it comes to moral superiority, our past has a spotty record at best; some old ways have passed on and cannot be revived. If old-school exemplars want to be successful in today’s world, they have to choose the right practices, customs, and forms of address to hang onto. If you do it well, it still pays off.

Lex Maniac has covered a few other expressions that evoke old times: artisanal, back in the day, epic, retro. They all have the same admiring quality as “old-school,” or at least they did when they started out. I’ll have to come up with some that look back in anger.

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tank

(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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crater

(1980’s | businese (finance) | “collapse,” “crash,” “tumble,” “drop,” “fall off a cliff,” “go south”)

“Crater” has always entailed a certain magnitude, not to mention violence. Its original meaning in English, the primary opening of a volcano, goes back to a Greek word for bowl. The noun has always denoted a big hole in the earth, which may be caused by rumblings from below or impact from above, from a meteor, say, or a bomb. Craters by implication are dangerous. If you don’t get engulfed in boiling lava, you may fall into one and never be heard from again. When used figuratively, say to describe a bullet wound, “crater” may be small in absolute terms but large in proportion to where it is. I dimly remember “crater face,” an affectionate nickname for high school students with heavy acne.

When “crater” takes the mantle of a verb — a relatively new phenomenon, even if Chambers etymological dictionary found a citation as far back as 1884 — it brings the same suggestions with it. I didn’t find many pre-2000 examples in LexisNexis; nearly all of them occurred in the financial press. Finance and corporate culture are reliable sources of American vocabulary, and analysts and executives often have a surprising flair for the dramatic. Whether the field is small (a single company) or great (the entire banking system), the verb signifies a sudden and unforeseeable decrease in value (we used to talk about the bottom falling out). The effect of the pandemic on certain industries — airlines, restaurants, petroleum, Hollywood, etc. — gave it a boost last year. As the economy craters, the frequency of the verb does the opposite. One might resort to “crater” when discussing roads or buildings, but such matter-of-fact use is rare.

By now the verb has become more common and has loosened up. Wherever it is used, the sense of a sudden sharp decrease is still the rule, but the magnitude may be more disconcerting than cataclysmic. Still used frequently in financial circles, the verb turns up more and more elsewhere, especially on the sports page, where it is not unusual to see reference to a team cratering (getting clobbered) in a single game or stretch of games, even an entire season. Other mutations are gaining speed as well. The past participle does duty as an adjective, which was rare twenty years ago (except when used to describe terrain or pavement). “Crater” is very often intransitive, but the transitive form, which goes back a long way, has been asserting itself more. (A recent example from a financial blogger: “Restaurant traffic is picking up after the pandemic cratered most of the sector.”) There is another semi-transitive use, when the verb is followed by an amount: for example, a stock’s value “cratered 25%.” That was possible twenty years ago but much less conventional. As best I can figure the percentage is really an adverb, but it certainly looks like a noun, and I’m not convinced it isn’t really an object.

“To crater” started as a narrow, specialized term; now we see it spreading its wings, eyeing new directions, acquiring variant usages, dropping from more lips. That probably means we will hear it more in the next twenty years than we have in the past twenty.

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trust exercise

(1980’s | therapese? | “building teamwork,” “confidence-building exercise”)

“Exercise” is an interesting word, a bit slippery. The root is a Latin verb meaning “drive forth,” “put to work,” or “keep busy.” The twenty-first century associates it primarily with healthful physical activity, and that usage has a long history. In the more formal worlds of law, finance, and government, it means “invoke” or simply “use” (authority, power, veto, rights, financial option, judgment), but it often carries a further implication of wielding these things in restrained or responsible ways. I don’t think the word is used in modern textbooks, but I’m old enough to remember when the math problems at the end of a chapter were called exercises, aimed at developing intellectual muscles. Most generally, it refers to more or less regimented or ritualized routines designed to improve us one way or another. Related phrases: “point of the exercise” (the reason we did this in the first place) and “exercise in futility” (wasted effort).

“Trust exercise,” like other expressions I could name, is a distillation. In the eighties, it was possible to encounter the phrase tout court but more common to find longer versions of the same thing, such as “trust-building exercise,” “exercise in trust” (now that sounds financial!), or “exercise designed to build trust.” With enough such variants swirling around, the emergence of the compact two-word phrase seems inevitable. (Another synonym was “trust game,” which sounds a little too light-hearted somehow. The most widely known manifestation, the backwards fall into a partner’s arms, is also known as a “trust fall.”)

I suspect trust exercises existed in some form before the mid-eighties, but references to them started growing around then. I hadn’t realized it, but there are broadly speaking two kinds of trust exercise: indoor and outdoor. The outdoor kind — rappelling, obstacle courses, etc. — demanded vigorous, cooperative exertion. That sort of thing was usually reserved for those with high-stress, high-intensity jobs who really depend on each other — firefighters, athletes, stock traders, and so forth. But lots of people get more out of indoor trust exercises: couples, actors, low-impact office colleagues. There are trust exercises for kids, for couples, or, to stoop to that iniquitous, ubiquitous word, for teams of every sort.

The lesson of these rituals is that without risk there can be no trust. This is not the simple faith a baby has in its mother, or a religious believer in a particular messiah. To build confident interdependence you need at least the perception of danger that two or more people can unite against. Trust exercises may be so formalized and superficial that they actually work against their goal, especially now that they have had thirty years to settle into the folklore. They may also combat mutual wariness or indifference within the ranks, teaching participants to rely on each other enough to solve problems together. Anything that helps convince us we can count on our colleagues is good.

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go-to

(1980’s | athletese | “preferred,” “favored,” “favorite,” “first choice,” “old reliable”)

Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I believe that the present incarnation of “go-to,” whether noun or adjective, can be traced back to a basketball locution, “go-to guy,” which started to spread in the mid-eighties. If anyone finds or remembers earlier examples of the attributive “go-to,” send them in. A go-to player was a star or team leader, the one who wasn’t afraid to shoot in the closing moments of a game. The strong implication was that the player was not only talented but unfazed by pressure. There might be several clutch players on the team, but normally only one go-to guy, and he would demand the ball when the game was on the line.

The phrase was picked up in the corporate world, where the sense of crucial contribution remains, but the emphasis differs. In businese, the go-to guy offers knowledge and efficiency rather than fearlessness. It’s a person who can solve your problem, but without any necessary connotation of urgency — although go-to guys come into play only when there’s something wrong, so there’s usually at least a sense of disquiet. The expression remains current in sports and business writing, having spread far beyond them. “Go-to person” seems to be the non-gendered alternative, but “guy” is still used often on the sports page.

In today’s world, “go-to” modifies many words besides “guy,” and it need not modify anything at all. “Go-to” has become a noun in its own right, and the young may refer to a favorite movie or a regular order at the coffee shop simply as “my go-to.” Two shifts are at work here: the adjective has taken on noun coloration (not unusual); and, more significantly, the adjective has taken on the ability to modify the inanimate. It isn’t only a trusted person who can get you out of a jam, but anything that makes you feel better. When “go-to” modifies a thing rather than a person, it suggests not only something you can rely on but something you really like. Whether person or thing, “go-to” carries the implication that one returns to it again and again, but that feeling is even more pronounced when it modifies a thing. You may need different go-to people at the office depending on your problem, but your favorite song is your favorite song.

The rise of “go-to” does appear to be a case of dumbing down. While “go-to guy” has an alliterative vigor suitable to the sports world, I can’t see why it should have spread so easily in the larger culture. There were already several ways to get the point across. We have produced a society with a strong bias toward the simple and quick; the less time it takes and the easier it is to digest, the better we like it. That might work when all your problems are tractable, but we don’t seem very well equipped to handle the complexities we confront. Insignificant in itself, the growth of “go-to” hints at a larger loss to the culture.

My old buddy Charles gets credit for nominating this expression. Happy new year, Charles!

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hot mic

(2000’s | journalese? | “live OR active mike”)

“Hot” as in “electric” — something that looks inert but can hurt you without warning. It’s only a hot mic when someone says something damaging into it. No one’s interested if routine news of the wife and kids goes out over the air (except maybe the wife and kids). The hot-mic moment — it also works as an adjective — is the bane primarily of politicians but can compromise any celebrity. In recent years, we find politicians having an easier time living down such embarrassments; Trump is but one example. Our standards have grown coarser and we expect less from our public figures. Hot mics now provoke jeers instead of tut-tut’s, yet they do less damage. Probably a connection there.

The phrase has another meaning among gamers, something more like “open mike” (before “open-mike nights” became a thing), meaning a player’s mic is picking up a lot of background noise and irritating the others. So says Urban Dictionary. It’s also the name of a platform that allows fans from all over to watch the same sporting event at the same time remotely, so you can see and hear your internet buddies react to this touchdown or that checkered flag. I don’t know if this is a post-pandemic-onset startup, but it sounds like an idea whose time has come.

I’ve covered “mic” replacing “mike” — standard in my childhood — elsewhere. As my loyal engineer readers pointed out, the spelling comes from schematic diagrams of audio arrays. The eye-friendly “mic” has definitively beaten out the ear-friendly “mike.” I hesitate to draw any conclusions from that.

hot take

(2010’s | journalese | “spewing bile”)

Thanks to lovely Liz from Queens for unearthing this hip phrase at a recent family dinner. We stand up for family values around here.

This is an expression ripe for decline, in that on-line sources agree that it has a very refined, precise definition. A hot take is a knee-jerk response in prose, in which the author tosses off a trite, predictable, moralistic denunciation of whatever bobbed up in the news today, more to keep one’s name out there than to say anything meaningful about the issue. It is a journalist’s term par excellence (history and commentary here). Now if you had asked me what it meant, I (not a journalist) would have guessed any off-the-cuff reaction, oral or written, to whatever comes up — instant, unfiltered. That seems to capture the essence without presuming too much. “Take” to mean “opinion” or “summation” is quite well established, after all, and “hot” might mean “quick” or “fresh” (see below). But actually, it has a quite specific, and pejorative, meaning. Expressions like that tend to lose precision over time, lapsing into vaguer and vaguer vagaries of definition. It’s especially sad when it happens to a rich, multifaceted phrase like this one.

Hot takes embody haste and lack of deliberation, thus tiresome recourse to the same platitudes every time. They are often associated with advanced age and whiteness. The primal hot take was composed by a censorious old white guy and delivered against some variety of youthful folly. The youth were not impressed.

“Hot” has to work hard, evoking both a torpid summer afternoon and high intensity and excitement. We’ve looked at two phonetically similar expressions where it has two quite distinct meanings, and that’s only scratching the surface. Burning, haste, enthusiasm, lust, passion (hot-blooded), trouble (hot water), freshness (hot off the presses), anger (hot temper), sensitivity (hot button), attractiveness (hot mess), spreading fast or highly popular (selling like hotcakes). Then there’s “hot and bothered,” meaning worked up, sexually or otherwise (another kind of excitement). Hotly contested (fiercely), hot to trot (lecherous or simply enthusiastic), hotbed (teeming breeding ground), hotlinks (old internet use, meaning “active,” nothing to do with sausages). “Hot” used figuratively is distinctive — always intemperate, fast and furious, unrestrained. Of all the temperature ranges, it is, not surprisingly, the most impetuous.

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throw under the bus

(2000’s | politese? athletese? journalese? | “blame,” “sacrifice,” “humiliate,” “throw to the wolves,” “leave for dead”)

Many on-line sources relay definitions of this phrase and speculate on its origins. The definitions center on harming another to advance one’s own interest, often with an implication of treachery or betrayal of trust, even a deliberate attempt to destroy the other person. Most sources specify that personal gain has to be involved (e.g., Urban Dictionary). That is generally true, although sometimes the gain is indirect, as when you throw someone under the bus just to get them out of your hair — ridding yourself of a pest more than acing someone out for a promotion. The phrase has a wider range of meaning than it is usually given credit for. It can also mean “abandon,” as an elected official turning away from a constituency she courted during the campaign, and “to scapegoat,” without imputation of backstabbing. These shadings are not obligatory but may rise to the fore. The primary fields of this rather vigorous idiom are politics and business, though it may be used most anywhere by now; it has caught on fast.

Some of the more adventurous language blogs trace the phrase well back into the twentieth century, but without any real evidence; the citations generally do not match our wording and seem at best to be collateral ancestors. I didn’t find any instances of the term before 2000 in LexisNexis, or anything similar. There are old jokes about such predicaments — There’s a bus leaving at 7:30, sonny. Be under it. — but the addition of “throw” was rare at best before 2000, and I can find no sign that the fixed phrase existed before that. In the spring of 2008, there was much speculation over whether Barack Obama would throw the Rev. Jeremiah Wright under the bus, and that probably gave the phrase its final push into mainstream language. (Note that in 1992 no one used the expression to describe Bill Clinton’s disavowal of Sister Souljah.)

The vocabulary used for this sort of situation once had a religious cast: scapegoat, sacrificial lamb. Now we look to the agent rather than the victim; the one who does the throwing gets attention while the patsy is forgotten. And a modern mechanized replacement seems fitting for the mysterious process of redemption through ritual burnt offerings. It’s a significant note that in popular culture buses are unpleasant — cramped, smelly, and none too clean. Surely it would be much nicer to be thrown under a limo. If the expression does in fact originate in politics, it may refer simply to the campaign bus, still a staple in the twenty-first century, at least until this crazy year.

One of the oddities of this phrase is the word “under,” which won out over more sensible choices like “in front of,” “off (of),” or “out of.” The former preserves the violence, the latter two the sense of exiling the victim. A couple other odd notes on this odd phrase: 1. The definite article is used a very large majority of the time, as if to say it is not just any old bus. 2. It is normally used of people or groups of people, but that isn’t obligatory, either. Single businesses or whole sectors of the economy may get the sub-bus treatment. After an unfavorable court decision, losing counsel might say that a law or principle has been thrown under the bus. And when a judge willfully misreads law or precedent, that is a betrayal not only of the law but of the people.

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stay in your lane

(2000’s | athletese | “stay out of my way,” “keep your nose out of my business,” “don’t make waves”; “stick to what you do best,” “bear down”)

Oh, for the good old days when this expression was used in two contexts: driving instruction and sports (football and auto racing). It had a nice literal ring to it, if you understand “lane” to mean “bounded pathway,” which wasn’t hard to do by 1975; rustic alleyways had largely disappeared by then and most people thought of lines on a roadway when they heard the word. “Stay in your lane” was rarely used any other way until 2000, at least. At some point in the new millennium, it was adopted into a wider vernacular, by which process it was divorced from any physical referent, becoming metaphorical and generally admonitory. While driving instructors and sportswriters have to reach to find an alternative, the rest of us, who have plenty of alternatives (see above), have glommed onto it.

Yet we use it in a variety of ways, which I will try to delineate. “Don’t go looking for trouble.” Then there’s “keep your hands to yourself,” or its milder cousin, “keep your head down.” It also means “don’t interfere in matters that don’t concern you” or “don’t discourse on things you don’t understand.” Perhaps most perniciously, it means “know your place” or “keep it to yourself.” In this sense it is used often by right-wing political commentators to inform uppity athletes, actors, emergency room doctors, and anyone with brown skin regardless of occupation that their carefully considered opinions are not wanted and they should shut up and do their jobs. It is not clear that this usage will win in the end. Most multi-meaning expressions lose all but one or two over time, and “stay in your lane” will probably settle down as well. And it does have a couple of more positive senses, which I should not neglect, such as “focus” or “play to your strengths.” While I can’t predict which definitions will emerge from the pack, I have considerable confidence that the hostile shade of this expression will win; there’s just too much momentum in that direction.

The interesting thing about the right-wing snarl is that it enforces a hierarchical vision of the world, in which the old, white, and wealthy do their utmost to keep everyone else down. Yet “stay in your lane” understood literally has a strictly lateral horizon; it means don’t move from side to side (in an environment where moving up and down isn’t even possible). The phrase has been yanked out of its proper dimension to enforce a top-down view of the world. I couldn’t tell you why, when there are plenty of other ways to get the point across. It may just be one of those things where an influential loudmouth used it and others picked it up, as happens often in the internet echosphere.

I’m not sure when this particular usage began to bob up, but it definitely has built up a lot of steam in a short time, and it is likely that left-wing commentators will adopt the expression, if they haven’t already, ironically at first but soon enough in earnest. There is not much communication between representatives of our armed political camps, but an effective insult or quip that shuts down the argument travels easily from one side of the aisle to the other. In an era that shows few flashes of bipartisanship, the infectious sharing of new idioms between left and right feels perversely comforting.

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must-have

(1980’s | “essential,” “necessity,” “sine qua non,” “what’s on everyone’s Christmas list this year”)

Sorry about this one, faithful readers (and anyone else who happens by). I’ve covered some boring expressions, but “must-have” may be the all-time champ.* (Which is funny, because Macmillan’s on-line dictionary defines it as “something that is so exciting, modern, or useful that everyone wants to have it.”) It has the hallmarks: several common, closely related locutions; absence of any semantic or syntactic spark; no connection with a celebrity or cool sub-culture, all adding up to a very damp firecracker indeed. So what happened? “Must-have” became a must-have, an expression we have to know to get through the day. Worse, it has spawned by analogy a new noun, “nice-to-have,” less urgent, but still desirable. If it catches on, it will vault to the forefront of the ranks of jejune nouns, joining “stick-to-it-iveness,” “same old same old,” and “must-have” itself.

The term actually has two different senses: what you might call the absolute and the relative. Sometimes, “must-have” signals that you really can’t do without it, especially with reference to particular tasks or professions (e.g., a pipe wrench for a plumber). But it is used often with regard to the latest craze in fashion or technology, like a Burberry scarf (no longer a must-have, but twenty-five years ago?) or a smartphone. The latter sense is quite common, perhaps predominant. I suspect I’m missing something, but it’s difficult to think of precise pre-1980 equivalents. “I/You gotta get this!” or “Wow, this is so cool!” we said excitedly, but was there a noun that rolled right off the tongue? “It’s the next big thing!” is not exactly the same and much less compact.

“Must-have” is a compound verb transmuted into adjective and noun. The adjective showed up first, and it didn’t take long for the noun to follow. It took quotation marks for a while, an admission that it was substandard, but was well established anyway by 1990. Before 1985, a majority of instances of “must-have” in LexisNexis came from the Canadian press, so we may owe this one to our northern neighbors. That’s a small group: “cougar” and “optics” for sure, and a number of maybes: “bedhead,” “cultural appropriation,” “food court,” “man cave,” “upsell,” “what’s your point?” all have possible Canadian origins.

“Must-see” is probably the oldest member of the family; “must-win” was already current among sportswriters in the seventies, though perhaps fairly new. Certainly it was in use as an adjective and noun by 1980, and it certainly influenced “must-have.” The nominal use of “must” (“sunscreen is a must”) seems like an obvious precursor, but I’m not sure what came when. Are there other compounds that start with “must”? I hope not. “Must-do,” “must-make,” “must-buy,” and “must-get” have not arisen (to my knowledge), and surely one can conjure more baroque possibilities.

* Bonus list of boring expressions: “anger management,” “been there, done that,” “best practices,” “distance learning,” “don’t go there,” “it is what it is,” “me time,” “on the same page,” “pick your battles,” “said no one ever,” “same old same old,” “sounds like a plan,” “win-win.” Send in your favorite!

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fist bump

(late 1990’s | journalese (sports))

An athletic gesture par excellence that worked its way down to the masses shortly after 2000, as far as I can determine. The fist bump postdates the high five, though it was known as early as the 1970’s; Philadelphia 76ers guard Fred Carter is often cited as an early practitioner, if not the inventor. But the low five — “slap me five” (which is what I remember from childhood, along with a response my cousin taught me: “here’s your change” accompanied by a slap across the face) — and the high five were more the rule back then. Tiger Woods in 1999 gave the first widely reported fist bump (“first bump”?); in 2008, Barack Obama exchanged one with Michelle that excited widespread comment. Time magazine, in discussing the Obamas’ meeting of the hands, listed other terms for it: “‘power five,’ ‘fist pound,’ ‘knuckle bump,’ ‘Quarter Pounder,’ and ‘dap.'” The fist bump encompasses at least two different gestures. One, which involves the upper and lower edges of the fist, is also known by variations on “hammer” or “pound.” You hit the thumb side of your counterpart’s fist with the pinky side of your own; then the counterpart returns the favor. The more familiar form requires knuckle-to-knuckle contact, with the knuckles up and the fist roughly at shoulder level. In 2020, that is how most people would picture it.

What is the difference between a high five and a fist bump? I don’t mean in the act, I mean in their significance. On the surface, the closed fist is more aggressive than the open hand, so it would appear that a high five is more hail-fellow-well-met, while the fist bump might seem more threatening. I have to say I don’t read them that way at all. To me, a fist bump signals restraint and moderation, while the high five exudes exuberance. Partly that’s because the hands are raised higher for a high five; fists have to stay lower for a fist bump to work. But it is also a necessary corrective to the menace inherent in the fist. One must deliberately hold back so as not to appear to be slugging the other person. It’s fine to smack your hands together hard when they’re open, but when they’re closed? Then you have a fight on your hands.

The complex of gestures represented by handshakes, fist bumps, high fives, etc. is indeed complex. There are at least two more in the penumbra that merit mention. One is the Black Power salute from the sixties: a single fist raised high above the head. I’m not sure it’s a direct ancestor, but it lurks in the background of the less militant fist bump. Another is the chest bump, prized among athletes, in which two people leap into the air and bang their rib cages together. It lacks the self-restraint inherent in the fist bump and outstrips even the high five in enthusiasm. Athletes have the extremely difficult task of playing with the utmost intensity until the instant the whistle blows; then they are expected to turn it off completely. Celebratory rituals soak up adrenaline and act as a safety valve, giving all that excess energy somewhere to go.

Although it probably had nothing to do with the original intent, doctors and do-gooders noted long before the coronavirus craze that a fist bump was more hygienic than a handshake. You may remember that in March 2020 the elbow bump took the stage briefly as an even more hygienic alternative, before the six-foot distancing rule became standard. Now we must look to our sports heroes once again; when play resumes, athletes will no doubt concoct new enactments of congratulation and triumph that dispense with physical contact altogether. And we will adopt some of them. Nowadays, even the most sheltered are no longer nonplussed by high fives and fist bumps. It won’t take long to add new elaborations to our non-verbal vocabulary.

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