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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: sports

take to the next level

(1980’s | athletese? journalese (arts)? | “push myself (etc.) harder,” “move up,” “graduate”)

There was always a next level, of course. In any hierarchy, any given rank — except the top and bottom — has another above and below it. “Go to the next level” could be used easily in such a context: get promoted, or (less often) get demoted. It might even turn up in a building evacuation plan. It was an uncomplicated expression with little or no metaphorical dimension.

The form of the phrase is fixed, though the verb may vary (“go” or “move” frequently stand in). “Take to the next level” has two obvious interpretations which are not exclusive but which have much different significances. One is playing the same game better. Another is playing the same game in a better league. In athletese, the former usage has become the norm, but the latter is more common elsewhere. Take, for example, an outstanding college athlete joining the NFL or NBA draft; suppose he says “I’m taking my game to the next level.” My contention is that we would hear that to mean, “I’m going to improve as a player” rather than “I’ll be playing in a higher league.” In other cases — such as in a financial context, in entertainment journalism, even in international relations — it means being promoted, in effect; bettering your own or someone else’s performance, or just changing the situation so much that you break into a new stage, or provoke a new intensity. Often, the point of taking it to the next level is outdoing another person or overshadowing an earlier event. The expression turns up frequently in discussions of relationships, where taking it to the next level denotes getting serious — going steady or becoming engaged, for example. Such a usage may bear a hint of improving one’s performance as a romantic partner, but it partakes more of the idea of a different league.

Most people probably hear it now as an athlete’s expression, but there were some early instances in performance reviews, and in the earliest days it didn’t seem more likely to appear in one than in the other. I’m not sure who got hold of it first — artswriters or sportswriters — but by the end of the eighties one was already more apt to hear it from athletes. In either case, it suggests an advancement outside an established hierarchy, as in a team or player summoning resources not normally available for a big game or a stretch run. It might be a pitcher adding a new delivery that will fool hitters, or a guard taking extra shooting practice so she’ll be more reliable in game situations. On the one hand, it is something athletes are always trying to do: develop their abilities and win more often. Yet the phrase gets trotted out most often before a big game or series. One must reach deep inside oneself and find new strength and skill to defeat a formidable opponent.

The expression is quite similar to “raise your game” and is used in the same way at the same junctures. It has a bit more of a mystical side to it, I would say. You can prepare to raise your game on the practice field, but taking it to the next level requires finding something you didn’t know was there, an unguessed reservoir of will, adrenaline, and physical ability that leads to victory. That’s how I hear it, anyway. On the field there’s probably no way to tell preparation from inspiration, certainly not for the spectators, and maybe not for the players themselves.

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step up

(1990’s | athletese | “rise to the occasion,” “step in,” “do your part,” “take a stand”)

I’ll tell you what’s up: “Step up” used to be transitive. Now it has a well-established intransitive use. That sort of thing happens now and then, but I think not very many people notice. We grumpy grammarians, on the other hand . . .

It was still transitive most of the time in 1990, but the intransitive had emerged, primarily among athletes. Other verbs, including “ramp up” and “ratchet up,” have made space for “step up” to meander into another meaning. “Step up” meant “increase” or “augment,” also sometimes “increase the pace of.” These senses have not disappeared, but they have been joined by “step up” shorn of all its appendages, used to mean take charge of handling a problem or situation (it crops up a lot in crunch time). When it was transitive, even if it didn’t have an object, it was followed by a prepositional phrase, notably “to the plate.” That expression is likely the progenitor of today’s use, which may be followed by an infinitive, as in “step up to make sure the job is done,” but more often closes a clause or sentence.

As so much athletes’ vocabulary does, this has spread to politicians and businessmen. “Who will step up?” has a ring to it, it’s true, although “step up” also sounds like a kind of baby dog. To me it evokes a medal-winning Olympic athlete mounting the podium, or the older expression “step forward” (think of a line of soldiers, a few of whom have stood forth to volunteer for a dangerous assignment). Stepping up emphasizes crucial duty more than unpleasant duty, but the latter implication can definitely creep in. I’ve covered a couple other locutions like it — “designated driver,” “real MVP,” “take one for the team” — that express a blend of solidarity and heroism that may be found in the humblest office or in the seventh game of the World Series. I haven’t covered “stand-up guy” (not “step-up guy”) but that’s part of the group, too.

It’s not easy to pin down precise opposites. (“Step down” is not one of them, although you might step down after failing to step up.) The most direct, I think, are “flop” or “fall down on the job” — not nearly so pithy — and a less closely linked but still related antonym is “stand down,” which refers to disengagement, which may in turn result from failure. You can try to go above and beyond and fall short, or you can simply back away from the problem and leave it to others; either would constitute a failure to step up. When you use the past tense, you’re implying pretty strongly that the intervention was successful; it isn’t nearly so common to say “so-and-so stepped up” when he gave it his best shot but didn’t pull it off. (“He gave it his best shot” wouldn’t make a bad epitaph, would it? Some rich ambiguities there.)

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crunch time

(1980’s | journalese? | “when the chips are down,” “time to get down to brass tacks”)

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to notice the great “crunch” cluster. The word unadorned denotes an abdominal exercise. Then ya got “crunchy,” ya got “crunch the numbers,” and “crunch time,” derived from the sense of “shortage” or “crisis,” or, ideally, crisis caused by shortage. In my boyhood, “energy crunch,” which would have translated either as shortage or crisis, became common. (“Crunch” has had that sense for decades, but why? I’m not sure, but it may have to do with feeling crunched, that is, constrained and uncomfortable. See below.) The first examples I found of “crunch time” date from the late sixties, but use didn’t really pick up until after 1980, or so says LexisNexis. During the eighties, it entered sports slang decisively, but it didn’t originate there. The word has become less specific over time, as often happens; now “crunch time” need have nothing to do with shortages but still evokes crisis. It’s time to get serious and give it everything you’ve got — an impending disaster, a looming deadline, the end of a close game. The expression may be used in lighthearted ways, as the name of an apple festival, for example, but the more foreboding use predominates.

The root word calls up a certain sound or texture and pertains originally to chewing, and this sense underlies at least two of the expressions noted above. The fitness term is noteworthy because it abandons the sound that used to be a necessary part of the concept, while retaining the idea of grinding things together. As for the second, used of hippies and tree-huggers, the path back to the root meaning is pretty clear; those who live off the land eat crunchy (unprocessed) food, and the word goes well with both nuts and granola, foodstuffs long associated with the natural set. As I speculated earlier, “crunch the numbers” may go back to the idea of chewing up a big mouthful of cereal, reducing it to swallowable mush — thus, digesting reams and reams of raw numbers into a few useful trends or principles. I have an equally fanciful etymology for “crunch time.” I think of workers caught in the gears of a giant machine, constantly in danger of being crushed between metal teeth (wait, that reminds me of a movie). Or metal plates, if you prefer the garbage compactor in Star Wars. Crunch time is when if you don’t exert yourself and get the job done, you get crunched. Or scrunched. Or crushed.

It’s unusual to see so many different meanings in widely divergent fields sprung from the same root. It’s not like “crunch” has been around all that long — invented in the first half of the nineteenth century, says the OED — and just in the last fifty years it has produced a fine litter of idioms. I’m impressed.

“Crunch time” recalls an older concept, the moment of truth — also a crisis, but of a kind that reveals, or forms, character. Is it just something you have to push through and get past, or is it a more portentous test? Everyday usage doesn’t make much of a distinction. Any crisis might derail the operation, after all; any failure to come through in the clutch may sink the project and ruin a career. In a game, at the office . . . crunch time always carries the potential for heroism. We’re knights enduring ordeals or matadors preparing for death in the afternoon as we hunch over our keyboards, bathed in the stale sweat of stress.

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lean in

(2010’s | athletese? | “give your all”)

I sense the need for an anatomy of this odd expression, changed forever by Google and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. The first fork in the family tree branch generates “lean in” and “lean into.” The latter has been used for some time by sportscasters to denote exerting extra force in a certain direction (as a batter leaning into a pitch), or shifting weight on a skateboard or in a car to assist the steering (leaning into a curve). “Lean in” is more complicated. At the simplest level, it denotes a motion or posture understood to express attention, interest, or excitement. That is, it’s another way to say “lean toward.” Some time after 2000, the phrase became an adjective current among advertisers and entertainment executives, as in “lean-in experience” or “lean-in factor.” The latter was typically used in connection with exciting moments on television, conjuring the image of audience members on the edge of their seats, breathlessly awaiting the next utterance. “Lean in” has another application as well, as an antonym of “lean back” or “back away” — that is, as the opposite of taking it easy or retreating. In such contexts, leaning in is a sign of toughness and resolve. That would seem to be the most direct ancestor of Sandberg, but I don’t think it’s much older. The earlier athletic usage has a claim as well.

Sheryl Sandberg published her book in 2013, though she was quoted using the phrase before that. She preached ambition and assertiveness for women in the work force, or, as Lovely Liz from Queens summarized: women need to act more like men. Sandberg’s dicta have permeated the culture and spawned a women’s empowerment movement; the Lean In Foundation is a big organization, helping women all over the world learn from each other and move up the ladder. Yet a Washington Post writer declared the Lean In movement dead at the end of last year, after Michelle Obama drove a stake through its heart. More recently, Marissa Orr published a critique of Sandberg called “Lean Out.” Will “lean out” take its place alongside “lean in”? Will Sandberg’s addition to the lexicon lose momentum? Stay tuned . . .

It all starts with “lean,” which is tricky because it may suggest both a casual or relaxed tendency and much more concentrated force, as in the cases of “lean in” and “lean into.” “Lean” strictly speaking denotes any departure from the vertical in a normally upright object, and at least when people and animals do it, we usually have a specific purpose; we lean toward something or someone. “Lean in” has always shared that sense of purposefulness. To reach its present eminence, it had to lose its appendages, a step in the evolution of several expressions, including “give back” (other examples here). “Leaning in” once was invariably followed by “a certain direction,” “favor,” etc. Now it is a set phrase all on its own. In most similar cases, this slimming process results from a distillation of a number of competing longer phrases into a single shorter one. But in this case, the casting off seems to have come with the establishment of a new definition, imbuing the phrase with attributes of superior dedication and willpower. Not boiling down, but striding forth in a new direction.

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(1990’s | businese? athletese? | “shaking things up,” “causing a stir”)

A word of long standing, but when did it take on a favorable connotation? Not everywhere, of course, but executives use it approvingly now, unthinkable in the days of Henry Ford or even Lee Iacocca. Successful corporations have traditionally avoided boat-rocking and sought the even keel, but now executives congratulate each other on their disruptive business practices. It is not solely a matter of hobbling the competition; a certain amount of disruption is tolerated within the organization if it keeps employees on their toes, for example, or pushes a complacent division into activity. The buttoned-down set seems to have loosened their vests.

The first occurrences in the press that I found date from the late nineties, a few due to far-sighted business gurus but more from coaches describing the defensive unit, particularly in football and basketball. (Often it applied to a single defensive player.) I couldn’t guess which source influenced the other, but there’s nothing new about businessmen borrowing vocabulary from athletes — in this case, giving it more of an offensive than a defensive cast. By 2010 the word was ordinary in business contexts. Nowadays artificial intelligence and business models or strategies attract the label “disruptive.”

It’s a very forward-looking buzzword, associated with innovation, technology, and improved corporate management. Senior executives sling it around confidently, extolling the virtues of novelty and adroit exploitation of one’s strengths, or just crowing about how they’re going to mess with their competitors. There’s the usual tension between the goal of making the world a better place (if only for p.r. purposes) and simply extracting greater profit from it.

“Disruptive” is close to a newer expression — “game-changing” — and an older one, “revolutionary.” But these are both stronger than “disruptive,” which encompasses lesser shocks to the system. You can be disruptive without altering the playing field permanently or overthrowing an old order. It reminds me of Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of “creative destruction,” a hallmark of capitalism, which requires not just that single enterprises should fall so that better ones might rise, but that the rules of doing business, or other received wisdom, must fall to the new and improved. (Schumpeter believed strongly in innovation and entrepreneurism, by the way.) In today’s world, disruptive tactics are mainly intended to weaken or drive out competitors, but getting rid of rivals was always part of the entrepreneur’s toolbox. The fine talk of less able businesses fertilizing their successors didn’t disguise the fact that Schumpeter was merely peddling social Darwinism dressed up as economic law — yet another instance of trahison des clercs.

We owe this week’s expression to Will from Paris, a first-rate student of the language and a damn fine host to boot. He says, based on recent dealings with the corporate set, that this word will soon take over the world, and Lex Maniac wants nothing more than to get in on the rez-de-chaussée. Merci!

January 28, 2020: An obituary of consultant and professor Clayton Christensen in today’s newspaper reveals that he introduced “disruptive” into businese starting in the mid-1990’s. His name did not come up in my sketchy research, but I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge his role in popularizing, if not inventing, the new expression.

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(1970’s | legalese? | “quarantine”)

A grim word. Before 1970 or so, “lockdown” pertained to hardware, describing a mechanism that held something firmly in place. During the seventies, lawyers and prison wardens began using the term to talk about a way to control prisoners by confining them to their cells, forbidding gatherings, visits from the outside, etc. The usage became standard quickly, commonplace in the mainstream press by the mid-eighties. At some point in the nineties, the word kicked over the traces and spread to other contexts, anywhere there was unrest (just as prison lockdowns were a typical response to riots or smaller-scale violence). Some incidents in the late nineties in particular gave the word a boost — the Columbine High School shootings, the WTO protests in Seattle — each of which drove a spike in sightings of “lockdown.” It was already shifting from something imposed by corrections officers to something enforced by police. At the same time, lockdowns took on the flavor of safety and security rather than punishment.

It was arguably a safety measure even when first discussed. (What was the old word for it? Was there one?) To us, “lockdown” suggests an entire building or at least a wing, but in the seventies, it was not unusual for a single prisoner to be put in lockdown (solitary confinement) if they got a little too crazy. The whole premise of prison is that you get put away in a holding pen, away from society, and that’s just another level — prison squared. But soon lockdown became a much more general affair, imposed on hundreds of prisoners at a time. That does have to do with safety, of the guards if nobody else. But as in the case of a single prisoner, it’s very easy to confuse with retribution. When you lock down a school, a civic building, or a whole neighborhood because there’s a killer roaming loose nearby, we’re all supposed to have a warm feeling, like everyone is doing their job and protecting the kids from harm.

We already used “lockup” as a synonym for “jail” — for some reason, you don’t hear “lockup lockdown” — if we hadn’t, “lockup” might have become the accepted term instead. I don’t know exactly why, but “lockdown” works better somehow. It sounds more drastic, more final than “lockup,” and therefore better suited to widespread danger and panic. (Cf. “shutdown,” “breakdown,” or even “patdown.”)

The spread of “lockdown” to hospitals, hotels, or even entire cities demonstrates two things. One is that lockdown is primarily a response to contagion, whether of violence or disease. That’s why it sounds strange when sportswriters use it to describe an outstanding defensive player; we understand but it sounds a little off somehow. But the continuing creep of the term into other fields (itself a form of contagion) reveals the seductiveness of the concept. Here’s an easy way to prevent harm to the defenseless, and who wouldn’t be for that? The fact that it also represents an expansion of power — of government or administrators of private institutions — doesn’t seem so important against the backdrop of pious evocation of security for all. Pretty much everyone would agree that lockdowns are at least occasionally necessary to prevent dangerous situations from getting completely out of hand at prisons, hospitals, or schools. But how often? Should we carry them out as preventive measures rather than as responses to unfolding crisis? Is it true that the more lockdowns that occur within a society, the more authoritarian it becomes?

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zero-sum game

(1970’s | academese (mathematics) | “winner take all”)

An expression that’s actually a bit old by Lex Maniac’s standards, “zero-sum game” was well-established by 1980 in political and economic journalism, and it retains a technical or bureaucratic flavor to this day. Its origins lie in mathematics, specifically game theory. In a zero-sum game, the gains of one side must be exactly matched by the losses of the other(s), so when you add the two together, you get zero. It might come up when finite resources are at stake, or to talk about election results or currency trading. A notable feature of this expression: the frequency with which it was glossed when it started to show up in the mainstream press in the 1970’s. As I remarked recently, most new expressions come with explanations some of the time, but virtually every instance of “zero-sum game” yielded by LexisNexis from the seventies included some sort of definition, even if only rough-and-ready. Certain terms draw our attention as they enter the discourse because they are glossed either rarely or nearly always (most new expressions fall somewhere in between, making the extremes noticeable). I can’t divine any shared characteristic that accounts for either state.

Like every economic or social science model, the zero-sum game is a simplification of what goes on in real life — a way of reducing complicated situations to a small number of “essential” characteristics, which makes solving the equations much easier. Sometimes the simplifications clear away irrelevancies and point the way to a clear answer. More often, they leave out significant factors and present a misleading picture of the underlying issues. It is important, in other words, to know how to recognize when the zero-sum game makes a good approximation of the problem at hand, and when it misrepresents it in more or less crucial ways. For the temptation to resort to zero-sum analysis is powerful, particularly among those who take a harsh view of society and human relations. It’s a great tool for social Darwinists — those who see human culture as an arena in which the quick and strong trample the slow and weak, figuratively if not literally — because the zero-sum game demands winners (the fittest) and losers (everyone else). The zero-sum approach is commonly equated with negotiating methods that emphasize imposing losses on the other party, rather than trying to give both sides part of what they want. Donald Trump is often derided, with some justice, for treating certain issues — immigration and trade come instantly to mind — as zero-sum games when both theory and experience show that they are not.

The zero-sum game does best in discussions of athletic or gambling competitions, where the winning and losing sides are easy to discern. (Note, however, that in sports such as golf and auto racing, the concept is less useful, because there are a number of participants in the prize pot, so finishing first does not knock everyone else out of the winners’ circle.) But athletic competition is itself a simplification that creates an arena in which we can sail past the immense complexities of everyday life and root wholeheartedly for our side, without equivocal undercurrents. That makes the zero-sum game a simplification of a simplification — that is, a distortion of a distortion — two removes from what happens in the real world, even when it looks like a good match for the zero-sum model. We need models, but we also need means of measuring their results and recommendations against what’s going on outside. Otherwise it’s easy to make progressively worse decisions until it all ends in catastrophe.

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help me out here

(1980’s | journalese (movies)? | “can you explain this to me?”)

This expression is somewhere between a command and a request, which may seem more paradoxical than it is. It is not intoned or phrased as a question, but it also falls short of a demand because of its lightweight character. Fundamentally, it means the same thing as “help me,” but sounds much less desperate, and it sounds more natural than “help me out” used as an imperative. For “help me out here” comes into its own when on its own. While it may be preceded by “can” or “would,” (but seldom “please”) to form a question, it loses some effect that way. Adding “here” adds emphasis but tempers it with casualness, putting the hearer at ease by assuring her that you’re not asking for anything too serious. Just a friendly request for assistance. The tone of voice has to be right — not too peremptory or pleading. We used to call out “little help” on the playground, as when the ball from your game rolled near someone else. It could be uttered with or without an interrogative rise — another expression that couldn’t decide whether it was a request or command.

“Help me out here” started to appear in LexisNexis in the 1980’s but didn’t hit its stride until shortly after 1990; the phrase started swirling thick and fast in the press around then. It probably passed its prime somewhere between 2000 and 2010, but still gets regular airings, no longer primarily among artists, athletes, and movie folk, but among those of all ages or stations. It was associated in its early days with talk show host Phil Donahue.

Phil was a good liberal who believed in working with his guests, and “help me out here” was a way to get past certain defenses. The expression aims ultimately at persuading someone else and has a sneaky Socratic quality. You don’t use it when you’re moving a sofa; you use it during a discussion to signal that the other person just failed to make sense and you are innocently seeking clarification. (The request might be directed at another panelist or even the audience, but it is aimed at your adversary.) Often the not-so-veiled implication is that the other debater is misguided or arguing in bad faith, but you don’t have to come right out and say so. This sort of use comes through most clearly when people are arguing about politics, but the same pattern appears in other fields as well.

Until I started thinking about this phrase, it never occurred to me that there is another place to break it: “help me / out here” (help ME, out HERE) which means “I am outside; please assist me.” I’ve always heard it as “help me out / here” (help me OUT, HERE) where “here” is tacked onto the end of the predicate. “Here” translates as “in this situation.” When you use it to denote a definite location, it sounds a little different. Take this utterance, from Boris Becker (May 25, 1993) talking about a new coach: “I’ve asked him to help me out here and at Wimbledon, and we’ll see how it goes.” The emphasis isn’t the same. “Here” takes much greater stress and loses any jocular quality.

“Help me out here” might be one of those set phrases that’s indistinguishable from ordinary language (see list under “how cool is that?“). But I don’t think it is, because of that pesky “here.” If you ask me, it’s descended from the old comedian’s lament, “I’m dying out here!,” and similar expressions. I just made that up, but doesn’t it sound plausible?

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it is what it is

(2000’s | athletese | “that’s (just) how it is,” “what more can I say?,” “what can you do?,” “there’s not a damn thing I can do about it”)

Anyone who reads the sports pages has long since grown tired of this one, now an indispensable response any time something goes wrong. Athletes use it to express frustration over their own performance, or the team’s generally, or a controversy affecting the team’s play. There’s no sense, however, that “it” must result from one’s own actions; any adverse circumstance may rate the phrase. The often unspoken sequel is “and now we have to deal with it.” “It is what it is” expresses resignation but not despair (cf. “roll with it“). Nothing to be done but move on and make the best of it. That’s why “it is what it is” remains fundamentally a forward-looking expression. What happened in the past created our current difficulties, but this phrase allows us to put that behind us and look resolutely ahead. And that’s why you don’t hear “it was what it was.” Why doesn’t a dejected quarterback use the past tense after a punishing loss? Is a touch of the literary too much to ask of our gladiators? Or before the Super Bowl, why not “It will be what it will be” (wait, wasn’t that a song?). Another common expression — I know what I know — seems related somehow. It has the same brute obviousness, the same logical assurance of certainty so certain as to be empty, but the mood differs. “I know what I know” carries more determination; it may even be a touch truculent. “It is what it is” is not uttered in anger or any kind of passion. Grit your teeth if you must, but this phrase has a weary feel. If you’re extremely irritated, you don’t use it.

The concept is very old. Nowadays we might translate Ben Franklin’s dictum about death and taxes as “When it comes to death and taxes, it is what it is.” (For earlier examples, try the book of Job or any Greek tragedy.) The expression draws attention to the intractability of certain states, which has led some commentators to deplore the way the phrase is used as a cover by people who don’t want to deal with their problems, no matter how crippling. (Here are examples from business and personal contexts.)

An observation so simple as to be asinine, “it is what it is” is even more tiresome than most apodictic statements. What else could “it” be? If “is” may be permitted to retain any rags of meaning at all (thanks, Bill Clinton!) it can hardly be otherwise. Does it differ from “that’s how it is”? I can’t see that it does, except it is a bit more resonant. There is rhetorical value in simplicity; if managed well, it lends a certain power, making expressions more memorable (cf. “that’s that”). It may even convey philosophy or profundity. Simple language may seem to express irreducible truth, forestalling further comment, which may be why it is attractive to athletes trying to get through the unpleasant chore of the post-game interview. It serves the same message as “end of story“: stop asking me about this subject.

Lovely Liz from Queens asked why this phrase annoys so many people. It appears frequently on lists of obnoxious clichés and is deplored with machine-like regularity by self-styled style mavens. The answer, we agreed, is partly a matter of its studied emptiness, partly a matter of how often it is used, and partly a matter of who uses it (athletes, celebrities). No doubt some catch-phrases become grating through sheer repetition — and this one, like “same old same old,” is not only repeated a lot but has repetition built into it — and a few, like “been there, done that,” have lost popularity after a few years of ubiquity. Not this one, at least not yet: “It is what it is” is riding a twenty-year wave and shows no signs of waning.

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ya think?

(1990’s | journalese? | “you think so?,” “isn’t it obvious?,” “no(, really)!”)

Some new expressions aren’t so new because they’re really shortened older expressions. Recently I covered “it’s not about you,” which falls into that category — the hacked-down stub of a much longer thought. “Give back” is another. “Not so much,” “thanks for sharing,” “globalization” in a sneaky way, maybe “people of color,” “got your back.” “Ya think?” probably is no more than a shortening of “Ya think so, huh?,” but it also occurred in “Whaddaya think of . . . ?” and “Ya think I (etc.) can . . . ?” Back when it was part of longer phrases, it was there to help set up the main event, not to boss the whole conversation around. Now, just like “it’s not about you,” it has acquired a nasty tinge in the process of shedding its appendages — in the early days, at least, it could be an exuberant way of asking “Could this be true?” without irony. (It may even now be used to second a statement you agree with, but even then it is a bludgeon.) Today, “Ya think?” means “you just made a very obvious or unnecessary statement” with the strong implication that only an idiot would have said such a thing.

The exact expression started creeping in by 1990 or so, slowly separating from its parent(s) and learning to stand on its own. A number of journalists used the phrase early on, not generally quoting interview subjects, so I think this may be a genuine example of journalese — that is, the journalists acted as creators rather than simply megaphones. “Ya think?” might be athletese or celebritese as well, given its early exposure among sportswriters and gossip columnists. “Don’t ya think?,” which came along a bit earlier, means simply “Don’t you agree?” But “Ya think?” is not its opposite. We already had “Who’d a thunk it?,” which had a hearty, naive quality that “Ya think” drew on at first. The spelling “d’ya think” was favored by Pittsburgh sportswriter and early adopter Gene Collier, tender of the annual Trite Trophy.

Punctuation note: I have no hesitation in spelling “ya think?” with a question mark only, but I don’t deny that it might in many cases also rate an exclamation point, in the manner of “hello?!.” In speech, it bears considerable emphasis, partly through force of utterance and partly because it is designed to create a pause by denying the other party a compelling reply. Only a few expressions that don’t include “what the hell” can carry both query and outburst convincingly.

“Think” is a tricky word to use here, because the expression is meant to suggest that the speaker was not thinking at all. If your brain had actually been working, the interlocutor would not have found it necessary to emit a loud “Ya think?” accompanied by an eye-roll and a healthy shot of sarcasm. (“Mentate” and “mentation” are handy words to denote cerebral activity that does not rise to the level of thinking. But “Ya mentate?” probably will not catch on.) The use of “think” sharpens the irony, reminding you that not only did you say something dumb, if you had thought about for a split second, you would have kept your mouth shut. Or maybe I’m giving too much credit to the “Ya think”ers. How would Rodin have posed one of them?

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