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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: sports

man cave

(2000’s | advertese | “den”)

The evidence strongly suggests that man-caves are the creation of marketers, despite visible traces of the expression before the mid-aughts, which is when it starts turning up in bulk in LexisNexis. The phrasing likely owes a debt to the author of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” (1992), John Gray. While he did not, as far as I can tell, ever use “man cave” himself, he used the two words in close proximity, notably in the apothegms “Never go into a man’s cave or you will be burned by the dragon!” and “Much unnecessary conflict has resulted from a woman following a man into his cave.” In other words, let the old grouch suck his thumb and fiddle with his TV or his train set for a while. He’ll come out and make nice eventually. And if he doesn’t, it’ll be your fault. Gray’s biases aside, he was influential, and today’s more compact phrasing may claim his as an ancestor. Actually, the first use I found in LexisNexis is not due to Gray but to a Canadian columnist writing about house floorplans; she proposed that the basement be renamed “man cave,” because that is where men go to get away from their women. (She had in mind a damp, cobwebbed basement, not a home entertainment center. “Cave” is the French word for basement, so the use of “cave” is more intuitive in Canada than here.) Was author Joanne Lovering an early adopter or ahead of the curve? (Or ahead of the cave!)

But when “man cave” started showing up in quantity, it was purveyed by Maytag, of all corporations, which marketed a product called SkyBox, a vending machine for soda or beer that you could install right in your very own home. Fred Lowery, the director of Maytag’s “strategic initiatives group,” noted that “every guy would like to carve out his own little place in his home. Internally, we call it the man cave. And lots of guys, at some point, would like a vending machine in their man cave” (January 29, 2004). There you have it. Very soon, real estate agents began touting the things, sports promoters jumped on board, and it became a proper fad. No man cave was complete without a big-screen television and a sofa — video game consoles and sports-related items also popular — and if not your very own vending machine, at least a dorm refrigerator, maybe even a full bar. What you won’t find is a workbench. The man’s retreat in my youth was likely to involve tools and at least the possibility of repair or construction. A few men still favor that, but these days it’s more about swilling beer while endless hours of sports unroll before your glazed eyes. Well, not really; what it’s really about is male bonding or just having a place to get away from your woman. The corresponding “woman cave” has not made much headway, a few sightings in the press notwithstanding, but all the ladies have to do is wait; sooner or later some savvy marketer will attract huge sums convincing women they need their own gender-specific refuges.

“Cave” is an interesting word to use here; to my mind it calls up two different associations. First, of course, the caveman: brutal and self-reliant (actually, cavemen were much less self-reliant than we are). Primitive, crude, and therefore manly, the caveman lords it over his woman and slays giant beasts. Just what we all want to be, right? The second association with “cave” is a dangerous, unpleasant place where no sensible woman would set foot to begin with. They’re dark and treacherous, lairs of wild animals, drifters, or lunatics. Of course, that’s what he wants you to think, ladies. He has a giant-screen TV in there — how dangerous can it be? Just don’t get burned.

Why has “man” become such a common prefix in compound nouns since the dawn of the new millennium? Nobody says “man about town” or “man alive!” any more, but you can’t get away from “man-hug,” “man-bun,” “man-boobs.” “Man cave” predates some of these, though “man-boobs” dates back to 2003, according to Urban Dictionary. Is it a simple matter of dumbing down, the word “male” having become too complicated for us cavemen? Is it a wistful attempt to recover a lost sense of masculinity by reverting to the simpler (and therefore more primitive) term? Is it an attempt to express solidarity? “Man-splaining” and “man-spreading” go the other way, of course, used by women in solidarity, not men.

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all in

(2010’s | militarese? | “giving one’s all,” “bound and determined”)

“All in all.” “All-in-one.” “All in the wrist.” “All in your head.” “All in the same boat.” “All in good time.” Or you could just settle for “all in,” shorn of superfluous objects and uttered with quiet conviction. It means we won’t turn back; we won’t give in. But that’s not what it meant in my childhood. Back then “all in” meant “worn out,” “exhausted.” That definition was on its way out then, and the usage we see today represents a revival, doubtless an unnecessary one. In poker, it meant “having put all one’s chips in the pot” (which makes more sense). “All in” was a bit anomalous among the many vigorous expressions for states of lassitude. Most of them are straight predicate adjectives: “beat,” “pooped,” “spent,” “wrecked.” It reminds me a little of “done in,” but literally that means “murdered,” something much stronger. The old usage (citations date back to the nineteenth century in Lighter) is mostly gone, but I believe the term is still current in poker. (Ian Crouch gives a good account of the evolution of “all in” in the New Yorker.) In the modern sense, popularized by David Petraeus’s biography (2012), it also seems related to poker somehow, but in a more positive way — a confidence in the supremacy of your hand that causes you to bet your entire stack of chips without hesitation. But “all in” doesn’t connote arrogance or unseemly displays of power so much as steely resolve or unswerving attention to the task at hand. “All in” is what you are at the beginning of the day; it used to be what you are at the end of the day.

Theoretically it ought to be possible to be “all in” squared — bent on reaching the goal AND too tired to go on. But the effort required to maintain such commitment precludes helplessness born of weariness. Being all in implies that you have enough energy to figure out and make the next move, or enough force of will to overcome the newest obstacle. The other verb that precedes the expression is “go,” which reminds us of how closely it resembles “go all out,” a phrase much beloved of sports announcers in my youth. I don’t listen to play-by-play as much as I used to, but I have the impression we don’t hear “go all out” much any more.

“All” in itself implies a group, so “all in” should suggest effort toward a common goal, as in “we’re all in this together.” It may, but it doesn’t have to. It is possible to go all in on your own private project, but it might sound a little odd. When politicians and military people use it, there’s at least a hint of pulling together. That assumption of camaraderie is made explicit in what may prove to be yet another new meaning for the expression. Penn State University’s “All In” initiative provides an example, the motto being “A Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion.” Here the term is used very self-consciously to express the ideal of a tolerant, easy-going community. Donald Trump’s ascendance has given this sort of communitarianism a boost, and so I suspect we may see the expression used this way more and more. Keep your eyes peeled; “all in” may shed its skin yet again.

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victory lap

(1980’s | athletese | “bow,” “youthful exuberance,” “rubbing it in”)

I’m not quite sure when the custom originated of taking a victory lap after a race. The first instances of the phrase I’ve found turn up in the context of auto racing in the fifties and sixties, but runners have probably been taking them at least that long. (Victory laps are reserved for runners and drivers; horses are spared.) For all I know the Lacedaemonians or Athenians made an extra circuit of the stadium after trouncing the other, and being Greek, they must have had a word for it. The purpose of the act seems simple enough: it gives the adrenaline a little time to subside and the athlete a little time to soak up adulation. As late as 1980, the expression was restricted to track, racing, or occasionally non-athletic contests, like the Miss America pageant, already a small deviation from the literal.

In its figurative sense, the term is used most often by political journalists, though not exclusively; musicians and fashion designers may take them, for example. (In student slang, a “victory lap” refers to a year of high school or college beyond the usual four.) The first specifically political use I found appeared in the Washington Post, describing Reagan’s meetings with assorted government officials after he won his first term in 1980 (he pledged “cooperation with all,” as new presidents customarily do). Non-racing athletes also rated the term around the same time; I was somewhat startled to discover that as early as 1983 Reds’ catcher Johnny Bench’s last season was referred to as a “victory lap.” When a well-known athlete announces retirement far enough in advance, he may reap respectful send-offs at opponents’ stadiums as well as his own. Sometimes it’s called a “victory tour” to give the whole exercise a grander sound; either way, it’s all about adoring crowds, which is what politicians are after, too. Even today, “victory lap” denotes the acts of elected officials more often than not. As far as I know, neither man used the term, but the post-election travels of both Obama and Trump were widely described as “victory laps”: Trump’s thank-you tour and Obama’s last round of visits to European capitals. In the latter case, the phrase didn’t evoke any particular triumph so much as a sense that it was Obama’s last chance to talk up his achievements.

The rise of this expression in political journalism has given it an unsavory connotation. Victory laps used to be joyful celebrations, perhaps not always spontaneous, but at least a moment of innocent exultation shared by athlete and audience. A certain amount of self-congratulation was involved, to be sure. But the politician’s victory lap generally has more to do exaggerating an achievement or rubbing salt in the wounds of the defeated. It is a thoroughly calculated gesture, at worst malicious and at best indulged in purely for its own sake. Politicians are forever being taken to task for taking crass advantage of such opportunities for self-promotion, either because the victory is illusory or because the victor is crude and ungracious. That tendency hasn’t changed and seems unlikely to.

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show daylight between

(1980’s | athletese | “distance oneself from,” “move away from,” “disagree with”)

Now primarily a political term and has been for at least twenty years. It comes out of equestrian sports: space between rider and saddle or between two horses on a track. It goes back a long way among other athletes as well; Lighter found citations as far back as 1903 in sports talk. When a running back sees daylight, he’d better gain some yardage. Before that, “daylights” could mean “eyes” or “guts” (as in beating the daylights out of someone), an odd pairing. (“Lights” is a very archaic term for lungs, as in “liver and lights.”) Daylights plural and daylight singular don’t seem to have a lot to do with each other.

In sports lingo, “daylight” just means there is a gap between two things: a baseball and a foul pole, say, or two defenders. When you see light you know the objects aren’t touching. That particular meaning was next adopted into politics; by 1980, political figures felt free to use “daylight” in the athlete’s sense. By 1990, executives had it in their arsenals, too. Today, it is still primarily the property of athletes and politicians; according to LexisNexis, it turns up infrequently in any other context. Among athletes, “daylight” might be good or bad, according to the circumstances. But in politics, “daylight” always indicates antagonism of some kind. If it’s someone you want it known that you’re in conflict with, you may “put” or “create” daylight between yourself and the other. When an official wants to affirm unity with another official, she says there is “no daylight” between them. It can exist (or fail to exist) between organizations or countries, too.

Politicians, magpies that they are, love to steal the characteristic expressions of athletes, just as they love to hijack military jargon. I have covered at least half a dozen examples: payback, you’re history, raise the bar, slam dunk, punt, game changer, man up, and there are a few more that are less clear-cut. Politicians, especially male ones, may feel a toughness deficiency and look for ways to cover it up. Taking expressions from athletes and soldiers exploits their generally acknowledged masculine superiority and delivers to the audience an (often unmerited) impression of strength, vigor, and determination. I’ve noted before that politicians like to draw on military vocabulary, but their yen for athletese may also be worth exploring. There are other factors at work: “daylight” sounds like a pleasant, uplifting word, and the way it veils animosity also makes it attractive to the politically inclined.

“Daylight” should not be confused with “sunlight” or “sunshine,” words that in political discourse are used to talk about openness or transparency in government proceedings. The use of “daylight” in such a context would suggest a slip of the tongue or confusion on the part of the speaker.

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headhunter

(1980’s | businese | “recruiter,” “matchmaker”)

Forget Borneo. Headhunters today thrive in the corporate jungle, a much less straightforward place. The businese meaning crept into the mainstream press in the mid-seventies, when the word already had two definitions: the familiar anthropological, and the athletic. In the latter context, “headhunter” denoted a player who deliberately tried to hurt opposing players — especially a pitcher who throws at batters’ heads or a defensive player in football who resorts to dirty tricks. These usages have not disappeared, although the term sounds decidedly archaic now in an anthropological setting. The first corporate use I found anywhere was a book published by Alan J. Cox, “Confessions of a Corporate Headhunter” (Trident Press, 1973) — I suspect the word was already pretty well established in business jargon by then. “Headhunter” began to show up in redoubts of conventional wisdom like the Washington Post and Newsweek by the end of the decade, sometimes in bashful quotation marks, and bearing the usual wobbly word division — two words, hyphenated, or one — characteristic of compounds. The term has undergone one significant change in the last forty years: now, it applies as readily to a firm as to an individual. Back then, executive search firms were not known as “headhunters,” but today it’s quite common.

Headhunters search for attractive candidates for high-level positions in corporations, law firms, and government, often by prying them away from other companies, but that’s all part of the game. The catalyst who delivers just the right power player, or the pirate who makes off with our best talent. One supposes that “headhunter” in this sense is simply “head [man]” + “hunter,” but some of the stronger animus used in referring to South Pacific islanders or malicious athletes may rub off. The use of the adjective in Cox’s book title brings to mind a later phrase, “corporate raider,” and the implicit violence of “headhunter” is perpetuated there as well.

More recently, dating services have begun to use the expression to refer to what we might once have called “relationship counselors,” or, more innocently, “yentas” — real, live people who sift through thousands of profiles to find the exact custom-made helpmeet for your spousal needs. Any computer can spit out some compatible names, but a romantic headhunter who really knows his or her business makes all the difference. The dating game can be quite predatory, so the use of the term seems as appropriate here as in a business context.

Why isn’t the one who finds your new boss a “bounty hunter”? It’s just as plausible metaphorically, and just as violent. But what’s odd about “headhunter” is its mildness in everyday usage; it does not have rapacious connotations, in spite of its lurid roots. Such a suggestive term, such a banal occupation. They’re not painted cannibals or even defensive backs spearing wide receivers; they sit in an office all day and go home to their spouses at night. Somehow all the danger has leached out of this word, and it’s become just one more cog in the corporate machine. Bounty hunter? In your dreams. How about switchboard operator, travel agent, psychopomp?

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payback

(1980’s | athletese | “revenge,” “comeuppance,” “just desserts”)

It seems odd to me that this word came to mean what it does as late as it did. “Pay back” has never been the idiom of choice when it comes to getting back at someone else, but instances of it do turn up in many times and places. Surely it would be entitled to the same shift in part of speech as its financial counterpart, which had several nominal uses in the mid-seventies: at the most literal, “act of repaying,” or “restitution,” but often it meant “return on investment” or “reward” — in other words, “payoff.” A related adjectival use was found in phrases like “payback period,” defined as the amount of time required to make back the money invested. (In other words, how long it will be before the investment pays for itself.) That phrase is important in corporate accounting, and it may be shortened informally to “payback” (as in “payback of three years”).

These uses of the word are still around, but “payback” has taken on the more ominous meaning of “vengeance.” I found but two or three instances of the term before 1980 in LexisNexis in this sense, all in sports-related contexts. Sport is a natural breeding ground for retribution because of its competitive nature and because of how leagues work, organizing schedules that match the same teams against each other over and over. They beat us last year, but this year we’ll get payback. By the end of the eighties, athletes were using “payback time” in such contexts, which until then had been an occasional variant of “payback period.” As late as 2000, “payback” seems to have been mainly an athlete’s word, but now it has spread through the language. It made its mark next in political discourse, not surprisingly; you will hear the phrase “political payback,” which always refers to settling a score. When Donald Trump tells his supporters that it’s payback time, part of what he means is “I’m going to help you get back everything the [fill in the blank] have taken away from you.” It ain’t just money.

It has occurred to me that “payback” ought to mean rendering the service bought with a bribe or similar corruption, influenced by “kickback,” just as it sometimes is influenced by “payoff.” You see that every now and then, but it has never become common. It’s a scenario that arises rather often, so having another word to cover it would be helpful. Yet “payback” never seems to have stepped into those shoes. Odd, I call it.

In sports and especially in politics, “payback” is never neutral. It is almost always used to exult in the defeat or destruction of a rival. Although it appeals to a rough justice, payback need not be proportionate; messing the opponent up more than they messed you up to begin with may be desirable and is in any case part of the game. Winning a round carries with it the risk that you will lose the ground gained and maybe more during the next battle. Sometimes you hear “Payback’s a bitch, ain’t it?” The question is uttered with a sneer, a means of rubbing it in when you have skunked your opponent. But rhetorical flourishes are not required; “payback” in its nature bears meanness and resentment, a sense that one was bested unfairly and has no choice but to stick it to the aggressor. The only way to redress the grievance is to make the victor suffer at least as much as they made you suffer.

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no harm, no foul

(1980’s | athletese | “no harm done,” “nothing to worry about,” “let’s forget the whole thing”)

I’m afraid the obvious origin is the true one. This expression was first used by basketball referees and sportswriters to describe a “philosophy” of officiating; here is a lovely definition from 1958: “if the contact does not interfere with the progress of the game, a foul shall not be called.” The earliest uses I found attributed the maxim to referees in the Big Ten Conference, in America’s heartland. “No harm, no foul” remained the property of basketball people until around 1980, when it started to creep into the language of politics and law. It’s not hard to see that the expression might appeal to lawyers, in that it summarizes an important legal principle: There must be real injury — not just the potential for it or some theoretical wrong — or there can be no tort. The phrase is commonly used now in the law to denote an argument or strategy designed to undercut plaintiffs by demonstrating that they have suffered no damage. If no one has really been hurt, there’s no infraction, and we can all get on with our lives.

It’s an awfully convenient argument, and requiring a plaintiff to prove incontrovertible injury makes redress less probable. Harm isn’t always visible to the naked eye, and if the malefactor is clever, or powerful, enough, he or she may be able to do great harm without warning. If the government invades your privacy, or a corporation poisons your water, the effects may not be felt for years, but they are real. Sometimes “no harm, no foul” is used when there is obvious harm, as way of obscuring it, or denying culpability. Thus the expression has developed a definite dark side in legalese; now it may go beyond time-honored principle to something a lot sleazier: “Yes, we broke the rules, but the same damage would have occurred if we hadn’t, so we’re not liable.” Only the government or another large institution can afford to take this position in court, illustrating another venerable legal principle: money and power almost always win.

In everyday speech, the phrase has become a stock response to an apology, loosely translated as “It doesn’t bother me, so you don’t have to feel guilty.” As Urban Dictionary notes, it has taken on a kinship with “No problem” or “no worries” to complement its persistent echo of the older “no harm done.” More broadly, “no harm, no foul” has become an all-purpose dismissal, with shades of meaning from “not my problem” to “everything’s fine.” These days, it is casually tossed off in myriad contexts, not just among athletes and lawyers, but chefs, farmers, art critics, you name it. And it has become almost empty of any specific meaning. It’s one of dozens of signals that there’s no need to take offense, or we’re all cool. What little rigor it had during its sheltered life among the basketball referees has vanished. And why should we care, after all? No harm, no foul.

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mindset

(1980’s | therapese? | “basic assumptions,” “world view,” “framework,” “preconceived notions,” “idées fixes”)

This is one of those expansive words that has grown fat with use. “Mindset” goes back to the early twentieth century, but it didn’t spread until the seventies, when according to Google Books it started to appear regularly, particularly in writing having to do with therapy and religion, or politics. Now it is used everywhere, though if LexisNexis is to be believed, it is especially popular among athletes these days, a backhanded homage to the great Yogi Berra’s observation that ninety per cent of baseball is half mental. In recent years, some therapists have tried to retake control of the word by popularizing a standoff between “fixed mindset” (belonging to those who think they can’t get any smarter than they are) and “growth mindset” (those who rejoice in breaking through their mental barriers and blocks). It’s not clear to me how reputable this Manicheanism is, but it has gained traction in the on-line community.

We must pause to define the term, which I will do with reference to authorities. In 1983, William Safire described the evolution of “mindset”: “Tendency, attitude, or inclination used to be the primary meaning, akin to frame of mind; now the primacy goes to fixed state of mind or predetermined view.” The OED highlights “established set of attitudes, esp. regarded as typical of a particular group’s social or cultural values.” Safire’s contention, which is correct in my humble view, may result from the ambiguity, not to say polyguity, of the word “set,” which means “group” or “collection,” but also means “immobile” or “deep-rooted.” It’s a list of beliefs or assumptions that causes our minds to move predictably along certain paths, or it’s just the mind set in its ways.

When athletes use the word, it usually comes closest to “(mental) approach”, the quality that allows you to concentrate on the game and bear down harder than your opponents. Your mindset may need to change, or you may have trouble keeping the right mindset on the field. This does not correspond precisely to either of the primary definitions cited above, but it is related to the “growth mindset” discussed in the first paragraph. True, “mindset” doesn’t take prepositions as readily as “approach,” but a player might “bring the right mindset to the game.” The new word certainly does not preclude all the old clichés dear to athletes for generations: focus on winning, all I care about is the team, don’t worry about things you can’t control, etc.

There is a class of expression that lies dormant for decades, even centuries, and then bursts into the vocabulary. Other examples I have covered: “holistic,” “comfort zone,” and “artisanal” are twentieth-century examples, and some are older still, like “hurtful,” “ramp up,” or “overthink.” The OED cites “mindset” as early as 1909, but the word didn’t hit its stride for another sixty or seventy years after that. It seems like it ought to have come from the students of altered consciousness that had their heyday in the sixties (Timothy Leary talked about “set and setting”), but as far as I can tell its rise cannot be attributed to any particular guru, professor, or Esalenite.

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comfort zone

(1980’s | enginese | “groove,” “sweet spot,” “where you feel at home,” “good way”; “old familiar ways,” “rut”)

Among engineers, this is not a new expression at all. It is at least a hundred years old, first used by the kind of technician who studies indoor environments and how human occupants respond to them. (The term may also be used to talk about the outdoors, but it has always been more common among heating and ventilation engineers than among climatologists.) Specifically, the “comfort zone” is defined by the answer to the question: What range of temperature and humidity allows people to go about their business without sweating or shivering? Metaphorical use was possible but rare before 1980. A few advertisers adopted it in the early sixties — it was even the name for a model of brassiere — but it didn’t take flight then. The passage to general and frequent use seems to have gone through sports reporting, whether talking about fish choosing where to hang out in a lake or a basketball player’s favorite place to shoot from. By 1990 it had spread pretty far.

When this phrase started getting tossed around in the eighties, it could mean almost anything. A range of statistical values (e.g., An inflation rate of 2 per cent is well within the comfort zone), a stage of development (so you might go through several comfort zones on the way to mastering a complex skill), a margin of error (as in a hockey team feeling bolder because they have a good goaltender), an ideal position (as in an OPEC minister after demand for oil has gone back up), a close relationship (two friends who get along especially well have a high comfort zone), even personal space. The American people got hold of this engineer’s expression in the seventies and eighties and reinterpreted it gleefully and thoroughly. But most of these meanings didn’t persist; by 2000 two had pretty much won out. One was the athlete’s sense described above, which was descended directly from the original meaning. In the old days, the point of the comfort zone was to equip buildings with a pleasant environment, where employees would be at their most efficient, or where homedwellers would be as graciously cocooned as possible. The comfort zone was where you felt your best and did your best work. That connotation has held up, particularly in sports talk. But “comfort zone” has grown a complementary yet distinctly unsavory connotation. Instead of being the groove you swing in, it’s the groove you’re stuck in — where one gets trapped in the same old same old, the old reliable routines we live with because they’re too much trouble to change. Orators and do-gooders of all stripes enjoin us to expand our comfort zones, or break free of them entirely, so we can do things we thought we couldn’t (or wouldn’t), which in turn will free us up to experience new things, grow in new directions, maybe even reach our potential. It’s rather striking how ubiquitous this meaning has become. If LexisNexis is to be believed, the negative use of “comfort zone” has all but taken over the language, with all others trailing far behind.

This expression’s decisive turn to the pejorative was not predictable. One possible source is the idea of a stage in development I alluded to above; you have to go beyond your comfort zone to get to the next level, and, ultimately, attain mastery. But here’s a more likely example from USA Today (January 24, 1999) that may help explain the shift. “The students described how whites and blacks seldom interact socially at [the University of] Virginia, preferring to stay in what several students referred to as their ‘comfort zone,’ with people of their own race who share their interests, tastes and culture.” Sure looks like a transitional form from the positive meaning to the negative meaning. The students flock to those with whom they are most at ease. That’s meaning no. 1, right? They’re at their best with the people they understand the best. But you can see what lies around the corner. This comfort zone leads directly to distrust and segregation and the bad old days, allowing the kids to reinforce their prejudices and miss out on valuable new experiences. After a few years of that, a motivational speaker has to come to campus to tell them to step out of their comfort zones and talk to the ones who don’t look exactly like they do. “Comfort zone” was never entirely innocent once it broke out of the engineers’ ghetto, because doing the easy thing every time causes you to forget that you still need to work toward becoming a better person. Over time, this worm in the apple has eaten the whole thing, and “comfort zone” has become a term of repentance and reproof rather than relief and relaxation.

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trash talk

(1990’s | athletese | “needling,” “insults,” “bad or offensive language,” “insolence”)

“Trash talk,” meaning the banter or vituperation athletes exchange during a game, developed and grew out of the sports world. During the eighties, the phrase was encountered only in sportswriting; by the mid-nineties, it was appearing in political and arts journalism, and its denotation was quietly starting to spread. One early addition was the idea that trash talk was characteristic of defiant kids or adolescents. It was established enough by 2000 that it could be used jocularly in articles about municipal garbage collection; it had also been baptized as a verb by then (one that takes an indirect object, so you can trash talk someone). A lesser meaning that may have disappeared, but was available from the late eighties until at least 2000, comes from the rise of the sort of low-taste talk shows hosted by Morton Downey, Jr. or Geraldo Rivera. That usage was an adjective phrase, as in “trash-talk show.”

The phrase first conveyed slurs uttered in the heat of battle, with intent to distract, intimidate, or relieve tension. The fundamental purpose of trash talk is keeping the other player’s mind on something other than the game. And some great players have been notable for their skill in trash talking, particularly in football and basketball, where close quarters and violence open avenues for verbal exchange. But it doesn’t have to be clever; it can just be raw hostility designed to put the other guy back on his heels. Derision is the mainspring of trash talk, and the phrase always conveys animus. In politics, the idea isn’t to throw your opponent off stride so much as to blacken his character, so “trash talk” used in politics is a close cousin, perhaps an example of, negative campaigning. While the expression still turns up frequently in the sports pages, it has grown and spread quickly — the tabloids love it — and has taken on a range of meanings from empty rhetorical gestures to language offensive to a group (rather than a particular person) to slander (that is, discourse designed to trash another person). It may be something to take very seriously or something unworthy of the least attention.

I’ve always been a little puzzled by the formulation, because the primary meaning of “trash” is well established: something of no value. If the word were carried over literally, “trash talk” would mean idle boast or wasted words, vain statements with no action back of them. But the whole point about idioms is they’re not literal, isn’t it? And trash means other things, such as filth or perversity. As a verb, it means degrade, as in a reputation or a place. So “trash talk” may not be so opaque after all. “Talk trash” is older; I can hear it in my southern relatives’ voices: “Don’t talk trash!” “Trash” in that context meant nonsense, but it also indicated malice, so the command instructed us not to smear other people behind their backs. But it didn’t mean “engage in trash talk.” The athletes turned it around and made it theirs. I’m not sure if the rise of the phrase coincided with the rise of the phenomenon — that is, more and more ballplayers were taking verbal swipes at each other, creating conditions that demanded new expression. When I was a boy that sort of thing was still considered unseemly, at least among older fans. Players were expected to keep quiet, do their jobs, and not fraternize. True, there were always a few players known for yakking away during games, but it was considered a mark against them. Now such carrying on is much too ordinary to count against even the chattiest cager. And you don’t have to sit in the first row to hear it any more; players will cheerfully report it after the game.

One phenomenon that might have helped this phrase grow beyond the playing field was the rise of internet flame wars in the late nineties. Sometimes “trash talk” was used to refer directly to anonymous and (therefore?) hate-filled on-line rantings. Even when it wasn’t, the idea that it’s fun and sometimes necessary to flay a person you’ve never met gained currency, and the phrase became more useful as the idea took hold that our culture consists largely of insults bandied back and forth, whether between chat-room warriors or celebrities.

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