Skip to content

Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: standup comedy

stand-up guy

(1970’s | journalese? politese? | “someone you can count on,” “mensch,” “rock”)

Quite a stand of “stands” we’ve cultivated in English — I’ve but scratched the surface in memorializing “stand down” and “standalone.” “Stand up” has its own roster of expressions, any of which could be the root of “stand-up guy.” My notion is that the original use was weighted more heavily toward the idea of standing up to someone, such as a bully, or something, such as a faceless bureaucracy. Willing to resist, or at least show spirit in defense of one’s values or allies. But there’s also “stand up for,” to defend, which is the same idea but plays out differently. You can stand up to someone by standing up for something, of course; the phrases work together well. An older expression, “stand up and be counted,” could also be an ancestor, though the connection is not as clear. But it is quite clear that a stand-up guy would never stand anyone up.

The expression is always laudatory, but its precise meaning may be hard to pin down. It seems to reach into three separate but overlapping circles of a Venn diagram: the honest and honorable; the tough and brave; and the reliable and trustworthy. Stand-up guys exhibit at least one of those sets of traits and quite possibly more. I do get the sense that reliability is very often part of what we appeal to when we use this expression, at least in everyday life. It’s not as spectacular as the feisty aspects, but a stand-up guy is someone who steps up time after time. You don’t earn the distinction by doing the right thing once; you have to do it again and again, showing those affected that you will back them up whenever they need it.

“Stand-up guy” doesn’t seem to have anything to do with “stand-up comedian,” a term that appears to have arisen a little earlier and might also be an influence. Here standing up is a literal description of what the performer does, but it’s also an indication of what she doesn’t do — act, sing, perform tricks, etc. A stand-up comedian just stands there and talks. It is a neutral term for a certain kind of performer and doesn’t convey praise, unlike “stand-up guy.”

A notable feature of this week’s expression is that it is invariable — cf. “smartest guy in the room,” which admits of substitutions. I don’t know what you call a woman who displays the same characteristics. “Guy” is a funny word. As a man’s name, it means “guide” or “leader.” Its use as a common term for adult man came into being in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and according to Webster’s Second, it was at first derogatory. In fact, the word had referred to an effigy of Guy Fawkes, or any grotesque or distorted effigy, so when it was first used to refer to living persons, it’s not surprising that it took on a negative tinge. (It could also denote a funny-looking or oddly dressed man.) But by mid-century in the U.S. it had lost all that and turned into a standard, if slightly slangy, term; today it is perhaps the most frequently used. (“Guys” in the plural may refer to women, but you would not use the singular to refer to one woman). It still retains a bit of the old insulting quality, to my ear, when used in direct address; “Hey, buddy” may or may not be friendly, but “Hey, guy” never is. Under most circumstances it sounds quite natural, and the odd phrase like “stand-up guy” may even lend it a celebratory air.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,