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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: statistics


(1990’s | journalese (sports) | “percentage baseball”)

Few of my few devoted readers being baseball fans, it behooves me to offer some explanation of this odd word. (Don’t you always look for chances to use “behoove” in a sentence?) “Sabermeterics” refers to rigorous statistical analysis, which begins by establishing a reliable set of numbers measuring the performance of single players and entire teams and then reinterpreting them, taking them apart, recombining them, and generating new statistics, thought to be more revealing than the old ones. The word itself is an eponym, “saber” being derived from the acronym SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, founded in 1971 as a small organization devoted to using statistics to understand baseball history. Nowadays, sabermetrics attracts more attention as a way of helping executives and managers arrive at the most effective ways to evaluate and use their players, or decide how much they should be paid or traded for. Now other sports have been bitten by the bug, and the concept may even be familiar to non-fans; many baseball abstainers have heard of Michael Lewis’s book “Moneyball,” an account of the Oakland A’s under general manager Billy Beane, who adopted sabermetric insights wholesale and built a successful team with limited means. (If you missed that, there was a Simpsons episode in 2010.)

The term has always been credited to one of its leading practitioners, Bill James, who has — not single-handedly — revolutionized our understanding of baseball. (Full disclosure: my copy of his “New Historical Baseball Abstract” is pretty much disbound due to wear.) He began a one-man samizdat in the seventies, producing mimeographed collections of statistics and evaluations of major-league players; within a few years, the annual “Baseball Abstract” was picked up by a major publisher. Since then, he has written several compendious reference books that have laid out new frameworks for understanding how baseball works. In 2003 the Boston Red Sox hired him as a special advisor, a post he retains. He has indeed created some very complex and arcane statistics, but they have become common currency in discussions of baseball.

There are two inspiring stories here: James’s rise from outsider devoid of credentials to respected insider; and the triumph of empiricism and scholarship. The first proves that such storybook careers remain possible, but the latter, it seems to me, has wider cultural import. The SABR scholars, with little to offer except patient, unremunerated toil, have applied a version of the scientific method to baseball, emphasizing observation, data gathering, and statistical analysis in order to reach well-founded formulas for success. And to a great extent, it has worked. Baseball teams can no longer ignore sabermetrics; the insights of those nerdy statisticians — “statistorians” as a pre-James pioneer, L. Robert Davids, called them — have become so standard that ignoring them is a form of malpractice. It may give us a flicker of faith that in the face of a rising tide of obscurantism, that kind of work still proves its worth and compels respect, even in a game as anti-intellectual and tradition-bound as baseball.

Like the sciences, sabermetrics ultimately proves itself through successful prediction. Why is it that sabermetrics gets more credit than, say, climate science, despite the fact that the broad claims made by climatologists thirty years ago have been borne out? It’s a much smaller audience, for one thing; most people don’t care enough about baseball to set any store by ingenious statistical hermeneutics, but nearly everyone has an opinion about climate change. Baseball has a very long tradition of statistical study, and there have always been a few “figure Filberts,” as people like James used to be called; outside of baseball, most people don’t understand statistical analysis and don’t hold with it, unless it happens to confirm what they already believed. In baseball, the goal is to win, and winning is clearly defined and easily measured. That is much less true in the greater world, where a lot more people win by casting doubt on human-caused climate change than by taking issue with sabermetricians.

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crunch the numbers

(1980’s | computerese? enginese? | “wade through OR digest the figures”)

Some new expressions engulf the landscape, washing over us all and forcing themselves on every ear, if not every lip. When we talk about common expressions, those are usually the kind we mean. There is another kind, though, not so ubiquitous, but unavoidable because the preferred, or only, way to refer to a particular action, process, or concept. So it likewise forces itself on every ear, but without the same unrelenting insistence. “Crunch the numbers” is one of those. It has become inevitable, in a culture devoted to amassing vast reservoirs of data, that we have a word for getting something useful out of all those statistics — once you collect all those numbers, you have to do something with them. There’s really no other word for it, and the phrase has become invariably associated with statistical distillation. The commonplace is formed not only from sheer frequency; if you have no choice but to reach for the same expression every time, it makes its presence felt.

The point of “crunching” the numbers, I think, is that they are reduced in size and complexity, like a mouthful of bran flakes turning into easily swallowed mush. The computer — number-crunching is almost invariably associated with computers, occasionally with calculators — takes a huge, indigestible mass of data and breaks it down. The expression seems to have arisen in the engineering community in the sixties and moved beyond it by the early eighties. It gained ground quickly, and soon no longer required quotation marks or glosses (actually, it was never generally glossed). Some expressions, though slangy and therefore not reproduced in mainstream publications until well after they’ve become ordinary, at least in their field, take hold quickly once they do because they’re easy to grasp and enjoy.

“Crunch the numbers” was at one time sole property of engineers and programmers; a few more professions may try it on now — accountants and statisticians primarily. The function of the computer, as envisioned in the post-war world, was to do many, many calculations per minute by brute force, placing vast amounts of computing power in one place and letting ‘er rip. I haven’t done the research to determine the no doubt lively expressions the tech boys used in the decade or two before “crunch the numbers” came along, or maybe it arose earlier than I think. It seems likely that there was no predictable expression before we started using this one, because we so rarely needed to talk about that volume and density of computation.

“Crunch the numbers” doesn’t share the taint of “massage the numbers,” or “game the system” or “fuzzy math.” A ground-level, first-resort expression must remain neutral, and the phrase is not generally used to question the motives or competence of those doing the crunching. “Run the numbers” is a little different, meaning “execute the formula and get the answer.” It likewise lacks any dubious connotation, despite a superficial resemblance to that staple of urban gambling, “running numbers” (or “playing the numbers”).

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off the charts

(1980’s | journalese (economics) | “through the roof,” “extreme(ly),” “amazing(ly),” “off the scale”)

Investigation has led me to revise my understanding of the rise of this week’s expression. First, the old meaning of “chart” is irrelevant; I haven’t found any evidence that “off the charts” has any connection with maps. I thought it had something to do with pop music charts, and sure enough, the earliest reference I found dates from 1956 in Billboard, describing a new record featuring Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby: “It has now registered very strong on all fronts and is just off the charts.” The little bagatelles of research I carry out are not what you would call comprehensive, but the phrase didn’t show up again for twenty years in my usual sources. When it did, it was in the context of graphs displaying economic data. Picture the stock graphic that goes with business news reports on television: the line with an arrow on the end of it zig-zagging up and down across a grid. Now picture that line sloping so steeply upward or downward in a brief period of time that it goes below the x-axis or rises beyond the upper margin. THAT’s “off the charts.” (After all, even the most successful record in history can’t go any higher than no. 1, and therefore must still be ON the charts. “Off the chart” was used interchangeably with “off the charts” in the eighties, another clue that the origin of our expression is not pop music charts, which are always plural. Oh, and by the way, when we say “pop music charts,” we’re talking about record sales, not instrumental arrangements.) The expression was used several times during the primary and general election campaign of 1980 by George H.W. Bush, and that seems to have given the phrase a boost. Bush also played a role in popularizing “out of the loop,” “you’re history,” and “go ballistic.”

Graphs and charts are merely means of making economic data quickly intelligible, so other kinds of statistics — demographic, medical, meteorological — could go off the charts, too. Music sales rankings definitely did spawn a closely related term, “knock (or fall) off the charts,” also available before 1980. That use represents an early stage in the evolution of this phrase. Falling off the charts was as common as flying off of them until 1990 or so, but that concept has disappeared. And the verbs have gotten lazier over time, too. In the old days, “off the charts” generally went with active verbs like “zoom” or “soar,” “slide” or “drop.” Such verbs still crop up occasionally, but today we are much more likely to get the copula, usually “is” or “was.” A noticeable difference, but probably rather minor in the grand scheme of things. And another change in range: “off the charts” is used as an adjective (or adverb) phrase much more often than it used to be, though examples may be found as far back as the seventies.

From political and economic pundits the expression spread to sportswriters, who found its vigor useful in describing athletes. Today it can show up almost anywhere. Politicians are not above using it, but they seem less enamored of it than the rest of us now — or maybe it’s just that the rest of us have caught up. “Off the charts” has not become so overused that it has been stripped of excitement; it still has a little pizzazz. May it keep its sizzle rather than turning into a flaccid echo of itself.

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do the math

(2000’s | “figure it out,” “put two and two together,” “get it?”)

Unlike “Grease (is the word),” this term has got mood; it’s got meaning — which is noteworthy because both have changed in the last forty years. Formerly available only as an unexceptional, slightly informal, component of a verb phrase, it has become an invariable expression in the imperative mood. And the meaning? That’s changed, too, from the mere literal to a figurative sense far removed from any arithmetical context. An early example: The great Nathan Lane on his sexual orientation, quoted in The Advocate, March 3, 1998: “Look, I’m forty, I’m single, and I work in the musical theater — you do the math. What do you need, flash cards?”

What exactly does “do the math” mean? Does it mean “do your own calculations so no one puts one over on you”? Does it mean, “This is tricky, so check your work”? Does it mean “This is so simple even an idiot like you can do it”? Does it mean, “I understand this and you don’t”? Any of the above, I think. When speakers started to use this as a set phrase, they did so almost invariably in arithmetical contexts. Want to know what the mortgage payments will be? Do the math. What do the census figures say about future demographics? Do the math. Based on my own recollection and research — both rather insubstantial — the phrase bobbed up right after the writer presented you with a simplified or pared down set of statistics. “Do the math” meant “you see what I’m getting at.” It invited the reader to share your specialized knowledge. But the phrase is short for “You do the math” as well as the friendlier “Let’s do the math,” so it came to smack of the peremptory, and you don’t have to listen too hard these days to discern a touch of scorn: the shift from “See how easy this is?” to “Even a dingbat like you can follow this.”

I have come across some resistance to this phrase from the restless blogosphere on the grounds that it is (gasp!) used when no actual numbers are under discussion. Exhibit A, exhibit B. (Here’s an opposing view in the interests of objectivity.) Oh, honestly. Most expressions change meaning over time, quite often by taking root in new contexts. It’s the rule, not the exception. Keep moving, folks, nothing to see here.

massage the numbers

(2000’s | businese? | “manipulate statistics,” “play with the numbers a little”)

The interesting question about this expression, say I, is must it imply deception? In the last decade, I would say yes, it almost invariably evokes self-serving manipulation of statistics. Massaging the numbers doesn’t rise to the level of criminality, but it’s not entirely innocent, either. You shift things around a little, alter a category here and there, goose a revenue projection — gimmickry, not fraud. A little weaker than “fudge the numbers.”

But in the 1980’s, “massage the numbers” could have a more favorable resonance: compensating for the limits inherent in gathering and interpreting statistics. Manipulation of data was involved, but it could be an educated, conscientious exercise, not just a calculated method of getting what you want. In this example from O’Dwyer’s Business Report (March 1989), it seems to mean “make the most of”: “Over the past year, B-M has also improved its ability to massage the numbers to provide greater insight on what institutions are likely to buy the client’s stock and help increase its price.” It’s improving the usefulness of your set of statistics based on your knowledge of its weaknesses. That’s not all that different from “find ways to make the numbers look better,” so maybe I’m making too much of this. Another example comes from a U.S. House Committee on Appropriations report, 1985: “This gives us a good deal more flexibility to massage the numbers, to respond to the unanticipated, rather than having a very rigid system.” Here the term offers a positive acknowledgment that we get things wrong once in a while and we should have the ability to compensate. But by now, this phrase has lost even the possibility of a praiseworthy connotation, like “game the system.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t expound this word, since it hasn’t overrun the language the way so many others have. But it was hardly used before 1980, and it’s an expression you have to know to understand the news. Both LexisNexis and Google Books show a gradual but definite increase in use since 1980.

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