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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: The Simpsons


(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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wrong on so many levels

(2000’s | journalese (arts) | “really bad,” “deeply troubling,” “appalling,” “crazy”)

The story of this expression is a two-parter, so get comfortable. Once upon a time, there was a nice little phrase that went “works on so many levels.” It got going in the sixties and seventies and was used by arts journalists to talk about a joke, or a concept, or a play, something along those lines. It was the kind of thing movie reviewers said. The phrase was established, if not entirely common, by 1990. I don’t know if it was the first time I heard it, but it made a memorable appearance in a Simpsons episode in 1995, uttered by Homer, cast in the unlikely role of film festival judge. The simpler phrase “works on many levels” started to appear earlier in Google Books, but “so” adds an extra kick and makes the whole thing more exciting.

“Works on so many levels” is almost always praise, an homage to the depth and breadth of someone’s imagination. Perhaps partly because of its favorable bias, “wrong on so many levels” began to poke its head out in the 1990’s (“bad” or “sucks” may on occasion be substituted for “wrong”; “right on so many levels” is not nearly as common). Nowadays it is the most frequently encountered of the family by a pretty good margin, according to LexisNexis and my own ear. “Wrong on so many levels” has taken root in the unlikely soil of the Internet, so that it might appear as today’s trending meme or as the title of a board on Pinterest. offers a good range of definition. It is possible, of course, to use the phrase jokingly, but that is not the norm. It’s strong language; when people resort to it there’s usually some genuine outrage underneath. It’s the verbal equivalent of throwing up your hands.

A few points about this family of phrases: I always think that “so many levels” should precede a detailed anatomy of the subject; surely the speaker will identify at least three. But it’s unusual to see more than one or maybe one-and-a-half features spelled out. “Levels” itself promises more than it can deliver; it is rarely more than an impressive way to say “aspects” or “ways” with no hierarchical connection to each other. (In the same manner, “works on so many levels” means simply “has a lot going on.”) “Works . . . ” was primarily used in esthetic contexts; “Wrong . . . ” shades more and more toward the ethical. Now the phrase generally has a noticeable moralizing quality about it; often it is little more than a colorful way of calling something offensive, or just plain stupid. No hint of analysis or critique.

I hear in my mind’s ear a variant on this expression that should exist but as far as I know doesn’t. Insert “only” before the first word — or, for greater precision, after “on” — and you get an entirely different feel. “On so many levels,” regardless of the word that precedes it, always suggests abundance. It’s not just a little bit wrong, or a little bit effective. Drop an “only” in there and it turns vastness into a limitation — in the spirit of “You can only get away with so much.” It’s easy to imagine it used in conversation: “I’m using ‘Star Wars’ as a model for my new script.” “Oh, that can only work on so many levels.” Or “I don’t like reality TV, but I’m tired of complaining about it.” “Well, it can only be wrong on so many levels.” Sounds like a worthy addition to the language to me.

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(2000’s | journalese (politics))

The thing denoted by the word “robocall” is considerably older than the word itself. The pre-recorded, automated telephone call, almost as widely reviled as it is exploited, has benign and malevolent uses. Professor Frink, in The Simpsons, envisioned using the technology to tell children about school cancellations, which seems harmless enough. But in the same episode, Homer demonstrates a range of abuses. An appointment reminder from your auto dealer or the doctor’s office may not be so bad. But no one likes non-human solicitations, or repeated entreaties to vote for this candidate or the next. And that points up two more general, though not universal, characteristics of the robocall: they are unsolicited and widely disseminated.

“Robocall” first arose as a political term, meaning an automated, pre-recorded call in support of a candidate. The first published reference I found dates from 1999, which mentioned a large increase in the number of “robo-calls” (charmingly hyphenated) during the 1998 campaign. The recorded message might feature the candidate, or perhaps a celebrity delivering a message of support. First hit in LexisNexis: 2001. The database tells an interesting story. The term jumped in frequency every election year, just a few in 2002, several more in 2004, no end of hits in 2006. Then the word was on everyone’s lips.

Almost as soon as the expression burrowed its way into the lexicon, it lost its political coloring. Now the FCC defines “robocalls” as “unsolicited prerecorded telemarketing calls.” “Telemarketing” is key, because speech that sells you a candidate is more protected than speech that sells you a product or service. The do-not-call registry (aren’t the names of government programs supposed to be more creative than that? How about a nice acronym, guys?) will keep the sales force at bay, but not the politicos. It makes sense if you care about the survival of democracy, or even republicanism, but it can be mighty annoying that last month or two before a close election.

In my youth, we expected recorded messages to say, “This is a recording.” We weren’t used to hearing them and expected to be warned. They were pretty uncommon back then, at least in my memory. The expectation of inconvenient telephone calls was well established throughout the culture; the pollster or sweepstakes representative calling just as the family sat down to dinner was a joke everyone laughed and grumbled over. We didn’t like them then, when there weren’t nearly as many. As the number of landline users shrinks, and more people subscribe to the do-not-call list, do those of us who are left get even more robocalls than we used to?

The fact that the word spread so widely within a few years suggests that there was no reasonable equivalent term before that. So far I haven’t been able to think of one. They’ve been around a long time; autodialers have existed for decades, and the unholy matrimony of the autodialer and the recorded message was solemnized at least forty years ago. Why did it take so long for someone to think of it, or at least something punchier than “This is a recording”? The movie “Robocop” was released in 1987, so that’s a fifteen-year gap; it doesn’t seem likely there was a decisive influence. Then again, “robo” is not that common a prefix; Wiktionary can scare up only ten examples, all of them — except “robocall” — pretty obscure, if you ask me. “Robosigning” came up frequently in reports on illegal bank foreclosure practices a few years ago, but it doesn’t seem to have entered everyday language. I nominate two more: robocock, which simply must be the title of a porno movie, and robokiller, which could be literal or figurative. “Robokill” sounds better, but it doesn’t sit as well as a verb.

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