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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: the sixties

in the mix

(1980’s | journalese (business) | “one of a number of options,” “available,” “eligible”)

When you try to pin down the way in which this expression has changed since the 1970’s, it takes on a certain I-know-it-when-I see-it quality. Mainly, you recognize it by what it is not: “in the mixture” or “in the mix of.” As we use it now, it takes no prepositional phrase, and is most often encountered as as a predicate complement ending a clause. Starting in the 1980’s, we began hearing “in the mix” used as an adjective, answering the question “what” rather than “where.” It was already current in two different sources that far back: recording reviews and articles involving construction or other manifestations of materials science. “In the mix” is distinguished by its generality, not be confused with “in this (or that) mix,” which is used only when a specific subject has already been defined. I thought of it as a musician’s term, but political and business reporters were using it by the late 1970’s, more or less recognizably as we do now.

It’s pretty clear that our use of “in the mix” comes out of materials science, where the expression applies to ingredients: When you make concrete, be sure to put gravel in the mix. I would prefer that it came from groovy sixties rock producers, as in “Bring out the horns in the mix.” (If you Google the phrase today, the first results that come up have overwhelmingly to do with music.) But the recording studio usage doesn’t allow for adding instruments that haven’t been previously recorded, unlike the other, which permits adding new components at a moment’s notice. Both senses have in common the idea of being fully integrated with the other people or elements, and that idea persists generally today, although it has become looser and more casual, so one might be simply one of several available companions for a trip to the bar Saturday night, not allied closely with anyone else in the group. “Mix,” it is true, used to be a synonym for “mingle,” as one did at parties, but “mix” in that older sense was strictly a verb, and no one at a party ever said “I’m going in(to) the mix now”.

Notwithstanding its origins in business prose, the expression has developed and retained a pronounced hip tinge conferred by younger people (or those trying to sound younger) and strongly associated with DJ’s and teenage movies. (There was even a movie of that title in 2005, about a DJ.) I’m not quite sure why. The phrase is short and punchy, which explains part of it; and the music biz may have aided its spread, which presumably would make it more attractive to the younger set. Whatever the reason, it has maintained that quality, so naturally the suits have gotten busy co-opting it; PBS has a television series called “In the Mix,” and any number of radio stations use the title as well. I don’t know what the future holds for this expression, but so far it has shown staying power and a certain amount of range.

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lighten up

(1980’s | journalese | “don’t be (so) uptight,” “get off your high horse,” “take it easy,” “stop and smell the roses,” “cool it”)

“Lighten up” signals that someone is overdoing it. Which means it’s basically an insult — patronizing or sneering or exasperated. This is a fixed phrase now, used intransitively (unusual before 1980) and imperatively (likewise), and directed at a specific person or group. In the old days, “lighten up” meant simply “make lighter,” in weight or color or mood, and it was usually transitive, often used as a substitute for “brighten up.” When it was used imperatively, it was much more literal; it meant “lay off,” that is, exert less pressure or throw less weight around. The new meaning revolves around mood or demeanor: don’t be so sensitive, or angry, or humorless, or obsessive, so it’s closer to “chill out” than “stop busting my chops.” It’s clear that our expression is descended from the older meaning and not that much different from it. But “lighten up” before 1980 almost always meant “brighten,” or “loosen,” or “abate,” not “take yourself less seriously.”

The origins of our specialized form of the phrasal verb probably lie in the sixties, among either hippies or African-Americans, who didn’t overlap much. Early mainstream uses occurred mostly in reporting on entertainment. Articles about pop stars and movie personalities contained the earliest examples I found; Oliver Stone and Louis Gossett, Jr. both were quoted using the expression in the early eighties, and it made the script of Bill Murray’s film “Stripes” (1981). Johnny Carson used it on the air in 1986; in 1987, Washington Post television critic Tom Shales remarked, “If this odd little decade has a credo, it is probably ‘Lighten up.’” Infrequent in 1980, the phrase had arrived by 1990.

It’s worth asking why Shales chose “lighten up” as the motto for the eighties. I blame everything on Reagan, who definitely had a light-hearted, or perhaps light-brained, quality about him. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to go for the wisecrack, or to admit that you don’t understand everything that’s going on. Hey, it’s morning in America, and we don’t have to sweat the details — David Stockman will take care of that. More generally, the eighties does seem to have been an unusually superficial decade, to the extent that such generalizations mean anything. The sixties were terribly earnest all across the political spectrum, and it took twenty years to shake all that off and decide that what really matters is partying and acquiring worldly goods rather than inner, or even outer, peace. In the sixties, we were self-centered in order to improve, or save, our world; in the eighties we were self-centered because it was easy and fun. Telling someone to lighten up may mean telling them to be less concerned about solving the world’s problems, but it’s also a way to say, “stop gazing at your navel.” Get out more, have some fun, live it up. And while you’re taking everything else less seriously, take yourself less seriously, too.

Google suggests that “lighten up” has become increasingly popular, almost standard, as a way of naming or referring to weight loss programs. Gyms, bloggers, government agencies all use it to encourage the rest of us slobs to slim down. The vocabulary of fitness continues to evolve. “Losing weight” has shrunk to “losing,” and “loser” is carving out space for itself as a compliment. There’s something inspiring about the way Americans fight back against obesity — one television show, or one slogan, at a time. Speaking of slogans, November 14 is “Loosen Up, Lighten Up Day,” a reminder to relieve stress through exercise and humor. “Lighten up” has loosened up. It may mean as little as “have a good laugh,” and it seems to be heading for “relax and unwind.” How wide can it glide?

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male bonding

(1980’s | academese | “camaraderie,” “esprit de corps”)

An expression created by a known, specific person, like “hot button” and “factoid.” “Male bonding” was coined by anthropologist Lionel Tiger; the term played a prominent role in his book, “Men in Groups” (1969), and the only earlier sighting in the OED comes from a 1966 paper by Tiger and Robin Fox. Google Books turns up no instances before 1969. From the seventies, only a few hits come up on LexisNexis, but they generally had at least a faintly technical tone and had little to do with beer-swilling, or even disciplined communal pursuit of athletic or military glory, which is closer to what Tiger had in mind. Writers used it narrowly to talk about organization of all-male groups and how leaders were chosen. An interesting thing happened in the early eighties: arts writers adopted the expression to talk about characters in books, plays, movies, etc. That sort of use has remained common from that day to this, and is probably the avenue by which most Americans first encountered the term. That’s noteworthy because arts writing has funneled a lot of therapese expressions into everyday language, and “male bonding” could easily have been coined by a therapist. But Tiger’s priority is clear. Now, the images most often conjured are auto shops, bowling alleys and bars, or other all-around guy stuff. It can happen at a restaurant or senior center — anywhere men gather without women. And even if they do little and talk about less, just sittin’ and spittin’ in the same room gives all us guys a charge.

There are many examples of all-male duos and larger groups in ancient history: Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Spartan warriors, Jesus and the apostles. Such images occur plentifully in more modern times as well, as in Elizabethan acting companies, football locker rooms, and any number of chain gangs. There is a general sense that such untrammeled intimacy has disappeared, or severely declined, since the sixties, when feminists started getting uppity again and men surrendered, instead of standing up for themselves and using that old male bonding to put down the latest ladies’ insurrection. That strategy had worked pretty well for several thousand years, but the guys just couldn’t get it up any more ca. 1963, probably due to fluoride in the water or Russkies in Cuba or something like that. So instead of saying, “Gee, we’ll have to pay more attention to women now,” we said, “Our ancient fortresses have been stormed, and men shall never laugh together over the Three Stooges again.” The eighties saw the rise of the aggrieved American man, a tiresome John Updike hero twenty years on, resentful that women have become more suspicious, or just more knowing, about stag parties and beer busts. A minor genre bloomed in which men lamented the death of comfortable male companionship and the need to defend their right to assemble without women. Not that it had really become more difficult for most men to gather in single-sex groups, but they felt guilty about it and blamed feminism.

Tiger traced male bonding back to hunting and gathering societies and found examples among other animals, although many scholars took issue with his primatology. He argues that it is partly rooted in biology (so it gets a pass — if we inherited the behavior from our ancestors, then objections are more or less futile), and it has profound social implications. The way men form small groups within groups (I wonder if there’s any resemblances to the way schoolgirls form social cliques) is deeply important to the development of society. He goes beyond the simple assertion that male bonding is significant because a lot of it goes on. He ascribes a powerful force to intense male friendships, diminishing by implication the social significance of other kinds of human cooperation. And he betrays a certain nostalgia for a past in which it was taken for granted that grown men could exclude women from decision-making whenever they felt like it, as boys post “Gurlz keep out” signs on their treehouses. It is undoubtedly true that most men benefit from a certain amount of time away from women, but must we demand social betterment from such vacations? Tiger claimed not just that men behave differently when no women are around (a trivial observation), but the relationships they develop inform customs and government of society as a whole.

Mainstream culture has taken Tiger’s phrase and turned it into a bit of a joke (cf. the recent neologism “bromance”). Part of the slippage of this term results from the fact that Tiger had little to say about politics or corporations, where men still make decisions with little or no contribution from women (though this is changing at a glacial pace), which gave critics an easy line of attack. Tiger also did not use the concept of male bonding to address interplay between fathers and sons, but inevitably the term has grown to embrace such interactions as childrearing has taken up more and more room in our discourse. In common usage, there is no nobility inherent in male bonding; it’s as likely to lead to mayhem or sophomorism as improvements in the human condition. Another trend of recent decades has also played a role in the failure of Tiger’s concept to take a more exalted place in our culture: a sharp increase in individualist rhetoric. There’s something suspiciously communitarian about male bonding, which after all involves by definition a bunch of men acting in some kind of concert — a far cry from the sort of every man for himself, no holds barred, to the winner go the spoils esthetic that has flourished recently in American politics, one hopes temporarily. Such cartoon individualism veers so far from life as we know it that it cannot help but lead us astray if we take it seriously.

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gender gap

(1980’s | journalese | “men are men, women are women,” “battle of the sexes”)

I would like to know what the first gap was. Cumberland, maybe. Back in the late fifties, there was much talk of a “missile gap.” It meant the Russkies had more nuclear bombs than we did, so we had to put a man on the moon. Maybe that’s not exactly how it went, but the Cold War produced its share of rapid technological advance, by fair means or foul. The sixties brought us the generation gap, still perhaps the grandaddy of all schisms, which rived the nation and caused teenagers and young adults to turn against their parents, a phenomenon absolutely unprecedented in human history. Not having done proper research, I don’t know if “missile gap” was the wellspring or merely the latest in the great chain of gaps, stretching back to the primal form and light gap before the Lord breathed upon the waters.

If “generation gap” didn’t win the mantle, “gender gap” has. The phrase was absorbed effortlessly into the lexicon in the early 1980’s (only a few uses are to be found earlier in Google Books, none in LexisNexis). It has had successors, of course. The credibility gap, denoting citizens’ distrust of the government (the name is no longer used, but the phenomenon grows more imposing every year). The achievement gap, between well-off white or Asian students and everyone else. The wealth gap (sometimes cast less usefully as the income gap) has certainly come into its own in the last thirty years, as the concentration of wealth has reached historic levels. There does not seem to be a snappy, generally used word for the difference between those with high-speed internet access and those without (the gender gap in computer use generally has been a topic of conversation for at least fifteen years). In two minutes on Google, I found “connectivity gap,” “broadband gap,” and, most prosaically, “internet access gap.” Not a bunch of household words there. Over time, some gaps have caught on (and held on) better than others, but it’s hard to think of one that rolls off the tongue as easily or as often as “gender gap.”

This is another expression we owe to the early Reagan years, when a number of idioms, inside and outside government, took flight (“zero tolerance,” “sticker shock,” “truly needy,” “safety net”). “Gender gap” got a big workout during the 1982 midterm elections, when pollsters noticed that women expressed disapproval of Reagan’s policies at consistently higher rates than men. The gap turned out to be wider in pre-election polls than in post-election results, and strategists soon realized that it had more bark than bite. Early on, the phrase turned up most often (by far) in political discourse. It remains a staple there, but it has conquered many other contexts as well. Even in the early eighties, I found instances of “gender gap” used to talk about differences in wages between men and women (equal pay for equal work), or communication style (ten years before “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus”), or college enrollment (right around the time women began to outnumber men in the undergraduate population). The net has only widened since then. It can come up in discussions of scholastic achievement, aptitude, rank (percentage of women in executive positions), representation (in social convention as well as in government), preferences, style, and recreation, to name a few. So many différences to vive!

We will probably never stop arguing about how men and women are alike, how they differ, how we know, and how valuable such generalizations are in the first place. Here we have a handy term for all the divergences we know are there, whether studies and statistics bear them out or not. Actually, it seems to me that “gender gap” still sounds most comfortable in statistical contexts, but it is used to talk about the intangible, too. Its spread has not been contained yet, and it no doubt will continue to insinuate itself into more and more kinds of discourse.

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control freak

(1990’s | journalese?, therapese? | “dictator,” “perfectionist,” “obsessive or unyielding person”)

This phrase really has to figure out which side it’s on. Grudging compliment or insult? Perfectionist or nazi? Do you rule with an iron hand, or do you want everything just so? You will hear people admit, usually with more sheepishness than pride, that they are control freaks. But when an artist or businessman is described that way, the term may inspire a certain respect; it’s a way of saying this person has a powerful, compelling vision and doesn’t want anything to interfere with it. If the company is successful or the movie sells, the “control freak” prospers and gains acclaim. On the other hand, when a right-wing blogger uses the term, it means “arrogant government official bent on taking over our lives.” When you describe a run-of-the-mill person as a control freak, it’s usually more than a touch derogatory. We understand that the person is a pain in the ass or worse. The related adjective “controlling” as applied to persons, referring to someone who wants to run others’ lives, has also come into being in the last forty years, although it arose later.

I found a few examples from the 1970’s among hippies and artists, but the expression seems to have grown more common through the 1980’s and become ordinary by the early 1990’s. “Freak” was a big word in the 1960’s, yet one more example of hijacking a derogatory term and turning it into a blazon. The word has always had the sense of “whim” — a pleasant irony in the case of “control freak,” whose goal is to wipe out whim altogether — or “monster” (as in “freak of nature”), and all the weirdos and malcontents declared themselves freaks, the better to épater les bourgeois. Hippie culture faded into irrelevance, but a fair amount of the vocabulary lingered on, and “freak” came to mean “enthusiast” or “passionate exponent.” “Jesus freak” was still heard often in my childhood, an early, influential example of the “noun + freak” construction. The phrase “control freak” appeared in The Deer Hunter (1978), which may have been the first opportunity most of us had to learn the expression. Most of the examples I found before the late 1980’s appeared in arts journalism.

Another binary opposition: Does the control freak seek primarily to control himself or others? Sometimes “control freak” is used to mean someone who never acts spontaneously, or struggles to keep inner impulses in check. When I hear this phrase, I envision someone who creates detailed arrangements for kitchen utensils and goes nuts any time someone puts a spatula in the wrong place, but it’s sometimes used in a sense that doesn’t involve imposing your will on others or even your surroundings, but on yourself.


(early 1990’s | miltarese?, bureaucratese? | “interfere”)

Unlike “control freak,” which can be a backhanded compliment, “micromanage” never has a positive connotation. When the word arose in the 1980’s, it was most commonly used by government officials about other government officials, especially in military contexts. Nowadays “micromanage” can act as the verb form of “control freak,” as in this example of a son describing his father (quoted in Newsday, June 10, 2012): “He kind of let life happen. He didn’t micromanage. He let people be who they are.” In this usage a micromanager is fussy about details AND feels compelled to run the show.

This is another bifurcated word; it has two oddly distinct meanings. The best way I can think of to express the difference is to say that sometimes the opposite of “micromanage” is “manage better,” and sometimes it’s “don’t manage at all.” If the word refers to top management meddling in minor matters — corporate headquarters setting the break schedule at every outpost, or a federal agency taking charge of small-town parking regulations — it’s definitely an insult, but it’s remediable. If the people at the top just focus on their proper sphere, there won’t be a problem. The other meaning comes up often among right-wing politicians alluding to members of Congress “micromanaging” military or diplomatic operations (i.e., the province of the executive), the clear implication being not that Congress is looking down from above and tending to unimportant matters, but that Congress should keep its hands off entirely. Don’t manage, in other words. (What they’re really saying, of course, is that Congress should disregard its obligation to the people to oversee federal agencies and cede the power of the purse to the Defense Department.) The latter sense allows demagogues to smear any oversight as counterproductive meddling. Which is what both meanings have in common: “sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong.”

A personal note: In 2007, a restive Congress finally began to make some noise about ending or at least slowing down the Iraq War. Pundits and finger-waggers in solemn procession accused Congress of “micromanaging” the war. As I pointed out in a sulfurous letter to the editor, Congress was actually managing the war, and it was about time, since Bush and his band had made no effort in that direction. Newsday didn’t print the letter, but that’s when it hit me how often “micromanage” is used in this sneaky way.

Another personal note: Thanks to the ever-lovin’ and indefatigable Liz from Queens for giving me this word!

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