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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: TV


(1980’s | academese (economics) | “cautious”)

This expression carries a couple of odd dichotomies considering how straightforward it appears. The most obvious pertains to that which it modifies; either persons or corporate bodies — whatever the Supreme Court says, they’re not the same — may be risk-averse, though presumably the risk-aversion of a corporation is ultimately traceable to individuals, whether executives or independent shareholders. More interesting is the fact that risk-averseness may proceed from two entirely different kinds of experience. A conservative corporate board avoids sudden shifts and grand initiatives because they feel prosperous; there’s no incentive to rock the boat. Yet it is a tenet of pop psychology that those who have lived through times of deprivation are suspicious of all but the safest investments, and, in extreme cases, may refuse even to keep their money in banks. (Both sides have in common assets to protect; if you have nothing to lose, there’s no point in being risk-averse.) But then there’s an absent dichotomy that one might naively expect to find in an expression beloved of bankers: the distinction between sensible risk likely to pay off and a crazy scheme. The risk-averse will stay away from both, desiring only the steadiest and safest.

The expression comes out of the discipline of economics and was most used originally in finance, starting in the sixties and becoming commonplace by the eighties. Soon it came to be used often of politicians and lawyers. Among corporations, insurance companies attract it the most; their risk-aversity comes from a visceral understanding of actuarial tables. Yet any stodgy company merits the term. Slowly but surely over time, it has spread into other kinds of prose, with movie reviewers and even the odd sportswriter resorting to it nowadays. More kinds of writers use it to describe more kinds of people — it’s not just for stockholders any more. The point of the compound seems to be neutrality; it strives to avoid any imputation of prudence or cowardice, and largely does, as far as I can tell.

In a previous post I remarked on the curse of capitalism — if one guy works harder, everyone has to work harder — and risk-aversitude bears the seeds of a different manifestation of it. In competitive markets, each company watches the innovations of others like a hawk. When they succeed, the other competitors follow; when they fail, everyone else drops plans to do something similar. Television works this way, though maybe less so now, when there are so many networks (an obsolete word, I know). Any change — introducing a new character into a popular series, or a new show about a controversial subject — carries with it a chance that your audience will flee in terror. But if it pays off, your competitors take note and resolve to do the same damn thing, backed up by shareholders who noticed that it made big profits for the other guy. Within a season or two, everyone is sick of the no-longer new gambit, and most of the imitators have made no headway. Whereupon they lose advertisers, another risk-averse group famously shy of causing offense, taking the money and running at the first sign of any immoral or objectionable acts that might result in lost market share. (Bill O’Reilly is only the latest in a very long line of such embarrassments.) Sometimes, what looks safe turns out to be dangerous. Risk avoidance, like any other strategy, is subject to misuse born of misunderstanding or bad timing, whether by the humblest investor or the loftiest board of directors.


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be careful out there

(1980’s | journalese (television) | “watch yourself,” “stay alert,” “pay attention”)

Now here is a phrase brought to us by television — or at least propelled into our vocabulary by television. In its full form, “Let’s roll, and hey, let’s be careful out there,” it was delivered near the beginning of each episode of Hill Street Blues by Sgt. Esterhaus, played by Michael Conrad. The drama debuted in 1981, and it seems to have been one of those rare instances of an offering of the popular arts that survived on sheer critical acclaim for a long time before it found a loyal audience. There was a lag of a year or two before the phrase began to appear regularly in the press, but its upward progress was swift. By the time President Reagan used it in May 1983, reporters cited Hill Street Blues knowingly, and there was no doubt about what had made it a household word. Of course the phrase, at least in its condensed form, is not catchy, an utterance utterly ordinary semantically and syntactically and a poor candidate for a cliché, yet it has gone from tag line to stock phrase. People who use the expression today may not know they are quoting Hill Street Blues, but they know they are quoting something. According to the New York Times (June 8, 1986), the writers of Hill Street Blues probably adapted the expression from The Police Tapes, a series of cinema vérité documentaries on police work shot in the South Bronx, where the sergeant ended roll call with a similar injunction.

The expression is as self-explanatory as any, I suppose, but it has one distinctive feature: as far as I can tell it is rarely used jocularly. Telling a person or group to be careful out there is not to be taken trivially. You say it when there is genuine danger, whether physical or financial. We have become more preoccupied with safety and security in the last thirty years, which may account partly for the spread of the expression.

There was a time when cop shows were a fertile source of catch phrases. “Who loves ya, baby?” (Kojak), “Book ’em, Danno” (Hawaii Five-O), “I pity the fool” (The A-Team). (The grandaddy of them all, “Just the facts, ma’am” from Dragnet, never appeared on the show in any of its incarnations, according to multiple on-line sources, although Friday did say “All we want are the facts, ma’am” once.) That era appears to have ended in the mid-eighties. Maybe I’ve missed something, but cop shows of the last thirty years or so don’t seem to have spawned any linguistic fads. Did Homicide or The Wire lend any expressions to the language? Miami Vice? NYPD Blue? Cops? I wouldn’t know, but I did come across several lists of cop-show catch phrases on the web, and none of them had anything later than Hill Street Blues or The A-Team. If this is so, can anyone explain why? Faithful readers?

I don’t think I ever watched Hill Street Blues back when it was new, but I watched an episode (o.k., half an episode) on Hulu to hear Sgt. Esterhaus for myself. More or less at random, I chose the first episode from the third season (1983), in which a nun has been raped and murdered and a man has gotten his head wedged immovably between a filthy toilet bowl and the wall. (That’s only two of the story lines, and the others were also pretty lurid.) The intent seemed to be to extort the most raw and violent emotional response from viewers by assaulting them at every turn. If we do not respond viscerally, the producers have failed the advertisers. I had the same sensations about ten years ago, when I watched Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy back-to-back one fraught night. In each program, all of the half-dozen or so plot lines were grotesque, or nauseating, or perverse to the point of absurdity, almost as if the writers were challenging each other to make each plot twist more appalling than the last. I watch almost no television drama, and maybe I just have a knack for tuning in on the most excessive evenings. But if this sort of bombardment, or anything like it, is the norm, I don’t see how regular viewers can be anything other than numb. After weeks and years of this, how can pity and terror make themselves known? How can stories pushed far beyond anything like everyday experience — even the everyday experience of cops and emergency room doctors — tell us anything?

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(2010’s | “overindulging,” “spending too much time in front of the TV”)

A binge has always had something disreputable about it, and the mixture of pride and shame with which binge-watchers confess their latest debauchery proves that it still does — it’s been but a year since the Washington Post declared binge-watching socially acceptable. A word that goes back to the nineteenth century, “binge” means the same thing as “spree.” A prolonged drunk, spending too much money in a short period of time, that sort of thing. It always meant excess. People started talking about “binge eating” and “binge drinking” in the seventies and eighties, probably the first time “binge” was used as an adjective in any widespread way. There was a rough equivalent to binge-watching in my youth, but we named the actor rather than the activity: couch potato (still in use, though it need not have anything to do with television any more). Couch potatoes’ preferred verb was “view,” anyway. Some people do say “binge-viewing,” though it is less common, at least in the States.

What is this thing called “binge-watching”? One psychologist notes that all it really means is “spending a longer time than normal watching television. . . . Netflix conducted a survey in 2014 where viewers defined binge watching as viewing between two to six episodes of a show in one sitting.” The phrase does conjure up red-eyed, addled viewers losing entire weekends to the new season of their favorite Netflix series, but does prolonged viewing become “binge-watching” only when it is obviously harmful? According to my limited research, the consensus answer is no; “binge-watching” may just denote a harmless way to spend a few stray hours. But the dubious heritage of the word “binge” will make that innocuousness hard to keep up.

The earliest unmistakable instance of “binge watching” in LexisNexis comes from Australia in 2006, and it trickled into American English shortly thereafter. Before the advent of home video recording, such a thing wasn’t really possible, and it didn’t become feasible until the practice of issuing entire seasons of television programs on DVD became prevalent — archaic as that seems in the days of Netflix and Hulu and lots of hipper streaming services I’ve never heard of. In my younger days, a complete retrospective of a certain director’s films, say, might have been called a marathon, or a festival, or maybe just a complete retrospective. (You come across expressions like “Game of Thrones marathon” even today.) In the nineties, it was possible to buy complete runs of at least a few television series on VHS, but the term did not arise then. So maybe this is a millennial thing: the idea that watching hours and hours of your favorite show, and dropping everything to do it, is a worthy activity. Not that you have to be a millennial. And now, new series must be written with an eye to the preferences of binge-watchers.

When I was in college, “Wheel of Fortune” turned the 1968 song “I’m a Girl Watcher” into an advertisement for itself. Then “Baywatch” was all the rage. The act of watching seems to have become linked ever more suffocatingly with television in the seventy years we have been groveling before the tube — I guess we have to call it “the screen” now, since there’s no tube any more, unless your television set is as old as mine. After “binge-watching” settled into our vocabulary, “hate-watching” arrived as well, meaning simply “binge-watching a show you hate,” with the implication that it’s the sort of show you love to hate, at least according to one writer. Perhaps inevitably, “purge watching” has sprung up, meaning “hate-watching” with less passion, more out of a desire to get the offending show over with than to enjoy noting how awful it is. Who knows what other “watch”-words will come?

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play one on TV

(1990’s | advertese | “know something about it,” “fake it”)

The “one” in this fixed phrase refers most often to doctors or lawyers, although it has any number of possible antecedents. It is used mainly as a disclaimer by ordinary people, normally in the negative, as in “I’m not a _______ and I don’t play one on TV.” That sentence signals that I lack genuine expertise, however well-informed I might be in general. Sometimes it is used to accuse another person of faking or pretending; in this sense the speaker appeals to the deception inherent in acting, taking a puritanical view. An early example comes from comedian David Steinberg, who described Ronald Reagan as not a president but someone who played a president on television. And sometimes the expression is used, specifically by actors, to claim authority to talk about the topic at hand. In this sense, it emphasizes the preparation and commitment required to play a dramatic role convincingly. The idea follows, in a backhanded way, from the disclaimer cited above; if not even being able to impersonate an M.D. is yet more proof that you are not an expert, then impersonating an M.D. ought to confer some expertise, however evanescent it is in practice. Less often, the phrase is used to describe someone who really looks the part, when used with “could” (a successor of the old expression, “sent from central casting”). The phrase is used quite literally a surprising percentage of the time, of or by television actors, but it has a strong ironic tradition as well. The hipness that came so naturally in its early days has persisted.

LexisNexis and Google Books (and TV Tropes) agree that “play one on TV” didn’t exist before 1984, when a commercial pitched Vicks Adult Formula cough syrup with actor Chris Robinson (Dr. Rick Webber on General Hospital) narrating. A couple of years later, he was replaced by Peter Bergman (Dr. Cliff Warner on All My Children) — the Bergman version can be found here. The noteworthy point about the commercial is that it made explicit use of the premise that you should not trust an actor playing a doctor for medical advice. Like many ad agency products, this one packs a lot of aporia into thirty seconds, so I will take the liberty of summarizing it. The narrator notes that if your child were coughing, you would go to the doctor and get the best medicine, but when the harried mother has a cough, she rummages through the medicine cabinet (“playing doctor at home,” putting your unqualified self in place of the doctor, just like the narrator, get it? and with a bonus reference to titillating children’s games) and grabs the kids’ cough suppressant rather than one specially formulated for harried mothers. It’s a dizzying ride: first the actor suggests that you shouldn’t take his word for it — he just plays a doctor on a soap opera, after all — and that taking the wrong cough medicine is as dumb as listening to an actor spout medical advice. But by the end of the commercial, by gum he’s given you medical advice: you are supposed to rush out and buy Vicks Adult Formula. Don’t listen to me; do listen to me. The disclaimer carefully planted at the beginning softens up your defenses and primes you to trust the fake doctor at the end.

When critics in the eighties talked about this commercial, they tended to miss most of the ambiguities but did latch on to the idea that it takes a lot of chutzpah to trot some guy out there who doesn’t know anything about medicine to tell you which cough syrup to buy. That reaction still erupts when an actor claims special competence derived solely from playing a certain role. We are smart enough to know that we shouldn’t trust advertisers, but most of us are not smart enough to figure out all the different ways we are being manipulated, and sooner or later we succumb.

One oddity courtesy of LexisNexis: This phrase comes up in the search results almost exclusively in U.S. publications, very rarely in Australian, Canadian, or British sources. Such a pattern is very unusual in the kind of expressions I look into. Most new expressions circle the globe quickly and turn up in English-speaking sources in Asia, Europe, and North America, but not this one. I’m not sure why that should be, and it may change over time. It may suggest no more than the truism that American culture is steeped and pickled in television to a degree not seen elsewhere, or it may just have to do with our standards of truth in advertising.

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