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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: U.S. military

forever (adj.)

(1990’s | “permanent,” “interminable,” “endless,” “unstoppable”)

“Forever” has long done time as a noun, an adverb (“forever young”), even an interjection (forever and ever, amen). What was left? Adjective. And it is coming to pass, led by three expressions detailed below. We shall see whether we can make a verb of it.

“Forever war,” familiar to anyone who has been following the news lately, apparently got its start as the title of Joe Haldeman’s science fiction novel (1978). According to LexisNexis, it took more than twenty years for the expression to gain currency in political commentary; it started appearing in the aughts, the decade in which we launched two prolonged, costly, unsuccessful wars in the name of a third, the war on terrorism. Its recent popularity, owed largely to Joe Biden, is spawning spinoffs; Eric Alterman gave us “forever warriors” and “forever nonsense” in the title of a recent column.

“Forever family” is first spotted in LexisNexis in the late eighties, attributed to foster children hoping to land in a stable environment. Here it has a wistful, aspirational sound, softened further by its connection with children in difficult straits. “Forever home,” which seems to have trailed it by a few years, is very similar, used for both children and pets who would benefit from adoption. Recently it has taken on another meaning, analogous to the old expression “dream house” — where a family intends to settle down. In the early seventies, Lady Bird Johnson used “forever home” to mean “childhood home,” not a particular dwelling so much as the place or region one can always go back to, a perfectly logical interpretation that has not stood the test of time.

Those three are established in everyday language. So far, “forever” hasn’t adopted many other nouns. The term “forever chemicals” (in polluted groundwater) seems to be spreading slowly, like the chemicals themselves. I’ve seen “forever prisoners” and “forever commitment.” The Forever Project in New Zealand devotes itself to mitigating the effects of climate change. The Forever Purge, a film about a white supremacist uprising, has done well at the box office this year. The adjective seems poised for greater things as we tremble on the verge of a forever pandemic.

“Forever” has a strong religious echo, yet earnest teenagers use it all the time, too (as in “BFF”). The word may at times denote the full span of eternity, but more often we use it to mean “as long as you or I live.” In “forever war,” it doesn’t even mean that — more like “taking an unreasonably long time to end.”

Lex Maniac has worked a whimsical vein lately, so here are more things “forever” could modify beyond death and taxes: beta version (I’m looking at you, Google), interim coach or other official (sometimes they hang around for a while), speech, movie, line, or wait (it works better in front of one word than in front of several). Then there are more serious possibilities: friend, pension, budget deficit, shortage. Some things do last forever, or come so close they might as well.

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job one

(1980’s | businese (auto industry) | “top/first priority”)

It will not surprise anyone who remembers Ford commercials from the 1980’s that this expression comes out of Detroit. But it may surprise you to learn that originally it meant something different. The first instances in LexisNexis date from 1980, and they referred to the inaugural run of either a new factory or the latest model — the first cars off the assembly line might be known as “job one,” as in “We’ll be ready for job one in three months.” With Ford’s slogan, “Quality is job one,” the phrase recognizably turned toward the way we use it today. It is one of those expressions, like “failure is not an option” and many others, that those who wish to sound vigorous and forthright lean on. It requires a bit of a mental twist, for there is no necessary connection between “the first thing we do” and “the most important thing we do.”

“Job one” is supposed to sound strong — in addition to cars, it was associated with beer and other manly pursuits in its early days — but it is so bassackwards syntactically (they couldn’t say “job number one”?) and so aggressively simple that it sounds telegraphic at best or like toddler talk at worst, in the best “Me Tarzan, you Jane” tradition. There’s not a lot there: the words (six lousy letters!), the grammar, the sense all reduced to the lowest common denominator. And the question faithful readers knew was coming: did we need another way to say this? Far be it from me to critique specialized automotive vocabulary, but in everyday language? There are a lot of new expressions that add little or nothing to linguistic versatility or diversity; several years ago I presented a list, and I’ve dug up more since: “back atcha,” “flyover country,” “it is what it is,” “not in a good way,” “play well with others,” “same old same old,” “wonk.”

“Day one,” already in play in the 1970’s, is an obvious ancestor, particularly as preceded by “from” or “on”; older equivalents included “from the get-go” or “when the time comes.” The trail isn’t clear, but the origin may have been military, as in Day One of boot camp (replacing “first day”). Then again, lots of things have a day one: schools, athletic seasons (where “opening day” is more conventional), terms of office. “Day one,” like “job one,” is a take-no-prisoners spondee, intended to sound firm and to the point.

Why not “job one on day one”? The most urgent duty to be undertaken at the earliest possible moment? The redundancy sounds unappealing, at least to me — more tin-eared than emphatic. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it in a stump speech, though; politicians try on new slogans all the time, especially if they sound pithy and determined. Or maybe you haven’t heard it because “job one on day one” is stuff like making sure the telephones and internet work — not very stirring.

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boot camp

(1990’s | “professional development,” “intensive (or in-depth) seminar”)

Sources agree that this term arose in the twentieth century in the U.S. military, and they agree on its original meaning: a place where rigorous physical conditioning (“basic training”) takes place, or the training itself. The emphasis has always been on toughening raw recruits and instilling obedience and self-control within a limited time. It took me a while to find out why it’s called “boot camp.” Is it where you learn to lace your army boots? Is it where you get kicked (“booted”) in the ass? Oddly, the usual sources had little to say, but at last I found a plausible etymology: “During the Spanish-American War (1898), U.S. sailors wore leggings called boots, which came to mean a Navy or Marine recruit. These recruits trained in boot camps.” The explanation is not overwhelmingly convincing, but sounds reasonable and purports to have the authority of the Naval History and Heritage Command behind it. (We can be glad they were not called “legging camps,” at any rate.) The date is about right: Lighter’s slang dictionary records the earliest citations during World War I; Random House reports that the expression came into common use during World War II.

The original boot camp was Parris Island, which remains the archetype. The expression is still going strong in the armed services, but it has spread quite a bit. By 1980, it was possible, though unusual, to find it in non-military contexts, but it still denoted exactly the same sort of training, as undergone by the likes of aspiring missionaries or wayward kids. That idea flourished during the eighties and nineties when boot camps for young drug offenders became popular, as old, white America once again indulged its fantasy that giving the rebellious a good dose of old-fashioned calisthenics and sir-yes-sir would straighten them out. Such measures did not improve recidivism rates, but they did provide jobs for sadists. As reports of maltreatment of inmates leading to injury or death increased over time, the boot camps became a harder sell. They still exist but are often operated privately.

Today boot camps have stridden (look it up) well beyond the literal grind of ferocious exercise and strict rules, although gyms and fitness centers still use the phrase often. I don’t suppose there are boot camps for everything, but they are advertised to a much more varied clientele now. Some examples courtesy of Google: lawyers, new parents, computer technicians and coders, students, salesmen, entrepreneurs, nurses, political campaigners, non-profit board members (seriously), or anybody out of shape or unsure of what to do with their lives. If you don’t have to drop and give the drill sergeant twenty, eat slop, or make your bed a certain way, what makes it boot camp? The primary resemblance results from urgency and discipline; the point is to learn a lot in a short time (in that sense it’s like an immersion program), and the schedule is designed to keep you from messing around. I’ve never attended boot camp, even a metaphorical one, but I can see the appeal. If you want to succeed, you have to be tough and knowledgeable. Boot camp promises both in a hurry.

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(1970’s | militarese | “(friendly) warning,” “word to the wise,” “alert”)

The coupling of this phrase with the indefinite article is a relatively new phenomenon, first becoming noticeable in the late seventies. (One of the problems with my research methods is that they give me no way of estimating how long a given expression has been in oral circulation before the press gets wind of it.) As far as I can tell, we owe it to the military-intelligence complex, with the earliest instances I found of “heads-up” or elaborations like “heads up alert” — attributed to intelligence agents in a 1979 Washington Post article — all invoking that sort of source. LexisNexis suggests that it did not become ordinary until after 2000; my memory is uncertain, but that seems right. “Heads-up” (not everyone hyphenates) struck me recently as I was composing an e-mail to my boss, with whom I typically use fairly formal language and tone. But under the circumstances, “heads-up” was the only expression that fit, which caused me to realize that it has filled, or possibly created, a niche in our speech. That is not true of every expression I cover.

Baseball players have been using “heads up!” as an imperative, or interjection, for over a hundred years, and it has always meant something closely related: look alive, or be ready for anything. Or as an adjective: “heads-up play(er),” for example. Only the noun is new, and it seems such a logical extension that it’s hard to cavil at. (The verb, when one accompanies the noun phrase, is invariably “give” or “is.”) One of the defining characteristics of the heads-up is that it be informal; not quite defining but pretty standard is the idea that it comes from an ally and that it is given quietly, without fanfare. Like its cousin “wake-up call,” it portends bad or at least sobering news; something’s about to happen that you have to deal with, like it or not. (A “wake-up call” is a heads-up on a mass scale, only unfriendly and very public.)

“Heads Up” gets used fairly often as a name. Google dug up the following examples, hardly an exhaustive list: a 1929 Broadway musical, a marketing firm in Atlanta, a New York Times travel section column, a “child development center” in the Bay Area, a bicycle safety program in New York City, and several beauty salons. (Shouldn’t they be called “Heads Back”?) A long-lived blog called “HeadsUp” critiques mainly right-wing political journalism. And it’s a game made popular by the Ellen DeGeneres Show, which resembles the game show “Password” from my youth, except you have to guess celebrities instead of plain old words. If you ask me, the components of this gallimaufry have very little in common, and little reason to use such a potent expression as “heads-up” in their titles. Because the phrase effectively orders the audience to pay attention to what happens next, using it is a cheap trick — when you hear it, you can’t help but listen for a minute, until you realize you’re being manipulated. No doubt forgivable in an ancient Broadway show, but shouldn’t we be above it now?

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lesson learned

(2000’s? | bureaucratese? | “I’ve learned my lesson,” “I’ll do better next time,” “I get the point”)

Now available as a pronouncement. Used to punctuate a conversation, it seems to come out of bureaucracy, especially the technological or military variety. NASA and the U.S. Army both have “Lessons Learned” databases that record and disseminate even quite small and apparently insignificant, but reliable, bits of practice gleaned mostly from previous failures. A lesson learned is something you ignore at your peril. They are empirical, and thus may soon become best practices. They could have to do with anything from peeling potatoes to preventing malfunctions in electrical circuitry to choosing material that will withstand re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. In everyday journalism, lessons learned follow from disasters, such as a big hurricane, fast-moving computer virus, or financial crash. The phrase is often used by individuals, of course; even then, it has a peremptory tone, carrying a firm note of finality with more than an overtone of “never again.” The emphatic final syllable contributes to that, as in “promise kept,” “problem solved,” or even “slam dunk” (a spondee). Ending the utterance with extra oomph has a way of stopping the conversation. I haven’t heard “lesson learned” used jokingly much; it has retained its force and magnitude so far. That can change quickly. If some comedian picks it up as a tagline, we’ll start saying it in all sorts of trivial contexts.

The phrase “lesson learned” is intended to convey rue or determination. The actual lesson you learn is what we now call the takeaway, another new expression. “Takeaway” is not as portentous as “lesson learned,” but the two are closely related, with little daylight between them. Lessons learned are painful somehow, as the new normal is worse than what came before, even though there’s nothing in the wording of either phrase that requires that it be so. Here’s a little rhyme to help you remember:

Experience is a teacher,
But here’s what makes me burn.
It’s always teaching me the things
I do not care to learn.

As one supplicant asked on Stack Exchange, why not “learned lesson”? Partly because it invites confusion with “learned” (two syllables), which is used before the noun, but you see that fine old scholarly term less and less. There’s something about fixed word pairs where the adjective follows the noun. I remember how weird it sounded when Bill Clinton used the expression “date certain.” What is this, the Middle Ages? (He was actually speaking legalese at the time, which accounts for the medieval flavor.) “Siege Perilous,” “retort courteous,” “paradise lost,” “penny saved.” (Does “code red” fit the pattern? I can’t decide.) The past participle doing duty as an adjective adds a dash of verb flavor, a hint of resolute action. More generally, the noun-adjective construction is probably a remnant of the baneful French influence on English (particularly in matters of law), but it does lend an elusive, poetic quality, striking the ear and compelling attention.

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