Sunday, 16 November 2014


Regular readers of my blog will already know of my fascination with words and etymologies. As we grow older with have a natural resistance to change – the old music, films, actors, et al were always better. The same is true with language. Slang terms used by younger generations become part of the language remarkably quickly and loan words from other languages pepper the English tongue. Cola, boogie, admiral, tea, yacht, orange, candy and ginger are all common enough English words but all are borrowed from other languages.

In recent years we in the United Kingdom have been treated to the introduction of various phrases introduced from the United States of America. Some arrived through business contacts and many others through the medium of television. It did occur to me that some who use the phrases would have no notion of the original meaning. For example to say “Stepping up to the plate” is, as most will know, a reference to take responsibility and a baseball term. Those who have no knowledge of this particular sport should be made aware this is where the next player takes his stance when coming in to bat. For those in the United States to hear the phrase “Walking to the crease” (or perhaps “Taking guard”) would perhaps be equally mysterious, cricket being even less popular west of the Atlantic than baseball is to the east.

This made me think about other popular phrases.

“Touch base” – another baseball analogy. For those who don’t know it’s the bit where the running chap has to get in order to be ‘safe’ and not run out. I have to say I have never felt at all safe when anyone suggests it is time we touch base. The message here is to make contact and first used in the United States around the 1970s and in the United Kingdom in the 1990s.

“Thinking outside the box” – a reference to unconventional thinking and thought to originate in a puzzle test. The aim is to connect all nine dots (three rows of three) with four straight lines and never lifting the pen from the paper nor going over the same line a second time. Answer is searchable online and I won't spoil it. Suffice to say the solution involves in drawing the lines outside the area of the ‘box’ formed by the nine dots.

“Proactive” – one of my personal hates (probably because former England cricketer turned commentator Nasser Hussain uses it incessantly) and coined in the 1930s. Here the intention was to create a word to have the opposite meaning to ‘reactive’ – ie don’t react to a situation but do something to prevent the situation ever happening.

“At the end of the day” – in the modern era has only been seen since the late 1970s or early 1980s. In the 21st century it is used as ‘in the final analysis’ when the original usage was instead of ‘eventually’. Both these alternatives are infinitely better – and I’m not the only one to loathe this phrase, for in 2008 it was voted the most irritating,

“Going forward” (also “Moving forward”) – nearly always accompanied by an equally irritating gesture and meaning ‘in the future’ or even ‘soon’, nobody seems to have any idea when it came into use (outside board meetings) or just why anyone thought it made any sense at all.

“Paradigm” (also “Paradigm shift”) – began as a scientific term. Now I fully understand the need to create words in the name of science. Imagine Sir Isaac Newton having to write about gravity for the first time and deciding upon a name for this force, what would you have come up with? The original use of “Paradigm shift” was by Thomas Kuhn in his The Structure of Scientific Revolution published in 1962. For example science showed how germs were the cause of disease when previously it was thought to be a result of “bad air” and exactly how ‘malaria’ got its name. As a buzzword it is among the newest, appearing as recently as the late 1990s.

“Push the envelope” – was not first used in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff published in 1979 but likely the reason for its popularity. The use of ‘envelope’ here is nothing to do with letters but is a mathematical envelope defined as “The locus of the ultimate intersections of consecutive curves”. In some circles the phrase is altered to “Max the envelope”, a ludicrous idea as we are all aware envelopes are called Manilla, not Max.

“Cut to the chase” – or ‘get to the point’ is thought to have come from silent film director Hal Roach. In the days when all film comedy was visual, a chase was the inevitable conclusion to a film as it made for good viewing and could be extended to fill the void left by the lack of dialogue. However there is a record of an earlier form coming from around 1880 (and well before Hollywood). Here the phrase is given as “Cut to Hecuba”. Shakespearian devotees will know this as Act II, Scene II of Hamlet, thus avoiding the long speeches and soliloquies.

“Downsizing” – first used by car manufacturers to refer to the size of the vehicles they produced and almost immediately used by them to explain why they were reducing costs by cutting numbers of employees and/or wage bills. Today, especially in the United Kingdom, it has been introduced into daily speech by the innumerable presenters of daytime television programmes who like to show us other people looking to buy their next home (and who seem obliged to use the word ‘property’ at least once in every sentence). Oddly these same presenters do not use ‘upsizing’ for those who want a bigger home but always speak of needing “More space” or “A bigger home”.

“Decluttering” – ye gods what an appalling word! It would make more sense if we had introduced ‘cluttering’ as a verb meaning ‘to make a mess or untidy’ either at the same time or earlier. Indeed instead of telling my mother “Nothing!” or “Not much!” when she asked what I had been doing in my room, I would have enjoyed saying I was “Busy cluttering, Mumsie”.

All these do bring to mind a phrase my father used a lot and one which I wish would have or maybe will catch on. On hearing some gibberish being spoken he would describe it as “Talking scribble”.

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