On Writing: Here Today, Everywhere Tomorrow

By Mike Feinsilber

Remember when “on steroids” was inevitably used to describe something really big? And no politician would have a list; he’d have a “laundry list”? And when, thanks to advertising, nothing was just good, it was “priceless”?  Those phrases have become dog-eared. But a new crop of catch phrases has come along. The creation of new terms is normal, probably healthy: it’s a living language. Here are some vogue terms I’ve noticed in reading the news:

Outliers. Malcolm Gladwell, the extraordinarily successful writer, gave this term a lift by making it the title of the 2011 book, Outliers: The Story of Success.  In a self q-and-a interview on Gladwell.com, he says: “’Outlier’ is a scientific term to explain things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience. In the summer, in Paris, we expect most days to be somewhere between warm and very hot. But imagine if you had a day in the middle of August where the temperature fell below freezing. That day would be outlier.… In this book I’m interested in people who are outliers—in men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.”

The term in use:  By Michael M. Grynbuam in the New York Times on November 24, 2012 about the two precincts in Manhattan that did not give Barack Obama a majority of their votes in the election: “Still, even this most Democratic of cities has its outliers and intrigues.”

Jason Samenow in the Washington Post on November 23, 2012 on the prospects of snow this winter: “On the other hand, Capital Weather Gang’s outlook predicts slightly below average snowfall and slightly above average temperatures. So our outlook is a bit of an outlier.”

And columnist Ezra Klein on a Post blog on November 12, 2012 about pollsters who got it right in the election: “Special distinction here needs to go to Public Policy Polling, which was a bit of an outlier in the final weeks and proved to be exactly right…”

Have your back. I guess this means  “I’m behind you” My spouse tells me it has been around for a while; lately, it’s everywhere. And popular enough to get into a New York Times headline on November 18, 2012: “Labor Leaders Have Obama’s Back, and Are Ready to Help”

First lady Michelle Obama used the term in thanking her introducer, Elaine Brye, a self-described “military mom,”  at the Democratic National Convention at Charlotte on September 4, 2012. “Thank you so much Elaine. We are so grateful for you family’s service and sacrifice … and we will always have your back.”

Double down. It means intensify. to step up. Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus used the term on November 21, 2012. She was responding to readers who accused her of sexism when she criticized the decision of Paula Broadwell, the David Petraeus biographer, to go on television wearing a  shirt that she described as “black and silky and flouncy and very, very arm-baring. Also shoulder-baring.” Said Ms. Marcus:  “These are reasonable points, reasonably made. So let me explain why my response is to double down on the halter comments.”

One-off. It means an exception, a one-time thing. Here’s Ms. Marcus in the same column:  “The halter was not a one-off, it was a theme. In Afghanistan, the Post reported, Broadwell’s  ‘form-fitting clothes’ made a lasting impression on longtime Afghan hands, and Petraeus once admonished her, through a staffer, to ‘dress down.’ ”

Twee.  Merriman-Webster.com says it is “currently in the top 40 percent of the website’s ‘lookups’” so I wasn’t alone in being mystified. The term is British and olde and means “sweet or affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute or quaint,” M-W says.

The term in use, from a Wall Street Journal article on November 24, 2012 on “the coziest hotels in America” which quotes frequent traveler Simon Doonan:  “I don’t mind if the design is granny or twee.”

Radio silence. In the military, radio transmissions are halted so as not to reveal troop positions. The term has mustered itself into civilian talk, and it is often used as a fancy way to say “silence.”

An example in a quotation used in a New York Times website article by Peter Lattman and Azam Ahmed on May 11, 2012: “Mr. Rajaratnam made it clear to Ms. Chiesi that their trading of corporate secrets should be kept strictly between them. ‘Radio silence’ he said during one call. During another, Mr. Rajaratnam told her to tell no one about their conversations.”

Another example from the Washington Post of November 11, 2012 on political campaign ads: “The response from the Romney campaign? Radio silence, which the Crossroads team read to mean the strategists in Boston did not believe engaging on that issue was important.”

Harry Read, speaking December 27, 2012, about the standoff between Republicans and Democrats over efforts to prevent most people’s taxes from rising at the end of 2012: “Democrats can’t put together a plan on their own because without participation of Leader McConnell and Speaker Boehner nothing can happen on the fiscal cliff. And so far, they are radio silent.”

Kicking the can down the road.  As long as there have been legislative bodies and there have been cans, this term probably has been kicked around. It gained new life with the financial dilemma confronting Congress known as the fiscal cliff.

The term in use, by David Davenport, writing November 7, 2012 on Forbes magazine’s website:
“After all the money (a campaign spending record exceeding $2 billion), hard work, negative campaigning and wall-to-wall advertising, Americans have voted to kick the can down the road.  They don’t want to take their medicine yet.”

And Republican Governor Robert F. McDonnell of Virginia, quoted November 19, 2012 on the Washington Post’s Virginia Politics blog about his state’s need for additional money for transportation projects: “I’m going to be fairly adamant with the General Assembly this year that we’ve got to stop kicking the can down the road…”

Robust.   Is something vigorous, energetic, forceful or dynamic? Not these days, when it can be robust: Here’s a member of the county board of suburban Arlington County, Virginia, quoted in the Washington Post, December 5, 2012, responding to calls for an assessment of plans for a streetcar line in the county: “We’ve had a very robust public discussion not once, but twice.”

Back-to-the-future. A term that’s turned robust. From the New York Times, November 30, 2012, an article by Penelope Green about extended families living under a single roof: “Over all, more than 50 million Americans are in multigenerational households, a 10 percent increase from 2007. It is a back-to-the-future moment.”

Boomerang children. And, in the same article, an ink-is-still-wet term to describe who is crowding into these multigenerational homes: “…many of the big builders are now offering to accommodate the changing shape of the American family: boomerang children and aging parents…”

 Score. Once it referred to how many points a team or player achieved. The meaning of late has expanded to make it mean win, gain, land an internship or any other prize. As in this sentence from the Wall Street Journal of December 26, 2012: “His film-making son, Sam, however did score a summer internship in Hollywood.”

You’ve probably seen other new buzzwords.  Send them to [email protected] or, better, post them directly in the comment section below.

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