Here’s the opening of a piece I recently wrote for the New York Times Review section.
I had to buy two items at CVS — a bottle of mouthwash for me and some red yeast rice pills for my wife. I plucked the Listermint from the shelf, took it to the cashier and gave her my phone number and a $10 bill. The 38 and 1/16th-inch-long receipt had just what I was hoping for: a coupon for $5 off a purchase of $15 or more, expiration date three days later.
I headed straight for the vitamin section, where the economy-size house-brand red yeast rice was on sale — buy one for $22.99, get one free. I brought my two containers to the same cashier, who took the coupon and unjudgingly charged me $17.99. But wait, there’s more. I’d get the equivalent of 2 percent of that price back in CVS Rewards bonuses for future purchases, and 1.75 percent in cash via my credit card rewards program, a total of 67 more cents to my name.
Am I pitiful or what? Don’t answer that question.
Or at least don’t answer it till you hear me out. My CVS behavior is just one data point suggesting that I’m the precise person for whom the marketing strategy of “gamification” is intended. That is, saving some money on vitamin supplements is nice, but that’s not really what brought me to the drugstore. I was there for the buzz, the shots of happy I got when the cash register spit out a receipt the length of a 4-year-old. It’s all in the game.
I wrote a piece for Slate about my occasional feeling that I am the last man, or woman, on earth watching the Fox comedy Last Man on Earth–and about the fact that, despite its low ratings, the show keeps getting renewed.
Three days after my article appeared, the show was cancelled. However, some reports suggest that Hulu may pick it up for a final season.
In any case, if you’re interested in why I like the show, here’s my piece:
Sometimes I feel I am the last man on Earth watching The Last Man on Earth. The ratings of Fox’s post-apocalyptic sitcom, which aired the last episode of its fourth season on Sunday, started out low and then descended. This season it averaged about 1.97 million viewers per airing, worse than every single show on any network other than the CW, with the exception of its Fox stablemates Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, and The Exorcist.
Nor—in contrast to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, and the CW bottom feeders Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—does Last Man generate accolades or buzz. When it debuted in 2015, it got positive notices (which prompted me to start watching in the first place) and four Emmy nominations but no wins. The following year there was one nomination, for creator and star Will Forte; last year, nothing. Metacritic tallied up the best-shows-of-2017 lists of 125 publications, websites, and critics, from Adweek to Yahoo. Last Man appeared on exactly zero of them. Personally, since the early reviews, I haven’t encountered a single mention of the show, among critics, on social media, or in real life. (Admittedly, I don’t get out much.)
Adding to my sense of aloneness is the way I watch the show—DVRing it on Sunday, then watching it later in the week, when everyone else in my house has gone to sleep.
The show is smart, goofy, attractively filmed, crammed with satisfying Easter eggs and callbacks, absolutely nonaspirational, superbly acted, sneak-up-on-you funny, and, most important, almost aggressivelyoriginal.
Why have I and my 2 million-odd fellow Last Man fans kept watching? Speaking for myself, because the show is smart, goofy, attractively filmed, crammed with satisfying Easter eggs and callbacks, absolutely nonaspirational, superbly acted, sneak-up-on-you funny, and, most important, almost aggressively original. Sure, you could say the premise and story are a cross between Lost, The Walking Dead, and Gilligan’s Island. But that leaves out the tone and feel of the show, which are like nothing I’ve ever seen.
In the premiere, we meet Phil Miller (Forte), who has somehow survived a virus that killed everyone else on the planet. Reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Cast Away, his only company is a collection of sports balls on which he’s Sharpie’d faces, although he does consider striking up a relationship with a mannequin he finds in a shop window. Phil is all savage, hold the noble. The first line we hear him say is, “Dear God. Apologies for all the recent masturbation.” He amuses himself by bowling with fish tanks and demolishing cars. (Phil is watermelon-dropping David Letterman let loose on a vacant world.) He floats in a kiddie pool, sipping the mega-Margarita he’s filled it with, and when he needs to relieve himself, heads over to a bigger pool and squats over the hole he’s cut out in the diving board.
At the end of the first episode, Phil despairs and decides to kill himself, only to see a plume of smoke in the air. He follows it and discovers another survivor, Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal). Much of the rest of the first season is animated by a running joke contradicting the title: Phil encounters other “last men,” and women, at the rate of roughly one every other week, usually in a closing cliffhanger.
A signal feature of the show, from the start, were what-crazy-twist-will-the-writers-come-up-with-this-time? storylines. Selected recaps from the show’s Wiki page give a bit of the flavor:
• “Phil parks in a handicapped parking spot, much to Carol’s dismay, but more arguing leads to Phil ramming the truck through the store entrance.”
• “Phil then heads to a jeweler with Carol for the rings, and gives her a hammer as a wedding gift to choose the ring she wants.”
• “The next day, the group continues to call Tandy by his embarrassing nickname [Skidmark], much to Tandy’s dismay, which then leads Tandy to show them his skidmark free underwear.” (In the second season, because another, more admirable guy named Phil has arrived, the group votes that Forte’s character has to be called by his middle name, Tandy.)
• “Tandy confides in Carol that Pat [a paranoid psychopath who intermittently bedevils the group] is really dead. They stage a fake fight between Tandy and a fake foam dummy of Pat.”
I have to admit I was touch and go about continuing with Last Man after Season 1. Forte’s all-in performance was amazing, but gross-out gags only go so far, and I was mainly unamused by the sex farce that took up a lot of the airtime, especially as it came partly at the expense of the marvelous Schaal: Phil’s lust for glamorous new arrivals (January Jones, Cleopatra Coleman, Mary Steenburgen) is constricted by his commitment to unglamorous Carol, made when he thought she was the only woman left alive. But I’d made enough of an investment, and was curious enough about what would happen next, to overcome my misgivings. I’m glad I did: the characters, relationships, and themes have gotten progressively deeper and more interesting.
And the wackiness remains. A running gag of the past three season is that A-listers like Will Ferrell, Jon Hamm, Jack Black, Laura Dern, and Martin Short turn up, only to quickly die, in ever more bizarre ways. An arc this season featured Fred Armisen, whose brilliant turn as a Hannibal Lecter–like serial killer/cannibal should win him a supporting-actor Emmy. (It won’t.) Ultimately, he was blown up by an exploding Rubik’s Cube that had been introduced early in the season and that, like Chekhov’s famous pistol, was destined to go off. (Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig, and Chris Elliott have also made multiepisode appearances, though they haven’t been killed off. Yet.)
But mortality isn’t a gag for Last Man—or at least isn’t just a gag. Two regulars have died over the show’s run, and the emotion characters and audience feel is real, though no This Is Us–ean tears are ever, ever jerked. Indeed, maybe the most impressive thing about the show is that, while maintaining the element of wigged-out farce, it’s added layers of seriousness. The alcoholism of Gail (Steenburgen) and the firearms-obsessed psychosis of Melissa (Jones) are always on or just below the surface; all the other characters (with the exception of Coleman’s steady and dependable Erica) have their own particular mishegoss. More so than the buzzier but less original and funny The Good Place, the show has come to address issues of what it means to be alive, to be a good person, to commit to someone. (The other things the series have in common are similar go-to euphemisms. Last Man: “Oh, farts.” Good Place: “Oh, fork.”)
Spoiler alert: Sunday night’s season ender went big with its cliffhanger, as the group encountered more last people, and not just one or two. Will Fox renew the show so we can find out who they are? The ratings would appear to be just too low, but TV analysts give it a just better than even chance to stay alive. Why? Last Man does a bit better with the key 18–49 demographic than with the population at large. More important, it’s owned by the network it airs on, which means revenue for the company when the show has wrapped enough episodes to make a syndication deal, a number it would likely achieve in Season 5.
The decision should come down in the next couple of weeks. If it turns out to be negative, even though I’ve never met another Last Man fan, I’m pretty sure I can predict what the reaction of the entire hardy band will be.
Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke last fall, published reports of men’s sexual misconduct have abounded. Just this week, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an investigation of Jorge Domínguez, “a prominent Harvard professor and former vice provost accused of groping, kissing, and other inappropriate behavior by close to 20 women.” That and all the other reports divide into two distinct categories, something I didn’t really realize until watching an episode of All in With Chris Hayes on MSNBC in December. Hayes’s guests included Rebecca Traister and Irin Carmon, journalists who have been covering this beat.
Here’s the exchange that got me thinking:
TRAISTER: I think that journalism has been driving this in a way that has made it airtight, at least up to a point. So, in all of the cases where there has been terrific reporting, in advance of whatever winds up happening to the accused, we have gotten this incredibly detailed, incredibly well checked in, all of the cases that we know about accurate vision of what has unfolded. …
CARMON: I mean, I think there is something that reporting can do here that other tools like the criminal justice system or HR are unable to do, right. You’re able to weigh all of the different stories in a way that is publicly accountable. You try to get people to use their names on the record. The thing that was the most effective I think about the Harvey Weinstein story when I got to Ashley Judd’s name, wow! Ashley Judd was on record. …
TRAISTER: I also think that you could tell where there has been the reporting and where there hasn’t been, because as this has gone on, there are some cases where some people have been fired or suspended in advance of reports. So for example, Garrison Keillor was fired pre-emptively, I believe, and we only have the sketchiest vision of what he did. … When a company fires somebody or suspends them … they’re legally obligated by some measures not to reveal all of the terms of why they are doing this, and that has left people with confusion about what is happening, what has been alleged, and you can see where there is an absence of the reporting.
So here’s the divide. In one bucket are cases driven by journalistic reporting — those of Weinstein, Domínguez, James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, and in fact not that many others. They have in common that through a combination of the prominence of the male and the frequency or severity of the offenses, a major news organization deemed the charges worth investigating and, ultimately, the investigation worth publishing. As Carmon and Traister suggested in the interview, current journalistic best practices call for a high level of checking and verification. Preferably, sources go on the record, as Ashley Judd did; if they decline to, a New Yorker or New York Times or Washington Post will use their account only if solid corroboration is found.
In the other bucket are cases the world learns about only after a company or other organization has taken a personnel action, like firing or suspension. Examples that come to mind, besides Garrison Keillor, are Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker and Jonathan Schwartz and Leonard Lopate of New York Public Radio. Traister said the organization is “legally obligated by some measures not to reveal all of the terms of why they are doing this, and that has left people with confusion.” I am not an expert in this or any area of the law, but I suspect that companies don’t reveal details by choice, not obligation, knowing that doing so might open them up to defamation suits, compel them to to reveal accusers’ names, or cause other problems. But whatever the reason, they don’t give particulars, resulting in reactive (rather than proactive) press coverage that’s vague and often, as Traister says, confusing.
For example, in February, the Ford Motor Company fired a top executive, Raj Nair, and a press release “explained”:
The decision follows a recent internal investigation into reports of inappropriate behavior. The review determined certain behavior by Nair was inconsistent with the company’s code of conduct.
“We made this decision after a thorough review and careful consideration,” said Ford President and CEO Jim Hackett. “Ford is deeply committed to providing and nurturing a safe and respectful culture and we expect our leaders to fully uphold these values.”
The New York Times article about the move heavily quoted the release and added no details about Nair’s alleged behavior.
The word that jumped out at me in the release and the article, only because it was so predictable, was inappropriate. It is the catchall designation for bad behavior, or behavior that we are asked to think was bad, but can’t really judge, because we aren’t told exactly what was done.
There’s nothing new about inappropriate, I hasten to say. Back in 1999, I wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the word, which was coined in the early 19th century, according to the OED, and was used by Charles Dickens in Dombey and Son: “[He] invaded the grave silence with the singularly inappropriate air of ‘A cobbler there was.’” At the time of my piece, inappropriate had been propelled into heavy rotation by Bill Clinton’s inappropriate behavior, and his admission, “I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate.” I complained,
While it is currently deployed to characterize virtually anything a writer or speaker finds unsatisfactory, its most common use is clearly as a euphemism for sexually explicit material, especially when this gets onto children’s radar screens, or (as with the President) forms of sexual behavior that for various reasons are not universally accepted. … The problem with the overuse of “inappropriate,” finally, is that it is fuzzy language and inevitably results in missed signals and squawky communication.
But the frequency then was nothing compared with the present. Inappropriate appeared in the New York Times 803 times in 2017. So far this year it’s appeared 226 times, a projected annual pace of 1,755 — more than double last year.
I hate it when people talk about banning words and I certainly don’t propose a ban on inappropriate. But I have a suggestion for the press, regarding the Raj Nair-type cases, ones where the firing is newsworthy but not newsworthy enough to dispatch a team of reporters to unearthing the backstory. Ask the company for details. If it does not provide any, simply write, “the company did not provide details.” And leave the wimpy and weaselly word inappropriate to the press-release writers of the world.
The AP reporter’s mistake is understandable. Scott Israel is a New York native and has a pronounced New York accent.
Thus, if Israel were to say “shiver,” it would indeed come out as “shivva”–so presumably the reporter was correcting for accent. Unfortunately, he or she wasn’t aware of the Jewish tradition of “sitting shiva” for the deceased.
A version of the same thing once happened to me. For many years, I have been a customer of Hitchcock, a purveyor of wide shoes based in Hingham, Massachusetts. One day a Hitchock catalog came in the mail, and on it my name was written as “Ben Yagoder.” A characteristic of the Massachusetts accent, of course, is to add an “r” sound to words that for everyone else ends in a schwa: so, John F. Kennedy’s famously imitated pronunciation of Cuba as “Cuber.”
I figured one of two things happened. One, a Hitchcock staffer made the same mistake as the AP reporter: heard me say “Yagoda,” (somehow) knew I was from New York, and “corrected” me. Or, two, a staffer was so wedded to the “-er” pronunciation that they extended it beyond pronunciation to spelling.
The night before my (adoptive) hometown Philadelphia Eagles took on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII (which I keep reading as the Trumpian insult “Lil’”), Saturday Night Live aired a brilliant skit imagining Colonials from each region trash-talking each other at the Continental Congress.
Local girl Tina Fey led the Fluffyans (the way we say the city’s name) and nailed the weird local vowels, like pronouncing the team as “Iggles,” the place where you hang your hat as something like “hay-ome,” and a generic encouragement as “C’mawn!” She also laid down a few distinctive Philadelphia terms, like pop-pop (for grandfather), youse (for the second-person plural), and hoagie (for hero/submarine sandwich).
Since moving here in 1982, I’ve noticed a few other Philadelphia words, including wooder ice for what I grew up calling “Italian Ice”; gravy for spaghetti sauce; down the shore (“to the beach”); jimmies, for what the rest of the country (except Boston!) calls the sprinkles you put on ice cream; and the relatively recent and much talked-about all-purpose noun jawn.
But my favorite is a term I didn’t even know was a localism till last week. That’s when I read a remembrance by Stephen Fried of D. Herbert Lipson, the longtime publisher of Philadelphia Magazine, who passed away in December at the age of 88. It began:
I could tell you about my first weeks at the magazine in 1982, when Herb ordered me to get a haircut and then sent his assistant around every day to see if I had. (I hadn’t. Still haven’t.) I could tell you about the time he stormed into and out of my messy office, calling me an “unmade bed” — prompting one of my colleagues to actually buy a dollhouse bed he “unmade” for me. Or when he told the folks in the art department that I was “such a smacked ass.”
I also started working at Philadelphia Magazine in 1982 — it’s what brought me to the city — and I well remember the Lipsonian insults of Fried. I had never heard “smacked-ass” before and immediately adopted it. Well, actually, I use it in only one situation: in reference to photographs of myself. “If possible, try not to make me look like a smacked-ass,” I’ll say. Or, “Don’t use that one. I look like a smacked-ass.”
After reading Steve’s piece, I realized I had never heard anyone else use “smacked ass” since ’82, and, naturally, investigated, first by looking at the Oxford English Dictionary,Dictionary of American Regional English, and the prominent online dictionaries, none of which listed it. The top definition on Urban Dictionary was posted in 2004: “an absolute idiot that walks around as if he’s got no clue in life.” Searching the term on Google Books yielded 256 hits. To the extent I could discern the home of the authors, they were all from Philadelphia, including the memoirist Joe Queenan, the children’s book author Jerry Spinelli, and the crime writer Lisa Scottoline, whose novel Rough Justice has this line: “Then I hold a press conference where I tell the world that the mayor is a smacked ass.” That obviously suggested a Philly provenance. Herb Lipson himself was from Easton, Pa., but started working in Philadelphia in 1953, right after graduating from Lafayette College.
The first Google Books citation was a snippet from a 1977 criminology text, quoting (presumably) a criminal: “I just asked for change for a ten-dollar bill and felt like a real smacked-ass to myself.” The snippet view doesn’t allow me to search for any info on the person being quoted, but one of the co-authors, the late James Inciardi, was a professor at my institution, the University of Delaware, and may have done fieldwork in Philly, less than an hour away.
A Google search for “smacked ass” led me to a bulletin board where someone used it and was asked what it meant. He replied, “Northeastern US slang for ‘complete idiot.’” Someone else responded, “Funny, I’ve never heard of that in my 30 years of existence, all of it in the Northeast.” Then the original poster said, “Philadelphia, actually. Maybe it was just my mother.”
Green’s Dictionary of Slang contains no entry for the term, but it does have “Face like a smacked arse,” defined as “a phrase used to describe someone who looks very depressed.” It appears to be common in Ireland and the North of England. The first cite for it is 2000 but I found a 1986 quotation on Google Books: “Big red nose, big red face, just like a smacked arse.”—Cedar, by James Murphy. “Face like a smacked arse” has gotten quite popular, with 23 Google Books hits since 2010.
I posed the question on the American Dialect Society e-mail list and got some helpful responses. John Baker dug up a 2005 Philadelphia Inkwire (the way we say Inquirer) article discussing “Phillyspeak”: “Smacked ass. Peculiarly Philadelphian, this refers to a person, generally male, who has done something really dumb or foolish.” And Garson O’Toole found the earliest use I’ve seen, by the Inquirer columnist Tom Fox in 1971: “I had trouble my first year in high school. I was 13 and a real smacked ass. I knew all the answers. I was so smart when I was 13 I flunked everything but gym and expression.”
Anecdotally, I asked around. Everybody from Philadelphia was familiar with the expression; everyone from somewhere else wasn’t (even if they had lived here for decades). So smacked ass appears to be a particularly Philadelphia expression (with an intriguing Irish connection) that emerged no later than 1971. Any pre-dating or insights welcome.
In conclusion, here’s a message from all us Fluffyans to the Iggles, snapped by an Inkwire photographer:
I was watching The Rachel Maddow Show the night, a couple of weeks ago, when Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, was about to force a brief government shutdown through a filibuster and other delaying tactics. Maddow showed video of him speaking on the Senate floor about one of his favorite themes, government waste, and I briefly glimpsed one of his visual aids that, if I read it correctly, was deeply strange. I searched the Internet for the poster, and it turned out I had read it correctly.
The deeply strange thing, needless to say, is that the word a is not a preposition but an article. Talk about waste; Paul spent I don’t know how much government money on a slick poster and couldn’t even be bothered to get his parts of speech right.
That made me wonder if there was anything else Paul got wrong in his attack on this study, which he initially broached in a 2016 press release. Spoiler alert: The answer is “yes.”
Backing up a bit, when Neil Armstrong arrived on the moon in July 1969, the first words he said seemed to be, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” This doesn’t really make sense, since “man” and “mankind” are pretty much the same thing. Armstrong subsequently contended that he had actually said, ” … step for a man … ” (emphasis added), which does make sense, and makes it a good quote.
You can judge for yourself by listening to this recording.
Over the years, there have been various attempts to determine whether he said “a” or not. In 2006, an Australian computer programmer ran the recording through audio software and concluded that Armstrong had voiced the article but static blotted it out. Three years later, two other researchers, using supposedly higher-quality recordings, came to the opposite conclusion. Armstrong, who died in 2011, himself would adopt the position that while he intended to say a, he wasn’t completely sure whether he had done so and preferred that the word be rendered in parentheses. That seems reasonable.
The study ridiculed by Rand Paul was published in September 2016; you can read it here. The lead author was Melissa Baese-Berk, a linguist at the University of Oregon. Paul’s poster (and his press release) misrepresented the purpose of the study, which it described as an attempt “to figure out whether Neil Armstrong used the preposition ‘a.'” Rather, the authors examine, through an experimental study, how the confusion over Armstrong’s quote may relate to broader issues regarding how we hear what others say. As Dr. Baese-Berk wrote to me in an e-mail, “We were less interested in whether Armstrong used the article and more interested in whether this instance could illustrate the very issues of timing and speech reduction that we were interested.”
Furthermore, the poster is deeply disingenuous regarding funding. Take a look at it. How much do you think the National Science Foundation spent on Dr. Baese-Berk’s Neil Armstrong study–$700,000, right? Wrong. In fact, the grant was spread out over more than forty complementary studies. Paul’s press release is equally deceptive and misleading on this point.
Having read the Armstrong study, I acknowledge that its findings do not amount to a cure for cancer. However, to state what should be obvious, that isn’t the way science works. It advances our understanding through fits and starts. The starts could not occur without the fits.
Nor am I saying that all academic research, government-funded or not, is worthwhile. Some of it amounts to self-perpetuating boondoggling, with little hope of eventually yielding real enlightenment or utility, and deserves to be critiqued.
[Note. This essay was first published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in May 1999. Now seems like a good time to revisit it. I’ve resisted the urge to tinker with it, other than to add a Google Ngram Viewer chart at the end.–BY]
When Bill Clinton, by way of apology, acknowledged last fall that he had had an “inappropriate relationship” with a White House intern, he was appropriating a term that has come to seem appropriate for a remarkably wide range of situations and purposes.
A quick Lexis-Nexis search for “inappropriate” yielded 198 hits in major newspapers just in the month of January 1999 (for the same month three years earlier there were 108). Scanning some of the headlines that came up offers a strikingly wide range of uses for the word:
“Survey finds pharmacies giving customers inappropriate advice” (The Herald, Glasgow).
“Niece as flower girl would be inappropriate in gay wedding” (Houston Post).
“Holmgren regrets outburst. Coach admits cursing at fan was inappropriate” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).
“Enemas are inappropriate, dangerous as a weight-loss tool” (Chicago Sun-Times).
“Blindfold use in school ruled inappropriate” (South China Morning Post).
The meaning of the word in all of these uses is evident (respectively, “incorrect,” “in poor taste,” “inexcusable,” “insane,” and “barbaric”). But “inappropriate” has become such a catchall term that sometimes it’s impossible to figure out what it’s supposed to signify. A New York Times article on last year’s Thanksgiving Day parade reported, “Earlier this year, five balloons were permanently retired because they were too big, too awkward or, in the case of Cat in the Hat, inappropriate, as a Macy’s spokesman put it.” You want to run that by me again?
I hasten to point out that “inappropriate” is no piece of neologistic slang. The Oxford English Dictionary, which gives the definition “not appropriate; unsuitable to the particular case; unfitting, improper,” cites its first appearance in the early 19th century and quotes a use in Dickens’s Dombey and Son: “[He] invaded the grave silence with the singularly inappropriate air of ‘A cobbler there was.'” Its antonym and root, appropriate (“specially fitted or suitable, proper”), has an even longer pedigree, dating at least to 1546, when an edition of The Regiment of Lyfe referred to “remedies … appropriate to every membre throughout the body.”
Both words proceeded quietly along until the middle of this century, when they began to receive wide use in specific fields. Medical discourse acquired the habit of referring to procedures as “appropriate” or “inappropriate” for a particular patient — terminology that had a nicely scientific, non-judgmental feel. The new discipline of psychotherapy, in its many and varied forms, adopted this lingo to describe not the treatment but the patient (or client), no doubt in large part because it liked the idea of being a branch of medicine rather than religion. And so such phrases as “inappropriate affect” began to be heard in consulting rooms throughout the land. I asked some friends about their first awareness of “inappropriate,” and one of them told me by e-mail about working in a child-psychology clinic in the 1970s: “We were practically required to describe behavior as inappropriate, when what we really meant was (a) annoying, (b) obnoxious, or (c) crazy.”
But what propelled the words into the national consciousness, I believe, was E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book, Small Is Beautiful, which extolled the virtues of “appropriate” — that is, small-scale — technology. A journal called Appropriate Technology began publication in 1974; my university library has six publications just from the years 1977 to 1979 whose titles begin with that phrase.
So the words were there for the taking, and they got taken — especially, as I started out by saying, “inappropriate.” While it is currently deployed to characterize virtually anything a writer or speaker finds unsatisfactory, its most common use is clearly as a euphemism for sexually explicit material, especially when this gets onto children’s radar screens, or (as with the President) forms of sexual behavior that for various reasons are not universally accepted.
That understanding of the term is so widely shared that an explanation is often seen as unnecessary. I found a citation for a 1998 article from The Journal of the American Dental Association called “The Inappropriate Patient.” This struck me as a fascinating concept. I looked up the abstract, only to find that the article is about dentists’ legal obligations when they or their employees are sexually harassed by patients. Similarly, a 1994 article from Nursing, called “Grieving Spouse: Inappropriate Behavior,” deals exclusively with what to do when the husband of a terminally ill patient makes what used to be called advances. (“It is recommended that the nurse should first redirect the man’s energies by asking him how he’s coping with his wife’s illness.”)
A number of reasons plausibly suggest themselves for this word’s ever-increasing popularity. The first is our old friend moral relativism. To call an action “inappropriate” is not to call it wrong, bad, shameful, reprehensible, or evil. To call a video “inappropriate” for a child is not to say that it will warp his or her mind or is an instrument of the devil. Use of the word may also subtly imply that those concepts are themselves inappropriately moralistic — that all behavior and expression are okay only as long as they are performed in the suitable or proper time and place. At first blush, that approach to the world has an appealing, vaguely Zen feel to it. But we live, inescapably, in a Judeo-Christian culture. As Sen. Joseph Lieberman said on the floor of the Senate, referring to Clinton’s antics, “Such behavior is not just inappropriate — it is immoral.”
A related explanation for the popularity of this and other euphemisms is personal or institutional timidity when making judgments about other people’s behavior. The perpetrator of “inappropriate” actions is pretty much off the hook, and so is not likely to take any actions — verbal, legal, or physical — against his or her accuser. Another friend, who used to work in college residence halls, told me that “inappropriate” was a “standard word in disciplinary letters I wrote or when talking with a student when you wanted to say ‘You screwed up’ in a nice way. No matter how minor (being caught with a beer) or major (trying to plug the exhaust pipe of my car), the behavior was not appropriate for a residence setting.”
Conversely, someone — say, the President — who admits to inappropriate behavior isn’t admitting to anything too terribly awful. It’s classic rhetoric for a non-apology apology.
Perhaps the most important explanation of the word is simple linguistic laziness: “Inappropriate” is such an easy way to avoid saying what you mean. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposed resolution to censure the President began: “Whereas William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States, engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate employee in the White House, which was shameless, reckless and indefensible. …” Shameless, reckless, and indefensible are great words! Feinstein’s prose would have been so much stronger (and maybe her resolution would have passed) if she had scuttled the old and tired “inappropriate relationship” and let them shine.
The problem with the overuse of “inappropriate,” finally, is that it is fuzzy language and inevitably results in missed signals and squawky communication. Yet another friend recalls that when she was an intern at a high school in New York City, “I had to tell an Episcopal priest that his daughter had called the Spanish teacher a son of a bitch. I chose not to be explicit and explained to him that his daughter had used inappropriate language. He responded by asking, ‘What the hell do you mean by inappropriate?'”
Google Ngram Viewer chart showing frequency of “inappropriate” in English-language books. (Reliable data only goes through 2000.)
The other day I got an email from a colleague, Richard Gordon, which opened up:
I officially surrender on this one: “trainings” and “learnings” and other plural gerunds. …
Even academic papers now include the plural of gerunds:
“Expanding the Pipeline: Key Learnings on Retaining Underrepresented Minorities and Students with Disabilities in Computer Science from CRA Bulletin”
Coincidentally, just a few days earlier, the same thing had come up on a Facebook thread about new words and phrases. A friend commented “the absolute worst is ‘Learnings.’ My brain needs a reboot every time I hear it, as in, ‘What were the learnings from the meeting?’”
I had to confess, learnings was a new one on me, but I quickly learned it’s definitely not a new one. While learning is traditionally a noncount or mass noun meaning the act of acquiring new knowledge, the Oxford English Dictionary has a definition of it as a count noun meaning “a lesson, instruction,” with citations dating back to Piers Plowman in 1362 and including this line from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: “The king … Puts to him all the Learnings that his time Could make him the receiuer of.” That is the final citation, and the definition has a dagger next to it, indicating obsolete status.
But the obsolete status is obsolete. Commenting on the Facebook thread, Mike Pope noted that that very day, the OED had responded to a question on the subject on Twitter:
In fact, the revival of learnings seems to have started before that. This Google Ngram Viewer chart indicates a spike in use from about 1920 to 1960.
Most of the uses in that period came from the field of education. A 1930 edition of a physical-education journal gave this report of a conference address:
He then made the following points: Learnings in character are subject to the same laws and principles as learnings in the ordinary intellectual fields. … Direct learning, however, will probably be the smallest part of the processes. Therefore concomitant learnings must be as carefully planned. …
Learnings seems to have made its move to the corporate world around the turn of the 21st century and shows no signs of letting up. In a November 14 New York Times Dealbook conference, Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, said, “One of the key learnings that I project out to folks — because we all at some point in time could be affected by this — is that you have more time to respond than you think.“
The first complaint about learnings I’ve found came in 2003. In 2004 someone wrote this complete blog post: “Attention, Masters of Business Administration of Corporate America: Quit using the word ‘learnings.’ It makes you sound really stupid. The word you really want is ‘lessons.’” More peeving came in 2009.
Currently, the use of the word in academe is robust, to say the least. A Google Scholar search for learnings in 2017 alone yields 5,620 hits. The first four:
“Building the capacity of early childhood educators to promote children’s mental health: Learnings from three new programs” –chapter in Health and Well Being in Childhood.
“The digital journey: Reflected learnings and emerging challenges” –International Journal of Management.
Review of LCA datasets in three emerging economies: a summary of learnings” –International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.
“Review of LCA datasets in three emerging economies: a summary of learnings” –presentation, International Association for Energy Economics.
Was the 2004 blogger right? Does learnings make you sound stupid? It probably depends on the setting. No in a meeting on Madison Avenue, yes in the English department. It’s certainly not an affront against the English language, what with the Shakespeare pedigree and such parallel constructions as teachings, findings, leavings, and readings. Should you, as the blogger said, use lessons instead? I do discern a slight difference in connotation: lessons emphasize the data, person, or persons imparting the information, learnings the person or persons receiving it. Lessons also has a slight punitive feel, as in “learn your lesson.” (Another option is a a slightly less buzzy buzzword, takeaway.)
As for me, I would never use learnings. But that doesn’t mean a hill of beans in this world, as I learned long ago.
The American Dialect Society met in January and chose dumpster fire as Word of the Year. The winner in the “Most Useful/Likely to Succeed” category was gaslight, a verb is defined as to “psychologically manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity.” (Of course linguists would use singular they.)
There was immediate pushback. On the ADS email list, John Baker asked, “What is the rationale for naming ‘gaslight’…? The word has been around for decades. Did it come to some special prominence in 2016?” Arnold Zwicky chimed in: “Over seven decades, in fact. The movie that’s the source of the expression came out in 1944.”
Similarly, when I posted the winners on Facebook, my friend Pat Raccio Hughes commented, “How is that on the list? Isn’t it supposed to be new stuff?” She added that she and her husband had been using it since 1990.
The society addressed this issue in its press release on the voting: “The words or phrases do not have to be brand-new, but they have to be newly prominent or notable in the past year.” So does that apply to gaslight?
Yes, I’d say. The new prominence came from Donald Trump’s habitual tendency to say “X,” and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, “I did not say ‘X.’ In fact, I would never dream of saying ‘X.’” As Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS’s New Words Committee and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, pointed out, The New Republic, Salon, CNN, The Texas Observer, and Teen Vogue (“Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America”) all used the metaphor as the basis for articles about Trump.
The New York Times first used the common gerund form, gaslighting, in 1995, in a Maureen Dowd column. But there were only nine additional uses through May of last year. From June 2016 through the end of the year, the Times used gaslighting 10 times, including a Susan Dominus essay called “The Reverse-Gaslighting of Donald Trump,” which riffed on Hillary Clinton’s line in a September debate: “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.”
As so often happens when you get a lot of language observers together, the discussion shifted: from whether gaslight was newly prominent to precisely how old its verb use is. The history begins with Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light (known in the United States as Angel Street). It inspired a 1940 British film and the more famous 1944 American production, directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, and Charles Boyer. (Spoiler alert.) The Boyer character tries to drive the Bergman character (his wife) crazy, notably by insisting that the gaslights in their house did not flicker, when in fact they did.
But there is no verb gaslight in Gaslight. As I noted on the ADS email list, in response to Baker and Zwicky, this use emerged some 20 years later, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its first citation is a sentence from a 1965 article in the magazine The Reporter: “Some troubled persons having even gone so far as to charge malicious intent and premeditated ‘gaslighting.’” The quotation marks around the word are a sign that it was a recent coinage.
Jonathan Lighter, editor of The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, responded that he had noted in the book an oral use from 1956, by a 41-year-old woman, revealed to be none other than his mother. Lighter also said he has a strong memory of the verb’s being used in an episode of I Love Lucy the same year. That set Ben Zimmer to work. He posted:
There’s a 1956 I Love Lucy episode called “Lucy Meets Charles Boyer,” in which Ricky conspires with Charles Boyer to make Lucy think that Boyer is merely a lookalike. There are obvious parallels to Gaslight, but I watched the episode here and I didn’t hear anything about “gaslighting.”
Bill Mullins replied: “I vaguely recall an episode of the The Lucy Show [a later Lucille Ball sitcom] in which gaslighting is a plot element.” Mullins went to Google and and found a web page titled “The Ten Best THE LUCY SHOW Episodes of Season Six” (perhaps proving that there is a web page for every conceivable topic). One of the 10 was “Lucy Gets Mooney Fired,” which aired in November 1967. The web page gives a plot summary and commentary:
Lucy inadvertently gets Mooney [Gale Gordon] fired after she covers up a bank shortage. To convince Cheever [the bank president] to give Mooney his job back, Lucy gives him the Gaslight treatment.
I love how kooky this episode is WITHOUT managing to insult its audience’s intelligence. Taking a cue from Gaslight (1944), Lucy decides to make Cheever think he has gone crazy, so that he’ll agree to rehire Mr. Mooney. The script itself isn’t that funny, but the bits Lucy does to make Cheever flip are great. This is, deservedly, a fan favorite.
The estimable Zimmer wasn’t done. Consulting with Josh Chetwynd, author of Totally Scripted: Idioms, Words, and QuotesFrom Hollywood to Broadway That Have Changed the English Language, which has an entry on gaslight, he located and watched a 1952 episode of The Burns and Allen Show called “Grace Buying Boat for George.” (It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.) Zimmer wrote, “At 16:20 in the YouTube video, Harry (Fred Clark) says to Gracie, ‘Give him the gaslight treatment!’ and then explains what that means. A bit later you hear George say, ‘So they sold Gracie on the gaslight bit.’”
Still no verb, you’ll notice. Zimmer took care of that a few hours later:
Here’s an example of the verb “gaslight” in “The Grudge Match,” an episode of Gomer Pyle: USMC that aired on 12 Nov. 1965 (antedating OED’s 1969 cite for the verb, as well as the Dec. 1965 cite for the verbal noun).
Duke: You know, you guys, I’m wondering. Maybe if we can’t get through to the sarge we can get through to the chief.
Frankie: How do you mean?…
Duke: The old war on nerves. We’ll gaslight him.
Leading me to muse on the fascinating possibility that the writer of the Reporter piece heard the verb on Gomer Pyle and put it into print just a month later.
But then more detective work was done on the ADS list. Stephen Goranson discovered that an even earlier use of the verb far, in Anthony F.C. Wallace’s 1961 book, Culture and Personality:
It is also popularly believed to be possible to “gaslight” a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting his own behavior to him as symptomatic of serious mental illness. While “gaslighting” itself may be a mythical crime, there is no question that any social attitude which interprets a given behavior or experience as symptomatic of a generalized incompetence is a powerful creator of shame[….]
(The OED has the quote but credits it to a 1969 reprint.)
In any case, the term was picked up, especially in reference to abusers of spouses, partners, and children, and was commonplace by 1990, when Pat Hughes reports starting to use it. I myself first heard it the year before, when, on assigment for Rolling Stone, I interviewed the 19-year-old Uma Thurman for Rolling Stone, who used it in a context I don’t recall. The word was new to me, and I meant to look it up, but I never got around to it.
Woo-woo tips mingle with practical pointers. “Eat from heart-shaped bowls, and put heart stickers on your refrigerator,” Minich recommends. (Why? “To keep the spirit of love alive,” duh.)
–The New York Times, March 27, 2016, review of Whole Detox, by Deanna Minich
… “Valley of Love,” a logy, woo-woo drama about a former couple who, at the request of their son, who killed himself earlier that same year, have come to find answers in the California desert.
–The New York Times, March 24, 2016
“I fluctuate between being very practical and very impulsive, and this was a very impulsive decision,” continued Mr. [Tim] Daly. … “Not to get too woo-woo, but there was a good vibe and I just kind of leapt.”
–The New York Times, February 5, 2016
Clearly, woo woo has hit center stage, or at least that portion of it occupied by The New York Times. And what exactly is woo woo? Deepak Chopra offered a rather defensive definition in a 2011 Huntington Post piece: “It used to annoy me to be called the king of woo woo. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, ‘woo woo’ is a derogatory reference to almost any form of unconventional thinking, aimed by professional skeptics who are self-appointed vigilantes dedicated to the suppression of curiosity.”
Some sources attribute the term — presumably an onomatopoetic rendition of the eerie soundtrack that plays when mystical folk unleash their mysticism — to James Randi, the longtime magician/skeptic whose career of debunking was recently chronicled in the documentary film An Honest Liar. The earliest reference I’ve been able to find is from a 1983 edition of New Age Journal, cited in a 1984 Philadelphia Inquirer article by Steven X. Rea:
George Winston, who practices yoga and who currently has three albums on the jazz charts … has jokingly called this crowd the “woo-woos.” In a 1983 interview in New Age Journal, Winston, asked if he knew who comprised his audience, answered that there were some classical fans, some jazz, some pop and “all the woo-woos.”
“You know,” he added, “there’s real New Age stuff that has substance, and then there’s the woo-woo. A friend of mine once said, ‘George, you really love these woo-woos, don’t you?’ and I said ‘Yes, I do love them,’ and I do. I mean, I’m half woo-woo myself.”
Woo woo soon developed from a noun to an adjective, as in this 1988 quote from a journal called Training: “Subsidiary gurus, licensed to deliver high woo-woo programs developed by others, often will remind you of TV weathermen.” (Interjection-noun-adjective is a rather unusual course of anthimeria.) The Times’ first use came two years after that, in an article about the Earth First movement: “In small towns among the redwoods, new-age settlers have appeared in tie-dyed wardrobes and dreadlocks. They work as carpenters, holistic healers, mandolin players, giving themselves names like ‘Sequoia’ and ‘The Man Who Walks in the Woods.’ Within Earth First, these neo-hippies are known as the ‘woo-woo element.’”
While looking into the origin of the mystic-mocking term, I was struck by how many other different ways it has been used, including as the catch phrase of Hugh Herbert, a rubber-faced comedy actor of the 1930s and ’40s. Wikipedia tells us:
His screen character was usually absent-minded and flustered. He would flutter his fingers together and talk to himself, repeating the same phrases: ‘hoo-hoo-hoo, wonderful, wonderful, hoo hoo hoo!’ So many imitators (including Curly Howard of The Three Stooges and Etta Candy in the Wonder Woman comic book series) copied the catchphrase as ‘woo woo’ that Herbert himself began to use ‘woo woo’ rather than ‘hoo hoo’ in the 1940s.
Interestingly, a 1938 article by Lucius Beebe in the New York Herald-Tribune associates the phrase with other comedians: “Originated by the Ritz Brothers and long accepted in the West as a cry of dismay, festivity, or general acclamation, the screaming of ‘woo woo’ has penetrated the New York bars.”
People nicknamed “Woo Woo” include:
Arnie (Woo Woo) Ginsberg, a retired Boston disk jockey, one of whose trademark sound effects was a train whistle. Jonathan Richman referenced him in the 1989 song “Fender Stratocaster”: “Like Woo Woo Ginsberg at the juke box joint/You hear the sound and you get the point.”
Legendary Chicago Cub fan Ronnie (Woo Woo) Wickers. (Not to be confused with Philadelphia Phillie fan Brad Golden, who shouts, “Everybody hits! Wha Hoo!”)
In the 1940s, 15-year-old Ellsworth (Sonny) Wisecarver Jr. developed a habit of running off with older women, garnering him national publicity and the moniker the Woo Woo Kid. Fun fact: A 1987 film based on Wisecarver’s exploits, In the Mood, was the first starring role of Patrick (McDreamy) Dempsey.
The Wisecarver woo woo seems to stem from the term’s use to denote a sense of risque hijinks, sort of the intersection of “hubba hubba,” “ooh la la,” and, in another bit of onomatopoeia, a wolf whistle, with an implied association with the idea of pitching woo. In 1960, Time magazine illustrated the glamour of the financial writer Silvia Porter by quoting a letter to her lecture agency, “Our second choice would not have the allure and woo-woo of Miss Porter.”
Then there was the Hamilton Jordan affair. As readers who were past the age of reason in 1978 may recall, Jordan, a top adviser in the Carter administration, made headlines that year when, at a Washington bar, he supposedly spit his drink on a woman’s blouse. The White House thereupon issued a 33-page white paper denying the allegation. The Washington Post reported:
The White House rebuttal issued yesterday rested heavily on the statements of Daniel V. Marshall III, a bartender at Sarsfield’s at 2524 L St. NW, where the incident occurred. …
Marshall’s version of what happened is that Jordan was quickly surrounded by young women who wanted to be near the “celebrity.” He said Jordan “woofed down” a steak and drank a beer and two Amaretto-and-creams.
The women were coming up to Jordan “and ‘woo-woo,’ you know what I mean?” Marshall asked.
I could discuss South Park’s Woo Woo PC Chant, the Woo Woo cocktail (vodka, peach schnapps, and cranberry juice), and Jeffrey Osborne’s 1986 “You Should Be Mine (the Woo Woo Song),” but you get the idea. Woo woo has an uncanny semantic productivity. Not to get too woo woo on you.