Posts Tagged ‘cliche’

Some weeks back as one of my tweets as @etyman I called BS on the word game changer and officially declared it a candidate for Cliché of the Year, 2011. I know, I don’t have much clout when it comes to “declaring” things, but then again, I also have nothing to lose if it turns out to be “favorite word of the year.”

Can I be first to officially declare “game changer” as “Cliché of the Year?” Apparently now anything new is a “game changer.” Bah, humbug! (April 5th, 11:40 am EST)

The word seems to have reached that critical mass needed to catapult it from “descriptive” to “mildly annoying” and then “for the love of God, Montresor!” I’m not suggesting capital punishment for users of the phrase – well, not yet anyway – but forcing users to eat a bar of soap might be one option.

A quick ghit count shows 3,240,000 results for the exact phrase “game changer,” which is depressingly about 900 times more than “Etyman” but less than “Charlie Sheen,” who comes in with a staggering 58,900,000 mentions, eclipsing such do-nothings as Mother Teresa (4,980,000) and Martin Luther King (23,500,000). Celebrity, it seems, has nothing to do with actions.

The Corpus of Historical American English has an entry for game changer that appears in the Chicago Tribune of 1995. In an article that covered the development of oil industries in Cuba, we find;

In the Obama administration, Cuba’s oil development is likely to be seen as an issue for the future. Says a senior State Department official, ” If it’s a game changer it’s not going to be a game changer for a while.

In one of his On Language pieces for the New York Times, William Safire refers to a Washington Post article baseball reference:

Singleton hit his game-changer… fair by eight yards.

In the same piece, Safire says that Ben Zimmer had tracked it back to 1930 and a discussion about changing the game of bridge: “Seldom are the game-changers idle.”

What is clear is that although it’s use may not be further back than the 1930’s, it’s certainly hit its stride over the past two years. The excellent  Corpus of Contemporary American English shows the following number of examples:

2003 – 3 examples
2004 – 0 examples
2005 – 0 examples
2006 – 1 examples
2007 – 7 example
2008 – 26 examples
2009 – 16 examples
2010 – 13 examples
2011 – 7 examples

From 2008 onwards we can see a significant increase in the use of game changer in comments about politics, electric cars, lasers, Iran, vaccines, and even stuffing on corn bread! OK, I know you’re curious so here’s the corn bread piece taken from the CBS Early Show on November 26th, 2009:

HARRY-SMITH: I’ve nibbling on this stuffing all morning and I have to say I never had it with the corn bread before and that is a game changer.
MICHAEL-WHITE: Really, really —
RUSS-MITCHELL: Really. I got to try that.
MICHAEL-WHITE: Yeah. And — and I tell you, once you — once you put a little bit of the broth on it, you get this really great consistency. Okay?

When stuffing on corn bread is a game changer, I think you need look no further for evidence that a cliché is at hand!

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Those nice people at Lake Superior State University (LSSU) have just released their list of “Banished Words for 2011,” and among them is a personal irritant – “man up.” Like many topical cliches, the perception of their frequency is more important than any actual measurements. They just feel overused. And once you’ve had such a cliche brought to you attention, it seems to appear everywhere, just like being told that the number “23” is spooky and, lo and behold, you begin seeing it so frequently that you can’t accept that it’s just coincidence.

To get an idea of how the phrase “man up” has developed, I used the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and did a simple search for the string. Not surprisingly, the majority of instances in the last three years (2007-2010) of the combination are in relation to its being used as a phrasal verb to mean “be a man” or “take responsibility.”

But prior to 2007, the phrase appears as simply a noun and a preposition in sentences such as “…lugged the unconscious man up the steps…” or “…help the old man up the ladder…” The shift from two separate words to a phrasal verb thus appears to have taken place in 2007.

As ever, there are always outliers. In 2003, a CNN interview by Anderson Cooper had the following exchange noted:

But I was trying to get them to man up. I was trying to get them to realize rugged individuals, some self-sufficiency, true independence was something to celebrate in this great experiment in self-government.

There’s another example in the same year in a Washington Post article by Jennifer Frey who, in writing about missing POW’s, cites an e-mail hat contained the following;

The last time I saw Spike, he was manning up for the flight in which he was lost.

There are fewer examples of the -ing form of the verb in the COCA but again, the majority are 2007 and up. And as a point of interest, all four examples of “manned up” are from 2008/2009.

From the comments at the LSSU site, the main criticism of “manning up” is that it has sexist overtones and would sound wrong if applied to women. After all, you don’t hear “woman up” being said to someone who needs to become a little more feminine.

However, this sort of “verbing the noun” is hardly unusual. Perhaps “phrasal verbing the noun” is rarer. It’s not uncommon to hear pundits saying that the US needs to “beef up airport security” or “beef up the borders,” with ne’er a hint of “cowism” suggested.  And the coinage of “beefing up” to mean make something beefier (stronger) is similar to “manning up” as meaning making something more mannish (masculine). Others like this would include “to firm up” (make something more firm), “to jazz up” (make something more jazzy), and “to green up,” (make something more green).

Well, I’m happy to ‘fess up that this is the last time I’m going to use “man up” in 2011. Unless I slip up…

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