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Dear Word Detective: I don’t know if I’m the last to notice this but the word “trending,” which used to modify other words, e.g., “the stock market is trending down,” “homeownership is trending down,” “property values are trending down” (boy, it’s hard to think of anything that’s trending UP these days), has become a stand-alone word. It seems to mean — approximately — “becoming more popular,” “an emerging trend,” or, on the web, “frequently linked to,” “Liked” in the Facebook sense, or “recommended.” So I’ll be told that a particular shoe designer is “trending,” and I’m supposed to know what that means. I’m not an Edwin Newman curmudgeonly defender of the status quo. I understand that language is what people say, not what the rules say they should say, and language changes and evolves. But a part of me still objects when language changes in a direction that strikes the ear like a wrong note in a piano concerto. Sure, change, but why change in an ugly direction and for no apparent reason? Is there anything that the new sense of “trending” gives us that the old one, or any number of other words, didn’t? — Joseph DeMartino.

That’s a good question. Due to space constraints, I’ve had to lop off your second question, which had to do with an emerging (and depressing) mangling of the venerable word “aback,” but I’ll use that for another column. Hey, I just noticed that my spell-checker doesn’t recognize “Facebook.” I’m gonna leave it that way.

When “trend” first appeared as a verb in Old English (as “trendan”), derived from Germanic roots, it meant simply “to revolve or turn around; to turn or roll oneself about.” By the 16th century, “trend” was being used to mean “to travel around, to skirt something” (e.g., a coast), or “to travel in a specified direction or following a certain course,” as a river, mountain range or other natural feature might (“In its course to the north, the Gulf Stream gradually trends more and more to the eastward,” 1860). By the mid-19th century, based on this use, “trend” was being used figuratively to mean “To turn in some direction, to have a general tendency (as a discussion, events, etc.)” (Oxford English Dictionary (OED)). This is the standard, neutral sense of “trend” as a verb today. The noun “trend,” which arose from the verb, followed the same general course (trend?) in evolution, and now means “the general drift or direction of thought, culture, etc.” or a specific example of such, e.g., “Platinum sinks are the latest trend in high-end houses.”

I did a search of Google News back to 1800 for “trending,” and it seems to have first appeared in print around 1850 in the “traveling in a certain direction” figurative sense, always modified by “up,” “down,” etc. So stock prices might be “trending up” or “trending down,” but they were never just described as “trending.” The use of “trending” by itself to mean simply “increasing” in some sense (usually popularity) seems to have arisen in the 1980s (“‘I’ve said to lighten up on them [documentaries] because I think it [comedy] is trending now,’ Lemasters said,” 8/28/86), although the date is hard to pin down.

I’d guess (and it’s just a guess) that the assignment of a positive polarity (and unmodified “stand-alone” status) to “trending” has been due at least partly to the rise of the adjective “trendy” in the early 1960s. “Trendy,” defined by the OED as “Fashionable, up to date, following the latest trend” (“That was how it had always been and how it would go on in spite of trendy clergy trying to introduce so-called up-to-date forms of worship,” Barbara Pym, 1977), is always used to describe something popular (even if the speaker uses “trendy” in a dismissive sense). So “trending” in this new sense essentially means “in the process of becoming trendy” and thus carries, at least ostensibly, a positive sense. Trends which are not considered positive, such as a sharp rise in homelessness among the unemployed in the US, are still always described in news accounts using modifiers such as “up” and “increasing,” and no one (I hope) would be depraved enough to describe sleeping in one’s car as “trendy.”

Do we need this new sense of “trending”? Not really, but, given the popularity of “trendy” as an index of value in our consumer culture, it was probably inevitable.

March 2012 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


March already. Huh. Meh. Feh.

I’m not really complaining, you understand, but I’d like to point out that it snowed exactly three times this winter, and two times it didn’t stick at all. The third time amounted to about a half an inch, nowhere near enough to make snowballs for Brownie the Dog. Brownie likes me to throw snowballs for her to chase. Of course, the snowballs always land in the snow on the ground and become impossible to find, but as long as I make another one right away, she doesn’t mind. Brownie was deeply disappointed by that paltry excuse for snow, so I hope you’re happy, whoever you are. I ended up standing by the refrigerator and tossing her ice cubes, but that really wasn’t the same, and we ended up with little puddles all over the kitchen floor. Everything in this paragraph is true, by the way.

Speaking of little puddles, we finally finished watching Season II of Downton Abbey, about a week after we stumbled across this old article from the Daily Mail in 2011, which indicates that PBS, adjudging their audience to consist largely of enfeebleated droolers, decided to do away with the hard parts of the British version of the series, thus making time for the oleaginous Laura Linney to smooth out the rough edges with her cloying smarm. All this for a show that makes The Young and the Restless look like Hamlet. Duly noted for all concerned.

Anyway, we’re all glad everyone has been miraculously healed (Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!), except, one presumes, the horribly maimed chap who appeared claiming to be heir to the whole magilla but conveniently disappeared about ten minutes later and was, as this show is wont, promptly and utterly forgotten by the rest of the perpetually befuddled gang at the Big House. Elsewhere on Planet Gimmeabreak, I simply must remember to get one of those special ouija boards that have complete words (“Dad,” “farm,” “visit,” “happy,” etc.) spelled out across the top. I’ll bet it saves lots of time.

I kid, of course. Obviously Downton Abbey is far preferable to the vast wasteland of wretched dreck that constitutes US TV these days. People keep asking me if I’ve seen CSI or Special Victims Unit or Dexter or America’s Funniest Home Dungeons and I have to say, no, not yet, when what I really mean is no, not ever.

And as annoying as I find PBS 90% of the time, occasionally they show something like the BBC’s Little Dorrit a few years ago, which I would gladly watch again and may be just about the best thing I’ve ever seen on TV. It even made up for those New Age infomercials and ghastly Celtic Woman things I keep clicking past on PBS.

Onward. We now have a Twitter feed over there in the right column, but don’t expect much beyond pointers to the columns here unless I suddenly get a prescription for something very powerful. You might check the people I follow on that feed and find many of them interesting, as I do. Most of them have some connection to language or books.

We’re still on Facebook (sortof) and Google Plus (barely). I think Google blew it, frankly. The place is a ghost town, and trying to compel people to join when they sign up for Gmail is just obnoxious.

By the way, I do my best to keep up with comments on this site, but it might be a day or two before I get to yours, so please be patient. I approve almost everything, no matter how tangential or odd it may be, as long as it doesn’t abuse other commenters. As for email, I read everything but not always promptly, because my eyes have become sufficiently wonky that to read things I frequently have to crank up the font size to “ginormous” and park my nose about six inches from the screen.

So forward into Spring, I guess. Please remember (you asked me to remind you) to subscribe.

And please send in your questions. I know you have them. And I need them.

And now, on with the show….

Dance-off, Sing-off, etc.

There’s a diplosaurus in your disk drive.

Dear Word Detective: Talking with my family some time ago, we somehow got to the subject of those ‘X-off’ combinations which seem to have become fairly commonplace in recent years. You know, “dance-off,” “sing-off,” “rap-off,” “nerd-off,” what have you — it appears that any sort of competitive confrontation can be fit into that mold. So we got to wondering where it all started. Thinking of it a bit, I guess it makes sense that it would stem from “face-off” (Oxford Concise: “[1] a direct confrontation. [2] [Ice Hockey] the start of play.”), but the more I think about it the more I’m puzzled by the word “off,” there. I mean, you have two teams facing each other, that seems clear, but why are they facing OFF? I know that adverbs can be kinda arbitrary, so there might not be an answer for that. Still, it bugs me. I’d appreciate any insight you might offer on that subject. — Yael.

There’s a “nerd-off”? Does it involve fixing computers while reciting the names of obscure dinosaurs? Speaking of prehistoric trivia, does anyone else see the term “face-off” and immediately think of the 1997 John Travolta/Nicholas Cage movie? No? You’re lucky. For the life of me, I can’t imagine what compelled me to see that nonsensical schlock-fest (starring my two least-favorite actors), but something did, and I still, obviously, bear the scars.

“Off” is a daunting word with a dizzying array of uses. It began as an emphatic form of the preposition “of,” which in Middle English carried the sense of “from, or out of,” in the way we might say that a person is “Mr. Edwards of London.” The form “off” gradually took on a stronger meaning than “of,” connoting “away, away from” (e.g., “drive off”) or “at a distance from” (“off the coast of France”). By the early 18th century the two words had completely separated and “off” came to be used not only as a preposition but an adjective, adverb and noun as well.

“Off” in modern English carries those senses of motion, direction or distance from a place, thing or person, but it also is used to express resistance to motion towards a place, thing, etc., as in “ward off” or “keep off.” In “dance-off,” bake-off,” etc., we’re seeing a verbal phrase used as a noun, with the “off” signifying resistance in the form of confrontation or competition. The earliest use of this sense seems to have been in “face-off,” appearing in 1889 and originally meaning the moment in a game of ice hockey or lacrosse when play is started by dropping or placing the puck or ball between two opposing players who are literally facing each other. It wasn’t until the 1950s that “face-off” came into use in the more general sense of “direct confrontation.” (In that awful Cage/Travolta movie, the confrontation between the two involved actually swapping faces. Yeah, it was that stupid.)

Meanwhile, a slightly different sense of “off” had been dumped into the mix. In 1870 the phrasal noun “play-off” first appeared in print meaning a game played to decide a tie at the end of a previous game (“The tie game of yesterday was played off to-day,” 1880). This “play-off” invoked a very old sense of “off” meaning “exhaust or finish completely” (as in our modern “finish off”). It wasn’t until 1932 that “play-off” came to mean (first in the US, of course) “a series of games, matches, or contests played to decide a championship, competition, etc.” (Oxford English Dictionary).

The precedents of “face-off” and “play-off” subsequently served as models for all the little “X-offs” you’ve noticed, from “cook-off” (1936) to “bake-off” (1949) to the more recent “dance-off,” “sing-off,” etc. These terms all employ both the “confrontation or contest” sense and the “finish” sense (in that there is only one winner) of “off.”