When William Wordsworth wrote, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” he was referring to his youthful experiencing of the French Revolution, albeit from afar. Today doesn’t seem like a particularly blissful time, but if you research language usage as a job, pastime, or somewhere in between, this is a Golden Age. Proprietary resources like the online Oxford English Dictionary, Green’s Dictionary of Slang, newspapers.com, and The New York Times and New Yorker archives, and free ones like Twitter, Wikipedia, and Wiktionary, the BYU Corpora, Urban Dictionary, the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America database of historic newspapers, and Google’s quartet -- its search engine, Google Books, Google News, and Ngram Viewer -- make it possible to almost instantaneously learn more about current and historical language trends than would have even been thought possible 25 years ago, all while sitting on your butt.
I go to some or all of these sites multiple times daily, in service either of something I’m writing or my momentary curiosity. Take, for example, one day last week. I was fortunate enough to be in the Puglia region of Italy, in a fresco conservation and restoration program, and on this day we took a trip to the seaside town of Barletta. That put me in mind of the 1970s cop show Baretta and then inevitably of its star, Robert Blake, best known in recent years for his legal troubles. My wife commented that her family used to get a huge bang out of Blake’s appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, especially the way he always addressed Carson as “John” and referred to network executives as “the suits.”
Naturally, I got to thinking about the origin of that piece of slang, now common to refer to noncreative corporate types. An initial Google search yielded a lot of Blake-suit stuff, including a 1975 interview with People magazine in which he said, “Anyone who doesn’t wear a suit is a friend of mine.” The first metonymic suit I found, using newspapers.com, was in article about a CBS interview with Blake in 1977, in which the actor said that if “the suits” didn’t like the way he was doing Baretta, they could “take me off the air.” That’s two years before the OED‘s first citation, from a 1979 novel: “McBride was an exception to the usual ‘suits’ at the Bureau.” Green’s Dictionary of Slang has examples of “gray suits” and “three-piece suits” going back to 1954, but its 1967 suits strikes me as an outlier. So I would credit Robert Blake with, if not originating, then popularizing the term.
Later that same day, somebody sent me a tweet:
Makes sense, yet “light bulb went off” somehow seemed natural to me. The first use I could find was in the Times in 1971: “Then one day, the light bulb went off over Mrs. Smith’s head.” Google Ngram Viewer suggested that the phrase originated in the late 1960s and has been increasing in popularity since then:
So the expression is relatively new, but is it “mangled”? I don’t think so. To me, light bulb went off isn’t a corruption of light bulb went on (which doesn’t sound quite right in any case), but a variant of a bomb, fireworks, or — most to the point — a photographic flashbulb going “off,” with the drama and suddenness that preposition suggests. I can see why it has caught on.
Finally, over dinner that night in Puglia, one of the participants in the restoration program, who lives near Cleveland, had reason to mention the strip of land between the sidewalk and the street outside his home. He called it the “tree lawn,” a term I’d never encountered. Naturally, I looked it up. I didn’t have access to the best resource on the subject, The Dictionary of American Regional English, but I was able to learn that there are dozens of names for this geographical feature. In Wikipedia’s entry on the subject, titled “Road verge,” the first several names given are:
Berm: Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Zealand
Boulevard: North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin; United States Upper Midwest; Winnipeg, and western Canada; Markham, Ontario
Boulevard strip: U.S. Upper Midwest
Curb lawn: Kalamazoo, Michigan; Elyria, Ohio; Miami County, Ohio; Greenville, South Carolina
Curb strip: New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon, Washington
My Lingua Franca editor, Heidi Landecker, subsequently informed me that the next term on the alphabetical list,"devil strip,” once played a significant part in a criminal investigation. As Jack Hitt reported in The New Yorker several years ago, investigators in Illinois were trying to find a kidnapper who left the following ransom note: “No kops! Come alone!! Put [the money] in the green trash kan on the devil strip at the corner 18th and Carlson.” The police consulted the forensic linguist Roger Shuy (now a Lingua Franca contributor), who studied the letters and then asked, “Is one of your suspects an educated man born in Akron, Ohio?” Hitt writes:
The cops were stunned. There was one who matched that description perfectly, and when confronted he confessed. As Shuy subsequently explained, “kop” and “kan” most likely were intentional misspellings by someone posing as illiterate. And he knew from his research that the patch of grass between the sidewalk and the street — sometimes known as the “tree belt,” “tree lawn,” or “sidewalk buffer”—is called the “devil’s strip” only in Akron, Ohio.
See what I mean? Bliss.