Flagging up the elephant in the room
How to use Google’s timeline to trace the history of all those annoying cliches – it’s not rocket science
Buzz phrases sometimes come out of left field. Sometimes they’re hiding in plain sight. Often they come in under the radar. Google’s timeline search (listed under “more search tools” on the left of the Google homepage) is a treat for anyone interested in buzz phrases. If for example you want to know about the elephant in the room, enter the phrase (in quotes) in a timeline search and you’ll see a chart showing how often it crops up in documents accessible to Google over decades or centuries – so you can see when the elephant entered, and also when it became too big to ignore.
In 1989, William Schneider uses it in the Los Angeles Times:
“In New York politics, the race issue is like an elephant in the room. It’s big and it’s kind of hard to ignore. But everyone pretends it isn’t … Sooner or later, somebody’s going to notice that there’s an elephant in the room.”
Schneider takes some time out of his analysis to explain the elephant, suggesting that this behemoth of modern prose can probably be dated to the late 1980s. Using the Google timeline, we can see the elephant making its presence felt, with decreasing subtlety, in rooms around the world throughout the 90s; and, at the start of the new century, becoming a nuisance.
There are enough old newspapers and books on open web access now to make the historical pursuit of buzz phrases a fascinating one. A Google timeline search may not show you the very first recorded use of a phrase, but you’ll usually get a good sense of its early adopters and where and how it took off. Some are sleeper hits; some go viral almost straight away.
There are often quite a few red herrings to watch for, though – lots of early hits are actually from more recent documents about historical events. But finding a genuine early use is quite exciting. Sometimes (see “flagged up”) the buzz phrase appears to be born when a writer adapts a more logical phrase, either in a flash of lucidity, or a moment of madness.
Moment of madness is now a phrase that no miscreant wants to be without. It’s easy to see why: it has the ring of a proper excuse, but people don’t often go momentarily mad. They just do something on impulse that they might not have done if they had given it more thought (or if they had thought they would get caught). It appears on Google for the first time in an encyclopedia in 1704, explaining why Alexander the Great set fire to a palace. Then it disappears for 250 years before popping up in the US a few times between 1950 and 1990. But it is Ron Davies, the former Wales secretary, who makes it his own as he explains what came over him (as Julian Clary might have said) on Clapham Common in 1996. Thus was a man, and possibly a raft of his measures, brought low.
A raft of measures is occasionally sighted in American newspapers before the 20th century, but none feels the need to explain to their readers what they mean by the phrase. It pops up occasionally in the second half of the 20th century, but then, at the end of the century, Google flags up hundreds of them floating around.
For nearly all of the 20th century, it’s only a tail or a ship that can be flagged up (the former held up and waved like a flag, the latter flying its flags). Then in 1989, Hugh McKinlay describes in the Glasgow Herald how a footballer’s foul is “flagged up” by the referee. Probably “flag upped” would have conveyed the sense better, but we’ve been flagging up ever since. We are where we are.
This foul verbal agglomeration really took off after it started to be used in the same sense as its equally evil twin, “let us look forward, not back”. Google timeline finds a fair number of writers in the past talking about “why we are where we are”. But more recently the phrase has broken away to become a statement of fact – and an increasingly popular form of bluster. “We are where we are” is political or business-speak for “I would be grateful if you would ignore my mistakes.” Or as the Urban Dictionary puts it: “We’re in the shit, but suck it up.”
The Google timeline is great fun for anyone who is well aware that we are where we are, but still wants to know why. Buzz phrases are everywhere. Now I’ve run some by you, why not have a go with some of your own? They shouldn’t be too hard to find. Bring something to the party. Knock yourself out. It’s not rocket science. Post your findings below (if that’s not too big an ask).