Weekly Word Watch: fail up, free-range parenting, and glitter butt
This week in word news, we learned that, if life knocks a free-range kid down, she should fail up and get off her glitter butt. And oh, we’re all apparently gonna die from thirdhand smoke.
Over the weekend, Michelle Obama spoke to Black-ish star Tracee Ellis Ross at the United State of Women Summit in Los Angeles. In their wide-ranging conversation on gender inequality, Obama highlighted one particular double standard with a notable verb phrase:
I wish that girls could fail as bad as men do and be OK. Because let me tell you, watching men fail up…it is frustrating. It is frustrating to see a lot of men blow it and win. And we hold ourselves to these crazy, crazy standards.
In general, to fail up is to achieve success despite failure. With its clever and economical up, the verb phrase at once flips our script on setbacks and defeats, associated with down, while also suggesting promotion and advancement.
We can find evidence for failing up in pop-psychology as early as 1979, when self-help author Ralph Charell encouraged employees who struggled at work – or had even been sacked from the job – to seize the ‘great opportunity to fail upward’.
By the 2010s, failing up had become a full-fledged Silicon Valley buzzword. Writing for the New York Times in 2016, Kate Loss observed failing upward as a guiding philosophy in startup culture: ‘Tech workers now use terms like “soft landing” (to fail gently without career harm) and “failing upward” (to fail with an immediate career upside)’.
Fail up is definitely a term for our time, when we are increasingly prizing, even fetishizing failure in our personal and professional lives – or as we used to just call it, taking risks, being resilient, and learning from our mistakes.
But Obama’s use of fail up exposes that not all failure is equal, that men get to fail in ways women don’t, that male failure is privileged. In the Trumpian subtext of her remarks, Obama may even hint at a new sense for fail up, ‘to be rewarded for messing up’, which perhaps speaks to how it seems more and more today that scandal and shame aren’t enacting the consequences on public figures as they once did.
On Tuesday, the US state of Utah legalized what’s being popularly called free-range parenting. The laws permits school-aged children, when reasonable, to go unsupervised when doing things like walking to school, playing outside, or waiting in a car without parents being charged for neglect.
Free-range parenting (or ‘normal parenting’ as one mum memorably called it) seeks to give and teach children greater independence, a pushback on the trend towards overprotective, micromanaging helicopter parenting in the 2000s.
The term is credited to Lenore Skenazy, who launched Free-Range Kids in 2008 after being called ‘America’s Worst Mom’ for allowing her nine-year-old to ride the New York City subway by himself. Her movement calls for a return to a time when children could ride their bikes around the block, explore the woods in the backyard, scrape their knees – to be kids, though the name free-range suggests animals. It’s an attention-getting name, to be sure, and nods to the spread, in packaging if not practice, of free-range meat and dairy in the refrigerated aisle in recent years. We give our chickens free range, it’s as if Free-Range Kids asks, but not our children?
The term free-range, for all its marketing mania today, is older than you may think. The Oxford English Dictionary records free-range cattle in a Kansas newspaper in 1885, based on the slightly earlier free range (‘unfenced pasture’).
Describing parenting and children as free-range is definitely a grabby extension of the word, but it isn’t exactly novel. The earliest form the OED finds so far is free-ranging, or roaming without restriction, said of ‘free-ranging peasants of the mountains of Greece’ in 1841.
Like free-ranging peasants, free-range kids, of course, are not only more ethically raised but more delicious.
We’re familiar with the dangers of secondhand smoke, or the tobacco smoke we breathe in from being around a lit cigarette or the like. But research published this week warns we may be exposed to far more thirdhand smoke than previously thought.
Thirdhand smoke refers to tobacco smoke toxins trapped in clothing, furniture, and other indoor surfaces that can get circulated back into the air – constituting up to 29% of it, according to the study, even after many years.
Our appreciation of its risks is new and emerging, and findings are teaching many of us the term thirdhand smoke for the first time, but, as lexicographer Ben Zimmer has previously noted on the OUPblog, the phenomenon has been so called researchers as early as 2006. Zimmer also found some satirical uses of thirdhand smoke reaching back to the early 1990s.
Secondhand smoke, meanwhile, has been so named since at least 1891. The OED firmly establishes secondhand more generally for ‘once removed’ in the 16th century, ultimately modeled on first hand, or ‘direct from the maker’ in the Rolls of Parliament in the 1430s. The full phrase, at first hand, suggests hand originally had a sense of ‘exchange’, i.e., a handing over.
And in case you’re keeping count, yes, there is evidence for fourth-hand, or ‘passing through four hands’, which the OED finds written of some tailored wares in 1599.
What would fourth-hand smoke be? The dangers of just thinking about having a cigarette?
Finally, all that glitters is not gold. It’s gluteal.
Last spring, the internet ogled a summer festival fashion trend where women bedazzle their bums with glitter, called glitter butt. Fashion trends, especially on social media, so quickly come and go, with their associated vocabulary just a flash in the lexical pan.
— Marie Claire (@marieclaire) May 4, 2018
Does this mean glitter butt is officially a thing? Enough to warrant a name, apparently, thereby ushering it into thing-dom.
You know, we often remark how eccentric the English language can be in our Word Watch, but we just can’t shake this hunch that it ain’t the language that’s so unusual…