Memetic dynamics of summative cliches

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Following up on this morning's post about phrases that some people find irritating, I thought that I'd take a look at the recent history of one of them, "At the end of the day", which was the Plain English Campaign's 2004 "most irritating phrase in the language". Geoff Pullum ("Irritating cliches? Get a life", 3/25/2004) took this phrase to "have a meaning somewhere in the same region as after all, all in all, the bottom line is, and when the chips are down", and he observes that it "may shock people by its complete bleaching away of temporal meaning", resulting in things like "at the end of the day, you've got to get up in the morning".

A Google News Archive search for "at the end of the day" shows a rapid recent rise in hits from around 1985 onward.  But so do some similar phrases, like  "when all is said and done", which doesn't seem to have incurred the ire of peevers to nearly the same extent. So I thought I'd look at the relative frequency of four phrases with similar meanings: "in the last analysis", "in the final analysis", "when all is said and done", and "at the end of the day".  I queried the Google News archive in 5-year increments from 1951 to 2009.

The raw counts are here, and a plot of proportions shows a striking increase, from about 1975 on, in the frequency of "at the end of the day" relative to the other alternatives:

it's nice to see that peevers like the PEC are responding, even if irrationally, to a genuine change in their linguistic environment, rather than amplifying purely internal psychic noise.

[Update -- The OED has an entry for the "hackneyed phrase" glossed as "eventually; when all's said and done", with citations only from 1974:

1974 H. MCKEATING God & Future vi. 96 Eschatological language is useful because it is a convenient way of indicating..what at the end of the day we set most store by. 1976 South Notts. Echo 16 Dec. 1/4 ‘At the end of the day,’ he stated, ‘this verifies what I have been saying against the cuts in public expenditure.’ 1978 Jrnl. R. Soc. Arts CXXVI. 213/2, I want to make a number of points to you, which we believe invalidate..the recommendations they make at the end of the day. 1982 B. BEAUMONT Thanks to Rugby iii. 39 But, at the end of the day, it is an amateur sport and everyone is free to put as much or as little into the game as he chooses. 1986 Independent 17 Nov. 4 At the end of the day businessmen can talk to the city in a way chief executives cannot.

1974 is way late for the first "hackneyed" usage -- was this phrase born hackneyed?

It's easy enough to antedate it -- W.H. Auden wrote in Passenger Shanty (from Poems 1936-39):

8 The passengers are rather triste ,
9 There's many a fool, and many a beast,
10 Who ought to go west, but is bound for the East.

11 Mr. Jackson buys rubber and sells it again,
12 He paints in oils and he drinks champagne,
13 Says: 'I should have been born in Elizabeth's reign.'

14 His wife learns astrology out of a book,
15 Says: 'Your horoscope's queer and I don't like its look.
16 With the Moon against Virgo you might be a crook.'

17 The planter tells us: 'In Malay
18 We play rugger in March and cricket in May
19 But feel starved for sex at the end of the day.'

20 The journalist Capa plays dicing games,
21 He photographed Teruel Town in flames,
22 He pinches the bottoms of all the dames.

23 The Dominican monks get up with the sun,
24 They're as fond of their dinner as anyone,
25 And they have their own mysterious fun.

Though perhaps Auden's planter meant that literally, I'm not sure.

Another, even earlier, ambiguous antedating -- a poem by William Canton with the title "At the end of the day", 1902:

1   Two on a moor befogged I found. One sat,
2      Hunched on a stone, beside a burnt-out fire.
3   One posed with drabbled peacock-feathered hat.
4      And both were old, starved, squalid in attire.

5   "You seem," said I to him upon the stone,
6      "Old friends new met in unexpected woe."
7   "Yes," sighed the man; "my name is Had-I-known ."
8      "And his?" "Oh, his!" he laughed---" I-told-you-so ."

Completely unambiguous is Ella Wheeler Wilcox's 1916 The Things That Count:

1   Now , dear, it isn't the bold things,
2   Great deeds of valour and might,
3   That count the most in the summing up of life at the end of the day.
4   But it is the doing of old things,
5   Small acts that are just and right;
6   And doing them over and over again, no matter what others say;
7   In smiling at fate, when you want to cry, and in keeping at work when you want to play---
8   Dear, those are the things that count.

Maybe this phrase was "born hackneyed" after all?

Even earlier is Benjamin Disraeli's 1847 Tancred:

As for Keferinis, although he was very conversable, the companions observed that he always made it a rule to dilate upon subjects and countries with which he had no acquaintance, and he expressed himself in so affected a manner, and with such an amplification of useless phraseology, that, though he was always talking, they seemed at the end of the day to be little more acquainted with the Ansarey and their sovereign than when Baroni first opened the subject of their visit to Darkush at Damascus.

]

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22 Comments »

  1. mollymooly said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    This needs filing under "recency illusion, not"

  2. Bloix said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    For some reason I have a belief that "at the end of the day" originated in the UK and migrated to the US. Is that what the data show?

    [(myl) The Google News data indexes English-language publications from all over, though it could well be that the geographical mix changes over time, I don't know. There are collections where origin could be tracked, though I haven't done it.]

    And I wonder whether its origin is in the financial markets, where closing prices are reported daily.

    [(myl) The OED has an entry for the "hackneyed phrase" glossed as "eventually; when all's said and done", with citations only from 1974 -- and none of them have anything to do with the closing prices on financial markets:

    1974 H. MCKEATING God & Future vi. 96 Eschatological language is useful because it is a convenient way of indicating..what at the end of the day we set most store by. 1976 South Notts. Echo 16 Dec. 1/4 ‘At the end of the day,’ he stated, ‘this verifies what I have been saying against the cuts in public expenditure.’ 1978 Jrnl. R. Soc. Arts CXXVI. 213/2, I want to make a number of points to you, which we believe invalidate..the recommendations they make at the end of the day. 1982 B. BEAUMONT Thanks to Rugby iii. 39 But, at the end of the day, it is an amateur sport and everyone is free to put as much or as little into the game as he chooses. 1986 Independent 17 Nov. 4 At the end of the day businessmen can talk to the city in a way chief executives cannot.

    But 1974 is way late for the first "hackneyed" usage -- was this phrase born hackneyed? -- and so further research might reveal a different pattern.]

  3. ø said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    My own memory is that "at the end of the day" was already an overused phrase in the UK in 1987. Until I ran into it there I had never encountered it at home (USA).

  4. mgh said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

    Bloix, the three earliest Google News occurrences of the related phrase "at day's end" are financial:

    "Shorts driven to cover at day's end" (Mar 7 1907)
    "Slump comes at day's end on account of short-selling" (Oct 1 1908)
    "Quotations at day's end much lower than on the preceding session" (Mar 3 1909)

    so I would not be surprised if your guess is correct.

  5. KRS said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

    When the chips are down … the buffalo is empty.

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 6:04 pm

    I moved to the UK in 1985 and also thought that this was a British expression. But looking at Mark's graph, I wonder if I just first encountered it here as it took off throughout the Anglosphere.

  7. Paul Kay said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

    It might be interesting to see a comparable plot for going forward, versus from now on, hencforth, in the future, etc. I confess I'm too lazy to check this impression, but it seems to me that going forward, which I personally find annoying (FWIW), has gained great currency recently.

  8. Paul Kay said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

    Whoops: hencforth -> henceforth.

  9. Tom Recht said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 10:54 pm

    I don't think the Canton and Wilcox poems are instances of the modern usage, exactly, since they both seem to be using day as a conscious poetic metaphor to mean life.

    [(myl) The metaphor may or may not have been conscious, but it certainly wasn't innovative. Poetic sentiments like "...all must pass / when that their day is done" can be found by the dozen, going back at least to the 17th century and probably before that. Thus Sir Francis Hubert, who died in 1629, wrote in The Life and Death of Edward the Second

    4225 I'le be reueng'd: They doe not feare my frowne,
    4226 Too well, too well they know, my Sun is down.
    4227 My day is done, Now doth my night begin;
    4228 And Owles, not Eagles vse to flye therein.

    And there are several elderly expressions in which day means something like "characteristic period of time", e.g. "in Shakespeare's day". With the gloss "Period of a person's rule, activity, career, or life; lifetime", the OED traces this usage back to 1297.]

  10. Nathan Myers said,

    September 26, 2009 @ 11:48 pm

    Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day" seems like a reference to Tom Recht's poetic day.

  11. Joel Shaver said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 3:47 am

    As a recovering peevist attempting to move forward, I have found that there are still a few bumps in the road to recovery. One of the biggest is the use of the phrase 'the reason being' as a compound noun, which used to be one my manager's favorite rhetorical devices. As in: "The reason being is I thought we came out on all cylinders and just played terrific." – Hartford Courant, Nov. 28, 1998 (fourth result on Google News search). It occurred to me recently that the usage might be related to 'raison d'etre'. There also seem, at first glance, to be more hits in sports reporting. 819 total hits is not a staggering sum, but the graph does have an interesting shape. Hits increase pretty steadily from about 1985 to 2008, but it looks like usage is falling off this year. This can only be good news for my progress.

  12. Richard Wein said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 4:28 am

    I seem to find most new expressions and usages irritating at first. How long it takes for them to start feeling natural seems to depend mainly on who's using them.

    "1974 is way late"

    This use of "way" (to mean "very") is one of those usages that drove me mad when I first started to encounter it (a 1980s import from the US to the UK?). It still seems a bit youf-speak for my taste, but it doesn't wrankle any more. I think that becoming a fan of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" has softened my reaction towards many such imports.

  13. dr pepper said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 4:56 am

    I believe that "at the end of the day" was part of one of the longest strings of content free words that Sir Humphry dumped on Hacker on "Yes Minister". I'm sure someone here can find the transcript.

  14. Eugene van der Pijll said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    Dr Pepper, are you thinking of this quote?:

    Sir Humphrey: "I wonder if I might crave your momentary indulgence in order to discharge a by no means disagreeable obligation which has, over the years, become more or less established practice in government service as we approach the terminal period of the year — calendar, of course, not financial — in fact, not to put too fine a point on it, Week Fifty-One — and submit to you, with all appropriate deference, for your consideration at a convenient juncture, a sincere and sanguine expectation — indeed confidence — indeed one might go so far as to say hope — that the aforementioned period may be, at the end of the day, when all relevant factors have been taken into consideration, susceptible to being deemed to be such as to merit a final verdict of having been by no means unsatisfactory in its overall outcome and, in the final analysis, to give grounds for being judged, on mature reflection, to have been conducive to generating a degree of gratification which will be seen in retrospect to have been significantly higher than the general average."

    That's not a meaningless sentence all together, but several parts of it may be said to be superfluous.

    Amazingly, Jim Hacker was able to decode this:

    Jim Hacker: "Are you trying to say "Happy Christmas," Humphrey?"

  15. Eugene van der Pijll said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    Oops… As a follow-up to my own post, it turns out that the phrase "at the end of the day" seems to have been a favourite of Sir Humphrey, and the quote you mean is almost certainly a different one. That in itself suggests that it was already perceived as "manager speak"at the time.

    The real meaningless quote is:

    "… as far as we can see, looking at it by and large, taking one thing with another, in terms of the average of departments, then in the last analysis it is probably true to say that, at the end of the day, you would find, in general terms that, not to put too fine a point on it, there really was not very much in it one way or the other. As far as one can see, at this stage."

  16. Tom Recht said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    Mark, I certainly didn't mean to imply that the 'day=life' metaphor was something new in these poems; it's at least as old as the riddle of the Sphinx. My point was just that these usages are different from 'modern' at the end of the day in two ways – first, the metaphor is a more specific one, and second, it's what Fowler called a 'live' metaphor, i.e. both meanings are still present (I think; though of course that's a subjective judgment).

    Nathan – yes, exactly. This seems to be one of those rare metaphors that are quite common but somehow nevertheless not quite 'hackneyed'.

  17. MJ said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 7:00 pm

    @Eugene,

    Really? Meaningless? I read it, assuming it's about some ineffectual policy:

    "To the extent that we have all the relevant evidence, when we consider the policy in broader scope, such as in its average effect across all departments, it was (again– going on our current evidence) ineffectual."

    The speaker may seem to overuse the discourse coherence relation of redundancy, but this is sometimes necessary when one is particularly concerned not to be misunderstood.

  18. dr pepper said,

    September 27, 2009 @ 11:57 pm

    @Eugene van der Pijll

    The real meaningless quote is:

    "… as far as we can see, looking at it by and large, taking one thing with another, in terms of the average of departments, then in the last analysis it is probably true to say that, at the end of the day, you would find, in general terms that, not to put too fine a point on it, there really was not very much in it one way or the other. As far as one can see, at this stage."

    Yes, that's the one.

  19. greg said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 8:54 am

    It might be relevant that the musical version of Les Miserables first appeared in 1980, and began running on London's West End in 1985 and one of its notable songs is "At the End of the Day", which would definitely have helped move the phrase into the general public consciousness.

  20. I try, but fail, to enter a controversy « Panther Red said,

    September 29, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

    [...] author of Language Log, University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman, had put up three posts (first, second, third) about the question of whether management types use "At the end of the [...]

  21. Mat Morrison said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 5:14 pm

    I don't know if you've all seen this video already, but I couldn't risk the possibility that you hadn't. It takes the phrase "at the end of the day" and turns it into something that is strangely tragic.

  22. So, what of our evolving language, eh? | Rangewriter said,

    May 15, 2013 @ 5:20 pm

    [...] the rudely clichéd “at the end of the day” idiom which I think began on network news stations around 1990 and spread like a plague through all tiers of [...]

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