Ask Language Log: "On point"

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From reader JHG:

Is it just my perception, or is the phrase "on-point" in the midst of a meteoric rise in usage and a de facto expansion in meaning?  I have heard it used repeatedly as a general term of approval or commendation rather than to mean only "germane." We may not have the next "cool" on our hands, but I think there's a trend here. Any way to validate one listener's perceptions with some research?

This is not something that I've noticed, but JHG might be right, and we can test the "meteoric rise in usage" hypothesis with simple text searches.  This is a crude measure, since it doesn't distinguish among the many uses of the word string "on point" — but there's no reason to expect "meteoric" changes in the frequency of the ballet sense "on the tips of the toes", or the military sense "posted at the head of an advancing column", or the more complex derivations of the string, like "… SLR lenses are usually superior to those found on point-and-shoot and hybrid models…".

Let's start with the five-year periods available by searching the COCA corpus:

This does suggest a recent increase in frequency — but not exactly a "meteoric" one, since 0.89 uses per million words is still not all that common.  A decade-wise check of the Time Magazine corpus shows a much less coherent picture:

It's true that the 2000s are up over the 1990s, but the 1970s, 1950s and 1920s showed higher rates as well, and none of the rates are very high in absolute terms.

Frequency counts in the Google News archive — which (I believe) conflates usage frequency with time-variation in archive size — confusingly show a peak in 2004:

And a year-by-year comparison of counts in three specific newspaper archives (New York TImes, Guardian, Los Angeles Times) over the past decade looks pretty random, or at least pretty hard to square with an overall "meteoric rise" in the frequency of one of the senses of this phrase:

NYT Guardian LAT
2009 62 9 50
2008 66 20 58
2007 46 11 49
2006 44 16 68
2005 36 9 42
2004 29 9 73
2003 28 15 46
2002 36 5 58
2001 38 9 96
2000 41 6 97
1999 40 6 80

Finallly, a Blogpulse search over the past six months (the longest period available) shows an apparent decline in the percentage of blog posts using this phrase:

All of this tends to invalidate JHG's perception of a trend, at least one that would increase the overall frequency of the phrase "on point".

But there is one thing that may lead to an explanation of such an intuition.  I was surprised to find that the OED's relevant entry for on point (glossed "relevant, apposite, accurate; 'spot on'; (also) direct, focused") has citations only back to 1993:

1993 National (Ottawa, Ont.) Nov.-Dec. 23/1 They should be on the lookout for seminars and publications on point, and make as many contacts in the industry as they can. 1994Vibe Nov. 26/2 Much props to Kenji Jasper for knowing what real hip hop is all about. His review of the Boogiemonsters album..was right on point.

I'm sure that the usage is older than that — and a few minutes search in the NYT archive uncovered (for example) David Margolick, "Patient's Lawsuit Says Saving Life Ruined It", 3/18/1990:

"There is no case directly on point, but the case law suggests that if you save someone's life you cannot be held liable," said Deborah R. Lydon of Dinsmore & Shohl of Cincinnati, which represents the hospital.

But still, it seems quite possible that this usage was rare outside of legal contexts until the mid-1990s or so, and has recently increased in relative frequency.  Thus in 1990, this was one of eleven uses of "on point" in the NYT archive (9%). In 2009, 17 out of 61 instances involved this sense (28%).  And if you don't read the dance reviews, you'd see a 17-fold increase.

The absolute frequency is still pretty low, but this is enough of a change to trigger the version of the frequency illusion where we perceive a major effect — something that happens "all the time", in general or in the usage of a particular group — even when the actual frequencies involved are small, here less than one per million words.

As for semantic bleaching to a "general term of approval or commendation", I didn't see any clear examples of this. But without mind-reading, it's hard to be sure what someone meant in any individual case. Even if someone said or wrote something like "That carrot cake was really on point" (not that I saw anything like that), they might just mean that it "really hit the spot", or was "really what was called for in that context", and used on point as a quirky way to express the idea.

[Update — OK, I reckoned that if anyone would push a metaphorical extension of rhetorical relevance, it would be fashion writers — and a quick NYT archive search combining "on point" with various fashion-related words turned up Cathy Horyn, "A Daring Stand at Rochas, Rare as a Paris Snowfall", NYT, 3/3/2005:

Against a digitalized backboard, and with digital logo belts, Karl Lagerfeld sent out a collection that was briskly on point. The key message was the coat, in wool, shearling and broadtail, with a high funnel collar and ties that wound twice at the waist and gave a different perspective to volume, and a certain toughness.

As usual in fashion writing, the semantics are confusing.]

[Note that given a copy of the New York Times Annotated Corpus, or some other large corpus with time stamps on documents spanning the past few decades, you could use automated sense disambiguation — or just plain old scholarly scrutiny — to track usage and meaning shifts of this general kind. There are many examples where we know roughly what happened when, but it would be nice to have some cases with a much finer-grained analysis.]


  1. greg said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 10:16 am

    There is also the basketball related usage regarding point guards running plays from "on point." Though that is probably somewhat related to the military usage and more general usage reflecting "taking the lead". For example in A Tribe Called Quest's "Check the Rhime" — — in which Phife asks, "You on point, Tip?" when leading Q-Tip into his solos on mic.

  2. Jim said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    I'm sure that Tom Ashbrook would be happy to hear so much discussion about his radio show…

  3. Andy said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    Two things:

    – Any usages of the phrase in the "ballet" sense are more likely to be written as "en pointe."

    [(myl) Not in the NYT, at least: in 2009, there were just 4 examples of "en pointe", compared to more than 50 examples of "on point" in the ballet sense. This surprised me, too — but you can't just assert things like that on the basis of your own beliefs and preferences, because you're very likely to be wrong as a simple matter of fact.]

    – I have no citations, but I could swear that you'll hear at least one variation of "That carrot cake was really on point" on any given episode of Top Chef, which was the first thing that came to my mind reading JHG's original query.

  4. Jan Freeman said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    I was not surprised that the OED's earliest cite for this sense of "on point" is 1993; when Tom Ashbrook's radio show, "On Point," launched on public radio in 2001, I was very aware that it sounded new. Before then, I would have used "to the point" in such contexts: "Be brief and to the point." (That one the OED dates to 1817.)

  5. Chris said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 11:12 am

    The increased frequency that JHG noticed may be genre specific, and we don't have a good way of tagging the genre of usage. For example, during the 2008 presidential campaign, political bloggers started using the phrase "ride the swing" to refer to journalists who were too friendly to a candidate (especially John McCain, whose picnic inspired the phrase, see here). I don't think that usage took off outside of political blogging, but there's no way for current search technology to distinguish that genre-specific trend.

    [(myl) There are reasonable proxies for text genres, like searching particular magazines or blogs. If it's really true that the spread of on point is limited to episodes of Top Chef, though, someone would have to point it out to us in some of the 2.440 "top chef" hits on YouTube by actually listening, until such time as ASR-based search gets to be good enough.]

  6. Neal Goldfarb said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    "On point" in the sense of "germane" is a common legal usage. I've tracked it back to 1937 (see below), and I'm sure that it could be tracked back further with more work. The expression probably evolved from "in point" (having the same meaning), which can be traced back to 1734 in the U.S. cases available on Westlaw, and probably earlier in the English case law.

    1734: "See Fitzg. 314. a Case directly in Point adg'd con." Lightfoot v. Lightfoot, 2 Va. Colonial Dec. B40, 1734 WL 1 (Va.Gen. 1734).
    1937: "We have no decisions in our state directly on point." Herdman Motor Co. v. State Bd. of Tax Appeals, 119 N.J.L. 164, 194 A. 870 (N.J. Super. 1937).

    [(myl) This makes sense. The OED cites "in point" in the legal use, and observes that this survives in the language at large mainly in the fixed phrase "case in point".]

  7. Mary Bull said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    This Language Log entry is my first encounter with "on point" as a general term of approval. I used to hear the phrase rather frequently from my late husband and his friends when they would be talking about their bird dogs, though. To be steady on point is a very desirable characteristic in the breed known as "pointers."

    [(myl) Yes, I should have mentioned the hunting-dog usage, illustrated here. I'm familiar with the expression myself because my boyhood dog was a spaniel, who was never trained to hunt (and I guess was not a traditional "pointer" breed) but went instinctively into the "on point" posture when she noticed a pheasant or other suitable object. And I suspect that the recently-generalized usage — and maybe the (American?) legal usage — might have a least a semantic resonance with bird-dog pointing in the background.]

  8. Acilius said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

    "But still, it seems quite possible that this usage was rare outside of legal contexts until the mid-1990s or so, and has recently increased in relative frequency." I suspect so, based on my personal experience. In the mid-90s I first noticed non-lawyers of my acquaintance using "on point," and some among them using it quite frequently. I recall two separate occasions in those days when friends of mine brought it up. One was a non-lawyer remarking that "on point" gave him pause because it was new to him and he wasn't quite sure what it meant. The other was a lawyer saying that hearing "on point" outside of legal contexts jolted her because up to that time she'd experienced it as a lawyer's shibboleth.

  9. Aubrianne said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    The only place I've noticed the use of "on point" was in these two Homestar Runner cartoons, which are always chock-full of bizarre linguistic creativity. Interestingly, in the second cartoon, even Strong Bad doesn't seem to know what "on point" means in that context, but the first one is fairly straightforward acclimation.

    (Transcripts for the above are available here and here.)

    [(myl) Thanks — I wasn't previous aware of the On Point Kings, or their excellent brochure. This is probably enough to quality on point as a trend, never mind frequency counts.]

  10. Jackbishop said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    I'm with greg on this one — I read "on point" as possibly meaning "on the ball" but more likely "leading the group, perhaps in an ad-hoc fashion". I actually used the phrase myself about half an hour ago — speaking with one of my research associates, I described our extradepartmental colleagues as "on point on this project" — meaning not necessarily that they were really good at it or on the ball with respect to it (although they might be both), but that they would be the ones likely to be steering the project and giving it direction.

    [(myl) That's pretty clearly a generalization of the military usage — at least an individual or group who are "on point" in that sense are out in front of the rest of the group, leading the way, even though they're not leading in the sense of being in charge or determining where to go. But maybe the lawyers, dogs, and infantry are all getting together on this one. Add that general sense of being "on your toes", and I guess you're throwing the ballerinas into the semantic merger as well.]

  11. Mary Bull said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    [(myl) Yes, I should have mentioned the hunting-dog usage, illustrated here.]
    Wonderful pictures, MYL — thank you so very much for the link!

    [(myl) I'm familiar with the expression myself because my boyhood dog was a spaniel, who was never trained to hunt (and I guess was not a traditional "pointer" breed) but went instinctively into the "on point" posture when she noticed a pheasant or other suitable object.]
    Yes, and setters will do that, too, and even my nephew's beagles. How wonderful dog instincts are! Sorry for wandering off at a tangent, everyone. It's just a joy to me to see these illustrations of "on point."

    [(myl)And I suspect that the recently-generalized usage — and maybe the (American?) legal usage — might have a least a semantic resonance with bird-dog pointing in the background.]
    Seems quite possible.

  12. Adrian Bailey (UK) said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    Google Trends graphs:
    on point
    "on point"

    The phrase "on point" means very little to me except perhaps as an expression in ballet.

    Searching Google News, the only examples I can find from UK newspapers are:
    this in Metro by someone called Alex McPherson: "Allez-Allez has been hosting reliably on-point techno parties for three years"

    and this in the Independent from Kim Howells MP: "We've always regarded ourselves, with justification, of being one of those nations riding on-point for the United Nations."

    I've got no idea what either means.

  13. Michael Gallagher said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

    I note in the original post that JHG said he "heard" it used. While searches of databases can look at usage over time in written documents, I am not sure this captures the way words first change or acquire meaning — common, oral usage. Unfortunately there is no database for this. I have heard "on point" used on several radio shows with the meaning "exactly right" (usually meaning that the speaker agrees with the host). I think it takes time for a changed usage to get into print, since writing is usually more formal. This makes research into modern usage difficult.

    [(myl) There are several large published collections of conversational transcripts, though as far as I know none of these are updated on a year-by-year basis. And radio programs that include some unscripted interview-type of conversation are increasing available as transcripts as well as audio files — NPR has been pushing hard in that direction. Finally, I don't think that there are many lexical choices made in conversational speech that don't also show up in more informal modes of writing, like blogs and IM logs and so on. So I agree that it can be hard to trace the first seeds of a development in the spoken language, but if a new usage really involves a "meteoric" rise in popularity in speech, there are now many ways to find evidence for this.]

  14. mollymooly said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 3:43 pm

    Echoing Adrian Bailey from an Irish perspective, I've never heard this phrase. Most of the 19 BNC hits are "on point duty" or "on point (b)".

    I am skeptical that, for the crude searches in the OP, any trend in the relevant senses will be visible against the noise of other matches.

  15. Peter E said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

    For me, the most salient meaning for "on point" is similar to how it was used in the 1994 OED citation from Vibe magazine, meaning something like "hitting the nail on the head."

    An "on the ball" reading also works for me, but I wonder if (and intuit that) the first meaning could be newer and perhaps related to the rise of hip-hop culture. If it is, it doesn't surprise me that it would stick out to people in certain (older) demographics. .

  16. Nathan Myers said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 7:33 pm

    It sounds like "on point" is turning into a mushy sort of general-approval noise, in the sense that "exponentially" now just means "lots". Maybe that already happened, and about when is something that somebody could, er, pinpoint.

  17. Gordon Campbell said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 9:13 pm

    Usage approves "on point" in the context of ballet. But, interestingly, Merriam-Webster describes "on route" as an "embarrassing error" for "en route". I'm not quibbling with M-W's assessment, but presumably these phrases have followed a similar evolution. There's some grey area here where 'error' merges into accepted usage.

    [(myl) It seems to me that MW judgment may be out of date on this one. The "on route" usage has become reasonably common in reputable texts:

    Despite winning three singles matches with relative ease on route to the final, the Scot was beaten by the only top-20 player he faced. [Reuters wirestory printed in the NYT]
    Penguins Hit Detour on Route to Finals [NYT headline]
    From the South entrance station, curvy Route 41 provides great views and stopover points on route to the Valley. [Fodor's California 2009]

    What's still an embarrassing error, in my opinion, is the hypercorrection en pointe for "on point". ]

  18. uberVU - social comments said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 10:47 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by PhilosophyFeeds: Language Log: Ask Language Log: "On point"

  19. Peter Taylor said,

    January 23, 2010 @ 7:35 am

    MYL wrote:

    What's still an embarrassing error, in my opinion, is the hypercorrection en pointe for "on point".

    "En pointe" is familiar to me as a technical term, and this thread is the first time I've seen "on point" used as an equivalent. Had I first encountered it without the discussion here I would probably have assumed it to be an egg-corn deriving from an half-Anglicised pronunciation of the French rather than a literal translation. (If I'd been asked to translate it I would have said "on tip-toe" rather than "on point").

    So I can see it being an embarrassing hypercorrection if made by the dance editor of a newspaper, but if made by a non-specialised sub-editor I'd assume it to be a correction made with a bona fide belief that the original author would be grateful.

    [(myl) Sorry for being unclear — I was referring to things like this newspaper horoscope:

    You're an incredible growth catalyst for someone close to you. Even if it's uncomfortable for them to hear, your observations are en pointe. If they're stirred up, pull back and wait for the dust to settle.

    No toes involved at all.]

  20. Ken Brown said,

    January 24, 2010 @ 11:32 am

    I'd support mollymooly and Adrian Bailey with more anecdotal lack of evidence from the downwind side of the North Atlantic. When I started reading this post I assumed that the military/sporting sense was meant – which I recognise and which sounds American to me.

    I don't remember ever noticing someone saying "on point" to mean "to the point" or "on topic" or "accurate" (which seems to me the sort of range of use we are talking about here)

  21. Graeme said,

    January 25, 2010 @ 9:36 am

    To this Australian lawyer, 'on point' is still heard mostly in the quasi-legal sense of a case or example on point. That derives from the phrase '(directly) on point' meaning a governing precedent, which approximates the more colourful if mechanical metaphor 'on all fours'.

    But it's not hard to imagine how the phrase might mutate when it seeped into more everyday English, with users influenced by the image of a 'point' as something very sharp, suggesting not just relevance or a neat analogical fit, but correctness and sharpness in other senses.

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