The flip side of sticker shock

It seems we in the United States are facing sticker shock at the gas pump. Even in Texas, where, you know, they have a warm relationship with the black stuff that comes out of the ground, a local news outlet reported recently, under the headline "Sticker shock at the gas pump," that "gas prices are shattering all-time highs."

Hmm. There's no disputing those big numbers on the signs that tower like totem poles at the corners of filling stations. And there's very little consolation to be had when some well-meaning journalist reminds you that, adjusted for inflation, the prices aren't as bad as we've seen before.

But the nit-picker in me, the stickler, is just a bit ticklish about using "sticker shock" for gas prices.

Price shocks, to be sure, are all around us. ("Good heavens, I never used to be able to lift $45 worth of groceries. Working out at the Y is paying off!")

But the archetypical "sticker shock" moment is the result of a very specific set of circumstances. The sticker that shocks is that full-page dope-sheet taped to the inside of the driver's window of a new car on the lot at a dealership.

Sticker shock happens at that moment when - hands cupped at the outside corners of the eyes to cut reflection, perhaps - one peers down at that bottom line and then, boom, sees the number. This may be accompanied by a sharp intake of breath. A potential customer of a certain age may exclaim, or mutter sotto voce, "I remember when you could buy a house for that."

This whole scenario may seem dated today. Contemporary grandmas find their way using MapQuest, and bright middle-schoolers do their homework by going directly to the NASA website. Millions of car-buyers have access to at least preliminary price information about a car before they venture onto a dealer's lot. Nowadays the sharp intake of breath is in response to the numbers on one's computer screen after searching autobytel.com in the comfort and privacy of one's home.

The encounter at the gas pump is a whole other thing. Gas prices may be high, but they're not mysterious. They're posted in letters big enough to be read from a distance - from the competing gas station across the street, for instance. (Maybe those signs were designed originally to be visible from outer space to Soviet spy satellites, during the cold war.)

An expression like "sticker shock" isn't exactly a metaphor or a simile, but to those familiar with the cultural milieu whence the phrase came, it encapsulates a whole little drama of consumerism.

So it is with other phrases rooted in the past. How many people speak of "the flip side" of an argument or discussion, for instance, with no memory of ever having turned a vinyl LP (or 45) over on the turntable? And of course, a "flip side" in that sense isn't/wasn't a refutation or an opposite of whatever was on the other side. Two sides of a vinyl record are more like musical neighbors than polar opposites.

In a similar vein: Consider "track record." It refers specifically to a performance record at a particular racetrack. Dictionaries support a broader meaning of "performance record" in a more general sense. But if you don't mean "track," why not say just "record"?

Or what about "ground rules"? It's widely used to mean "rules," as in, "The new baby sitter set down ground rules right away." But the more useful meaning may be the narrower one: "a sports rule adopted to modify play on a particular field, court, or course."

Maybe it's just a tendency to nitpicking that inclines me to the narrower meanings in such cases. But it's also a desire to keep language anchored in experience. "Ground rules," as I first learned the term from a baseball book inherited from older male cousins, connects me to my childish crush on Willie Mays, to the ad-hockery of pickup ball games with neighborhood kids, to quirky stadiums that needed their own rules rather than glitzy ones with skyboxes and corporate logos everywhere.

This appears with links at: http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/ verbal_energy

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