Bert Lance Continues as the big topic in Washington this week, but the real question remains: Are Bert and Jimmy "laid-back" enough to handle their crisis? Another way of putting it is: Are they too "uptight" to be "mellow" in their time of tension? Or: is this going to turn out, for them. to be just the very "pits"?.
I'm indebted to a reader for posing the question. In the paper the other day she noticed a headline about "new 'laid-back' pioneers." What in the world did that mean? she wondered.
It's now possible to report, after diligent research - my fellow communicators in the news business - that the answer depends upon your age, sex, race and experience, among other complicated factors. But, in brief, it can be stated authoritatively that the term is highly "relevant" to the 1970s.
One knowledgeable young observer, who has watched the comtemporary scene from Cambridge to the "alternative" papers and back into the "straight" press world, formerly called the "Establishment," gives this definition of being "laid-back".
"It's sort of a '70s version of a lobotomy. It means an easy-goin lifestyle, mellow and cool. It means don't get hassled. It means nothing means as much as feeling good."
I can also report that the expression holds social significance for the young; that it strikes bewilderment among many of the older; that it's currently fashionable, that it seems to have roots in California; that it's associated, for some, with drug; that its clearest etymological connection lies with motorcyclist, now referred to as "bikers"; and that it comes close to defining a standard of values for a certain segment of younger Americans.
"To employ the vernacular," says a young editor in the "style" section, who should know such things, "to be "laid-back' is to be very mellow, very at ease. Mellow's a word that's also become a catch-phrase. Among young people of the '70s, life is geared to being mellow and laid-backs," whether through a buru or a maharish: Whereas in the '60s, life for the young meant being 'hot', involved, politically active. Like the Weathermen.
"Jimmy Carter gives you the impression of being 'laid-back,' except when the teeth come through."
Before pursuing this further, a debt should be acknowledged. When H.L. mencken was beginning his studies into the American language, the literature on the subject was meager. In his first edition of 1919 he was able to publish a comprehensive bibliography on the subject in less than 17 pages. And that after more than 10 years of research and many articles discussing the changing common language of the country.
The outpouring of scholarship since has been voluminous, and usage of the American language continues to change dramatically and rapidly. Why, look, "right on" is virtually dead, while "far out" is declining in favor, yet being "into something" survives, and to be "laid-back" speaks, it's said, to a whole new generation. Now, there's even an expression for being temporarily "laid-back." It's "cool-out."
From Mencken back, the idea of language and the standards for its usage, were fairly constant. As Noah Webster's definition in the presface to his American Dictionary of 1828 put it:
"Language is the expression of ideas; and if the people of one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas, they cannnot retain an identity of language."
While you ponder whether we still have an identity of ideas held together by an identity of language, let me offer the original "laid-back" research on which this treatise is based.
Interview No. 1, female, politically sophiscated, "into" children, cats and plants: "It's biker talk. You know, these big motorcycles where you can lay back in the seat and cruise along. Like this. [Flops backward.] It started in California. My kid told me. He's 15, and he's been using it for a year. He started when he came back from California."
Interview No. 2, male, late 30s, knowledgeable on Capitol hill: "I don't have the slightest damned idea. [Pause, sheepish look, and . . . ] Well, I do, too. I think it, means lowkeyed and locanic. The first time I heard it was when a young reporter used it. And the first time I read it may have been in a gossip column in style. Then it went into a period of decline."
Interview No. 3, female, early 40s, solid insights into society: "Oh, I'm glad you aksed. I don't know either. I assume it means cool, relaxed. It has a marvelous sexual connotation."
Interview No. 4, male, late 40s, distinguished political observer: "Relaxed." [Said instantly, briskly, with a certain superior knowing smile.] My kids use it. I also think it's motorcycle talk. 'Laid-back': easy cool."
Interview No. 5, female, late 20s, recently returned to States from long tour as foreign correspondent: "I'd never heard it before I came back. I had to ask what it meant. I think the first time I saw it was in a Sally Quinn article on Cuba, something about Castro's Cuban communism being "very laid-backs.' People tell me it means relaxed. They also think it's funny I don't know what it means."
Interview No. 6, male, middle-aged editor, in passing: "I don't know. I think it means people who don't want to work."
Interview No. 7 & 8, female, early 20s, "with it" in many ways: "It has a derogatory ring, in a lifestyle sense, to me," says the first. "Like somebody being doped up. I think it probably comes from literally laying back, like this. [Sprawls back in chair.] "To me, it doesn't imply carefree," says the second. "It implies a certain repressed feeling, like trying to get out of being uptight. It's California lingo, along with natural wood and hanging plants and leidure suits. Remember the character in 'Shampoo'? Not Warren Beatty, but the guy who played Julie Christie's husband. He wasn't 'laid-back,' but he was trying to be."
Interview No. 9, male, late 20s, black, knows big cities from coast to coast: "It means take it easy, no hassle, no pressure, very casual. A 'laid-back' life style. It's mostly regional. California people are always taking about their 'laid-back' lifestyle. I don't hear it too much in Arlington."
Interview No. 10, female, 40s, wisest of writers: "I don't know. What it means to me I can't say. I started hearing it 2 1/2 months ago. That means it's been around for 2 1/2 years. It's the sort of things you expect people from California to say - but then they say anything. It's one of those things that sounds like sex, but turns out to have to do with computers."
Interview No. 11, male, middle-aged, "plungged into" the business world: %In economic terms it might mean to be laid off. But, no, that wouldn't mean much to me."
So, to finalize this report, like letting it all hang out in the end, the parameters of what we have are, apparently, a generation of Americans who are into being "laid-back." Like, you know, getting a lobotomy, which is, hey, like they say, when a brain doctors cuts your nerves ends to get you right in the head, which is to say mellow, and uninvolved, and maybe non-competitive, but not out of it, not bored. Just cool.