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The phrase that frays

[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 4, 2002

At the end of the day, I will log off this computer, tune my car radio to some AM talk show -- and likely hear a phrase that frays my nerves, one sound bite at a time.

Truthfully, this line has been around for a few years. And it exists in various forms -- "in the final analysis," the oldie but goodie "after all is said and done," and a recent favorite: "Bottom line."

But if you want to inject an air of erudition into any prediction or summary statement -- and be right in step with hip conversational technique -- start or end your sentence with: "At the end of the day."

It's going to drive me crazy before the end of the day. I admit, I tried the phrase out a few times and instantly felt more intelligent. I was aware of a vague urge to buy a pipe and think big thoughts.

But then I realized how many other people were uttering it. So I've switched back to one of my old faithfuls, "Ultimately."

The "at the end of the day" craze was off the charts on sports talk shows during the recent head-coaching search by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A listener had heard the rambling news conference by team executives Bryan and Joel Glazer and had noted how several times they remarked that at the end of the day, the Bucs would have an excellent coach.

The excited, literal-minded caller later phoned a sports talk show, demanding to know why the host hadn't reported the big news -- that the team would have a great coach in place at the end of the day! Hey, that's what they said!

I heard another sports talk conversation about the coaching situation, in which the caller introduced the phrase that pays, the host picked up on it, and soon they were trading "at the end of the days" back and forth like Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras whacking fuzzy Spaldings. After five minutes, so many days had ended, we were closing in on a month.

My theory is that the phrase was born on political talk shows and newscasts and has started to spread unchecked.

The results of a quick investigation: One day last week, CNN anchor Jack Cafferty quizzed correspondent Major Garrett outside the White House about Enron: "At the end of the day, it could all be about minutiae, huh?" A whole day, and nothing but minutiae to show for it.

The next day, CNN's Nic Robertson, addressing the atmosphere of danger in Afghanistan, remarked, "Do we believe that what we are trying to do at the end of the day -- provide true, accurate, insightful reporting from difficult-to-reach parts of the world -- is important? Yes, we believe that."

A New York Times article last week on Enron quoted company spokesman Vance Meyer saying, "At the end of the day, our goal is to emerge from bankruptcy." And on CNN's Moneyline two days later, correspondent Martin Bienenstock summed up a round-table discussion this way: "It is really up to them at the end of the day." You know what? It's up to them at lunchtime, too, and tea time, and tomorrow morning.

Say it enough on TV and suddenly it's slipping into everyday chit-chat. What's the big appeal? Maybe it's the use of "day" as a poetic metaphor for a set period of time -- just like that, we can all be instant English majors, political scientists or talk-show hosts.

"At lot of these phrases fit into the same category," says John Baugh, professor of education and linguistics at Stanford University. "What we see is that they have their own popularity cycle, and get popularized especially when used in the press." (Hey, don't blame me).

And these phrases can prove inaccurate, as with the Bucs' prolonged, often inconclusive coaching search. "At the end of the day," Baugh points out, "it wasn't the end of the day."

Baugh says people should consider the following: "When is it appropriate to use this phrase? When is it inappropriate? And if you like it, don't overuse it, because then it won't mean anything."

I propose a new restriction before things really get out of hand. The phrase, if used, must apply to the 24-hour time frame in which the words are spoken.

You won't sound nearly so lofty, but at the end of the day, you'll be doing yourself and the rest of us a big favor. You might even order a pizza, watch TV and go to sleep.

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