Taking ‘the next level’ down a few notches

“The next level” conveys about as much meaning as a fart in a locker room.

I invoke “locker room” because that’s where “next level” comes into play so often, and where it seems to have originated.

Then again, the business world has been tossing the term about a lot in recent years. It’s especially prevalent among those businesses that like to use sports metaphors. One even calls itself Next Level and promotes itself with a picture of a bunch of suits in a huddle.

So maybe I should have said a fart in a huddle. But I digress.

The Kansan had done well in keeping “the next level” banished to the land of clichés – that’s somewhere near Tartarus, I think – until the last month or so. Then, in a great rush of hot air, “next level” started taking up meaningless space.

Xavier Henry decided to take his skills to “the next level” (presumably that means the NBA and not the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse), and Alisa Vaysfligel “decided to take the outdoor experience to the next level.”

We hit the daily double with that one, saying absolutely nothing twice with “take the outdoor experience” and “to the next level.”

(Note to editors and writers: You will find the “delete” key on the right side of the keyboard, somewhere near “Enter.” It is available for use.)

Not wanting to let basketball and outdoor types have all the fun, we let the tennis coach prattle on about “stepping up to the next level,” let wakeboarders have their turn and then reminded everyone that Henry was still trying to get to “the next level.” (Maybe he should try an elevator.)

As if to parody ourselves, we suggested that sex toys “can really take things to the next level” (is that what Lillian Roth meant in 1933 by singing “Come Up and See Me Sometime”?) and that a tie “can take an outfit to the next level.”

As far as I know, the two stories weren’t related. That would be interesting, though, wouldn’t it?

The Kansan didn’t invent “next level,” of course, and I was curious how widespread its use was. So I did a little investigation. I searched for “next level” in all 700 sources in the America’s Newspapers database. That includes newspapers, magazines, blogs and transcripts of television news video. Here’s a table of what I found:

This is hardly a scientific survey. The results are skewed by the number of sources available for any given year, and the number of available sources has certainly grown over the last 10 years. Even so, that gives a fairly good look at how the use of “next level” has swelled since the 1970s.

I did a separate search of ProQuest, which contains historical editions of The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, and found that “next level” seems to have come into popular usage in the mid-1970s.

Before 1970, I found only two uses of the term, both in the 1910s. One referred to levels of a mine, the other to sales of copper (“Furthermore they state that sales have been made at the next level”).

After that, the first reference shows up in a 1974 Times story on ice skating: “Then one must qualify by performing in various sectional and regional championships. Only the top three skaters in each division advance to the next level.”

In 1975, The Times quoted Ara Parseghian, the former Notre Dame football coach, as saying: “I think the next level for me will be the professional ranks. I hope to make a decision on my future sometime within the next year, but I will definitely not coach at the collegiate or professional level in 1975.”

So something in 1970s sports culture seemed to send the cliché on its vapid way. The term’s use grew as college and professional sports grew in the 1980s and 1990s, and it fit perfectly with the empty promises of the dot-com boom. It has found a home among anyone who wants to use lots of words to say a lot of nothing.

That’s my working theory.

Maybe someone else can take it to the next level.

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