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warren clements: word play

Sometimes an expression that has been around for a while suddenly seems to be everywhere at once.

For instance, a colleague of mine noticed that her co-workers, as if on cue, had begun using the phrase "what not," which since the 1500s has meant "the like" or "so forth." Samuel Pepys used it in his diary in 1663, in reference to "bakers, brewers, butchers, draymen, and what not."

The phrase I've been noticing is "go sideways," in the sense of fall apart or come to a bad end. Talk-show host David Letterman used it Monday night in a monologue about Mother's Day. Everything's fine until people sit down to dinner, he said, at which point something always "goes sideways."

Computer users around the world encountered it in the final message from Canadian blogger Derek Miller, who had been detailing his losing battle with cancer. His final words, posted after his death last week in Burnaby, B.C., were so moving they inspired readers to share the link with their friends. Traffic was so heavy the site crashed.

Miller hoped his wife and daughters would see "that they should pursue what they enjoy, and what stimulates their minds, as much as possible - so they can be ready for opportunities, as well as not disappointed when things go sideways, as they inevitably do."

Once observed, the expression pops up all over. A May 4 report in The Province said, referring to a woman accused of biting a policeman: "Things went sideways when she was taken to the Saanich police station."

How and when the phrase came into being is unclear, but it may have been borrowed from racing. A driver doesn't want his horse going sideways in harness racing, since he may be tossed over the rail. Going sideways in a Grand Prix can cause a crash. A truck that goes sideways on the highway has lost traction and may spin into a ditch.

The earliest reference I could find was, perhaps significantly, in connection with writer-director Alexander Payne's 2004 movie Sideways. That's the one in which Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church play friends going off the beaten track - stepping sideways from their responsibilities - to sample wines in California's Santa Ynez Valley. Payne won an Oscar for best screenplay adaptation, but his marriage to actress Sandra Oh fell apart soon after. A photo caption in the Houston Chronicle said on May 1, 2005, "Sandra Oh and Alexander Payne's marriage went sideways after the Oscars."

Perhaps it's just coincidental that the only other uses of the expression I could find came later. Singer Billy Joe Shaver was quoted in California's Sacramento Bee on Sept. 9, 2005, as saying, "My band kind of went sideways on me. They couldn't stand up, much less play." A reader of The Wichita Eagle in Kansas wrote in 2006: "I am a Wal-Mart employee, and have been since 1990, when my primary insurance job went sideways."

Going sideways is not always a metaphor for collapse. At times it means holding steady. When Ontario-based The Northern Miner used it on May 9 after the death of Osama bin Laden, the phrase had a positive aspect. "The U.S. dollar index, while not exactly rebounding strongly from its latest four-month downtrend, at least stopped dropping for a few days, and U.S. stock markets went sideways."

But sideways also hints at an ulterior motive. Since at least the mid-1800s, to look sideways at a person has meant either to peek furtively at an object of desire or to glance scornfully or suspiciously at someone. The cowboy looked sideways at the barmaid, hoping her husband wouldn't notice. She looked sideways at the cowboy, unimpressed by his attention. A few minutes later, decorum in the bar went sideways.