Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Opinion

'That time when' a phrase meaning little took over

In March, Taylor Swift posted some photos from her trip to an undisclosed tropical location with then-boyfriend Calvin Harris. One caption read, "That time we finally took a vacation." This summer, Swift went on another jaunt with a new boyfriend and a group of girlfriends. Elle covered the resulting high jinks with a piece titled, "That Time Cara Delevingne Scared the Sh.t out of Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston."

The expressions "that time I" and "that time when" have bubbled up all over the internet, in headlines, in promotions and on social media. Just recently, there was "That Time When Johnny Depp Looked Just Like Justin Bieber" and "That Time I Stumped a Gallup Pollster."

It's a strange construction, one that doesn't make much sense. Why wouldn't Swift just write, "We finally took a vacation?" Why tack on an unnecessary grammatical flourish?

The answer has to do with the way users have reshaped language online. "That time I" works in real time to make readers feel like they're part of an in-group, creating collective nostalgia for events that just took place. In some way, it's a neat linguistic trick. But when we're nostalgic for things even as they're happening, do we miss out on actually experiencing the things we're so excited to share?

Like most digital language innovations, "that time I" started with teenagers. Teens have been using variants of this construction — "that feel when," "that awkward moment," "that awkward feeling" — to describe painful moments for years.

The expression gave people a way to universalize their experiences, making the faux pas of growing up seem less personal and painful. As linguist Gretchen McCulloch explained to Thompson, "It's saying, 'this thing has happened to me, this has happened to me before and this was my reaction, it's probably happened to other people and they've also reacted the same way."

The phrase spread to non-teenage users and evolved into new versions. Around 2011, "that time I" began popping up on Twitter, along with "that awkward moment" and "that feeling when," to tell stories of discomfort or angst.

Eventually, "that time when" grew into a distinct phrase, separate from the rest of the "that awkward feeling" family, although still sometimes used interchangeably. Now it often describes a real event happening in the world, something surprising, awesome or terrible, often accompanied by a video or an image — only the intimacy and urgency of teen life are still inherent in the phrase.

What makes "that time I" so appealing? As Northwestern University linguist Gregory Ward explains, it's the demonstrative "that," which often signals a common, shared knowledge or reference between a speaker and a hearer. "That dog kept me awake last night," for example, implies that the dog has been mentioned before. Using "that," Ward says, creates a sense of closeness.

Yet, as used online, the locution usually refers to an experience not shared between the writer and the reader. In fact, the expression is often deployed as a framing device for obscure, bizarre or personally meaningful information that the reader would otherwise have no access to: Swift's beach vacation.

The intimacy created by "that time when" is a warm, engulfing fog, with no use at all for grammatical and logical scaffolding. Without having been at Swift's party — and without the construction of the sentence reminding us that we weren't there — we can all feel like we're part of the squad. Used by celebrities, and not by teenagers, it's a way of creating a false sense of relaxed togetherness that is also a branding exercise. It's easier to sell makeup or clothing to people who think of themselves as your friends, even if you'll never meet them IRL.

There's something ersatz about our weird online nostalgia for very recent events. In that sense, "that time when" is extremely useful, hugging the recent past and a speaker's audience close in a way not many other phrases do. And yet it heightens the disturbing slipstream effect of internet time, where we never feel quite in the moment, instead always observing it through various mediating devices, recording it, time-stamping it, commenting on it, as it fades away as surely as one of Taylor Swift's boyfriends.

Comments

‘Happy hour’ tax cuts may result in hangovers

Evidence is mounting that the $1.5 trillion tax-cut package enacted in December by congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump was a bad idea, not only for the long-run health of the economy but for the short-term political prospects of the ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Editorial: St. Petersburg’s waste-to-energy to wastefulness project

Editorial: St. Petersburg’s waste-to-energy to wastefulness project

A St. Petersburg waste-to-energy plant now under construction has been billed for years as an environmentally friendly money saver. Now it looks more like a boondoggle, with the cost and mission changing on the fly. It’s yet another example of a city...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Daniel Ruth: Gridlock or not, way will be paved for new homes in New Tampa

Daniel Ruth: Gridlock or not, way will be paved for new homes in New Tampa

Oh what a difference four decades makes.When I first arrived in Tampa in 1973, the city was a vastly different place. For example, there where actual stores in downtown where you could buy stuff that didn’t involve a swizzle stick. Crazy, insane stu...
Published: 04/25/18
Column: A new theory for why all those Obama voters went for Trump

Column: A new theory for why all those Obama voters went for Trump

e_SSLqStatus threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote." So says an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Diana C. Mutz, a political science and communications professor at the University of Pennsy...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Editorial cartoons for April 26

Editorial cartoons for April 26

These cartoons are from various Times wire services.
Updated: 2 hours ago
Column: Republicans gutted the mortgage interest deduction. Democrats should finish it off.

Column: Republicans gutted the mortgage interest deduction. Democrats should finish it off.

One of the most remarkable things about the tax bill Republicans passed last year was how it took a rotary saw to the mortgage interest deduction. The benefit for homeowners was once considered a politically untouchable upper-middle-class entitlement...
Updated: 7 hours ago

We have a fine history of long-serving politicians

Career politician Rick Scott is trying to sell you a huge, steaming pile of over-ripe phooey. By now you have probably been exposed to a piece of dubious propaganda being peddled by Florida’s politically ambitious governor suggesting the entire natio...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Editorial: As USFSP consolidation task force meets, openness and collaboration are key

Editorial: As USFSP consolidation task force meets, openness and collaboration are key

Writing a new law that phases out separate accreditation for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and folds it back into the major research university was the easy part. The hard work starts today when a new consolidation task force holds i...
Published: 04/23/18
Updated: 04/25/18
Romano: Forget the sewers, St. Pete has a crisis of trust

Romano: Forget the sewers, St. Pete has a crisis of trust

Imagine what kind of spin the world might have endured had St. Petersburg sewer officials been asked to explain the final Hindenburg flight. • The landing, city leaders acknowledged, was bumpy. • Some passengers chose to disembark befor...
Published: 04/23/18

Correction

CorrectionCircuit Judge John Stargel of Lakeland is a member of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission who voted against a proposed amendment that would have stopped write-in candidates from closing primary elections. An editorial Saturday inco...
Published: 04/23/18