Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Lean and Mean

I never liked the expression, "lean and mean." I don't know its origin, but it has been around a long time. As a child, I used to wonder what good it did to be lean if you were going to be mean to go along with it. It didn't help that one of the few mean teachers I had was also lean. Could this have anything to do with my resistance to weight-loss programs?

I did an internet search on "lean and mean," hoping to find out the origin of this expression; but with no success. The commercial world uses "lean and mean" to describe a highly efficient business model. The website, usingEnglish.com, says that "an organization that is lean and mean has no excess or unnecessary element and is very competitive."

Here on Bywater Farm, this month has been dedicated to disposing of clutter. I've been thinking that our object was to get "lean and mean." But I can't imagine a home that has absolutely no unnecessary elements - and my object is certainly not to compete with any other homes.

I love language - words - old sayings - and when I get one on my mind, I'm like a dog chewing a bone. I've been chewing on "lean and mean" for a few days now. I vaguely remember studying about the Golden Mean - that perfect balance between excess and deficiency. I'm not sure the idea originated with Aristotle, but he talked about it a lot. It occurs to me that "lean and mean" can take on a whole new meaning depending on your definition of the individual words, "lean" and "mean."

Did you know that "mean" can be an adjective, adverb, verb, or noun? A very versatile word! The first listing in Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary is the definition that we're all familiar with - the one that gives "mean" a bad name. Here are some synonyms: common, shabby, contemptible, inferior, stingy, low-minded. I'm surprised that "hateful" isn't listed as a synonym. If somebody told you his Aunt Matilda was a mean person, wouldn't you think she was hateful? If you really put some thought into this, you have to reach the conclusion that even the most impersonal corporation wouldn't want to be "lean and mean," using this definition of "mean."

Since I have a tenacious streak, I waded through all the definitions of "mean." I finally arrived at the seventh listing which reads, "occupying a middle position; occurring between the limits or extremes." Aristotle would approve.

"Lean" is as versatile as "mean," and not all its definitions are attractive either - for example: meager, poor, scanty, deficient, skinny, scrawny. Of course, "lean" also has some highly attractive synonyms like "thin" and "slender." But here is my favorite definition of "lean" - "an artistically effective economy of style or expression."

In the not too distant past I thought of "lean and mean" as "scrawny and hateful" and wondered why anybody would aspire to this condition. But from now on I'll think of "lean and mean" as "an artistic balance between extremes." Now don't you think that's an improvement?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your article. It helped me to understand meaning of "lean and mean". As being a Slovak, my english is not good, so it was even more difficult to understand it. I also thought it was something like "scrawny and hateful". Thank you that you investigated it and shared your findings on a blog. Good job!

Judith B. Landry said...

I'm so glad this post was helpful. I love words!