One night in London last spring I tuned in to a television story about “dropping out.” A British family had moved to rural Spain to live a nuts-and-berries existence off the grid – far from television, newspapers and the bustle of city life. The father, in a grubby linen shirt and beard, was explaining how simple life had become in the absence of all those things: “At the end of the day you need food, you need shelter, and you need friendship.” My ears pricked up. Had he actually said “at the end of the day?”
He had. Apparently the cliché is inescapable. The moment of final reckoning in any debate or conversation, “at the end of the day” is a phrase I associate with the fast-talking wannabe business elite: people for whom survival means word-power, not catching fish with your bare hands. But as the British TV program showed, it’s a widespread verbal tic. One might say it is the tic of the new millennium.
In March 2004, 5,000 people across 70 countries told the Plain English Campaign that they considered “at the end of the day” to be the “most irritating” commonly used phrase. Two years later, the business and research company Factiva posted the results of a survey of clichés commonly-used in major English-speaking news media and websites. With the exception of India, “at the end of the day” won by a landslide in every country surveyed. In the United States, the phrase was used an average of 60 times a day during the first half of 2006. The top culprits? America’s top three newspapers.
To be fair, many “end of the day” media citations are direct quotes of interviewees. Every time a source is cited – Rod Blagojevich’s spokesman, conservative health care policy experts, the head of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees – the phrase provides the reassurance of presumed expertise.
The cliché was spawned by the business world, with its invocation of the market index’s closing balance. At the end of the day, are you making money or aren’t you making money? Economic phrases have seeped into the everyday English lexicon: “In the red” and “in the black” were ranked number two and three on Factiva’s most-used media clichés survey, suggesting that “at the end of the day” is part of this same game of ticks and tallies. Similarly, Lois A. Beckwith’s 2006 Dictionary of Corporate Bullshit included “at the end of the day” as part of the office talk lexicon: “a phrase uttered in conclusion by managers who are supposedly explaining a somewhat nonsensical corporate tenet/idea/policy/decision that probably does not make sense (‘At the end of the day, it is what it is.’).” The business blog “At the End of the Day” even tries to distinguish itself from the crowd with the following subtitle: “Talkin’ business. Without business clichés.”
Alternative histories credit Colin Powell, who had a liking for the phrase, as the original propagator. Certainly “at the end of the day” has a special place in politics. When Bob Baker’s Newsthinking.com broke its story about the man behind the Factiva data, they went to the source. ” ‘You can hear politicians say it all the time,’ [Factiva executive Chris] Pash said by phone from Sydney. ‘It gets annoying because you know the kiss-off is coming; it’s code for: ‘I’m about to say something irrelevant.’”
Or it may be that you’re about to say something you fear your audience may not acknowledge. During the Valerie Plame affair, Joe Wilson was quoted by CNN trying to say something he couldn’t say. “I’m not going to sit here and accuse the president of the United States of … betraying the national security of the country. But at the end of the day, if you’re going to say, get the information out, that basically means declassify the National Intelligence Estimate … and that’s what Mr. Libby did.”
Business or politics, at the end of the day, it’s unclear which culture of urgency created this colloquial monster. But a quick listen on the New York subway reveals the phrase tumbling through conversations like a pair of sneakers in a dryer. Most instances are work-related, reminding us how much public conversation has to do with our economic roles and relations. “At the end of the day, my skills are necessary and his are not.” “At the end of the day, he’s still your boss.” “At the end of the day, would you rather be unemployed?”
I first heard this phrase a few years ago. An ex-boyfriend was complaining about his business partner in New England. “Because at the end of the day … and at the end of the day … so at the end of the day,” he kept saying. I cradled my cell phone in my neck as I walked on beneath the trees in Prospect Park, trying to process the melodrama of money, authority and control. But my mind was elsewhere: marveling at the insistence of this strange phrase in his vocabulary, wondering if he heard how much he was using it.
Perhaps uncertainty about whether we are a culture of possibilities or dead ends makes us crave that six-word commonplace. Is our society open and just after all is said and done, or, when push comes to shove, are we a bunch of cheats and opportunists? “At the end of the day, money management isn’t a meritocracy but rather an ol’ boys network,” is how a Finalternatives.com news story on the Madoff scandal put it. And from WorldNetDaily: “Everyone in the adult industry will say they don’t want kids to access porn, but at the end of the day, many aren’t willing to put their money where their mouth is.” The phrase helps those who want to make money calculate the bottom line. At the same time, it shows everyone else just how mercenary and hypocritical the bottom line can be.
So whatever happened to “the bottom line”? To all being said and done, to push coming to shove, to the pedal hitting the metal, the shit hitting the fan? My academic friends say, “In the end.” I note its slightly wilting quality. “In the end, totemism has been completely discredited as a religious structure and system of identification.” “In the end” invokes already established authority; it has no real power to call bullshit – it is just a story with a finis. In Usenet times like these, given to a barrage of verbiage, the end of days may be an appealing metaphor for the assertion of earned conclusiveness. Where words and thoughts approach the limit-point of infinity, “at the end of the day” offers the promise of deep and lasting punctuation.
And this may be the undiagnosed urge behind the apocalyptic: In an age of mounting economic and moral crises, we need something to cut through our most deeply felt contradictions. Through chat rooms and locker rooms, accusations and counter-accusations that fly left and right. But when a voice from the blogosphere draws the line: “He may be your homeboy and all, but dude – at the end of the day, Chris Brown and Chris Brown alone is responsible for the injuries sustained by Rihanna,” all our equivocating must stop. In other words: enough already.
For at the end of the day, perhaps we all just want the end of the day: the final word we get when we turn of the lights and close the door, “and that’s all there is, there isn’t anymore.” Trapped inside the situation room with its shrill and repeated stories blaring overhead, we demand a little goodnight with our apocalypse. So that, at the end of the day, we’ll know that someone is listening to us.