Tag Archives: at the end of the day

the bottom line

OK, so now we know the bottom line on the end of the day. But at the end of the day, what’s the bottom line?

They seem to be roughly the same thing, right? A summative discourse marker? But one refers to the situation after everything has happened; the other refers to the situation when everything is tallied up. They tend to be used in generally interchangeable situations, but can we think of a place where we would use one and not the other, or at least would incline more to one than to the other? Or even where the tone or sense might be a little different?

They make great cakes, but at the end of the day, I’d still rather eat at home.
They make great cakes, but the bottom line is I’d still rather eat at home.

He’s capricious and demanding, but the bottom line is that he makes great cakes.
He’s capricious and demanding, but at the end of the day, he makes great cakes.

You can have all the cosmetic surgery you want, but at the end of the day you’re still older.
You can have all the cosmetic surgery you want, but the bottom line is that you’re still older.

These are pretty clothes and they’re inexpensive, but the bottom line is that they just don’t suit me.
These are pretty clothes and they’re inexpensive, but at the end of the day they just don’t suit me.

At the end of the day, while there are differences in tone and general suitability, the bottom line is that I can’t think of an example where one or the other would be too awkward to use. Unintentionally funny, perhaps:

It may have fancy expensive ingredients, but at the end of the day, it’s breakfast.
Your bass and tenor and alto parts are all singable, but the bottom line is that the soprano part is too high.

And in some cases, you really should ask: Why this clichéd metaphor and not another? (Why any clichéd metaphor is sometimes a good question too.)

What, anyway, is the bottom line? Is it the bass part in a score? The end of a novel? The weighted lower edge of a fishing net? Well, that last one is the first definition for bottom line in the Oxford English Dictionary, but it’s not the one that’s the basis for the sense ‘final analysis’ or ‘crux of the argument’ – though this cliché does seem to be a rather wide net, dragging the lexical ocean to corral coral and filter in flotsam. No, it’s the summation of an accounting: the last line of a bill or ledger, showing the balance after all has been added and subtracted. It’s what a restaurant gives you at the end of the evening.

The bottom line has been used in this figurative sense since at least the 1830s, but its use rose rapidly starting in the 1970s. At the same time, the phrases “the bottom line is” and, more narrowly, “the bottom line is that” first appeared in print. Have a look. Before then, its use really was mostly literal (and sometimes referring to geometric drawing). In the early 1970s we start seeing it in fiction and plays but also in political writing and speeches. It seems to have become popular among a certain set. By 1979 there was a book called The Bottom Line: Communicating in the Organization by T. Harrell Allen. And once the 1980s came, it was a current phrase used to convey a pragmatic, hard-edged, business-minded sensibility. Not the weariness or nostalgia of at the end of the day. Just whatever’s right on the money.

But at the end of the day, is the bottom line really the last word?

at the end of the day

At the end of the day, in the final analysis, when all is said and done, the bottom line is…


It’s not as though discourse markers are some weird excrescence in English. We may not quite joint our sentences with them as much as Italian does with its dunque, comunque, and quindi (Italian, contrary to some stereotypes, is a language with discursive habits that are optimally suited to intellectual discourse – much more engagingly so than German, in my experience), but we still have lots of but, then, so, as a result, which means, and on up the formality scale to therefore and hence and in sum… and beyond into Latin.

And it’s not as though hackneyed metaphors are foreign to the language either. An enormous amount of our daily-use vocabulary traces back to physical references used for abstract concepts. Hackneyed originally referred to a horse worn out from being rented out all day, for instance – rental horses were hackneys, named after a town in England. Trace was first a literal reference to a path. Then there’s marker, scale, stereotype (a printing reference), joint, and all the terms we borrowed as abstract from Greek and Latin, where they began as literal references (metaphor meaning something carried beneath, for instance).

But hackneyed phrases aren’t just metaphorical discourse markers. They’re long metaphorical discourse markers, and they still flaunt their literal reference. We’ve generally forgotten the literal sense of hackneyed and stereotype, but we can’t miss the literal reference of a longer phrase made of common words. It’s in your face (so to speak). So people tire of them.

People have been tiring of them for a long time. George Orwell, in his essay “Politics and the English Language” (a hypocritical, xenophobic, classist clarion call for cranks, but not without its points) inveighs against this kind of bombast; two examples of “flyblown metaphors” he cites are “explore every avenue” and “leave no stone unturned.” Both of them are indeed flyblown, as it were. So is flyblown, but it’s a single word and so slips in like a quiet party crasher in a decent suit. (Bombast has lost its original reference entirely, but that’s not Orwell’s word here, it’s mine.)

Orwell didn’t mention “at the end of the day,” and it’s likely he didn’t have it in mind. Although the phrase in its literal use has been around for a long time, its summative use wasn’t especially common by his time. Before that, it slid in (hmm) very gradually, sometimes still having literal reference but also perhaps a more metaphorical sense – here’s a quote from William Cobbett, writing in 1806 but paraphrasing a speech from 1773: “that common fame, it was true, might set the enquiry on foot, but could never have sufficient ground for accusation; that is might be a very good breakfast, but at the end of the day would prove to be a very bad supper.” Other written texts using the phrase refer to the parable of the labourers, in Matthew 20, where Jesus talks of day labourers being hired at different times of the day but all getting the same pay at the end of the day. This no doubt had some influence on its occasional use in a metaphorical or at least partly metaphorical sense.

But the tired, sun-bleached (hmm) use that irritates some people so much first started spreading in the 1970s, it seems, and really took off (hmm) in the 1980s. Somehow some people – possibly more at first in England, and certainly among the moneyed business and law set – came to have the phrase stuck in their heads in such a way that it offered itself up when they reached for something equivalent to “when all is said and done.”

It may not be a coincidence that Les Miserables was a West End (and, after that, Broadway) hit starting in 1985, given that it included this song:

It didn’t invent the phrase. It didn’t even invent the figurative use of the phrase; it wouldn’t have been very effective if the phrase hadn’t already been established – it would have been just confusing. (The French original, by the way, was “Quand un jour est passé” – same rhythm, similar sense, but literally ‘when a day is done’.) But it may well have served as a vector for it, amplifying its popularity.

That’s not the song that comes to my mind first when I hear “at the end of the day,” though. I first hear this one, by the Canadian group Great Big Sea:

It’s not an originator and it’s not as widely influential. But, hey, at the end of the day, it’s all your state of mind. What’s just vivid enough to stick? And if metaphors aren’t vivid and sticky, well, then vivid and sticky might as well not be metaphors.

at the end of the day

“At the end of the day,” the guy with the orange polyster tie said, “we’re all about value here. Value and quality.”

Maury looked skeptical. This was his first time buying a new car (after all these years), but he had heard stories. “Does it get good gas mileage? All things considered?”

“Well, you know, you drive some in the city, you drive some in the country, but a car you get from us, at the end of the day, it’s going to be economical with the gas.” He leaned his torso in its checked jacket against a counter and took a slug of his coffee.

“What is the service record like, in the long run?”

“I’m telling you, at the end of the day, the cars we sell have better service records than any other make.” He paused, then nodded once for emphasis.

“And yet you’re selling the extra protection warranty. In the final analysis, is that such a good deal, then?” Maury circled the car one more time, running his finger along the detailing.

“You know, if it were just you and the car…” The salesman made a flat wipe with his hand. “You wouldn’t need it. But there are other drivers out there, and nature. Rocks. Ice. At the end of the day, that warranty is a good deal.”

Maury raised an eyebrow and he and I exchanged a glance. This salesman sure was focused on the end of the day. I was wondering if he was impatient to go home. I glanced at the clock: still just early afternoon. Well, people do tend to speak in habitual manners, and fads come and go for clichés. At the end of the day has been in use in its figurative sense at least since the 1970s – but it didn’t take long for the Oxford English Dictionary to include “hackneyed” as part of its definition.

“The handling in difficult conditions?” Maury asked. He opened the driver’s door and sat on the side of the seat.

“At the end of the day,” salesdude said, one arm holding coffee cup leaning against the door frame, “any car you get from us will handle better than any other one you can get.”

“So, in sum, all in all, when all is said and done…” Maury said.

“At the end of the day?”

“Sub specie aeternitatis?” Maury said. The salesman looked at him blankly. “When it comes down to it, is it really the best one for me? Or should I look at a few more?”

“At the end of the day, you won’t find another car that’s better for your needs.”

“And are you really, when it’s all added up, giving me the best deal you can? Are there other plans, other promotions, other incentives –”

“At the end of the day, no.” Salesmeister swept his hands apart smartly. “You won’t come out further ahead than what I’m offering you.”

Maury paused a moment. “Very well, then…”

I didn’t think I could trust the salesman as far as I could throw him. But Maury clearly liked the car, and he was just seeking assurances. The salesman seemed confident and forthright enough to him.

Looking back, though, one thing is clear to us: Maury should have come back in the evening, just before closing. The car Maury bought that afternoon turned out to be a lemon and an open sore on his bank account. Everything the salesman said may have been true… but we’ll never know, because it wasn’t the end of the day.