Sunday, March 20, 2005

“She pushed my buttons!”

What an insidious excuse: “She pushed my buttons.” Last week I ended up in a rather heated discussion about what exactly this expression means. To me, it means nothing. To others it is a perfectly acceptable explanation, like saying: “the leaves dropped in autumn.” Despite my best rhetorical efforts, the cognitive authority of the expression remains impeccable. This authority didn’t just appear, it must have come from somewhere. So my question for the day is how did this expression appear?

H1: The expression has always existed (or at least since the industrial revolution, or alternately the cybernetic revolution, gave us buttons for controlling automata).

False. A quick search of the collections of Project Gutenberg indicate that neither the expression “pushed my buttons” nor the expression "punched my buttons" appear in the full text of any of the 15,000 works in their collection. The collection consists primarily of works in the public domain as per US Copyright law (i.e., published before 1923, published by the government, some works published before 1964 whose copyright was not renewed, and some works published before 1989 without copyright notice).

H2: The expression has come into common usage since 1923.

False. A search of the full archives of JSTOR indicates no usage of the term. Searches through Proquest’s historical New York Times and historical Wall Street Journal indicate that the term came into usage only relatively recently. The New York Times first used the expression in 1982 in a first person account written from the perspective of “the A bomb” (Baker, 1982). The meaning seems to have shifted since then.

H3: The expression only exists in the popular parlance (i.e., outside of the academic world of JSTOR or the white collar environment of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal).

False. Searching through a popular lyrics search engine ( indicates that the expression has been used a number of times. For example, the expression appeared on Guru’s Jazzmatazz--Streetsoul in October of 2000. Pop diva Pink stated “Momma was a lunatic, she like to push my buttons” in the track My Vietnam which appeared on her 2001 album Missundaztood. Hall and Oates, the masters of saccharine rock, first used the expression on their 1990 album Change of Season in the song I Ain’t Gonna Take it This Time. It’s unclear from their syntax, however, whether they used the expression in a positive or negative manner: You push my buttons hard /And don't even realize what you're doing is killing my soul [ed. I certainly hope that this expression, commonly used by some of scariest dudes that I know, did not originate in a Hall and Oates song!]. Another early use of "push my buttons" was in the hit TV program Friends. In 1994, the character "Phoebe" in talking about "Ross" stated: "I'm trying not to be mad at him, but man that guy can push my buttons!"

With my hypotheses blown, I can at least take a look at other ways in which the expression was used. According to the OED, the expression in a general sense has a fairly long history and provides a number of examples in typical OED manner. The expression seems to be related to an action-response scenario rather than one of blame or accusation:

1914 E. GREY in Europ. Crisis, Corr. (Parlt. Papers CI) 46 Mediation was ready to come into operation..if only Germany would ‘press the button’ in the interests of peace. E. GOSCHEN Ibid. 59 The Chancellor told me last night that he was ‘pressing the button’ as hard as he could.

Modern usages of the expression crop up only within the last 10 years. For example, a 1994 interview in Down Beat magazine has the Jazz composer and musician Anthony Braxton describing the excitement he felt for jazz as a young man as “pushing my buttons.” (Corbett, 1994) Alternately, in 1993 we have the UC softball pitcher Michele Granger describing how her coach could really drive her by saying that he knew how to “push her buttons.” (Anon, 1993)

Perhaps the first documented use of the expression in the way that we understand it comes from a 1994 article in—of all sources—Ms.:

“If we've had a hard day at work, were embarrassed or humiliated by a boss--challenged in the box--the contract leads us to believe that we can take those feelings out on "our" women, and thus regain our power. If we end up hitting her, then we have to blame her in order to deny our aggression and keep our self-esteem intact. So we say things like: She asked for it. She pushed my buttons. She deserved it. Invariably it comes as a surprise to us that women don't meekly accept our violence. So we respond by minimizing and justifying our actions: I didn't mean it.” (Allen, Kivel, and Obejas, 1994)

The expression apparently hasn’t been limited to perpetrators of violence. The expression quite quickly seems to have bled over into usage by therapists. A first-person account in 1995 from a therapist referred to his/her client’s attempts to manipulate the therapeutic process as: “pushing my buttons.” (Polson and McCullom, 1995)

Since 1995 the expression has become quite popular. Everybody seems to know how to push everybody else’s buttons. Recent articles demonstrate that children know how to push parent’s buttons, and employees are quite adept at punching the buttons of their bosses. Even fellow commuters are quite good at punching buttons when they’re behind the wheel. My position is that this expression needs to be deflated. Its Hall and Oates heritage may be the place to start.


Allen, R.L., Kivel, P., and Obejas, A. (1994, September). Men Changing Men. Ms. 5(2): 50-56.

Anon. (1993, April 12). Sports people: Michele Granger. Sports Illustrated. 78(14): 71.

Baker, Russell (1982, April 10). The mushroom blues. New York Times. 23.

Corbett, J. (1994, April). Of science and Sinatra [profile of Anthony Braxton]. Down Beat. 61(4): 28-32.

Polson, M., and McCullom, R. (1995). Therapist caring for the treatment of sexual abuse offenders: Perspectives from a qualitative case study of one sexual abuse treatment program. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse. 4(1): 21-44.


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