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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | therapese? | “satisfaction,” “sense of completeness or certainty or finality”)

I had assumed that this word came from therapese, and I’m still inclined to think it did. But it seems to have shown up first in book, art, and theater reviews beginning in the mid-1980’s. Of course, a lot of artists and their fellow travelers spend a lot of time in therapy, so that doesn’t prove anything. Like most new expressions, it took some time to settle in, and while it was emerging, it had a few specific senses that later went by the wayside. But within a few years, the term assumed its present cluster of meanings without much fuss or confusion. In therapese, it seems to have started with the idea that some kind of ceremony allows people to recover from a traumatic event, like a death in the family (this specific usage also starts to crop up in the mid-1980’s). So the purpose of a funeral was to provide a “sense of closure.” The full phrase, “sense [sometimes ‘feeling’] of closure,” is no longer necessary but still common.

In legal and government speak, it meant “final decision or disposition,” or “decision from which there is no appeal.” I haven’t heard that lately, although it may still be common among lawyers. I have the impression that it’s the preferred Canadian term for what we call “cloture” in the U.S., but I’m not sure. Occasionally “closure” was used in a pejorative way, in the sense of “closing down possibilities, horizons, etc.,” or in the sense of an illusory or deceptive sense of finality, but most often it denotes a positive experience that allows us to put something unpleasant behind us.

Another meaning of “closure,” current in my youth, had to do with the permanent shuttering of a post office, a factory, a school, or something similar. The term would not usually have been used for something small and private, but for something large and institutional. It meant you weren’t just closing for the day; you were closing for good. But then you started to hear about street, or even lane, closures in traffic reports, where the closing would be as temporary as possible. The modern use recaptures that older sense of permanence.


(2000’s | “jell”)

Honest, I wasn’t gonna do this one — I was going to pretend it wasn’t there, be a gentleman about the whole thing, look the other way. Then I saw it in the New York Times (“GOP voters are ready for the 2012 race,” March 7, 2011): “because they want to delay the scrutiny that comes with a formal declaration, or because they want to see the field gel before making any final decisions.” A clear-cut misuse — somebody alert the ombudsman! Here‘s an example of the Times policing itself, but they sure missed “gel.”

Is there any excuse for this gross misuse? I can’t think of one. Kraft didn’t rename America’s kids’ favorite dessert “Gel-O,” for heaven’s sake. It seems like the rankest kind of illiteracy to me. Or one more sign of how hair-care products have taken over the world.

Of course, there’s plenty of others like it. See also “jive” for “jibe,” “hone in on” for “home in on,” or “tow the line” for “toe the line.” The things I have to put up with . . .


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