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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | therapese | “insulting,” “unfair,” “derogatory,” less commonly “damaging”)

This word almost always has a strong emotional coloring now — to be hurtful is to hurt someone’s feelings. When I became aware of this word, I understood that it meant “emotionally damaging” and other usages were secondary, if I even knew of any. The original sense seems to be generally “harmful” or “damaging,” and that essence persists.

I was surprised to find that this a very old, though infrequently used, word. The OED dates it back to 1526, with the latest citation coming from ca. 1860. As of the late 1970’s, you saw scattered citations, and it could mean a bunch of things: damaging, or painful, or what it means now, or all of ‘em rolled into one. It looked more like a typo or a malapropism than a new expression. (Oh, right, he meant to say “harmful.”) Ronald Reagan used it in 1975 to mean “damaging,” but it already had that soupçon of whininess that the word almost always carries today. By 1984, both Hugh Hefner and Miss Manners had gotten hold of it, and it was already much closer to what it means now. (Actually, you still see it used to mean “harmful” once in a while.) It came into widespread use by the mid-1990’s. In the 1970’s and ’80’s, “hurtful” was at least as common in the former Commonwealth as in the U.S., evidence of its sturdy British roots.

It’s therapese and it isn’t therapese. It is therapese in the sense that the particular meaning therapists used became dominant, but it’s not therapese in the sense that the word originated there and diffused outward. It was always there on the outskirts of the lexicon, waking up every century or so to yawn and stretch and settling back into slumber. Somewhere around 1985, it rose and lurched into ungainly growth that has not abated. In its contemporary incarnation, the word captures two hallmarks of therapese: earnestness and emphasis on emotion. Its ascent is but one example of the influence of psychotherapy in forming contemporary vocabulary. I’m still trying to figure out why so many therapy words have become so widespread. I’m not sure, but I can think of two important vessels through which such terms seep into general use: writers (especially for film and television) and their allied enemies (i.e., critics), and educators.


(1990’s | businese | “easy or obvious decision,” “obvious move”)

Another expression that went through a range of meanings before settling down. This expression was mainly used, if at all, by two groups in the 1980’s: athletes and financiers. Among athletes — golfers in particular — it meant “lucky shot,” or more accurately “shot I made because I just hit the ball without thinking about it.” As the elegant Arthur Ashe elegantly put it (1975), “A no-brainer is a shot so spectacular that it could only have been done unconsciously; I think [Dennis?] Ralston gave us that expression.” Another sense of “no-brainer” used at least occasionally by professional athletes was “really stupid move”: you screwed up because you didn’t use your brain. Arts writers used the word to mean “fluff,” especially in reference to television shows or films. Once in a while it just meant “moron,” or was used as an adjective to mean “really stupid.” But at the same time, bankers and financiers already were using the word as we all do today: “obvious course of action.” The latter sense, only sporadic in the mid-1980’s, eclipsed the others. Ten years later, you saw few instances of any of the other usages, even among athletes; fifteen years later, almost none.

All of these meanings suggest an absent brain in their different ways, but the differences are pretty subtle sometimes — it’s not always easy to decide which is intended, even in context. The most straightforward usages connote stupidity, folly, or at a minimum “mindless entertainment.” A “no-brainer” ought to be something dumb, not smart. But that theory fails to account for the two common usages as the word began to make an impression, both of which require a little thought, or glossing: “lucky shot” and “obvious decision.” Both of these appeal to the idea that you succeed not by making the most of your brain, but by turning it off so it doesn’t get in your way. That’s a more advanced, second-order expression, a tilt away from the obvious. Given what we know about the general state of education over the last thirty years, we’d expect the simpler sense to emerge.

Why did the least intuitive use win? Why doesn’t “no-brainer” mean simply “dunce,” or “stupid idea”? This may be more of a question for Marx than for Saussure. Think about the power of the financial press; in our culture, everything is financial news. (Have you noticed that in most newspapers, the business section is the only place you find reporting on medicine and technology?) Sports, entertainment, and politics are all marinated in money — just look at the 2011 Mets, or Michael Jackson’s death, or . . . you probably don’t need any more examples. Expressions that arise in the financial sphere come with a built-in megaphone because everyone must speak that language: entertainers and athletes, politicians and government officials, technology experts, not to mention investment counselors and think-tank wizards. All the people who find it easiest to get quoted in the press, in other words. I believe that’s the primary reason that specialized terms in finance, or business more generally, spread quicker than any other. I admit that I haven’t found, or devised, a good explanation of why anyone would use “no-brainer” to mean “obvious decision” in the first place — but I know why the rest of us picked it up.


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