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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years


(1980’s | therapese | “rescue (operation),” “behavior modification”)

A common word that has developed a fairly specific and interesting new sense in the last thirty years. An “intervention” is an organized procedure for trying to get someone to see the error of their ways, and it is directed at people in some kind of serious trouble. It’s not just about drugs; interventions are deployed against a surprising range of dangerous behavior, like various addictions (alcohol, gambling), eating disorders, cult membership — as puts it, “Any self-destructive behavior can be addressed in an intervention.” The term has also become very common in education jargon, meaning anything from “preparing a personalized plan to help a student” to “giving him some Ritalin.”

The immediate ancestor of this usage seems to be “crisis intervention,” which became a buzzword in the 1970’s to describe how schools and police departments dealt with suicide or teen drug use. In other words, “There’s a crisis! We gotta intervene!” A little later, you started to hear about “early intervention,” which meant, “Maybe if we move a little quicker we can keep the crisis from getting out of hand.” Both usages have to do with institutional responses to general social problems more than narrowly focused efforts to help self-destructive individuals. But now we’re more likely to think of the word as denoting a small circle of people confronting one person.

Religious cults became a big thing in the 1970’s, kind of a hangover from the sixties, and there was this thing called “deprogramming” where you kidnapped (teenage) cult members and shoved their heads into toilets to get them to renounce whatever fool messiah they had gone and followed. Family members getting together and confronting stray sheep (or lone wolves) and convincing them to return to the fold, by force if necessary. (Today, interventions are normally carried out without violence or coercion.) Another hangover from the sixties was drug treatment, which emerged when lots of kids too wealthy and white to go to jail got caught using, or became junkies, or whatever. Both these streams fed into the idea that sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves and do what’s necessary to save your loved one. Next, the concept, and even the word, got a boost from Betty Ford, who underwent an intervention for alcohol use in the late seventies. The sheer volume of celebrities that visited her clinic helped bring the whole thing out into the open.

“Intervention” does seem like the right word. From the Latin, “intervene” means “come between,” as in come between you and the train wreck directly ahead of you, and its use to mean “interfere in an unfolding situation” is long established. Sometimes “intervene” is used to mean “carry out an intervention,” but the verbs most commonly associated with “intervention” are “do,” “stage,” and “conduct”; educators say “implement.” I don’t think there’s a direct connection, but I can’t help noticing that in foreign policy, “intervention” is a polite word for “invasion,” and the therapese sense carries more than hint of that, too. Someone who does interventions by trade is called an “interventionist,” which sounds more like foreign policy than therapy to me.

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