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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

road rage

(late 1990’s | legalese?, therapese? | “dangerous or reckless driving,” “some asshole gave me the finger,” etc.)

It’s really “motorist rage,” isn’t it? Even though “motorist” sounds a bit quaint nowadays, that’s where it all begins, with the jerk in the car who can’t control himself. It can happen in parking lots, but it’s usually a highway thing. It gets blamed on bad drivers, overcrowded roads, short-fused jerks with type A personalities, even incompetent cops. But such explanations neglect the most fundamental factor of all.

There’s general agreement that the phrase arose in the late 1980’s and was widely used by the late 1990’s. Anyone with access to LexisNexis can tell you that the term first appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on April 2, 1988. This is the sort of dubious precision characteristic of the database age, but it’s probably close enough. Interestingly, a story in London’s Daily Telegraph in 1987 on a spate of violent driving incidents in California cited the term “freeway rage,” apparently quoting a California police officer; the reporter also alluded to Mel Gibson’s Mad Max to help readers get the idea. It seems plausible that the term originated among police, but it was popularized by a psychologist who worked to have it recognized as a mental disorder. Believe it or not, road rage is sometimes given as an example of “intermittent explosive disorder,” which I swear I am not making up. There’s some question about whether the term influenced or was influenced by “roid rage,” acts of violence committed by steroid users (see below). There’s also some question about whether the term arose in the U.K. or U.S. For a couple of years there in the mid-1990’s, it was more common in Great Britain and the former Commonwealth, but they usually blame Americans for it, and I’m inclined to think they’re right. Phrases.org.uk offers the most reliable account.

“Road rage” applies both to how you conduct your car and how you conduct yourself. In the former sense, it shares a rather fuzzy border with “reckless or aggressive driving,” both of which were common terms in my youth, especially the former. But I don’t think there was a general term for screaming, gesturing, sideswiping, or pulling over and settling the matter with fists or weapons. That makes me wonder if the practice hasn’t become more common. One wishes to avoid the error of assuming that a particular phenomenon is occurring more often because people are taking more notice of it. But when the phenomenon in question goes from something we have to bring up every five years to something we have to bring up every week, that creates significant pressure on the language and often forces a new expression up through the crust of established usage. I’m sure you can find examples of road rage through the years, but we’ve spent a lot more time talking about it in the last fifteen years than in all previous recorded history.

The fundamental factor I mentioned above? “Driving is the most dangerous activity for the majority of people in an industrialized society” (citation). You’re taking your life in your hands every time you merge onto the interstate. At those speeds, any unconventional or unexpected driving, intentional or not, risks the life, health, and safety of anyone nearby, as most of us are very aware. The stakes are that high when even a brief lapse in concentration can mean serious injury and death. It’s why differing driving habits create stress in a marriage, and it’s why it’s so easy to get angry at someone going slow and blocking traffic or someone weaving all over a crowded highway. The prospect of imminent death will get the most phlegmatic among us a little worked up.

roid rage

(1990’s | athletese?)

Well, whaddaya know? Look this phrase up on LexisNexis and the first citation is from 1988! Same as “road rage.” And in fact, it got established a little faster; it was getting regular use in major publications by 1991; “road rage” didn’t take off in the U.S. until four or five years later. So we can suppose that “roid rage” influenced “road rage,” not the other way around. It seems likely to have been invented by athletes or by doctors who make a specialty of treating them. (“Roid” seems to have been a colloquial abbreviation for “steroid” within the medical profession dating back to the 1960’s or 1970’s.)

Sports fans and reporters started writing about steroids in the late 1980’s, ten years before Mark McGwire reluctantly told the world about andro, and the phrase became familiar outside sports contexts because it wasn’t just professional athletes that took them. Teenagers were getting hold of steroids, so the parenting industry took notice. Lawyers caught on quickly that a “roid rage” defense might sway a jury, while cops occasionally went after illicit dealers, so it slipped into the grown-up news here and there. There’s some doubt about whether it’s real or not, but the evidence suggests that while very few steroid users turn into part-time psychopaths, it can happen.

How many people have heard “roids” used for “hemorrhoids”? Seems like it ought to be more common than it is. I remember Al Bundy sending Bud out to buy “roid cream” on Married . . . with Children, but you don’t hear it much. Maybe because the shortened form of the word is just too breezy for something no one really wants to talk about.

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