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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | therapese | “exhaustion,” “depression,” “nervous breakdown”)

In 1960, Graham Greene published a novel called A Burnt-out Case. Like so many white men’s novels of that era, it was about a man who was spiritually exhausted, no longer able to cope with other people or his work or much of anything else. He sailed to darkest Africa and took up residence in a leper colony, his idea of getting away from it all. Perhaps the compound adjective arose simply from the idea of an inner flame extinguished by overwork, exhaustion, or doubt. Based on a less than exhaustive search, my guess is that Greene was one of the first to use the word this way. But I still can’t resist citing the great Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851), in which we learn of the “burnt-out tradesman.” A beggar pretends to be a once-prosperous businessman whose establishment has burned down and seeks alms from a group of well-heeled merchants. Here the use of “burnt-out” is quite literal and distinct from Greene’s, however.

It was not until the late 1970’s that the term began to crop up in print. In the early days, “burn-out” (often hyphenated) denoted a variety of depression or malaise caused by being stuck in a difficult job or routine without a break for years. As a verb, it replaced “wear (oneself) out.” Here’s an example — with a free etymology thrown in — from the Globe and Mail, attributed to an American social worker (March 18, 1978): “They’ve [clients] run out of whatever it is that keeps them going — creative juices, drive. They’re like kerosene lamps that have run out of fuel — they’ve literally burned out. Appropriately, she calls the syndrome burn-out.” The term is used as an adjective in the same article. At first it was used about teachers, nurses, and cops, but it was applied very soon thereafter to stockbrokers, politicians, and housewives.

Webster’s Third gives five meanings of the phrasal verb “burn out,” of which the last is our modern, strictly figurative, one. It can mean “go out” (like a light bulb), but it can also mean “consume everything” (like a forest fire). The end result is the same, but how you get there makes all the difference. Both predate our modern usage, “exhaust oneself.” A burnt-out person has exhausted his or her fuel. Although this may be the result of a fierce blaze, more often it happens gradually but inexorably over time.

flame out

(1990’s | enginese | “go out in a blaze of glory,” “run out of gas,” “bomb out,” “self-destruct”)

An aviation term. Engines “flame out” or undergo “flameout,” meaning that the flame goes out — the damn thing stops working, but not because of an interruption in the fuel supply. (I was delighted to find the term defined not only in an on-line aviation dictionary, but also in the Skybrary.) In this sense, it was around in the 1970’s, and before, but the metaphorical use seems not to have taken hold until the late 1980’s or become common until the 1990’s. The aviation use is clear enough. It generally denotes a sudden and unforeseen occurrence, although it doesn’t have to. It can be calm or violent, quiet or loud, but it always means trouble.

And the figurative sense has followed suit. “Flame out” has developed two divergent meanings: go out with a whimper like a candle guttering and dying, or go out with a bang like a meteor entering the earth’s atmosphere. Glorious or ignominious, thunderous or sighing. At first, the word was almost always used about a person, or at least their career, but now it is commonly used to talk about stocks, or sports teams, or television shows, or even news stories. Often, it is reserved for people who have somehow done themselves in; during the last week, for example, we’ve heard it applied frequently to Amy Winehouse.

It’s never used to mean “blaze forth,” like radiance or fire. Well, hardly ever. Gerard Manley Hopkins used it that way in “God’s Grandeur,” but you don’t hear it nowadays. By now I suspect the metaphorical usage is too well-established to give the variant a foothold. Nor does “flame out” seem to play any role in gay slang, where “flame” is a mainstay, or computer slang. Does a flame war flame out?

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