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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(late 1980’s | academese? | “mediator,” “coordinator,” “therapist,” “promoter,” “go-between,” “accomplice,” “coach,” “trainer”)

This rather awful word has burgeoned in the last thirty years; not content with holding its own, it has engorged many other words, harvesting an impressive crop of synonyms. Somehow such a lumpy, slow-moving word became all things to all people, turning up more and more often in more and more places. There’s nothing new about it; the first citation in the OED dates from 1824 (“facilitate” starts cropping up much earlier, in the seventeenth century). The three nineteenth-century citations all use the word to refer to a thing, not a person — a usage that has all but disappeared.

By 1980 or so, the word was already in wide circulation, used in scientific, educational, psychological, industrial, and legal contexts. In normal usage, a facilitator had the following characteristics:

1. figures out how to make a process or discussion go smoothly

2. comes from the outside; not generally part of the group

3. neutral; fair and respectful to all parties

4. especially in business and education: not there to run or manage the group, but to make suggestions and help those who hired you meet a goal or reach a decision (therefore sensitive, flexible).

Synonyms were things like moderator, instructor, guide, catalyst. (The last both literal and figurative: scientists used the word to mean an agent that helps speed up a chemical reaction, but educators and industrial analysts discussed facilitators in the same way: people you hire to help you work together and find the right answer.) In political science, the word was paired with “resister”; I confess I’m a little vague on the precise parameters of this opposition, which for all I know is still current. It’s hard to tell where the term first arose in its modern senses. If Google Books is anything to go by — in this case, I’m not sure it is — by the end of the 1970’s the word was probably most common in the education/psychotherapy ghetto, but it may come ultimately from science or industry.

The word seems far more apt to spring to our lips in 2010 than it was in 1980, not that it was all that rare back then. It has become an easy replacement for “mediator” in news stories about contract negotiations. (A propos, the word is sometimes used to mean “go-between.”) In legalese, it means “henchman” (already charmingly archaic) or “accomplice” (getting there), sometimes specifically in the context of sting operations, where a government agent aiding and abetting a would-be criminal might be called a “facilitator.” Or you can use it in a nice way to refer to someone who encourages or promotes good behavior, as in “Teachers should view themselves as friendship facilitators” (Early Childhood Report, November 1, 2011). In therapy, it sounds a lot like “trainer” or “coach” — sure, you’ve heard of life coaches, but are you ready for “life facilitators”? From this month’s headlines, Occupy Wall Street has adopted the term to emphasize its leaderless character. This particular nuance was already around in the 1960’s (see no. 4 above).

Follett’s Modern Usage is very good, in a dismissive sort of way, on this word. I do not deny that it qualifies as jargon — it’s damp as only therapese and academese can be — and deserves that smoldering stare and curled lip from guardians of plain English, but “facilitate” is quite an old word and facilitator is hardly an unlikely excrescence. Why so popular now? Maybe it’s because Latinate, technical-sounding words borrowed from the sciences, hard or soft, sound less loaded and seem safer to use in any sort of mixed company. We’ve had to work harder in the last fifty years to find words that don’t raise hackles or hurt feelings, as we have come to admit more comfortably and more often that civil society is damaged when some groups are allowed to call other groups names and dismiss them out of hand.

Amid the avalanche of new synonyms for “facilitator,” a small voice reminds us that at bottom, the word hasn’t changed much. For two hundred years it has meant something that makes things easier. Now it denotes a person, not a thing, but otherwise the sense is the same. A secondary sense has emerged: an unselfish person who stays in the background but makes others more successful. This use is common in sportswriting, particularly in descriptions of point guards. But the primary sense of making something easier has not only thrived, but spread and spread and spread into fresh fields and jargons new.

Months ago, my old bud Prydwyn fed me this word, and he has probably gotten tired of waiting by now. Sorry it took so long. Shine on, you crazy diamond!

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