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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

enable

(1980’s | therapese | “encourage or perpetuate self-destructive behavior,” “aid and abet”)

Why did “enable” become a bad word? It always had a tinge of optimism about it, all those years, with its simple meaning: “make possible” or “provide an opportunity.” Implicitly, whatever was being enabled was worthy; while it was always possible that an undesirable thing might be enabled, the word wasn’t used that way very often. But in the late 1970’s, therapists and social workers who dealt with alcoholics and drug addicts began to use the term in a very specific way. To “enable” denoted helping the alcoholic or drug addict (not that they’re different) get by. It’s a slight distortion of the literal meaning, since it means not “making the addiction possible,” but “making it possible for the addict to get away with it.” An “enabler” was usually a well-meaning friend or relative who covered for the drug user, allowing him to maintain a relatively stable existence and avoid confronting the addiction. There’s lots of things an enabler can do: pay bills, make excuses, bail someone out of jail, and so forth. Even nothing at all: During the 1988 presidential campaign, George Bush warned high school students against “enabling behavior,” by which he meant failing to report students who were using illegal drugs. In the drama of addiction, the enabler is cast as the villain for letting addicts avoid the consequences of their dependency, preventing them from sinking into penury and misery. Do you detect an undercurrent of hostility here? To the therapist, the enabler represented the enemy, because he or she kept the addict from hitting bottom and seeking help, which is what keeps therapists in business.

The change is visible in the evolution of the word “enabler.” Until 1985 or so, “enabler” was favorable, complimentary. It meant more or less the same thing as “facilitator.” Although the the two words had easily distinguishable meanings (“makes possible” vs. “makes easier”), the distinction often lacked a difference. The “enabler” was a good guy, someone who helped everybody else get better and get closer to the goal line. That sense did not disappear in the 1980’s, but suddenly it had competition. The sense of “addict’s collaborator” made its way into the mainstream lexicon, firmly establishing itself alongside the favorable older meaning. To my ear, that is now the settled meaning of “enabler” in everyday use.

As addiction has become fashionable, its vocabulary has become everyday, “enable” being a prime example (intervention and the suffix “holic” are two others). Americans have been abusing drugs, especially alcohol, as long as there have been Americans; our nineteenth-century forebears drank at rates that would stagger even frat boys today. Opiate addiction became commonplace among the genteel later on, and the twentieth century has seen any number of advances in the field of substance abuse. But only within the last fifty years did drug addiction emerge from the underworld to become a public topic of conversation among both the poor and the powerful. Addiction is now generally considered a disease, more to be pitied than censured, and addicts are ailing patients in need of care, not dangerous degenerates who must be pursued and put away. With the respectability of addiction has come its spread to gambling, food, sex — it’s not just for mood-altering chemicals any more. And making the addict a sympathetic character opens up a slot for the villain of the piece; hence, the enabler. Our heart no longer goes out to the longsuffering mother; she is to blame for not somehow compelling her child to kick whatever habit.

Final usage question: does one enable the addict or the addiction? The new meaning helps blur the distinction, after all. The trap for the therapist is taking an addiction as the most important thing about a person, the only thing worth paying attention to. A word like “enable” (which suggests staying in the background, yielding the spotlight to someone else) makes that easier, since it assumes that the addict must be the center of the story. Everyone else, including the enabler, becomes secondary. Since everyone around an addict does a certain amount of enabling, willingly or not, we are all guilty, playing bit parts in the drama defined by the addict and his need for help. If the addict gets therapy and straightens up, then everyone loses interest — no more denial, no more enabling, no more story.

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