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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

life lesson

(early 1990’s | therapese | “(basic) principle,” “words to live by,” “moral of the story,” “something learned from experience”)

The combination of words is not new, but until fairly recently, it was usually rendered with a hyphen or as a genitive: “life’s lessons.” The phrase turns up in Browning; James Whitcomb Riley used it (hyphenated) as the title of a poem. Back then, it generally suggested a transcendent truth, or great principle that influenced every corner of one’s life. Not the only thing life has to teach us, but something genuinely significant.

I would venture to say this usage predominated through most of the twentieth century. It was never common, but it showed up now and again in texts on social science, religion, philosophy, and so forth. Some time after 1950, the phrase starts to appear as separate words, in an atypical evolution. (Usually a phrase starts as two words and turns into one, often with an intermediate hyphenated phase.) Google Books shows that in the 1970’s (not before), the phrase “real-life lesson” — meaning exemplum drawn from experience — appeared a number of times, and I suspect that contributed to the growth of the expression. By 1980, the two-word spelling had prevailed, and the definitions we know so well today had begun to emerge. LexisNexis suggests its path to prominence ran through arts journalism (cf. “closure“), as the phrase came up often in book reviews; a short film by Martin Scorsese in 1989 (part of “New York Stories”) used it as a title. With such progenitors, “life lesson” became legion around 1990 and hasn’t slowed down.

Even now, the term normally conveys a sense of importance or generality, and it still denotes a principle, not a technique or tool. Learning to tie your shoes is not a life lesson, but learning that your shoes fall off if you don’t tie them would count. Life lessons nowadays are more likely to deal with balancing your checkbook or what not to put on your Facebook page than with the grandest truths learned from our greatest minds. It’s a shift from universal significance to everyday significance, or from transcendent truth to day-to-day rule for living.

It sounds like another tale of decline and degeneration, but does it matter? Whether you consider a “life lesson” a lesson learned from experience or a lesson about how to live, why should it be restricted to the profound or the majestic? We can all attest that most events in our everyday lives are petty, trivial, ephemeral. Why shouldn’t our lessons help us deal with such things? When it comes to simply getting through life, knowing a lot of little things means more than internalizing a few grand principles that don’t help you commute to work or pick out the right gift for your sister-in-law. It’s refreshing to be able to make the case that an expression has evolved in a more useful, pragmatic direction.

My assignment of this term to therapese is a little doubtful, but only a little. A psychiatrist named John Dorsey used the term several times in a 1965 book, and the prevalence of the term in arts reviews just before it became widespread suggests such an origin. It was around before the 1980’s, of course, and it’s not clear to me that it was any more common in therapese than in other kinds of jargon. Then again, it probably was most used in religious, social science, and arts contexts, and those are often influenced heavily by therapese. So I’ll go with it.

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