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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

control freak

(1990’s | journalese?, therapese? | “dictator,” “perfectionist,” “obsessive or unyielding person”)

This phrase really has to figure out which side it’s on. Grudging compliment or insult? Perfectionist or nazi? Do you rule with an iron hand, or do you want everything just so? You will hear people admit, usually with more sheepishness than pride, that they are control freaks. But when an artist or businessman is described that way, the term may inspire a certain respect; it’s a way of saying this person has a powerful, compelling vision and doesn’t want anything to interfere with it. If the company is successful or the movie sells, the “control freak” prospers and gains acclaim. On the other hand, when a right-wing blogger uses the term, it means “arrogant government official bent on taking over our lives.” When you describe a run-of-the-mill person as a control freak, it’s usually more than a touch derogatory. We understand that the person is a pain in the ass or worse. The related adjective “controlling” as applied to persons, referring to someone who wants to run others’ lives, has also come into being in the last forty years, although it arose later.

I found a few examples from the 1970’s among hippies and artists, but the expression seems to have grown more common through the 1980’s and become ordinary by the early 1990’s. “Freak” was a big word in the 1960’s, yet one more example of hijacking a derogatory term and turning it into a blazon. The word has always had the sense of “whim” — a pleasant irony in the case of “control freak,” whose goal is to wipe out whim altogether — or “monster” (as in “freak of nature”), and all the weirdos and malcontents declared themselves freaks, the better to épater les bourgeois. Hippie culture faded into irrelevance, but a fair amount of the vocabulary lingered on, and “freak” came to mean “enthusiast” or “passionate exponent.” “Jesus freak” was still heard often in my childhood, an early, influential example of the “noun + freak” construction. The phrase “control freak” appeared in The Deer Hunter (1978), which may have been the first opportunity most of us had to learn the expression. Most of the examples I found before the late 1980’s appeared in arts journalism.

Another binary opposition: Does the control freak seek primarily to control himself or others? Sometimes “control freak” is used to mean someone who never acts spontaneously, or struggles to keep inner impulses in check. When I hear this phrase, I envision someone who creates detailed arrangements for kitchen utensils and goes nuts any time someone puts a spatula in the wrong place, but it’s sometimes used in a sense that doesn’t involve imposing your will on others or even your surroundings, but on yourself.


(early 1990’s | miltarese?, bureaucratese? | “interfere”)

Unlike “control freak,” which can be a backhanded compliment, “micromanage” never has a positive connotation. When the word arose in the 1980’s, it was most commonly used by government officials about other government officials, especially in military contexts. Nowadays “micromanage” can act as the verb form of “control freak,” as in this example of a son describing his father (quoted in Newsday, June 10, 2012): “He kind of let life happen. He didn’t micromanage. He let people be who they are.” In this usage a micromanager is fussy about details AND feels compelled to run the show.

This is another bifurcated word; it has two oddly distinct meanings. The best way I can think of to express the difference is to say that sometimes the opposite of “micromanage” is “manage better,” and sometimes it’s “don’t manage at all.” If the word refers to top management meddling in minor matters — corporate headquarters setting the break schedule at every outpost, or a federal agency taking charge of small-town parking regulations — it’s definitely an insult, but it’s remediable. If the people at the top just focus on their proper sphere, there won’t be a problem. The other meaning comes up often among right-wing politicians alluding to members of Congress “micromanaging” military or diplomatic operations (i.e., the province of the executive), the clear implication being not that Congress is looking down from above and tending to unimportant matters, but that Congress should keep its hands off entirely. Don’t manage, in other words. (What they’re really saying, of course, is that Congress should disregard its obligation to the people to oversee federal agencies and cede the power of the purse to the Defense Department.) The latter sense allows demagogues to smear any oversight as counterproductive meddling. Which is what both meanings have in common: “sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong.”

A personal note: In 2007, a restive Congress finally began to make some noise about ending or at least slowing down the Iraq War. Pundits and finger-waggers in solemn procession accused Congress of “micromanaging” the war. As I pointed out in a sulfurous letter to the editor, Congress was actually managing the war, and it was about time, since Bush and his band had made no effort in that direction. Newsday didn’t print the letter, but that’s when it hit me how often “micromanage” is used in this sneaky way.

Another personal note: Thanks to the ever-lovin’ and indefatigable Liz from Queens for giving me this word!


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