Skip to content

Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

passive-aggressive

(1990’s | therapese | “passively hostile,” “mulish,” “underhanded,” “childish”)

Two on-line sources date this term to the 1940’s, Wikipedia and merriam-webster-online, so it probably goes back that far. It was used in a standard psychiatry textbook as early as 1954 (see below) and was widespread in the literature by 1980, though it appeared rarely outside of case studies. The phrase made it into pop psychology during the 1980’s and became mainstream by the mid-1990’s. I remember encountering the phrase around 1990 and telling a friend that we already had a word for that, but I couldn’t think of what it was. We had several, as it turns out (see above), but perhaps no single word that captured the many-splendored thing that is passive-aggressive behavior.

There’s always been a general agreement on the meaning of the expression; it really refers to how the weak obstruct the strong, or how underlings obstruct rulers. That’s a political way to look at the old power struggle, which we are more inclined to see now in psychological terms — the political is the personal, indeed. The original idea had to do with deliberate incompetence or failing to get the work done. According to Wikipedia, the term was invented by an army psychiatrist to denote the kind of soldier who slowed things down (or screwed them up) not by breaking rules or committing active sabotage, but by being persistently slow and balky. In English and Finch’s Introduction to Psychiatry (Norton, 1954) the “passive-aggressive personality” was defined as exhibiting “a passive type of rebellious resistance . . . a tendency to pout, to be obstinate, to be stubborn, to procrastinate.” (Pause with me for a moment to savor that definition. Part of the headword, “passive,” is lamely repeated in the definition, and you can hear the seething organization man behind the outraged pleonasm of “rebellious resistance” or the contemptuous references to pouting and obstinacy.)

That’s still pretty much what it means, though it’s used now in much more varied contexts with a wider repertory of manifestations. (My own impression is that the idea of deniability has now become an important part of the sense.) Psychologists often attributed it to an inability to express anger or hostility, caused by strict parents, but in fact social convention prevents us from displaying overt hostility in most contexts, be our parents ever so indulgent. Once it hit the popular press, the word soon became so broad as to be useless. Take, for example, this summation (from 1989!) in the Toronto Star: “Instead of communicating our desires directly, we exhibit behaviors that send a message for us.” Considering that such a procedure covers most human communication, it seems a safe statement. But note that passive-aggressiveness can as easily have the purpose of making communication impossible, as in the tactic of failing to respond to messages or e-mails, or even, in a pinch, to significant statements made in one’s presence.

Like a lot of therapese words, this one started as a diagnosis or personality type but now commonly refers to actions, habits, or attitudes that nearly everyone engages in at one time or another. True, we still find it easy to categorize certain people as passive-aggressive, when we refer to consistent, regular patterns of behavior, but single actions frequently merit the label, too. When I realized how much broader the term had become, I lapsed into my usual tut-tut directed against yet one more instance of vulgar slippage in our vocabulary. But now I think the profession itself caused the slippage. Like so many psychological concepts, “passive aggressive” is defined so broadly that nearly everyone acts that way. We are all passive-aggressive, we are all co-dependent, we are all narcissists; only a shrink can save us. Small wonder, then, that by the time the phrase took root in the popular mind, it didn’t take much time for it to denote a vast variety of conduct.

I remember being small and learning a delightful expression from my grandparents (I think even at that age I discerned the delight): “accidentally on purpose.” That captures part of the way we use “passive aggressive” now; it evokes the same kind of sneakiness. Sneaky, stubborn, dull, incompetent, occasionally low-down: almost fifty years ago, the journal Military Medicine noted, “The use of the term ‘passive-aggressive’ has come to represent opprobrium in psychiatric lingo.” It’s an insult now, too. If you do it in a programmatic way for a lofty political cause, it turns into “passive resistance,” a concept in much better odor except among the sternest authoritarians. But you can be passive-aggressive towards peers and even inferiors, anyone you don’t feel like confronting. There’s nothing noble about it.

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: