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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | journalese | “pursuer,” “nemesis,” “fiend”)

Yes, yes, stalking is a very old idea, and “stalker” existed before 1980, just not very much. We didn’t have a noun for it particularly, but the verb “to hound” covered a lot of the same ground. In the old days, when you stalked someone, you followed surreptitiously in order to kill or capture. Hunters stalked prey, detectives stalked suspects, terror stalked the city. (Aha! A different feel, much more closely connected to how we use the word now.) Stalkers today, as exemplified by weirdoes hoping to entice a celebrity or angry ex-husbands pursuing their ex-wives, follow surreptitiously in order to terrorize. It may end in death, but that need not be the primary goal. Many celebrity stalkers don’t want to kill the object of their obsession — some even dream of an idyllic life together — and even though the general run of ex-husbands probably does, most of them never get that far. (They can do terrible damage short of murder, of course.)

The idea of following someone you know, or feel you know, in order to harm them is not new, but it seems to have become a lot more commonplace in the last generation or two, like mass shootings or celebrity journalism. That is now the primary implication of this word, which it was not forty years ago. There was always something a little creepy about stalking because it was stealthy; most of us are unsettled at the idea of another person keeping tabs on us without our knowledge. The creepiness persists from the way we’ve always used the term (if anything, it has grown), but the real changes have to do with differences in intent and the personal animus or passion which motivates the act.

It’s not so much that the word changed as that the culture changed around it. No less an authority than Gavin de Becker, personal security expert, pointed out in 1989 that he got a lot more jobs in Hollywood at the end of the eighties than he had at the beginning, because obsessed fans had grown more common and more likely to act on their obsessions. Sure enough, the word “stalking” gained today’s twist in the 1980’s. The decade began with two cases within months of each other: Mark David Chapman stalking John Lennon before he shot him, and John Hinckley stalking Jodie Foster before he shot Ronald Reagan. Both Chapman and Hinckley engaged in what we now consider classic stalking behavior: following a quarry who was unaware of their existence, anonymous attempts to communicate, etc. Back then, it was novel and frightening, and both cases attracted a lot of attention. The frequency of the word did not spike suddenly at the time, or at least not very much, but the seed was planted. By the end of the decade, there had been a few more high-profile cases, and we had an old word with a whole new set of sinister implications.

The best recent definition of “stalking” that I have found runs thus: “a course of harassing conduct against a person that is designed to put them in fear of their personal safety [disgruntled usage note: they’re not afraid OF their safety, they’re afraid FOR it]” (Center for American Progress press release, January 2013). That sums it up pretty well. Stalkers are no longer hunters on the prowl or tenacious trackers trailing bad guys. They’re sick and dangerous. That feel of the term is holding up and seems likely to remain.

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