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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

anger management

(1990’s | therapese | “self-control,” “control of one’s temper”)

The phrase began to appear among psychologists and therapists in the seventies, and began to show up in the mainstream press is the eighties, although it did not become ordinary until later. Quotation marks normally surrounded the expression when it was first used. Although it was adopted pretty early by lawyers and judges as a form of alternative sentencing, the origin seems to lie within therapese. In the eighties, when anyone talked “anger management,” the subject usually was wifebeating, or athletes or schoolkids getting into violent trouble. The idea was to give people who can respond to difficult situations only by blowing up and lashing out a procedure to control themselves — to learn to recognize warning signs that they were about to lose it and take steps to keep themselves in check: lower your voice, take that deep breath, leave the room, or whatever it takes that doesn’t involve hitting someone.

As prisons filled up in the seventies and eighties, there were two kinds of responses: “we need to build more prisons” and “we need to find some other way to punish people for breaking the law.” The former had a good run and still has plenty of partisans. But the latter has always been there in the shadows and has continued to attract influential defenders over the decades. Once you get past the satisfaction of locking up malefactors where they can only hurt each other — and the occasional prison guard — there are lots of problems with locking everyone up. Financial problems, which usually force reform where no other cause can, but also social problems, as illustrated by recidivism rates or the hard-headed observation that prison is a breeding ground and laboratory for crime. Classes and workshops sprang up to help us govern our violent impulses, and judges got used to the idea of sentencing minor offenders to longer fuses.

I’m afraid the concept has become a bit of a joke — the property of celebrities like Charlie Sheen (whose show uses it as a title, for Pete’s sake) or Lindsay Lohan, who don’t feel bound by the same rules as the rest of us. But considering how many angry people there are out there, and how easy it is at any given moment for one of them to cast off restraint and really hurt someone else, emotionally if not physically, it strikes me as a worthwhile pursuit. People who are bad at controlling themselves do a great deal of damage. Not all of them will learn how to deal with their rage, but we can still try to get some of them to learn how to vent without doing too much harm. Even one violent outburst nipped in the bud is an improvement.

community service

(1990’s | legalese | “forced labor,” “restitution”)

Thanks to Adam from Queens for proposing this phrase. I’m not sure it’s eligible, strictly speaking; it has been around for a long time. I have a sense, however, that this phrase has shifted environments over time to become more and more of a criminal-justice word and less and less of a good-government word.

In the old days, community service was straightforward. It could be provided by the government or by a private organization, but government normally had a role, even if it was just contracting with a private partner to offer assistance to the local population. Street lights, libraries, soup kitchens — pretty much any public amenity or benefit came under the heading. The Community Services Agency, succeeded by the Office of Community Services, was a federal agency for a while, back in the days when a few dreamers and Luftmenschen still believed that the job of government was to help everybody, not just the wealthy few who ought to spend their own damn money. It was a time when not very many people felt comfortable arguing against using public money to help the public. In the intervening generation or two, the old notion that public money should be spent mainly on private interests has become popular again, but that wasn’t always true, kids. And it won’t be true again.

When did “community service” become part of the judge’s arsenal? According to this web site, it was 1966 in Alameda County, California (another brief history can be found here). It was a new twist on the Thirteenth Amendment, which permits involuntary servitude — that is, work that you are compelled to do for which you receive no payment — as punishment for a criminal conviction. Eventually, the criminal justice system progressed from chain gangs and breaking rocks to softer, arguably more useful, labor. Sometimes there’s a connection between the crime and the community service, as when an athlete found guilty of drug use has to discourse to kids on the dangers of addiction. The larger point seems to be that almost any crime is an attack on the community or even society at large (the People vs. So-and-So), and therefore community service constitutes restitution, even in the absence of any direct relation between the crime and the punishment.

There will always be a debate about whether community service is merely a way to keep white, wealthy convicts out of jail. Harsh punishment, even of the rich, never wants for defenders in our culture, and studies will happily show that community service sentences are or are not effective (whatever that may mean). The question cuts both ways. Some may wonder if community service really serves the community; others may complain that such a sentence doesn’t convey to the offender the severity of the crime. This goes back to the question of what a sentence is for: to punish (or rehabilitate) the defendant, or to gratify the rest of us. In some cases, community service is a cop-out, to be sure. But it has the great advantage of making malefactors suffer while putting them to use. Maybe it doesn’t satisfy anyone, but it does have certain advantages over the lock-up-anything-that-moves school of jurisprudence.


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