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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2010’s? | doctorese | “excitement,” “exhilaration”)

I haven’t tried this before, but I’m taking a flyer on a word that is not exactly new — first used in the seventies, as far as I can tell — but which has not attained orthodoxy yet, or even general use. I predict that this word will become more common and be part of our general vocabulary by 2020, probably sooner.

The concept of stress, omnipresent in popular psychology and medicine, is not especially precise. Endocrinologist Dr. Hans Selye was one of its foremost exponents, with a trail of publications dating back to the fifties; he may have coined the term “eustress,” but I haven’t found unmistakable evidence that he did (maybe I just didn’t look hard enough). Even if medically imprecise, we all know what “stress” means in everyday life. It is supremely established in our discourse and will be part of our world view for a long time to come.

“Eustress” is a rejoinder to the notion that all stress (defined roughly as physical reactions to psychologically demanding stimuli) is harmful and debilitating. Short-term stress caused by a deadline, stage fright, or an intense experience may cause us to work, or play, more efficiently and with greater focus, so we do better work or finish the job with greater speed. Heightened attention and concentration make us smarter, at least temporarily. I’ve found a fair amount of discussion of the difference between “eustress” and “distress” (as my girlfriend pointed out, the antonym should be “cacostress,” or as I heard it, “kakistress”), but the one trait common to every discussion is that eustress doesn’t go on and on. Stress resulting from long-term unhappiness or pressure is not going to be good for you. Stress that helps you bear down and think creatively about a problem and goes away once you’ve solved it — that’s more like it.

There is a statistical reason to think this word will grow more common: an increase in its rate of use over time. LexisNexis pulls up 124 total uses since 1979. Exactly half of them occur after January 1, 2000; almost a third after January 1, 2010. That’s a noticeable and even suggestive acceleration, but hardly definitive, particularly given the small number of instances. My intuition is based more on a feeling that misery and its mental and emotional toll are increasing among the general population, despite tentative economic growth and gradual increases in hiring. Long-term unemployment remains high, and those who do find new jobs often earn less than before without a corresponding decrease in expenses. It remains the case that more and more people are struggling just to meet basic needs. Widespread distress among the majority forces the ruling class and its lackeys to put a happier face on things. We must be reassured that stress is natural, uplifting, good for us, or we may get wise and derail the gravy train. Call me cynical, but that’s why I think this word will make the leap into our vocabulary.

“Eustress” is accented on the first syllable, unlike “distress,” but shouldn’t “distress” (noun) be stressed on the first syllable to distinguish it from “distress” (verb)? Should be, but isn’t. “Eustress training,” the only phrase I found that incorporates this word, refers to a weightlifting regimen that involves working slowly with less weight rather than pushing to do as many reps with as much weight as possible.


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