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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | enginese | “disintegration,” “sudden sharp decline,” “tantrum”)

A term ushered into everyone’s lexicon by a film called The China Syndrome and a nuclear power plant called Three Mile Island in March 1979, the year before this blog’s usual cut-off date (admittedly a highly movable and redefinable affair). The word existed before then, certainly, most likely invented by nuclear engineers. The failure of a nuclear reactor’s cooling system would cause the fuel rods to heat up uncontrollably, so that they would melt through their thick-walled chamber into the ground, with unknown effects — but it wasn’t hard to imagine massive releases of ionizing radiation with dire long-range health consequences, even if catastrophe were avoided in the short run. “Meltdown” in any of its varieties has always been associated with disaster, and just as fundamentally, the inability to control events. The first use I saw on LexisNexis dated from 1976 (Newsweek), and it turned up here and there for the next two or three years, before the deluge. “Core meltdown” was a common elaboration back then, although the modifier was unnecessary even before Three Mile Island. A steady stream of disasters, nuclear and otherwise, has kept the word in the news ever since.

“Meltdown” burst on the scene propelled by an unholy mix of popular culture and what passes for real life around here (it was real enough to those of us who grew up close to Harrisburg, unsure whether we would have to evacuate). It was one of those expressions, like “go postal” or “bobbitt,” or “been there, done that” that roared into the language. And what since? The word moved quickly into other contexts, and by the mid-eighties it was natural, if slightly fast, to use the word to talk about financial collapses, or sports teams blowing a big lead. This use points up a questions about meltdowns: How sudden are they? Screwing up the economy or losing a game takes place over an appreciable period of time, but we also use the word to denote a more or less instantaneous downfall. “Meltdown” was quickly absorbed to talk about glaciers and ice sheets, too — another gradual process — as it is still used today. In this sense, it makes a certain amount of sense to talk about something melting down. Otherwise, “melt down” doesn’t seem comfortable as a verb. Your kid may have a meltdown, but your kid doesn’t melt down, like a sno-cone on a hot day. It’s much more dramatic than that.

Which brings us to the semantic leap wrought in recent years: “meltdown” meaning “tantrum” or “conniption.” I haven’t found a clear trail into the lexicon for this usage, but an informal poll of my sister, who was raising children in the eighties, confirms that like the other metaphorical uses, it was thoroughly established by the end of that decade. Nowadays meltdowns are mainly the property of celebrities and kids, but anyone can have one; it’s basically the same as “losing it.” I’m not sure that was always true. It may have been used originally to describe only children’s tantrums and spread to the rest of us from there. The word does capture the cataclysmic violence of a screaming fit delivered by a child bent on having his or her way, a child who has lost all restraint, like a reactor core which due to an uncontainable chemical reaction is no longer responsible for its actions. When used to describe human behavior, the word might be considered indulgent — a way of excusing or mitigating bad conduct by implying that the offender isn’t really responsible — or it might just be a weary acknowledgment of the inevitable. Thwarted kids can be damnably anti-social, and sometimes you just can’t keep them from going overboard.

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