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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

model

(1990’s | therapese?, academese (education)? | “serve as a model of or for,” “exemplify”)

Here is a verb that has turned right around in the last thirty years. Back then, when applied to conduct, “to model” meant “follow another’s example.” It was normally used with “on,” or maybe “after,” as in children modeling themselves on a popular athlete, a rock star, who knows? maybe even a parent or teacher. And now? Now it means “set an example for another.” Those responsible for raising or schooling children must do things like “model appropriate behavior,” so their charges will see their way clear to becoming civilized. When did the change occur, and why? The first example I found on LexisNexis lurked in a review of several children’s books at the beginning of 1988, but it doesn’t seem to have become commonplace for at least another decade. My recollection, which I have learned not to trust very much, is that I started to hear it certainly by the late nineties, but I’d be hard-pressed to say when it became customary. Neither is it clear to me where the word arose, although therapese seems the most likely answer. But the verb was also used in its new sense early and often in the ed biz (as the immortal (so far) Tom Lehrer called it), so the educators may have a claim to ownership as well.

The shift in meaning looks larger than it is. “Model” has been used for centuries as a noun or adjective, generally denoting a pattern or example worthy of emulation or copying, in general or in particular. The model citizen or the model of bravery or generosity, to say nothing of the artist’s model, have an ample pedigree. But Noah Webster’s dictionary gives only one definition of “model” as a verb, which encompasses the notion of following a pattern described in the first paragraph. (Artist’s or fashion models of the day “posed,” one supposes.) Scientists and economists have long used the term in a way that seems analogous to today’s meaning: “create a model of.” The phrase “role model” came along in the fifties, according to Random House, and that phrase led to a veritable gamut of post-Freudian psychological usages of “model.” Role models do not generally embody one specific quality but are thought to be worth studying across the board. Instead of emulating Washington for this or Socrates for that, we started concentrating on finding just one all-around good person to emulate. It’s hard enough just finding one pair of coattails to ride.

And why did the word change meanings? When we think of “modeling” good behavior, we think primarily of adults doing it for children. When we thought of “modeling” one’s acts after others’ examples, we thought primarily of children doing it with reference to adults. The subject-object switcheroo goes along with a cultural shift in demands on parents. In the old days, kids had to buckle down and learn to do what was expected of them in public. Responsible adults offered guidance and were expected to help, or at least not retard the process, but it was the kid’s responsibility to work out ways to control himself and make an effort to comply with social conventions. As we make ourselves at home in the twenty-first century, parents are expected to do more and more of what used to be regarded as the kids’ work. The older generation must lay everything out so plainly that no child could possibly misunderstand — willfully or otherwise — the rules they are expected to follow. The grown-ups have to come up with a way to train the kids that doesn’t require them to exert any effort or risk failure. Deprived of any stake in their own improvement, the young’uns will infallibly turn into enviable adults, right? Of course, most kids turn out o.k. if their parents do even a middling job raising them, but it seems to me that conventional wisdom — and a parade of parenting manuals — demands more of parents, and less of children, than it did in the old days.

Actually, I was channeling my sister in the previous paragraph, who was ruminating recently on changes in our child-rearing practices, and who is well-qualified in general to discuss these kids today. I may have misrepresented her views, and I alone am responsible for any errors of fact or interpretation.

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