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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | counterculturese | “retribution,” “just desserts,” “what goes around comes around”)

Americans became familiar with this expression in the sixties when Eastern religions, adapted for domestic consumption, became popular. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the concept depends on reincarnation. I hesitate to offer a quick and dirty definition of “karma,” but I took an Eastern religions class in college, so here goes. You might think of it as a burden imposed on your soul by your thoughts and actions that plays out over a long series of rebirths. Your karma determines the kind of creature you come back as, and you can escape rebirth only by escaping karma. The Buddha was careful to avoid a deterministic understanding of karma; it is always possible to improve your karma no matter what your soul has done in past lives. But he did understand the concept in the same cosmic terms; karma plays out over generations and centuries, not within a single lifespan.

Among the literati in the seventies, “karma” was scorned as an arriviste or as a way of disguising that the speaker didn’t know what he was talking about. Film critic Janet Maslin offered a good example: “Both movies [“Demon Seed” and “Audrey Rose”] traffic in big ideas to conceal the absence of little ones. For all their mumbo jumbo about scientific hardware and Karma, computer technology and transmigration of souls, neither movie contains a single intelligent figure or imaginative trick” (Newsweek, April 18, 1977). Sometimes the scorn was directed at an entire complex of new-age beliefs, for which “karma” served as a handy synecdoche. But the word still seemed faintly exotic, worthy of the respect we reserve for that which we don’t quite understand. Now it is often used more loosely still. Sometimes “karma” means something pretty close to “vibes” or “energy” (most commonly as bad karma rather than good). Another shift: organizations, not just individuals, may have karma now. Think of a sportswriter talking about a baseball team’s bad karma, which usually means management made some stupid decisions and now is paying the price.

LexisNexis and my memory agree that these shifts solidified in the nineties, and now “karma” most often just means “getting yours.” In the sixties karma was recognized to be good or bad (people would disagree on which was which, of course); those shades are still available, but today we use it without the modifier to allude to some sort of direct payback. It’s the closing of a transaction rather than a process that goes on and on. If you shove an old lady out of the way so you can get on a subway car first, and someone stomps on your foot later, that’s karma. It doesn’t have to be individualized (it’s probably not the same old lady stepping on your foot); in fact the word fits better if the comeuppance is impersonal and unorchestrated. The sense that if you do something wrong you will pay, the sooner the better, is essential. The ancient south Asian notion of karma has turned into the ancient Greek notion of nemesis as it has westernized. I don’t know enough about Hinduism and its descendants to know how practitioners have understood the term throughout history. For all I know, Hindus in the sixteenth century, or the sixth, or the sixth BCE, talked about karma in single-lifetime terms.

John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” seems like it ought to have led directly to the change, but I doubt it. It’s not easy to figure out exactly what Lennon’s title meant, and given his association with the Maharishi, it seems likely to me that he envisioned some kind of cosmic force that doesn’t concern itself with trifles, like acing an old lady out of a subway seat. It’s not very exciting, but my guess is that “karma” has merely suffered semantic drift in recent decades, at least partly because Westerners don’t have a time-honored concept of reincarnation. Expressions horn into the speech and writing of more different kinds of people in more contexts. They acquire more definitions and a wider range of connotation. Wider doesn’t mean richer — in this case, it means less precise and therefore less rich, less reliable. But such spread is one of the most common processes in the progress of language, and even when it’s regrettable there’s little we can do about it.


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