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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

comfort zone

(1980’s | enginese | “groove,” “sweet spot,” “where you feel at home,” “good way”; “old familiar ways,” “rut”)

Among engineers, this is not a new expression at all. It is at least a hundred years old, first used by the kind of technician who studies indoor environments and how human occupants respond to them. (The term may also be used to talk about the outdoors, but it has always been more common among heating and ventilation engineers than among climatologists.) Specifically, the “comfort zone” is defined by the answer to the question: What range of temperature and humidity allows people to go about their business without sweating or shivering? Metaphorical use was possible but rare before 1980. A few advertisers adopted it in the early sixties — it was even the name for a model of brassiere — but it didn’t take flight then. The passage to general and frequent use seems to have gone through sports reporting, whether talking about fish choosing where to hang out in a lake or a basketball player’s favorite place to shoot from. By 1990 it had spread pretty far.

When this phrase started getting tossed around in the eighties, it could mean almost anything. A range of statistical values (e.g., An inflation rate of 2 per cent is well within the comfort zone), a stage of development (so you might go through several comfort zones on the way to mastering a complex skill), a margin of error (as in a hockey team feeling bolder because they have a good goaltender), an ideal position (as in an OPEC minister after demand for oil has gone back up), a close relationship (two friends who get along especially well have a high comfort zone), even personal space. The American people got hold of this engineer’s expression in the seventies and eighties and reinterpreted it gleefully and thoroughly. But most of these meanings didn’t persist; by 2000 two had pretty much won out. One was the athlete’s sense described above, which was descended directly from the original meaning. In the old days, the point of the comfort zone was to equip buildings with a pleasant environment, where employees would be at their most efficient, or where homedwellers would be as graciously cocooned as possible. The comfort zone was where you felt your best and did your best work. That connotation has held up, particularly in sports talk. But “comfort zone” has grown a complementary yet distinctly unsavory connotation. Instead of being the groove you swing in, it’s the groove you’re stuck in — where one gets trapped in the same old same old, the old reliable routines we live with because they’re too much trouble to change. Orators and do-gooders of all stripes enjoin us to expand our comfort zones, or break free of them entirely, so we can do things we thought we couldn’t (or wouldn’t), which in turn will free us up to experience new things, grow in new directions, maybe even reach our potential. It’s rather striking how ubiquitous this meaning has become. If LexisNexis is to be believed, the negative use of “comfort zone” has all but taken over the language, with all others trailing far behind.

This expression’s decisive turn to the pejorative was not predictable. One possible source is the idea of a stage in development I alluded to above; you have to go beyond your comfort zone to get to the next level, and, ultimately, attain mastery. But here’s a more likely example from USA Today (January 24, 1999) that may help explain the shift. “The students described how whites and blacks seldom interact socially at [the University of] Virginia, preferring to stay in what several students referred to as their ‘comfort zone,’ with people of their own race who share their interests, tastes and culture.” Sure looks like a transitional form from the positive meaning to the negative meaning. The students flock to those with whom they are most at ease. That’s meaning no. 1, right? They’re at their best with the people they understand the best. But you can see what lies around the corner. This comfort zone leads directly to distrust and segregation and the bad old days, allowing the kids to reinforce their prejudices and miss out on valuable new experiences. After a few years of that, a motivational speaker has to come to campus to tell them to step out of their comfort zones and talk to the ones who don’t look exactly like they do. “Comfort zone” was never entirely innocent once it broke out of the engineers’ ghetto, because doing the easy thing every time causes you to forget that you still need to work toward becoming a better person. Over time, this worm in the apple has eaten the whole thing, and “comfort zone” has become a term of repentance and reproof rather than relief and relaxation.

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