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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

listen to your body

(1980’s | athletese | “don’t overdo it”)

The injunction “listen to your body” has nothing to do with listening. The verb is an exact substitute for “pay attention.” Oh, you might not like the way your joints crack, but that’s only one corner of the room this expression occupies. The doctor listens to your body every time you go in for a check-up — that’s called “auscultation” — but this phrase has nothing to do with stethoscopes, or little rubber hammers, even though it’s always reflexive. You would never say, “Hey, doc, listen to my body. Something doesn’t feel right.”

Listening to your body, in fact, has more to do with how you feel than with any of the other senses. Pain, weariness, rapid heartbeat, that kind of thing. “Feel (or sense) your body” creates the wrong impression, I suppose, and listening does include the idea of actually learning from what you’re hearing. The expression started to appear in the seventies, according to my sources, invariably in the context of running, a burgeoning fad at the time, or physical fitness (just before the spread of “wellness”). Over time, it came to be used more generally about health or lifestyle. The first instance I found in LexisNexis dates from 1977, uttered by a doctor, and doctors still use it to mean “don’t discount your symptoms.” Trainers, coaches, physical therapists. It is used both by those who can’t afford to have their bodies break down — dancers, manual laborers, pregnant women — but also by the rest of us, as a way of reminding ourselves not to push too hard. Like “give back,” it is boiled down from longer phrases: listen to what your body is telling you, listen to your body’s signals, etc. By the time George W. Bush used it in reference to Dick Cheney after a pacemaker implant in 2001, it was a cliché. I’ll quote the entire statement: “He is such a good example for Americans who may share the same condition he has, and that is to listen to your body, to take precautionary measures, and to be active.” Notice how he put it; he didn’t say, “He has to listen to his body.” It doesn’t sound natural that way.

In the imperative, it has become quasi-proverbial. Uttered sententiously, it pretends to a kind of universal irreducible truth, mother-wit so basic that even the dullest cretin recognizes it instantly. Not listening to your body buys you a hospital stay, or an early grave; the phrase is always given as an admonition or warning. I’ve covered other new phrases turned maxims: “no pain, no gain” and “pick your battles.” Will these apothegms join the ranks of “Better safe than sorry,” “Waste not, want not,” and “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”? Some day, “Think outside the box,” “Be careful out there” and “Been there, done that” may follow. Those of us old enough to remember a time before such phrases littered the landscape will slowly, grudgingly die off, and then such parvenus will seem just as immemorial. The connection to “no pain, no gain” is pretty obvious, but when I hear “listen to your body” I think of mindfulness, the mind-body problem notwithstanding. That’s what a lot of mindfulness boils down to, anyway — put yourself in a meditative state and pay attention to what your heart and lungs are doing until your mind gets limbered up and starts doing its stuff, or shuts down entirely. It’s all part of the introspective, omphaloskeptic method. Maybe the full phrase should be “make your mind listen to your body.” Now there’s a proverb worth weighing.


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