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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

conflicted

(1980’s | therapese? | “torn,” “ambivalent”)

“Conflict (with)” has been a verb for quite some time now, and “conflicted” was its past participle, so it has long been able to serve as an adjective, but it rarely did before 1970. And when it did start making adjective appearances, it didn’t quite seem to be doing the work of the past participle of “to conflict.” Why don’t we say “conflictful” or even “conflicting” (as in “conflicting schedules”)? When you’re divided within yourself, two parts of you are in disagreement, so it’s not a completed action, and the present participle seems more suitable. (When a conflict is settled, it ceases to exist, after all.) Maybe I’m being too fussy about grammar, but there’s something irregular about the way we use “conflicted” today. Yet it doesn’t sound strange, even to me.

The definition doesn’t require much explanation, but using the word with the right force is important. You don’t use it when you’re trying to decide between chicken soup or a TV dinner; there must be pretty strong currents at work to invoke the term. One is conflicted about major issues or in the face of important decisions. Powerful emotions or principles must be reconciled in order to make one’s course clear.

In 1977, sportswriter Thomas Boswell referred to the New York Yankees as “wealthy, conflicted and almost-too-talented.” But he meant strife between rather than within, more like “fractious” or “confrontational.” The Yankees were famous for having too many players who didn’t like or respect each other, so the word presumably meant they fought all the time. Today, it’s more common to use “conflicted” to describe a single person, but if you view a team as a single organism, the meaning is basically the same as ours. Instead of everyone pushing toward the same goal, too many people are going in different directions, so the team isn’t single-minded. (The weakness of the baseball team as metaphor for the individual may be seen in the Yankees’ three straight pennants while in such a “conflicted” state; people mired in a dither are rarely so successful.)

If “conflicted” can be used to talk about groups or organizations, why not nations? It has become normal to talk about the U.S. as conflicted about this issue or that, or just across the board. Lovely Liz from Queens suggested last week that the U.S. needs a “republic-whisperer” to help calm all of us down and start working together to identify and solve problems, or at least agree that probably not everyone on the other side is guilty of treason. When a single person is conflicted, maybe you can help him sort it all out, but when half of us are unable to agree with the other half about anything, the task seems impossibly daunting. Our house has been divided before and we’ve survived, but as the retirement fund managers like to say, past performance does not guarantee future results.

Why do I place a question mark after “therapese” as the source of this expression? Could there be a clearer example? The early instances of the term I have found don’t come invariably or even consistently from shrinks and counselors; it turns up in social science and other branches of academese as well. One strong indication: as “conflicted” was taking on its new usage, it turned up in arts writing, especially book reviews, a lot. Arts journalists being more neurotic than average, they tend to be early adopters of therapese, before editorialists or sportswriters. Arguably, journalists do more than anyone — with the occasional exception of an actor or screenplay writer — to make new expressions common to us all. Many of the expressions I have treated started life in a specific professional or demographic subdivision of vocabulary before seeping or exploding into everyday language. Each type of journalist, unsurprisingly, tends to prefer certain subdivisions. Arts journalists are lucky to draw on such a fertile source of new expressions as therapese, sportswriters mine the rich veins of new vocabulary generated by athletese, and editorial writers enjoy the fruit of our prolific military men and bureaucrats.

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