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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | athletese | “unwind,” “relax,” “take it easy”)

This word first came to our attention primarily as a result of the Iran hostage crisis, or rather its end in January 1981. The hostages flew first to a U.S. base in Germany and stayed there for several days. The State Department discouraged family members from visiting them, because they needed time to “decompress.” The word had appeared before with a similar meaning, but it showed up in all the major news outlets and was treated as a novelty. The word was also used on occasion to talk about Vietnam veterans returning too quickly to civilian life.

Much older in the contexts of medicine, engineering, and particularly diving, “decompression” is extremely important to deep-sea divers, who must avoid the bends by returning to the surface very gradually, resting at certain depths along the way so their bodies can get accustomed to lower pressure. This use seems to be the direct ancestor, and it is definitely echoed in both the cases of ex-hostages and ex-soldiers. Moving from a high-pressure environment to less intense surroundings requires time to adjust; the more time taken, the more likely the transition will be smooth. In engineering and medicine, “decompress” meant simply “relieve pressure,” obviously a related usage, though normally transitive. (Why didn’t Jimi Hendrix do a song called “Manic Decompression”?) In computerese, “compress” was in use by the mid-eighties to denote making computer files more compact, or combining them, without deleting data, and “decompress” was its usual antonym; it can still be used that way, though my ear says that “extract” has become the most common term for restoring the files to their original size and configuration.

Soldiers in Vietnam and the hostages in Iran both went through terrible ordeals, and “decompress” was often used in such contexts in the eighties. Now we are more likely to talk about a vacation from work or a little r&r rather than recovering from prolonged physical and emotional strain. One can find instances of “decompress” even in the seventies referring to respite from much less arduous circumstances. Even so, my own feeling is that the word still bears some weight. If you need to decompress, you’ve been under significant stress — “stress” itself has evolved into the verb “de-stress,” which is a competitor — and probably for some time. Or perhaps the average daily stress level (I propose a new statistic to the Labor Department: ADSL) has gone up in forty years to the point that a garden-variety vacation from the office seems tantamount to a break from captivity or jungle warfare. “Decompress” has been helped into prominence by its association with “stress,” not only by virtue of rhyme but by contiguity of sense as well.


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