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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

empty nest

(1980’s | therapese | “the house feels so empty”)

This is one of those effortless phrases. The first example I found in Google Books dates from 1968; by the late 1970’s it was turning up in the mainstream press now and then, and everyone seemed to get it right away. At that early date, it still required quotation marks and a brief gloss, but little time elapsed before the expression made itself at home. It was well arrived by the time a sitcom of that title debuted in 1988, spun off from The Golden Girls. “Empty nest syndrome,” an early elaboration, is the most common use of “empty nest” in adjective form; “period,” “phase,” and “blues” are other possibilities. As noun or adjective, it retains an innocent, “literal” quality — of course, the phrase is not literal at all, but its evocation of pure-hearted little birdies seems to shield it from irreverent wordplay. Even after thirty years, the phrase has not developed much of an ironic life, and it is not often used to refer to anything other than a home (or family) from which the last resident child has departed. “Empty nest” does have unlooked-for complexity when you take it apart. The first half is literally false — the nest isn’t empty because the parents are still there. The phrase as a whole requires knowledge of how birds bring up their young, sheltering them until they reach maturity, then sending them on their way.

The semantics of “empty nest” may tickle the analytical brain, but the concept appeals to the emotions, and it soon found a home in the long-running debate between parents and grown children over whether it’s really a good idea for the kids to move back in rent-free after college. The kids are all for it; parents are much more divided on the question. In my own case, the model was the great economist or perhaps sociologist Thorstein Veblen, who returned to his parents’ farm after taking a Ph.D. because he couldn’t find work, and filled the time with reading and long conversations about society and politics with his father. That sounded pretty good to me, but Dad saw disadvantages to the scheme and suggested graduate school instead, which ultimately got me out the door for good.

Not all parents are unhappy at the thought of their children moving back in. Some parents get all broken up when the last child leaves the house, and they are the most vulnerable to later irredentism on the part of their down-and-out offspring. Other parents can’t wait to see the back of their kids and have looked forward to the empty nest for years. I haven’t done a study, but I doubt such empty nesters (is it my imagination, or does that term imply a certain affluence?) relish the prospect of having their uncouth twenty-something kids cluttering the living room. This antidote to the empty nest is now known as “boomerang kid,” a term which arose within the last thirty years. By the way, that news article we’ve all read about how unprecedented numbers of college graduates are moving back in with Mom and Dad has been a staple at least since 1980. It’s a wonder anyone under forty lives on their own.

It is less true now, but in the olden days empty nest syndrome was primarily associated with women, a rough complement to the midlife crisis for men. True, mothers nostalgic for having surly kids in the house didn’t usually buy sports cars or cheat on their husbands, but both middle-age traumas mark a troubled transition to a later phase of adulthood. How can you tell “empty nest syndrome” was a well-established concept by 1985? By that time a whole new branch of the advice for the lovelorn industry had already sprung up, especially in women’s magazines, soothing unhappy mothers with an endless stream of counsel and reassurance.

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