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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

act out

(1980’s | academese (education)? therapese? | “throw a tantrum,” “lash out,” “kick up a fuss”)

The crux of the matter, as I see it, is whether the new sense of “act out” is fundamentally different from the old. It is certainly flatter, less vibrant. In the old days, “act out,” meaning portray a character or play a dramatic scene, opened up a world of promise, where fancy might reign and a bare stage opened up impossible yet imaginable horizons. But you didn’t need a stage; you might find a way to realize — live out — a dream or ambition, and “act out” was also available to cover such situations. So “acting out” a fantasy is a well-established way to use the phrase, right? Suppose your fantasies are aggressive? Suppose you dream about hogging the toys or hitting the teacher? You’re acting out a fantasy, right? No, you’re just acting out.

“Act out” always had a double life, able to go with real and imaginary phenomena. But its intransitive sense partakes only of the real. Now when someone acts out, it’s intended to irritate or intimidate the people around him. No actor’s wiles needed. I can’t quite articulate the difference between what an actor does and what a bored kid does. Say you have two kids, one of whom is enacting a dramatic situation and the other of which is trying to prevent it from happening by making noise and flailing around. There’s that grammatical distinction between “acting out a scene” and “acting out,” but it doesn’t seem to have much semantic effect; they’re both performing, though one is likely much more conscious of it than the other. Perhaps the difference lies in motivation: the actor is appealing to art and trying to enlighten the audience, or at least entertain; the miscreant is trying to steal others’ attention and prevent them from enjoying the show. Wanting attention is a prerequisite for actors, but except for certain esoteric types of theater, the desire to ruin the audience’s day is not. Maybe it’s mainly a matter of malice.

It isn’t quite true any more, but in the seventies, “act out” was used invariably to talk about kids’ meltdowns. It occurred primarily in education writing, a verb for what we used to call “misbehavior,” and wobbled between transitive and intransitive. It was always troubled kids, too, usually brown — that’s been true from the beginning. The verb may be used of adults now, but typically only those the speaker considers childish or subordinate — prison inmates, drug addicts, Donald Trump. When you describe someone’s behavior as “acting out,” the implication is that they are incapable of expressing themselves intelligibly in words, leaving violence as their only resort (particularly true in the case of traumatized children). This verb has a definite sullen side, and as we learn from “passive-aggressive,” expressions that connote obstinacy or mulishness are applied to children and members of lower social orders, or vice-versa.

When I was young, one still heard “act up” for this sort of carrying on much more often than “act out.” “Act up” was more general and did not necessarily imply anger or violence — it could be hijinks or measured protest — but it was loud and distracting. (“Cut up,” a related term, had to do with clowning, not conniptions.) Now that ACT UP has earned a place in the culture, I sense that we don’t hear “act up” for kids’ shenanigans so much any more.


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