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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | journalese? | “demanding,” “needy,” “high-strung”)

Certain traits go along with being high-maintenance in the popular mind: high volume, high emotional intensity, probably a high level of self-centeredness. But none of those is really necessary. You can be affectless and depressed, or even pleasant and calm, while still requiring lots of attention. Though the phrase may go with small children and the elderly — people who have the most trouble taking care of themselves — it is heard more commonly of troublesome people that one is in a close relationship with, family or otherwise. Friends, lovers, employees . . . Sometimes “high-maintenance” applies to the relationship itself. But the lowest common denominator of the expression is extorting effort from others. We often assume that a low-maintenance person is low-key and easy to be around, but it seems to me the true opposite of a high-maintenance person is someone who insists on being left alone.

Various on-line dictionaries tell you that “high-maintenance” as a compound adjective was first applied to machinery, materials, and other products of the industrial age. True as far as it goes, but Google Books and LexisNexis suggest that it was rare before 1980. When it did start to show up as a compound adjective, it modified plants, lawns, and gardens. When first applied to persons, it conveyed something closely analogous: the idea that one needed lots of high-priced care, including but not limited to hours at the salon, workouts, expensive clothes and meals, plastic surgery, etc. (See, for example, this recent exchange between Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, in which Streep credits Nora Ephron with inventing the current use of “high-maintenance.”) Not until well into the nineties did it refer to conduct and personality as opposed to appearance or means of support. “High-maintenance” may also be applied to animals, or activities and processes, especially relationships. When used of a computer program or automobile, it feels less like a survival of the old mechanical applications of the term and more like an offshoot of “He’s so high-maintenance.”

The phrase belongs to a family with other expressions I’ve covered: “drama queen,” “diva,” “control freak,” “workaholic,” and in a backhanded way, “interpersonal skills” (required to deal with the above). A little ghetto of new expressions devoted to the difficult among us. Cf. “passive-aggressive.” “Alpha male,” “foodie,” “hipster” are distant cousins. “Trophy wife” is linked along a different axis; “high-maintenance” (in its slightly older sense of tending lavishly to one’s appearance and requiring expensive goods and services) might as well have been created to describe them. “Trophy wife” also reminds us that the phrase is used more often of women than of men; when used of men, it’s generally athletes, actors, and other performers. One blogger noted recently that the expression is “a not-so-subtle misogynist code word, usually deployed to take certain women down a notch.” An insult, in other words, and “high-maintenance” is rarely understood as a favorable description. There is a definite gender distinction at work, too. When you use “high maintenance” to mean “requiring patience and forbearance of others,” it can be applied to any gender — probably more often to women than men, but the imbalance is not so noticeable. When it means “requiring elaborate efforts to maintain looks and status,” it’s applied only to women. Another unfair double bind: as a society we sneer at the expense and trouble women must incur in order to look as we expect them to, but we dismiss or attack them when they don’t.

The equation above of “high maintenance” and “high-strung” is admittedly questionable, but I think if you took a group of people that would generally be described as high-maintenance and transported them back in time fifty years, a lot of them would have been described by residents of that era as “high-strung.” They aren’t synonyms, but there’s a lot of overlap.

Thanks to lovely Liz from Queens for rescuing this expression from deep storage on one of my lists and moving it front and center!


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