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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | journalese? | “reflection,” “self-criticism”)

Solecism or just language doing its thing? Roughly analogous to a mutation, the sort whereby your offspring grows an extra limb that serves no useful purpose. To reflect on x meant to think x over, in a reasonably thorough way, and might include abstract questions. But in fact x was usually something you, or someone else, had said or done, and the unstated goal was to determine how you could improve. It was a sober process with the goal of greater understanding and improved conduct. Now, in addition to “reflection,” we have “self-reflection,” without a significant new shade of meaning. Reflection was always a self-absorbed process, so in a way it’s natural to add “self” to it.

In truth, there has been a shift in the drift from “reflection” to “self-reflection,” though it remains generally possible to substitute one for the other. (“Self-reflect” has not become ordinary as a verb, yet.) It’s a difference of degree more than kind: self-reflection is more rigorous, still more narrowly aimed at unearthing one’s flaws, with less of the philosophical detachment the old term sometimes bore. There are times in the popular press when it reminds me of the sort of ritual public acknowledgment of guilt that Communist officials have to make in order to keep their jobs (or their heads). The new phrase has harsher possibilities than the old, which may reflect a generally more hysterical tone of reporting and commentary these days. One can’t help but notice a yen in the American oversoul for more exacting judgment of everyone, public figures and private citizens alike. Strident moralists run amok among us, only to be struck down in turn by revelation of their own venalities and perversions.

Another notable shift: self-reflection is something groups or corporate bodies can do, not just individuals. That wasn’t true of “reflection”; it would have sounded very odd to credit the Lakers or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with aggregate reflection, but you hear that sort of usage now.

“Self-reflection” had a previous life in art criticism, where it is still used; it referred to the practice of incorporating one’s own life directly into one’s work. So an artist who relied on autobiography might be noted for self-reflection. As we know it today, “self-reflection” was around by the mid-1980’s. According to one source, there is a Japanese word that translates as “self-reflection,” and in 1980 we were all getting used to buying Japanese cars and admiring Japanese engineering and entrepreneurship, so it’s not impossible that there was influence from that quarter.

“Reflection” is not the only word to acquire a solipsistic pendant in the last few decades. I’m looking at you, self-care!, which no doubt deserves an entry of its own. The prefix has been around for a long time; self-loathing, self-doubt, self-satisfaction, self-control, self-centered, self-important were all commonplace in my childhood and before. I like a good Chicken Little story as much as the next neurotic, but my sense is that there has not been an explosion of new “self-made” words in the last forty years. “Self-branding” (I can’t get the image of mortifying one’s own flesh with a hot iron out of my mind), “self-driving cars,” “self-growth,” “self-harm,” “self-narrative,” “self-storage” (perhaps a bit older, but not common in the seventies), “self-tanning” (without benefit of sun or sunlamp). There are a few more. Hardly an onslaught, but a couple of important ones. “Selfie” is different, but is doubtless an evolution of “self-portrait.”


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