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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

me time

(1990’s | therapese? | “time to (or for) myself,” “free (or spare) time,” “break”)

With its echoes of the me generation and “all about me,” this expression can’t help sounding selfish. Yet me time is often touted as a way to make us more useful to others and is urged especially on parents. It’s what you need to refresh yourself so that you can handle your duties — particularly at home — with renewed vigor. Me time is not for the self-centered; it’s for the worn out. The emotional equivalent of breaks during the day at an office or construction site. Even the flintiest bosses have been compelled to recognize that employees will be more productive and last longer if they have some time to relax or occupy themselves with other matters, and dispensers of advice note that we often drive ourselves harder than anyone else and have to learn to cut ourselves some slack. If you don’t make time for yourself now and then, your duties will get even more arduous and exhausting, hastening a breakdown (and making you useless to those who depend on you).

Can “me time” be frivolous? Sometimes it is presented as pure hedonism, but much more often as an antidote to stress, a way to preserve equanimity in the midst of a demanding schedule. Which makes it an obligation, but to whom? A complicated mix of oneself and others. It is not essential to the expression, but “me time” may take a definite moral tone — not an indulgence, a responsibility.

Though not common in the nineties, the expression appeared occasionally, especially in the British and Canadian press, so it may be a Briticism. One pictures the exasperated English mother — having run through story time, nap time, play time — banishing the kids and declaring “me time!” If it didn’t originate in the States, it found its way here soon enough and became much more common after 2000. Now “Me Time” is the name of a Sephora skin care product — grandiosely described as “a firming and antioxidant-powered age-delay ritual fueled by black tea” — and even the august New York Times publishes a monthly column under this heading in its august Style section. Starting to lose that moral tone.

Here’s a question: Why doesn’t this phrase mean “time for me to shine,” or “pay attention to me”? Imagine a television host saying, “O.k., boys and girls, it’s ME time!” You wouldn’t have any trouble understanding that, right? “It’s Howdy-Doody time!” doesn’t mean it’s time for Howdy Doody to go off by himself and ignore everyone else for a while. It means he’s front and center. In a culture as self-obsessed as ours, we always need more ways to call attention to ourselves. But we would more likely say “my time” than “me time.”

We can thank Britney Spears for the recent spike in the frequency of this phrase. She used it innocently enough about a month ago to announce that she was taking a break from helping to tend her father, who was recovering from major abdominal surgery. We might have lauded her filial loyalty and wisdom in knowing when she needed a respite herself. Instead, a sirocco erupted in which a lot of people who need something better to do opined at length on matters that weren’t their business, and worse; Spears claims she has received death threats. Celebrities must hunger, at least occasionally, to be out of the public eye, and I suspect part of what she meant was simply “please leave me alone.” Grant me the mercy of being out of range of the tireless, and entirely otiose, celebrity gossip machine, eager to tar and feather this week’s villain for the slightest incorrect word, sentiment, or gesture. We sure know how to chew ’em up and spit ’em out.

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