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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

emotional baggage

(1970’s | therapese | “emotional scars,” “trauma”)

At least in the seventies, when “emotional baggage” wormed its way into demotic language, it could be the property of persons, as it normally is now, but it might also trail along behind a political issue, analogous to what an older generation would have called “freight.” So certain matters of public policy — abortion, capital punishment, affirmative action, anything a lot of people get worked up about — were said to have emotional baggage. Today I think that such usage would sound rather odd, though the meaning would not be unclear. When pundits rather than therapists resorted to the phrase, it took a patronizing cast, indicating that all those simpletons needed to calm down and let the experts analyze the issue dispassionately. One wished to set it aside or get rid of it entirely. That’s true of emotional baggage bogging down an individual, too, but the tone is usually more sympathetic. One’s demons are presumed difficult, and even unsuccessful efforts to cast them out are deemed worthy. It is dangerously easy to recognize and cluck over others’ emotional baggage even as we go right on tripping over our own.

Other common phrases bearing “baggage”: “personal baggage,” which weighs down politicians in particular — past statements and votes, but more juicily, their peccadillos, magnadillos, or killerdillos — Ted Kennedy had a lot of it, for example. “Mental (or intellectual) baggage” also holds you back, but specifically because it consists of outmoded preconceived notions (cf. Wordsworth’s “creed outworn”). Emotional baggage treads the same path — it gets in your way AND takes its lessons from past experience that need not apply to your present or future — yet you continue to carry it with you.

The common denominator of “baggage” is that which weighs you down, but its earliest figurative uses encompassed other meanings. The earliest seems to have been “prostitute” — from Shakespeare’s time — later it went on to mean “saucy young woman,” which persisted into our era. But it could also mean “worthless man” or “nonsense,” neither of which corresponds very well to how we use it now. “Baggage” meaning “impediment” goes back at least to the late seventeenth century and has an extensive historical pedigree. Its most familiar avatar in the twentieth century was probably “excess baggage,” used to denote whatever people or things slow us down or get in the way: could be family, past history, or whatever you’re unable to cast aside. The word has never lost its negative connotations when used metaphorically, but they became less venomous somewhere back there. “Baggage” has a more complicated history than you might suspect, but by now certain strands have crowded out the others, and most old associations of “baggage” seem unlikely to return.

Further usage note: Something immutable, like genetic heritage, would not generally be called “baggage.” “Baggage” is not exactly voluntary, but the implication persists that we can get rid of it, or at least work around it, if we want to bad enough.

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