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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

self-care

(2000’s | doctorese, therapese | “taking care of oneself,” “being good to oneself,” “treating oneself right”)

“Self-care” means many things. It used to mean one or two. Before the doctors got hold of it, self-care was akin to self-love, that is, nurturing the feeling that one is important and worthy. By the early twentieth century, the medical profession was starting to use the term to refer to those tasks we all have to perform day in, day out — dressing, eating, hygiene, and so forth. It was something children and disabled people had to learn to do, or be assisted in doing. By the mid-1970’s, the expression had come to denote the act of treating oneself for ailments, as opposed to consulting a physician. Depending on your point of view, self-care was a right or a folly, but that new meaning represented a significant shift. Now we might say “self-medicate,” but self-care went beyond chemical relief and encompassed exercise, diet, or simply neglect, when one got self-careless. Both meanings were still around in 2000, but in neither sense was it an everyday term, more that of the specialist.

Neither meaning has disappeared, but as we use it now it has a less formal, forbidding cast — not so much a change in definition as an expansion. Self-care is taking steps to improve your health, or just being nice to yourself in any of a thousand ways. One site breaks it down into five categories: physical, mental, social, spiritual, emotional. Self-indulgence is not encouraged, exactly, by advocates of self-care, but it may creep in here and there. Still, the goal is loftier most of the time, whether genuine self-improvement or merely keeping yourself going for the next set of hurdles. It’s all an outgrowth of self-improvement, I suppose. Taking stock honestly of your needs, figuring out ethical and effective means to meet them, and doing it consistently. It all sounds like therapese to me. Self-care is what happens when self-awareness meets self-esteem.

That sense of “self-care” has been around at least twenty years, but the word has acquired new urgency with the pandemic. It is not just a way to make yourself better and happier; your sanity may well depend on it. I do sense that the expression has taken on a slightly more desperate tone since March. Sheltering in place for many people has meant more stress and fewer outlets; under such circumstances it seems natural and necessary that we look for ways to make ourselves more equable and resilient. Self-care resembles “me time” in that it is often recommended as a way to make oneself more useful to others — to be a better parent or employee. (Of course, it is also closely related to the dreaded “wellness.”)

Most authorities would agree that self-care relies on some general principles. For example, self-destructive acts do not partake of self-care. (Is there an adjective? Neither “self-caring” nor “self-careful” sounds right. It doesn’t function as a verb, either.) Nonetheless, “to each his own” is an important part of the formula, as you might expect from a compound that starts with “self.” Self-care must begin with determining the actions and methods that meet your own needs. Defining and practicing it is a personal matter, and you do see “self-care” used in place of “personal-care” — as in shampoo and cosmetics rather than vitamins — though there’s an obvious connection between vitamins and self-doctoring, and that probably explains how the two terms fused in the first place. There may be some marketers’ cunning at work, too. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of ad men?

Noah from Wareham made this week’s expression possible with an essay of his own on “self-care” that I hope I have not plagiarized. Thanks, kid! Keep those expressions rolling in, folks.

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