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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

cognitive dissonance

(1970’s | academese | “ambivalence,” “confusion”)

“Cognitive dissonance” is what happens when facts confront beliefs. The expression has a single author, psychologist Leon Festinger, who sought to prove that people “need to maintain consistency between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors” (so says britannica.com). If forced to absorb an event or idea that runs counter what we believe, say, or do, we must do extra mental work (which may translate into action) to resolve the conflict, which in turn suggests a state of tension or uncertainty that Festinger likened to an auditory phenomenon. Festinger began work on the theory in the 1950’s, and by the late 1970’s the expression turned up now and then in the press. Psychologists often define the concept in terms of what happens when we have a certain idea about ourselves but do something that calls it into question, as in this recent example from Psychology Today — “you see yourself as smart but can’t believe you made such dumb stock investments.” This sort of usage keeps it all in the family, but the pundit thinks of cognitive dissonance as something that impinges directly and invariably on the body politic.

The problem with “cognitive dissonance” as a political concept — not simply comparing your self-image with your latest blunder — is that very few people are actually distressed by it. Blame what you will — deteriorating public education, the rise of fundamentalism, the internet — many Americans are dumb as dirt and proud of it. They aren’t about to be bothered by huge flaming contradictions among or within their most cherished beliefs; in fact, they may not discern them at all. “Dissonance” implies pain, or at least discomfort, and that seems to be what the inventor of the phrase meant to suggest. But if you’re placidly unaware that there’s anything amiss, you won’t be bothered. It’s not just the dissonance you’re missing; it’s the cognition as well. Yet “cognitive dissonance” has become yet one more weapon in our political wars, generally used when one side rips apart the other side’s position and then wonders solicitously how the poor dears can endure so much of it. It’s one of those things, like “hive mind” or “politically correct,” that has emerged in political discourse solely to express hostility. I can’t help but wonder if “cognitive dissonance” is secretly related to the French verb “cogner” (fight or beat up). That might explain why it’s become so combative.

Here’s an example of political cognitive dissonance that isn’t there. It actually goes back to the Cold War, though it should be rushing back into vogue any day now. We held fast to two contrary beliefs about Russians: one, they are fiendishly clever schemers, always laying and carrying out insidious plots against us (cf. the outcry over the last presidential election); the other, that they’re drunken bumblers who can’t shoot straight. How can their plots make any headway if they’re too wasted to get out of their own way? Like all thumbnail summaries of national character, it’s not a useful dichotomy; Russia has plenty of room for both the ruthless and the incompetent, and the ruthless can do considerable harm. But it should have produced forty years of cognitive dissonance in the mind of the average American, and it didn’t.

I was an English major, and English majors learn about something called “negative capability,” defined as “[ability to be] in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” The phrase goes back to Keats, and he cites Shakespeare as a great exemplar. Negative capability mitigates cognitive dissonance, not by resolving it but by reducing its unpleasant quality. A person with lots of negative capability recognizes the dissonance but doesn’t find it bothersome, so you roll with it and wait for matters to straighten themselves out. We can learn a lot from the great poets.

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assisted living

(1980’s | doctorese? businese?)

But one of the host of expressions born in the last fifty years to cover the plights of the senior citizenry, but one of the most common. There were a number of rough synonyms when this expression was new, back in the eighties: “residential care,” “custodial care,” “catered care,” “respite care” (for people recovering from surgery). But then there were all the other terms that formed the ecosystem of which “assisted living” became such a prominent part. “Congregate housing” (i.e., dormitories with dining halls) and “barrier-free housing.” “Continuum of care” and “life care.” All manner of buildings, amenities, and services required to run the gamut from independent living to the dreaded nursing home (now there’s a continuum). Today, sprawling complexes for the elderly (“retirement communities,” an old expression, or “continuing care facilities”) offer a breathtaking array of options, designed to make progress toward the grave as pleasant as possible.

As usual, we need a lot of different terms (I’ve but scratched the surface) to match the growth in the number of ways to accommodate the elderly — it’s important to distinguish them precisely. (Many families take care of their oldest members at home, and those endeavors have produced new expressions like “caregiver,” but we don’t call it “assisted living.” It’s all a matter of who provides the care, and where.) In the industry, two acronyms have become current: ALF = “assisted living facility”; “ADL” = “activities of daily living,” normally plural. If you’re my age, you’ll remember a certain lovable sitcom character and the Anti-Defamation League when you hear those abbreviations. As the baby boom turns into the elder boom, who knows? Old understandings of acronyms are subject to replacement by new ones. In the 1930’s, NRA meant something completely different.

It was early in 1989 when the Washington Post announced an “important new American housing trend” whose “name is unknown among the general public and little known even within the home-building industry.” There were several instances of “assisted living” in the 1980’s press, actually, but it does appear that the phrase was pretty specialized for its first ten years or so. I don’t recall if I knew the expression before 1990, but if not, it probably wasn’t long after. Definitions of “assisted living” vary around the edges, but generally include help with basic living needs (food preparation, bathing, dressing) and housekeeping, social and recreational activities, maybe transportation, maybe some kind of licensed medical personnel on the premises, if only an unregistered nurse. The point is that you’re in a house or apartment, not a foul-smelling bed in an institution, but there’s always someone on hand if you need help. The goal is to preserve some crumbs of autonomy for people who can’t quite take care of themselves any more.

It seems irreverent to bring it up, but “assisted living” is not the opposite of “assisted suicide,” also a term not in general use before 1980. Not strictly speaking, anyway. The connection lies in the purpose of assisted living, which is to keep the old and infirm out of nursing homes and thereby discourage them from contemplating assisted suicide. Ethically, they’re on different planes. Assisted suicide makes nearly everyone at least a little uncomfortable, but only people who think the elderly ought to be put to sea on ice floes are troubled by assisted living. It’s hard to object to giving older people a chance to keep some cheer and dignity for a little longer. Which is why the elderly are big bucks now and getting bigger, and why investors concern themselves with housing the aged. There is no federal regulation of assisted living facilities, and not much at the state level, so levels and standards of care can vary wildly, and a local scandal blows up now and then. But a growth industry is a growth industry and serving retirees has been one for over thirty years now. As the vocabulary proliferates, the dollars proliferate, too.

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perfect ten

(late 1970’s | athletese | “goddess,” “knockout”)

Bo Derek, meet Nadia Comaneci. The Romanian gymnast achieved a perfect score in the 1976 Olympics, as no one had ever done before, and that was the source of the phrase “perfect ten,” also spelled “perfect 10.” Not until the tail end of the decade did Bo Derek come along to wrest the phrase into a new realm. Bo made it go, though; after that, both senses became noticeably more common.

Nadia Comaneci was on the cover of Sports Illustrated back then, when I was reading it, and I can still visualize the photo. What I can’t remember is whether I saw her medal-winning performance. She was elfin and charming, contrary to our usual image of women athletes from the Eastern bloc. Her combination of attractiveness with stunning skill and poise added up to adorable.

One wonders if it would have occurred to anyone to say “perfect ten” in reference to a woman’s physique — the woman herself may be called simply a “ten” — if it hadn’t been for Comaneci. It is a different kind of perfection, to be sure. I was of just the right age and sexual orientation to be struck dumb by Bo Derek. Yet for all the lust she provoked, the point about Bo Derek’s character in that film was that she was unattainable, as all goddesses must be.

Between 1900 and 1980, Google Books shows only occasional instances of the exact phrase, generally having to do with numerology — in some traditions, ten is a perfect number, along the lines of three and seven (which add up to ten! Proof of the existence of the Illuminati!) — though the use of grading scales in which ten equals a perfect score goes back at least a century. But here’s one from New Catholic World (1957) that seems prescient: “Ellen McRae is not only a perfect ten but an honestly engaging actress.” Sure sounds like Bo Derek to me (except for the “engaging actress” part), a score of years and more before she came along. So the true origins of this expression may snake back somehow to Rome.

Whether you’re using it to talk about athletic prowess or sheer pulchritude, “perfect 10” means you’re keeping score, tallying up attributes and moves and declaring the denominated one flawless. Today it is still used in the context of scoring sporting events (not only gymnastics) and to denote a gorgeous woman. The phrase may be used in other contexts to mean anyone or anything truly outstanding. I do not have the sense that it is often used ironically or even jocularly; when you call someone a perfect ten, you mean it.

The implication when used of women is that, like the gymnast, they are scrutinized and rated according to a detailed list of qualities and features that are spelled out to some extent but also lie partly within the whim of the judge. In other words, looking her over good and grading various anatomical features, reducing women quite literally to the sum of their parts — a practice to which women, and even a few men here and there, rightly object. It still goes on constantly, of course, although I’d say men today are less likely to discuss or rate women’s bodies in public or in print than they were in my boyhood, which might be considered progress.

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exposure

(businese | “risk”)

A word of many uses in everyday language to which one has been added in the last forty years. A quick review of the wide range of meanings this term had in the seventies, say:

a. the act of learning about or experiencing a stimulus, especially an unfamiliar one (“exposure to jazz, French culture, etc.”); goes with “to”

b. the direction your window, etc. faces (“southern exposure”); no preposition

c. for photographers, it meant how much light came in before the shutter closed, or simply a frame of film that had already been shot (you could even have a double exposure, and that’s no double entendre)

d. inadequate covering of body parts not normally displayed, voluntarily (“indecent exposure”) or involuntarily (“die of exposure”); no preposition

e. personal embarrassment caused by no-longer-secret conduct (e.g., “he was disgraced by his exposure as a tax cheat”); goes with “of”

f. attention from the popular press, what one gets when one is a celebrity; no preposition

g. potential harm caused by ingesting or absorbing hazardous substances from the environment (such as sunlight or air pollution or radiation); goes with “to”

And now there’s

h. financial risk caused by heavy investments in a weak sector, or just too much debt; goes with “to.” Probably a descendant of g., or at least that’s the one it most closely resembles. In the aftermaths of the 2008 crash, and the 2000 crash, and the 1987 crash, and the 1981 crash, we’ve gotten used to the idea of toxic financial instruments and practices, and this usage is a natural outgrowth. While “exposure” had this meaning well before 1980 in financial jargon, the increased fragility of the U.S. economy in recent decades has no doubt helped push it outward into the general vocabulary. (Even in a purely financial context, it also partakes somewhat of e. If it partakes likewise of d., you’re in bad shape; even a good lawyer won’t be able to do much.)

One way to sort definitions d. through h. is to place each one by its potential for undesirable results. With e. and g. and most likely h., you’re worse off than you would have been otherwise, but d. and f. may cut both ways. Exposure of the body may subject you to injury, or it may give you the warped satisfaction of forcing another person to participate unwillingly in your sexual gratification. Even in the latter case, you’re still vulnerable, to arrest if nothing else. As for f., today’s darling of the gossip pages is tomorrow’s disgrace, if e. kicks in and your secret vice is found out. It may not be that dramatic; a celebrity may fall from favor simply by attracting too much attention (“overexposure”). It may be fun at first, but any kind of exposure ultimately invites danger to one’s reputation, or even one’s life.

This week’s term, with its implication that one has been caught doing something wrong, points to a peculiarity of English: we don’t have a reliable word for revealing hidden good deeds rather than hidden malfeasance. “Expose,” “unmask,” “uncover,” “reveal” itself — they all imply that one has been up to no good. “Unveiling” might work, but we use that more often about statues than about people. I was thinking about this as I tried to translate a German title that included the phrase “Enttarnung eines Helden.” “Introducing a hero” or “Exhuming a hero” might get the point across, but the first is imprecise and the second ghoulish. How do you reveal that someone has acted heroically when all the available verbs suggest villainy?

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feng shui

(1980’s | journalese | “ancient Chinese wisdom”)

Many ancient east Asian concepts have been watered down, not to say altered beyond recognition, in their journey westward. I don’t know enough about feng shui to know where all the depredations have been wrought, but some diminution has surely taken place. LexisNexis yields few instances from the seventies, more from the eighties, in U.S. publications. By the late eighties, in fact, one commentator suggested that feng shui had effected a revolution in American interior decorating. A dead giveaway, because feng shui, incorporating concepts and practices that go back thousands of years, has nothing to do with arranging furniture. Yet most American references to it, then and now, involve home design, real estate, or good fortune; sometimes it devolves into naked consumerism, nothing more than buying good-luck charms and strewing them oh-so-precisely around your dwelling.

The expression seems to have become widely known in the U.S. during the nineties; before then it was more of an elitist thing. It’s used most often as a noun, but one certainly may encounter it as a verb, as in “how to feng shui your bedroom.” The Chinese pronunciation(s) is beyond me; I’ve always said “fung shuee,” but the articles that ventured an opinion back in the early days advised us to say “fung shuay.” Most sources agree that the literal translation is “wind [and] water,” suggesting a much closer connection with the natural world than with your apartment. There are different versions of the Chinese characters to be found on-line, so I’m reduced to showing options at Google Images, with no guarantee that the menu is exhaustive or accurate.

When the idea was still unfamiliar in these parts, more enlightened publications spoke darkly of geomancy and qi (also rendered “chi”), showing some grasp of feng shui’s primary principle, which is harmony with the natural world. Qi does not seem to be entirely translatable, but it involves currents of energy and force fields that western physics does not account for. Chinese philosophers regard the movement of qi as at least somewhat predictable, making it possible to study a landscape and understand where favorable and unfavorable energy are coursing. Astronomical and other data may be factored in. While feng shui may help determine the location and orientation of man-made structures, that is merely a corner of what it’s about. Just as westerners don’t have the proper understanding of the universe to grasp karma, we can’t make much sense of feng shui, so we dumb it down to a means of telling us where to put the sofa.

While feng shui in the west has become primarily an occasion for consumption, like everything else, feng shui consultants may do very well, too, collecting hefty fees and even preventing others from earning their share. Say a consultant advises against purchase of an expensive house because of its relation to the path of qi or some other ill omen, doing a real estate agent out of a good commission. I would certainly be skeptical if some old fart deprived me of thousands of dollars with some rigamarole about cosmic energy or facing southeast. I don’t know of any serious empirical evidence that feng shui “works,” whatever that might mean, but plenty of people are more than willing to subscribe to ancient Chinese wisdom, no matter how debased. Once you’ve subscribed, you will screen out evidence that feng shui is useless and exalt evidence that it brings you good fortune — such anti-empirical mental habits make up one of religion’s great tools.

Lovely Liz from Queens points out that Lex Maniac has covered very few foreign expressions, and she is right. By my count, this is the fifth — agita (probably Italian), glitch (Yiddish), karma (Sanskrit), and retro (French) being the others — out of about 425 so far. English has been in the business recently of bombarding the global village with new expressions, but we are returning a favor, having absorbed more than our share from other languages.

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high-maintenance

(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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ratchet up

(1980’s | journalese? | “turn up the heat, etc.,” “increase (gradually)”)

I first became acquainted with the noble ratchet in my father’s toolbox, and I understood it to be a special type of socket wrench that made it easy to loosen or tighten bolts in narrow places. If you could only move your handle a quarter turn, the ratchet made it possible to keep making that same quarter turn over and over again; each time you returned the handle to its initial position, the socket, and therefore the bolt, didn’t move. Plus, it made a satisfying fast clicking sound when you moved the handle back preparatory to making the next turn in the desired direction. The noble bumper jack uses the same mechanism, or mountain-climbing gear.

“Ratchet” until my youth was a mechanical, industrial term, encountered in patent filings and hardware catalogues. It was used but rarely in a figurative way, though one can certainly find examples during the seventies, and probably before with better corpora. It sneaked first into everyday language through economics, I think, as in the phrase “inflation ratchet,” which denotes the principle that inflation only goes up and can’t reverse direction, closely related to its meaning in the mechanic’s vocabulary. (Inflation did keep going up through the seventies, so the phrase got some use.) The word had then, and continues to convey, a gradual quality; you wouldn’t use “ratchet” in the context of runaway inflation. Economists and political reporters would occasionally use “ratchet” as a verb — it could go before “up,” “down,” or “tighter” — but more often intransitively. Now we use it habitually in the transitive, and “tighter” rarely appears; “up” seems to be the preferred adverbial accompaniment. “Ratchet down” has always complemented “ratchet up” but at a lower frequency.

Funny thing about this phrase: while “ratchet up” may be used, transitively or intransitively, with a wide range of nouns, there are a few that it goes with regularly: pressure, tensions, rhetoric. It’s not invariable or inherent, but I think “ratchet” often has an inexorable quality that becomes aggressive or coercive when used transitively. When a general wants to threaten another nation, or a football coach wants to inspire the defense, or a diplomat aims to use strong language, they reach for “ratchet.” Perhaps because of the phonetic similarity to “rack,” I envision ratcheting up pressure as a kind of slow torture, testing the victim’s ability to endure ever-increasing strain. Maybe the fact that “ratchet” has a mechanical origin contributes to the association with instruments of torture. Intransitively, the verb is less sinister; when no overt agent is doing the tormenting, it can be an impersonal process. “Tensions are ratcheting up between North and South Korea” doesn’t bear the same animus as “North Korea ratchets up tensions with South Korea.”

“Ratchet” has a couple other meanings worthy of note. “Ratchet-jawed” in CB radio slang described a person who talked a lot and talked fast. (It is possible to talk fast but not very much; y’all remember Boomhauer on King of the Hill?) That sense is probably obsolete now. Why not “power jaw” or “rapid-fire jaw”? It’s not an intuitive extension of the normal uses of “ratchet”; neither is the African-American slang use, derived from “wretched,” which doesn’t have to do with misery and privation but disgust and revulsion. I’m not sure there’s semantic relationship with “ratchet up”; if so, it’s not obvious. While “ratchet” has loosened its meaning so that it often is no more than a synonym for “increase,” it has maintained a foothold in our language. I hope it can hang onto traces of its original specificities over time.

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performance anxiety (1970’s | therapese | “stage fright,” “fear of failure”)
separation anxiety (1980’s | therapese | “fear of loss”)

These expressions emerged around the same time, as far as I can make out, say the late sixties? If anything, “performance anxiety” is older, but I’m not about to swear to it. “Performance anxiety” started as a technical-sounding way to say “stage fright” (athletes can have it too, which may be part of the reason for the broader term), but within a decade had come to be used primarily about impotence or other bedroom failures caused by insecurity as opposed to a physical problem. The same dichotomy holds true to this day; therapists for musicians and unconfident lovers alike still use the term. If you google it, links to sites having to do with sex vastly outpace any others, at least in the first few pages of results. (Sadly, Google is probably as good a barometer as we have of what’s preoccupying America this week.) Separation anxiety is generally attributed to kids — it’s nervousness, unhappiness, or acting out that arises when someone important is going or gone, whether an anticipatory tantrum or silent expressions of fear and loneliness after a parent’s extended absence. It may be used to talk of adults or even abstractions (as in discussions of Brexit), but it always has at least a faintly jocular quality in such cases.

The move in meaning from performing in public to performing in private interests me, because it seems so essential but makes so little linguistic difference. At first, there appears to be a great chasm between being shy about speaking in public before an audience of dozens or hundreds and doubting one’s sexual abilities, where the audience is much smaller. The intersection of those two sets is, I suppose, the porn actor, who must set aside both forms of performance anxiety in order to get the job done. But in either case, you’re under pressure — self-imposed pressure, often — to do well and look creditable. “Perform” has a longstanding euphemistic use in discussions of sex, of course. Separation anxiety also involves a small but crucial audience: the person the subject wants to remain close to, along with anyone nearby who is involved in some way. It’s hard to say to what extent a young child is expressing irrepressible feelings versus putting on an act to try to get her way. The older the kid gets, the more one suspects there’s an element of acting involved, or at least a covert eye on the target(s). But it’s not always easy to find the line between genuine emotion and the manufactured variety in an actor’s performance, either.

The “noun + anxiety” formation sounds familiar; there are a few other examples to be found, such as “stranger anxiety” (an infant’s strong adverse reaction to an unknown person) or “illness anxiety” (hypochondria). (Mercifully, “social anxiety” did not come out as “society anxiety.”) Freud’s concept of “castration anxiety,” ironically enough, is the grandpappy of them all. Note that Freud’s term was “Kastrationsangst,” and “Angst” in German lies much closer to “fear” than “anxiety” in English. He wasn’t talking about a short-term attack of nerves, but the kind of salutary terror that causes a kid to get with the program. (Whatever you think of Freud, we can all agree that he has suffered from inept or just plain weird English translations.) Not that anxiety can’t be crippling. And it certainly seems to be much more common among kids than it used to be, from the quite specific disorders mentioned above to generalized anxiety disorder, which is similar to what we used to call “free-floating anxiety.” It’s no good telling people not to worry when they feel surrounded.

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tough love

(1980’s | evangelese? therapese? | “discipline,” “punishment”)

Just as “tough love” was gaining a toehold in the discourse, a television film called “Scared Straight” rocked America, showing what happened when a group of juvenile delinquents (that’s what we called them back then, honest!) was assigned to participate in a state-sanctioned program that took them to Rahway State Prison in New Jersey. Inmates shouted at them, told lurid stories of prison life, even threatened the kids with violence. The cameras recorded it, and the resulting film made a very big noise indeed, winning both an Emmy and an Oscar in 1979. The idea, of course, was to bully dangerous kids into reforming by showing, in graphic detail, what you go through when you get sent up. The film included disturbing images and raw language (remarkably so, for its day) and was shown late at night, mainly on independent channels. I don’t recall watching it, but I remember the hoopla.

“Tough love” was already around, but it was only used, as far as I can tell, by Christian child-rearing specialists and Alcoholics Anonymous counselors. In 1978, an organization called Tough Love was founded by a husband-and-wife team of family therapists, David and Phyllis York. They advocated laying down the law, with strict rules and rigid enforcement, until the kids straighten up and fly right. (Tough love is reserved for children and those deemed unfit to run their own lives — politicians use it to talk of welfare recipients and other inferiors — and in this respect it resembles last week’s expression, “act out.”) By 1980, “tough love” was getting dropped into mainstream press articles. Its niche in the popular mind had been opened by “scared straight,” and they formed a powerful alliance to beat back the malign influence of the permissive, anything-goes sixties, with tough love working to soften and humanize “Scared Straight” and its pornographic violence. And it worked! Reagan got elected, and being respectable became respectable again. Parents buffed their reputations by refusing to take any more crap from their bored, coddled kids. I have no doubt that a lot of kids benefited from a little firmness, but tough love isn’t a cure-all. For one thing, it’s easy to overemphasize “tough” at the expense of “love,” which leads to unfair or even sadistic treatment. And like everything else, it doesn’t work for everybody. As John Hinckley’s father put it, “If mental illness is involved, ‘tough love’ is the worst thing you can do.” It won’t just fail; it will make matters worse.

Before there was tough love, there was “for your own good.” The scene went like this. Parent: You’re grounded! Kid: Aw, Mom/Dad! Parent: It’s for your own good! (Parents who got swept up in the role might add, “You’ll thank me one day.”) It came up any time parents made unwelcome demands on their children, from taking cod liver oil to giving up the car keys. A related adjective was “stern,” which was roughly equivalent to “tough,” strict and unyielding. The point of including “love” in the expression is to draw attention away from its harshness, of course. Tough love cares; it demands obedience out of genuine and abiding concern for the child’s welfare.

Grammatically, “tough love” follows a common pattern, expressing an existing general idea in a new part of speech. In this case, the shift arguably contributes punch and directness and certainly opens up new syntactic possibilities. It always makes me think of “tough luck” and its variants, though it isn’t exactly cognate. (My sister used to say “tough toenails,” which I liked, except when she used it on me.) Such expressions carry disdain, which tough love is not supposed to do, but can’t you just hear a righteously angry parent saying, “Tough love, kid!” It hasn’t made any inroads as an interjection, though.

The few pre-1970 instances of the phrase in Google Books had an entirely different definition: persistent or resilient love that triumphs over obstacles and returns the lost sheep to the fold, or helps a loved one through a bad time. It’s a shame that sense didn’t catch on, if you ask me. It’s much more appealing.

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act out

(1980’s | academese (education)? therapese? | “throw a tantrum,” “lash out,” “kick up a fuss”)

The crux of the matter, as I see it, is whether the new sense of “act out” is fundamentally different from the old. It is certainly flatter, less vibrant. In the old days, “act out,” meaning portray a character or play a dramatic scene, opened up a world of promise, where fancy might reign and a bare stage opened up impossible yet imaginable horizons. But you didn’t need a stage; you might find a way to realize — live out — a dream or ambition, and “act out” was also available to cover such situations. So “acting out” a fantasy is a well-established way to use the phrase, right? Suppose your fantasies are aggressive? Suppose you dream about hogging the toys or hitting the teacher? You’re acting out a fantasy, right? No, you’re just acting out.

“Act out” always had a double life, able to go with real and imaginary phenomena. But its intransitive sense partakes only of the real. Now when someone acts out, it’s intended to irritate or intimidate the people around him. No actor’s wiles needed. I can’t quite articulate the difference between what an actor does and what a bored kid does. Say you have two kids, one of whom is enacting a dramatic situation and the other of which is trying to prevent it from happening by making noise and flailing around. There’s that grammatical distinction between “acting out a scene” and “acting out,” but it doesn’t seem to have much semantic effect; they’re both performing, though one is likely much more conscious of it than the other. Perhaps the difference lies in motivation: the actor is appealing to art and trying to enlighten the audience, or at least entertain; the miscreant is trying to steal others’ attention and prevent them from enjoying the show. Wanting attention is a prerequisite for actors, but except for certain esoteric types of theater, the desire to ruin the audience’s day is not. Maybe it’s mainly a matter of malice.

It isn’t quite true any more, but in the seventies, “act out” was used invariably to talk about kids’ meltdowns. It occurred primarily in education writing, a verb for what we used to call “misbehavior,” and wobbled between transitive and intransitive. It was always troubled kids, too, usually brown — that’s been true from the beginning. The verb may be used of adults now, but typically only those the speaker considers childish or subordinate — prison inmates, drug addicts, Donald Trump. When you describe someone’s behavior as “acting out,” the implication is that they are incapable of expressing themselves intelligibly in words, leaving violence as their only resort (particularly true in the case of traumatized children). This verb has a definite sullen side, and as we learn from “passive-aggressive,” expressions that connote obstinacy or mulishness are applied to children and members of lower social orders, or vice-versa.

When I was young, one still heard “act up” for this sort of carrying on much more often than “act out.” “Act up” was more general and did not necessarily imply anger or violence — it could be hijinks or measured protest — but it was loud and distracting. (“Cut up,” a related term, had to do with clowning, not conniptions.) Now that ACT UP has earned a place in the culture, I sense that we don’t hear “act up” for kids’ shenanigans so much any more.

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