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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: adoption

forever (adj.)

(1990’s | “permanent,” “interminable,” “endless,” “unstoppable”)

“Forever” has long done time as a noun, an adverb (“forever young”), even an interjection (forever and ever, amen). What was left? Adjective. And it is coming to pass, led by three expressions detailed below. We shall see whether we can make a verb of it.

“Forever war,” familiar to anyone who has been following the news lately, apparently got its start as the title of Joe Haldeman’s science fiction novel (1978). According to LexisNexis, it took more than twenty years for the expression to gain currency in political commentary; it started appearing in the aughts, the decade in which we launched two prolonged, costly, unsuccessful wars in the name of a third, the war on terrorism. Its recent popularity, owed largely to Joe Biden, is spawning spinoffs; Eric Alterman gave us “forever warriors” and “forever nonsense” in the title of a recent column.

“Forever family” is first spotted in LexisNexis in the late eighties, attributed to foster children hoping to land in a stable environment. Here it has a wistful, aspirational sound, softened further by its connection with children in difficult straits. “Forever home,” which seems to have trailed it by a few years, is very similar, used for both children and pets who would benefit from adoption. Recently it has taken on another meaning, analogous to the old expression “dream house” — where a family intends to settle down. In the early seventies, Lady Bird Johnson used “forever home” to mean “childhood home,” not a particular dwelling so much as the place or region one can always go back to, a perfectly logical interpretation that has not stood the test of time.

Those three are established in everyday language. So far, “forever” hasn’t adopted many other nouns. The term “forever chemicals” (in polluted groundwater) seems to be spreading slowly, like the chemicals themselves. I’ve seen “forever prisoners” and “forever commitment.” The Forever Project in New Zealand devotes itself to mitigating the effects of climate change. The Forever Purge, a film about a white supremacist uprising, has done well at the box office this year. The adjective seems poised for greater things as we tremble on the verge of a forever pandemic.

“Forever” has a strong religious echo, yet earnest teenagers use it all the time, too (as in “BFF”). The word may at times denote the full span of eternity, but more often we use it to mean “as long as you or I live.” In “forever war,” it doesn’t even mean that — more like “taking an unreasonably long time to end.”

Lex Maniac has worked a whimsical vein lately, so here are more things “forever” could modify beyond death and taxes: beta version (I’m looking at you, Google), interim coach or other official (sometimes they hang around for a while), speech, movie, line, or wait (it works better in front of one word than in front of several). Then there are more serious possibilities: friend, pension, budget deficit, shortage. Some things do last forever, or come so close they might as well.

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special needs

(1980’s | therapese | “handicapped,” “disabled”)

Presumably descended from the already widespread phrases, “special education” and “Special Olympics.” The crucial change in recent years has to do with part of speech; “special needs” has gone from noun-adjective phrase to unhyphenated compound adjective — not that the old formulation has disappeared. The compound adjective started getting tossed around in the eighties. Before it was applied wholesale to students, it went with orphans and foster children. As one commentator put it in 1984, the old word for “special needs” was “unadoptable.” (Another was “problem,” as in “problem child.”) Now it can apply even to pets. “Special needs” come in many forms, from familiar physical handicaps to mental or emotional instabilities of various kinds, or maybe your kid is just slow (excuse me, has a developmental disability). It has become standard to talk about special needs kids, or the institutions that serve them — classes, programs, transportation — or the group that they are part of; “special needs community” is a common expression now, and it wasn’t twenty years ago. When you’re talking about children, “special needs” refers to disorders of individuals; when it is used to talk about the elderly or anyone else, it normally encompasses conditions common to most members of the group.

That distinction is interesting, and to see why we’ll have to go back to the noun-adjective construction, which has been available for a long time. Kids generally do not claim special-needs status for themselves; there are plenty of people anxious to claim it for them. But other kinds of special needs are advertised by the group they belong to. Take a phrase like “special needs of the oil industry.” In 1975, this phrase could easily have been used (in fact, it was) not to emphasize the burdens fossil-fuel barons labored under, but the privileges that their circumstances entitled them to. It was the sort of thing a lobbyist or legislator might remark upon just before pushing through a big tax break. You didn’t have to be underprivileged (does anyone use that word any more? — it was all the rage back in the seventies) to have special needs. And you don’t now. But we are much more inclined to hear it that way thanks to the last thirty years’ worth of education policy. Before 1985 or so, “special needs” meant “I’m better than you” rather than “I’m worse off than you.”

What does “special” mean, anyway? When it doesn’t mean “specific or distinct” (as it did in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance) or “extraordinary,” as it did then and still does, it means “unique,” a much more recent definition dinned into us by pop psychology. When I was a kid, this use of “special” was common, but it had grown up only in the previous couple of decades. “I am special” came to mean “I am unique,” with the corollary that uniqueness entitled you to respect. It was a word used by eager kindergarten teachers to reassure children that they were valued. “Special needs” doesn’t rely on that definition, though there is a clear echo in parents’ insistence that each special needs child is unique (and adorable, and so forth). But lots of kids may have the same, or very similar, maladies, so that they can be grouped together for purposes of education or therapy. “Special needs” doesn’t have to refer to extreme or bizarre conditions; almost any kid with a problem may qualify if their parents are persistent enough, and some of ’em are, because special needs is where the money is.

The phrase seems more like a euphemism than anything else, a way of coating disabilities — mild or severe — with kindergarten cheer. Language so used is ripe for parody, and “special,” which for centuries had a generally favorable connotation, has become an insult. Uttered with a smirk, it means “substandard,” and every kid knows it, just as they understand that students with special needs have something wrong with them. Yet the expression has hung onto a palliative quality in spite of all the currents running the other way.

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