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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: families

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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blended family

(1980’s | therapese | “stepfamily”)

Contested terrain semantically, as in other, more obvious, ways. Start with the definition. Nowadays, most people would probably endorse a relatively loose definition of “blended family”: any family formed when an adult with one or more children takes up with a different adult, who may or may not have children. If you’re a purist, you might require that both adults have at least one child. In 1983, a writer defined it thus: “pop-psychology euphemism for members of two broken families living under the same roof, a mixture of step-parents, step-children and step-siblings.” Ten years before that, a psychology textbook defined it as a “family consisting of a husband and a wife, the children of either or both from a previous marriage, and children of the present marriage.” The new spouses had to have kids together, not just with former partners. The extra distinctions may have been made possible by a wider panoply of related terms than we can remember now. A surprisingly large amount of vocabulary sprang up around such filial configurations; in 1980, the New York Times propounded the following list: “conjugal continuation, second-marriage family, stepfamily, blended family, reconstituted family and metafamily.” (It missed “merged family,” also in use by 1980. “Mixed family” means that the parents are of different race, ethnicity, or religion.) Of these, only “stepfamily” would be familiar to most people in 2017, but Wikipedia distinguishes between stepfamilies (only one adult has a pre-existing kid) and blended families (both adults). According to the OED, “stepfamily” goes back to the 19th century; the earliest citation I found for “blended family” dated from 1964.

Why did “blended family” win out? Probably the usual mixture of euphony and accuracy, or intuitiveness. Most of us understood pretty quickly what it meant the first time we heard it in context, and it sounds good — not too long, not too short, scans nicely. “Second-marriage family” is clunky; “metafamily” is jargony and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anyway. “Blended family” sounds a lot better than “reconstituted family” (just add water!), you have to admit. The only mystery: why didn’t “merged family” catch on?

We like to think that the quirks and foibles of our own generation are unprecedented, but blended families are hardly new. My father’s father grew up in one after his mother divorced his father and married her second husband. My mother’s mother was the daughter of a second marriage, an old widower and a young wife. Life expectancy was lower then, so remarriages were more often occasioned by death than divorce. Was there a decline in the number of blended families for a generation or two, long enough to forget how common such arrangements used to be? If so, the phenomenon has come roaring back. Somehow, before 1970 or so, we got along without a general term for it. Now we’ll never get rid of this one.

There may have been earlier examples on television, but “The Brady Bunch” was the first show to feature a blended family week after week, thus perhaps making the whole idea seem more wholesome. It is doubtful that the sitcom had much effect in its time, given its poor ratings and reviews, but pop-culture observers agree that it had a long and powerful afterlife among those of a certain age (mine), for whom the Brady Bunch is part of a comforting nostalgic penumbra (accent on “numb”). Several shows about different varieties of blended family have succeeded Mike and Carol and Sam* and Alice: Full House, Step by Step, Modern Family. The Bradys anticipated a trend; their descendants follow along behind, trying to catch up to everyday life. The Stepfamily Foundation started life in 1977; support groups and talks at the local library aimed at blended families seem to have arisen in the eighties, when the requisite self-help books also began to appear. New terms must surely arise to reflect new conditions, but the rule is that only one or two out of a larger number will make it to the next generation and a shot at immortality.

* The butcher. Remember?

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soccer mom

(1990’s | journalese (polling))

Cast your minds back to 1995, those of you who go back that far. An unheralded candidate in a race for a seat on the Denver City Council, Susan Casey called herself a “soccer mom” and won the election. A year later, the phrase was heard round the world during the presidential campaign, with both parties wooing soccer moms aggressively. That was when the expression impressed itself on the national lexicon, within the span of a month or two during that singularly undramatic presidential contest. But Casey’s use of “soccer mom” gained her minor national attention; I remember learning the phrase at that time. Before Casey, the phrase, when used at all, connoted no more than boosterism or helping out with kids’ soccer leagues. Despite its political path to prominence and occasional use as a code word (see below), the lowest-common-denominator meaning of the expression — “suburban mother” — emerged quickly and decisively. We form the hackneyed image of a well-off white woman ferrying the kids to various extracurricular activities in the family minivan. The so-called “Soccer Mom Madam” — the suburban mother convicted in 2012 of running a prostitution ring in New York — was so called simply because she had kids and lived outside the city; it didn’t have to do with her party affiliation, employment status, driving habits, or anything else.

The suburbs had formed the object of intense political strategizing for a generation by 1995, but soccer moms energized the bloc and influenced the 1996 election. Early sightings that summer offered definitions: “overburdened, middle income working mothers” (E.J. Dionne quoting Bob Dole’s campaign strategist Alex Castellanos, Washington Post, July 21) or “working mothers, in the suburbs, stressed out and stretched thin” (CBS News, August 29). While only one source mentions the suburbs, both include “working” in the description; I think that is not an essential component of the phrase today. By 2000, “soccer mom” had acquired a left-wing tinge. It was assumed, at least in political discourse, that soccer moms were environmental do-gooders or health nuts or something that made them objects of contempt in right-wing eyes (imagine caring about the health and well-being of your children!). Terms popularized by political consultants are subject to these sorts of shifts, because strategists live by dividing the electorate into ever-narrower slices, defined precisely enough that a certain kind of direct appeal has a good chance of reaping votes, so they try to pile on as many traits as possible to create the narrowest possible definition. Have soccer moms held onto their political clout? Political types no longer use the expression much, or make much effort to reel in their votes, not in any obvious way.

“Soccer mom” (also “hockey mom”) had no precise pre-1990 equivalent, I believe, even though the practice of driving carloads of children to this practice or that class or those lessons was widespread in my childhood. (Back then, we rode in station wagons, kids! Ah, those battleships of the road, some of ’em twenty feet long, slatternly yet majestic with or without the fake wood paneling.) There just doesn’t seem to have been a word for it, much less a socioeconomic category. Soccer hadn’t entered its boom phase in the U.S. yet, although it was closer than any of us knew. (I don’t recall that we had little-league soccer in my reasonably affluent suburb in the seventies.) “Mom” as a common noun didn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily back then, and that’s part of it, too. Then there’s the possibility that most kids didn’t have as many after-school activities that required being driven somewhere. The point is, we could have had baseball moms or ballet moms, and we didn’t. Suburban mothers were not on anyone’s radar as a political force in the seventies, and it didn’t occur to anyone that they might need a special name. When the time came, the word sprang forth to enfold (or obfuscate) a new set of assumptions about power, gender, and family.

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dysfunctional family

(early 1990’s | therapese | “messed-up family,” “bad home environment”)

No prizes for guessing the origins of this popular phrase. Could there be a more typical example of therapese? I ought to investigate the uses of the word “dysfunction” and its derivatives in psychology; it occurs everywhere. (I’ve covered one instance already.) From Google Books, I deduce that “dysfunctional family” arose in the literature around 1970, at first primarily as a compound adjective. It was not unusual to see phrases like “dysfunctional family structure or pattern or system.” But the temptation to use it on its own soon grew irresistible. Psychotherapy became more widespread as the passionate sixties dwindled into the neurotic seventies, and it became fashionable to blame transgressions on one’s upbringing, as if the whole country were singing along with the Jets in “Officer Krupke.” By the end of the eighties, “dysfunctional family” was sprouting through all the usual therapese conduits: art critics, advice columnists, clergy, lawyers concocting a defense, and so forth. By 1995 it was paralyzingly common.

What is a dysfunctional family? One headed by a person or persons unable to hold a home together, of course, or more generally one that runs on dishonesty or intimidation or otherwise instills bad relationship habits into hapless children and dooms them to do the same damn things when they grow up. Therapist Barbara Cottman Becnel in 1989: “In a dysfunctional family, you’re generally taught don’t talk, don’t feel and don’t trust.” But these noble core values may effloresce in so many different ways. As Tolstoy would have said, had he thought of it, functional families are all alike; every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way.

The dysfunctional family is, after all, the root of all evil — a handy, ever-present villain that works for all non-orphans (i.e., nearly everybody). We are all more or less damaged by our upbringers. Whatever’s wrong with you, chances are your parents are to blame somehow. This became a popular sentiment, except among parents, who felt compelled to point out that lots of people could claim credit for messing up the new crop of kids. Homes, after all, are not impermeable fortresses. In an earlier century, we noticed that larger social trends and tendencies contributed to individual tribulations, and we took measures at the federal and state levels to discourage cultural forces that increased hardship and misery. Now we insist furiously that adults who haven’t turned out well are responsible for their own individual moral choices. Since blame the individual took precedence over blame society, families have become a natural target, even though, implicitly, this explanation has the effect of once again displacing blame from individuals to their environment. The contradiction between blaming the families and holding the products of their failures absolutely responsible for their own misdeeds never seemed to bother anyone. Actually, it was a nice two-for-one, having another set of people to find guilty of every single example of anti-social behavior. Plenty of upstanding Americans wanted to see any and all kinds of crime severely punished, even though they might concede, if cornered, that maybe it wasn’t entirely the individual’s fault. Blaming society was never satisfying because it was too big and abstract, but particular individuals and families are small enough targets to allow respectable types to reap some reward from reviling them.

The phrase probably would have begun to diffuse during the 1980’s no matter what. But several eighties trends (and I don’t mean Madonna or leg warmers or Brat Pack movies) gave us lots of reasons by the end of the decade to reflect on the causes of what you might call anti-social behavior. We had AIDS, we had crack, we had high murder rates, even a stock market crash. We needed an explanation for all the messed-up people out there, and pundits and bloviators lost no time in declaring that dysfunctional families had done the damage. There go those larger social forces again, hijacking the discussion. The concept of the dysfunctional family is convenient because it helps us focus on the individual wrongdoer and ignore what’s going on in the greater world. Words can be very useful that way.

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(1990’s | advertese | “pre-teen,” “person at that awkward age,” “kid”)

A word we owe to advertisers. It bubbled up in the late 1980’s, mainly in marketing publications, although it appeared in the mainstream press now and then, most notably in a USA Today series inaugurated in September 1989, “The Terrible Tweens.” (Royal Caribbean seems to have been an early adopter, offering both “Teen” and “Kid/Tween” programs on their cruises by the end of the 1980’s.) It took a few years to mature, but the word was solidly established within ten years and has become widely recognized and understood.

The origin of the term appears uncomplicated. The resemblance to “teen” is obvious (it’s why we don’t call them “twixts”), and the reference to the time be”tween” young child and teenager is catchy. It was defined as “those between 8 and 12 years old” in the Washington Post (January 24, 1988), which is, I suspect, about how the term would be generally understood now. Maybe 9, maybe 13, but since tweenhood may be a state of mind that need not correspond with precise ages, we should expect a little fuzziness. Some definitions showed more variation in the beginning; for example, a report on McDonalds’ advertising strategy (November 9, 1988) explored its practice of marketing to subgroups including “‘tweens’ (9-to-16 year olds),” while an article in Adweek less than six months earlier gave a range of “10-15.” U.S. News (April 1989) confidently gave “9 to 15.” You could get pretty much any endpoints you wanted, but the core of prepubescents and beginner pubescents remained constant. The traditional preference for 12 or 13 as the beginning of the teenage years seems to have reasserted itself, and there’s much less tendency to incorporate full-blown teenagers into tweendom nowadays. Sometimes the word was spelled with an initial apostrophe in the beginning; sometimes you saw “tweenage” or “tweenager.” It’s a good thing the variant didn’t catch on, or we would all be heartily sick of hearing about Justin Bieber, tweenage idol.

We may see this term simply as the product of the advertiser’s restless, relentless pursuit of the bottom dollar. Whenever defenseless spending money is discovered in a sub-group of the population, the sharks of commerce circle, seeking to engross a healthy chunk of it for themselves. Somebody found out that pre-teens — some of them, anyway — had a certain amount of money, so they had to be defined, categorized, converted to data, and appealed to. Just another demographic in an ever more precisely demarcated consumer universe. Pre-teens’ embrace of social media has lately given the youngsters a new kind of consumer power (and new ways to get into trouble).

The word soon elbowed its way into the parents’ lexicon, adding one more milepost to a track stretching from colic and the terrible twos to empty nests and fledglings returning to fill them. It’s one more group to worry about, one more place the wheels can come off the cart — according to a world view in which childhood and youth are recognized as a succession of traumas. If we hope to understand our children, we must learn about the special characteristics of tweens, their developmental stages and kinks, their symptoms and syndromes, and how not to ruin them utterly (hint: anything you say or do may doom them to a bitter, ineffectual adulthood). The same urge to dissect ever more finely, to understand ever more minutely, is at work among parents as it is among advertisers.

In 1988, Polaroid (Polaroid!) offered its Cool Cam to the youth market (PR Newswire, February 19, 1988), “designed especially for trendy ‘tweens'” (defined here as “the latest demographic label for the 9- to 14-year-old set”). The “tween,” understood as another subgroup of the youth population, was very new then. Nowadays cascades of carefully orchestrated opportunities to spend money confront tweens at every turn, including a fashion designer for tweens who is herself a tween (she promises “blood, sweat, and glitter”). They have money, they have Twitter, and they know how to use them. The rest of us had better stand back.

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(1980’s | therapese | “encourage or perpetuate self-destructive behavior,” “aid and abet”)

Why did “enable” become a bad word? It always had a tinge of optimism about it, all those years, with its simple meaning: “make possible” or “provide an opportunity.” Implicitly, whatever was being enabled was worthy; while it was always possible that an undesirable thing might be enabled, the word wasn’t used that way very often. But in the late 1970’s, therapists and social workers who dealt with alcoholics and drug addicts began to use the term in a very specific way. To “enable” denoted helping the alcoholic or drug addict (not that they’re different) get by. It’s a slight distortion of the literal meaning, since it means not “making the addiction possible,” but “making it possible for the addict to get away with it.” An “enabler” was usually a well-meaning friend or relative who covered for the drug user, allowing him to maintain a relatively stable existence and avoid confronting the addiction. There’s lots of things an enabler can do: pay bills, make excuses, bail someone out of jail, and so forth. Even nothing at all: During the 1988 presidential campaign, George Bush warned high school students against “enabling behavior,” by which he meant failing to report students who were using illegal drugs. In the drama of addiction, the enabler is cast as the villain for letting addicts avoid the consequences of their dependency, preventing them from sinking into penury and misery. Do you detect an undercurrent of hostility here? To the therapist, the enabler represented the enemy, because he or she kept the addict from hitting bottom and seeking help, which is what keeps therapists in business.

The change is visible in the evolution of the word “enabler.” Until 1985 or so, “enabler” was favorable, complimentary. It meant more or less the same thing as “facilitator.” Although the the two words had easily distinguishable meanings (“makes possible” vs. “makes easier”), the distinction often lacked a difference. The “enabler” was a good guy, someone who helped everybody else get better and get closer to the goal line. That sense did not disappear in the 1980’s, but suddenly it had competition. The sense of “addict’s collaborator” made its way into the mainstream lexicon, firmly establishing itself alongside the favorable older meaning. To my ear, that is now the settled meaning of “enabler” in everyday use.

As addiction has become fashionable, its vocabulary has become everyday, “enable” being a prime example (intervention and the suffix “holic” are two others). Americans have been abusing drugs, especially alcohol, as long as there have been Americans; our nineteenth-century forebears drank at rates that would stagger even frat boys today. Opiate addiction became commonplace among the genteel later on, and the twentieth century has seen any number of advances in the field of substance abuse. But only within the last fifty years did drug addiction emerge from the underworld to become a public topic of conversation among both the poor and the powerful. Addiction is now generally considered a disease, more to be pitied than censured, and addicts are ailing patients in need of care, not dangerous degenerates who must be pursued and put away. With the respectability of addiction has come its spread to gambling, food, sex — it’s not just for mood-altering chemicals any more. And making the addict a sympathetic character opens up a slot for the villain of the piece; hence, the enabler. Our heart no longer goes out to the longsuffering mother; she is to blame for not somehow compelling her child to kick whatever habit.

Final usage question: does one enable the addict or the addiction? The new meaning helps blur the distinction, after all. The trap for the therapist is taking an addiction as the most important thing about a person, the only thing worth paying attention to. A word like “enable” (which suggests staying in the background, yielding the spotlight to someone else) makes that easier, since it assumes that the addict must be the center of the story. Everyone else, including the enabler, becomes secondary. Since everyone around an addict does a certain amount of enabling, willingly or not, we are all guilty, playing bit parts in the drama defined by the addict and his need for help. If the addict gets therapy and straightens up, then everyone loses interest — no more denial, no more enabling, no more story.

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