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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: philosophy

random acts of kindness

(1990’s | “kindness of strangers,” “being kind to others”)

The first use of this term in LexisNexis comes from a British source, which credits it to an American named Anne Herbert of San Francisco or somewhere out there in Bayarea. The story goes she saw graffiti that read “Random acts of violence,” and she created the counter-slogan the very same day. There have always been differing versions; the most economical I’ve seen is “Random acts of kindness and senseless beauty,” an elaboration on “random acts of kindness,” which was already in the air; there are several solid citations in Google Books before 1990, and an editorial in the December 1991 Glamour magazine used the expression. So Herbert didn’t invent it, but she improved it, and she gained plenty of credit for popularizing it. (Ben & Jerry’s was an early adopter.)

The breakout year was 1992. “Random acts of kindness” soon became talk-show fodder, then a bumper sticker, then the subject of a popular book. I think I first encountered it as a bumper sticker, though I can’t be sure — maybe around the same time as “visualize whirled peas”? It even inspired a short-lived movement that called itself Guerrilla Goodness, in which people went around putting money in other people’s parking meters or gratuitously helping senior citizens. The movement disappeared from view, at least under that name — which doesn’t mean it ceased to have adherents; The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation and Random Acts of Kindness Week (not to mention World Kindness Day) now carry on the tradition. In 1992, we still had George Bush’s evocations of the “thousand points of light” fresh in our memories, and the Guerrilla Goodness movement might be seen as a response, though I’m not sure its members saw it that way at the time. The movie Pay It Forward (2000) gave another boost to the phrase. “Pay it forward” itself has become a new expression, which comes directly from the movie title — a nice bit of inspiration on the part of whoever thought it up. As I’ve noted, fewer expressions arise unquestionably from films than you might think.

Originally the phrase invariably carried the sense of doing something for someone you don’t know and aren’t trying to butter up — as the Boy Scouts have always preached — but also whether they need it or not. But that’s slipping; people now blithely refer to random acts of kindness directed at friends and relatives based on knowledge of their situation. (But not enemies, generally. Let’s not have too much of a good thing.) The “acts of kindness” part is self-explanatory, but you have to keep an eye on “random,” often used to mean unmotivated rather than unconnected. For true believers in random acts of kindness envision a world-wide web of kindness evolving as more and more people chase down strangers in order to do something unexpectedly nice.

Schoolchildren are frequently encouraged to practice random or not-so-random acts of kindness, and this phenomenon has only grown since the late nineties. If training, especially early training, is destiny, we will have an unusually kind new crop of adults any year now. It could be happening, for all I know, at least among the young and powerless. The powerful continue to consider such things beneath them most of the time, trumpeting the occasional exception, which makes that much more of an impression due to its rarity.

Like Shakespeare’s mercy, random acts of kindness bless them that give and them that take, and as a practical matter, the benefits to the actor are touted as much, or more, as those to the recipient. Doing something nice for someone you’ll probably never see again makes you feel better, improves your health, burnishes your karma, whatever on-line claims you can dig up. Your good deed might nonplus, or even irritate, the beneficiary, but it definitely gives you a hit of endorphins. If the recipient happens to pass it on, that’s a bonus. Many charitable acts have poorly concealed selfish motivations, so that the case for altruism often turns into the case for its opposite. Even the Golden Rule hints at self-interest by suggesting that the more the rule is exercised, the more likely each of us is to reap the benefit. Which presumably is where the notion of “enlightened self-interest” comes from. Maybe we should just settle for acts of kindness, random or not. Even the philosophers should let us get by with a few of those.


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(1980’s | computerese? | “innate,” “(pre-)programmed,” “fixed,” “unalterable”)

The hard-wired smoke detector was already around in 1980; in that sense the term has not changed meaning since. “Hard-wired” meant connected directly to the building’s electrical system, meaning it was not powered by batteries, meaning that it would not infallibly begin making horrible chirping noises one morning at 3:00 and resist every sleep-fogged effort to silence it. A hard-wired telephone was similar in that it was harder to disconnect than the standard model you plug into a wall jack (already common in my youth, though far from universal). The cord connected to the system inside the wall rather than on the outside. Cable television might be hard-wired in that the cables connected to the source physically entered your house and attached themselves to a television set. Computer scientists had been using the term before that, generally to mean something like “automatic” or “built-in” — the only way to change it is to make a physical alteration to part of the equipment — and it remained firmly ensconced in the technical realm until the eighties. That’s when “hard-wired” became more visible, as computer jargon was becoming very hip. (PCMAG offers a current set of computer-related definitions.) In computer lingo, “hard-wired” came to mean “part of the hardware,” so “soft-wired” had to follow to describe a capability or process provided by software.

My father, erstwhile electrical engineer, pointed out that in his world, “hard-wired” was the opposite of “programmable.” In other words, the hard-wired feature did what it did no matter what; it couldn’t be changed simply by revising the code. Yet you don’t have to be too careless to equate “hard-wired” with “programmed” (see above) in the sense of predetermined. It’s not contradictory if you substitute “re-programmable” for “programmable,” but that requires an unusual level of precision, even for a techie. Every now and then you find odd little synonym-antonym confusions like that.

Still in wide technical use, this expression has reached its zenith in the soft sciences, in which it is commonly used to mean “part of one’s make-up,” with regard to instincts, reflexes, and basic capacities (bipedal walking, language, etc.), and more dubiously to describe less elemental manifestations such as behavior, attitude, or world-view. “Hard-wired” is not a technical term in hard sciences such as genetics or neurology. The usefulness of the expression is open to question: one team of psychologists noted, “The term ‘hard-wired’ has become enormously popular in press accounts and academic writings in reference to human psychological capacities that are presumed by some scholars to be partially innate, such as religion, cognitive biases, prejudice, or aggression . . . remarkably few psychological capacities in humans are genuinely hard-wired, that is, inflexible in their behavioral expression” (citation). Scientists may sniff at the term as used in pop psychology, but it does make for easy shorthand and probably won’t go away any time soon.

The reason we take so easily to applying the term “hard-wired” to the brain is that the computer, as developed over the last fifty years, forms the most comprehensive map yet for the workings of our minds. A contributing reason is the very common, casual linking of brain activity with electricity, as in referring to one’s “wiring” — even though one may also refer to one’s “chemistry” to explain mental quirks, probably a superior explanation. Watching a computer “think” helps us understand how our brains work, or maybe it just misleads us, causing us to disregard our own observations in order to define our own mentation with reference to the computer’s processing. There are obvious connections and obvious divergences; surely any device we concoct must reflect the workings of our own minds. But computers aren’t just for playing solitaire, calculating your tax refund, running a supercollider. They serve a humanistic function by giving us new ways to think about the old ways we think.

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(1980’s | therapese? | “basic assumptions,” “world view,” “framework,” “preconceived notions,” “idées fixes”)

This is one of those expansive words that has grown fat with use. “Mindset” goes back to the early twentieth century, but it didn’t spread until the seventies, when according to Google Books it started to appear regularly, particularly in writing having to do with therapy and religion, or politics. Now it is used everywhere, though if LexisNexis is to be believed, it is especially popular among athletes these days, a backhanded homage to the great Yogi Berra’s observation that ninety per cent of baseball is half mental. In recent years, some therapists have tried to retake control of the word by popularizing a standoff between “fixed mindset” (belonging to those who think they can’t get any smarter than they are) and “growth mindset” (those who rejoice in breaking through their mental barriers and blocks). It’s not clear to me how reputable this Manicheanism is, but it has gained traction in the on-line community.

We must pause to define the term, which I will do with reference to authorities. In 1983, William Safire described the evolution of “mindset”: “Tendency, attitude, or inclination used to be the primary meaning, akin to frame of mind; now the primacy goes to fixed state of mind or predetermined view.” The OED highlights “established set of attitudes, esp. regarded as typical of a particular group’s social or cultural values.” Safire’s contention, which is correct in my humble view, may result from the ambiguity, not to say polyguity, of the word “set,” which means “group” or “collection,” but also means “immobile” or “deep-rooted.” It’s a list of beliefs or assumptions that causes our minds to move predictably along certain paths, or it’s just the mind set in its ways.

When athletes use the word, it usually comes closest to “(mental) approach”, the quality that allows you to concentrate on the game and bear down harder than your opponents. Your mindset may need to change, or you may have trouble keeping the right mindset on the field. This does not correspond precisely to either of the primary definitions cited above, but it is related to the “growth mindset” discussed in the first paragraph. True, “mindset” doesn’t take prepositions as readily as “approach,” but a player might “bring the right mindset to the game.” The new word certainly does not preclude all the old clichés dear to athletes for generations: focus on winning, all I care about is the team, don’t worry about things you can’t control, etc.

There is a class of expression that lies dormant for decades, even centuries, and then bursts into the vocabulary. Other examples I have covered: “holistic,” “comfort zone,” and “artisanal” are twentieth-century examples, and some are older still, like “hurtful,” “ramp up,” or “overthink.” The OED cites “mindset” as early as 1909, but the word didn’t hit its stride for another sixty or seventy years after that. It seems like it ought to have come from the students of altered consciousness that had their heyday in the sixties (Timothy Leary talked about “set and setting”), but as far as I can tell its rise cannot be attributed to any particular guru, professor, or Esalenite.

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