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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: physical fitness

body positive

(2000’s | therapese | “secure,” “self-confident”)

An expression with quite a prehistory. Before 1980, LexisNexis returns zero results for the exact phrase “body positive.” In the eighties and nineties, it turns up capitalized as the name of an English organization that helped people who had been exposed to the HIV virus. Back then, gay men wrestled with the decision of whether to take the test to determine if they were harboring antibodies. If you were “antibody-positive,” you had been in contact with someone who had the virus; you might not develop full-blown AIDS, but you could pass HIV on to others. The name of the organization seems to have evolved from the medical term. During the nineties, a U.S. group called The Body Positive, which seeks to help girls and women struggling with eating disorders, formed and has continued to grow since. Possibly an echo of “the body beautiful”?

By 2000, you could find the phrase used as an attributive adjective to mean “healthful.” A trainer or therapist might advise you to engage in “body-positive behaviors,” like going for a walk (if you need exercise) or relaxing with some comfortable music (if you’re wired). It was about corporeal soundness, but also warding off nervous and emotional strain — the two go together, after all.

By 2010, “body positive” had started to show up in the way we use it today, but it doesn’t seem to have taken off until the new decade. The phrase is widespread now, used to mean free of shame or guilt over one’s size and shape, particularly if larger than average — the phrase often appears near “plus-size.” We are told to separate moral judgments about ourselves from how we look, accepting our appearance below the neck proudly. The body in question, as far as I can tell, is always one’s own — and always a girl’s or woman’s — though one might refer to a body-positive group, which would be understood to consist of people who aren’t going to judge anyone else on how fat they are. While we are all expected not to mistreat others on account of their size and shape, being body positive requires you above all to accept your own form confidently, without falling prey to anyone else’s stereotype of how you should look. Once you’ve done that, it will be easier to avoid dismissing others on similar grounds.

Most often used as a predicate adjective following “to be,” the phrase may be a hyphenated adjective as well. “Body positivity” is the noun (I have also seen “body pos” for noun and adjective). The new vocabulary betokens the striking rise of a movement that has spawned minor celebrities and driven people all over America to argue over what it means or ought to mean. (Here is a recent discussion of the state of the movement.) The expression has come far in the last ten years, and it has a strong affinity with surging social trends; it is still hitting its stride. In another ten years it may be even more ubiquitous, but it may not mean then exactly what it means now.

Another entry dropped from the lips of Lovely Liz from Queens, always an informed and intelligent voice in discussing these matters or any other.

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mental health day

(1980’s | businese? therapese? | “sick day,” “day off”)

Always closely linked to workplace stress (cf. “power nap” and “go postal” in this regard) and always tied to the much older concept of the sick day, that venerable custom which affords employees the right (nay, duty, in the case of contagious disease) to take an unscheduled day off due to unforeseen illness. In the seventies, the phrase “mental health day” was unusual, most often used about intensive care nurses or inner-city teachers; now anyone with a medium-stress job may need one. The expression became more common in the eighties, beating out competitors including “sick-and-tired leave,” which I rather like. I don’t remember hearing it before the mid-nineties, when I learned it from my worldly-wise girlfriend. That was just after I had started working nine-to-five following a stint in graduate school, where every day is a mental health day.

I should not fail to mention World Mental Health Day, which falls every year on October 10. This is not a day for everyone in the world to sick out (great idea, though), but a day to learn about and think about mental illness and how we may help those who are afflicted. That’s actually what you would expect from this construction; phrases that end in “day” often refer to such secular observances. (Weeks and months get the same treatment.) Oh, it’s Mental Health Day and the president of the Mental Health Society is giving an address at the bughouse. Or getting one. I apologize for the persiflage, but sometimes I just can’t resist. Anyway, if it weren’t for the fixed association with “sick day,” we might hear this phrase quite differently.

There has never been a generally effective way to prevent people from taking sick days when they feel fine physically, and employers resent that. But the mental health day partly redeems it; you’re skipping work to cope with excessive stress, which, left unchecked, will exact a much greater toll — physical and mental — than an occasional day off. The expression still carries the implication of an undeserved break, but that appears to be changing slowly as the old bosses die off. The next generation may be more willing to accept them as inevitable. Maybe union contracts of the future will include provision for mental health days. And power naps.

Lovely Liz from Queens, or maybe her daughter, pointed out recently that mental health means mental illness. It’s true, and it’s a big reason why troubled minds continue to attract less sympathy than injured bodies. If you are not demonstrably mentally ill, then mental health is not an issue; the subject just doesn’t come up. That isn’t true of corporeal health, which we understand in more complex terms than mere absence of obvious infirmities. Improved mental health is a goal only for those who know they are sick. There is such a thing as mental fitness, but it’s a legal expression. And it’s not analogous to physical fitness; it’s more like the minimum strength required to get around without keeling over. Just as most people have minor bodily ailments that don’t prevent them from getting through the day, most of us have observable but non-crippling deformities of the mind or spirit. But we take greater pains to ignore them, because of the shame and stigma they bring.

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lighten up

(1980’s | journalese | “don’t be (so) uptight,” “get off your high horse,” “take it easy,” “stop and smell the roses,” “cool it”)

“Lighten up” signals that someone is overdoing it. Which means it’s basically an insult — patronizing or sneering or exasperated. This is a fixed phrase now, used intransitively (unusual before 1980) and imperatively (likewise), and directed at a specific person or group. In the old days, “lighten up” meant simply “make lighter,” in weight or color or mood, and it was usually transitive, often used as a substitute for “brighten up.” When it was used imperatively, it was much more literal; it meant “lay off,” that is, exert less pressure or throw less weight around. The new meaning revolves around mood or demeanor: don’t be so sensitive, or angry, or humorless, or obsessive, so it’s closer to “chill out” than “stop busting my chops.” It’s clear that our expression is descended from the older meaning and not that much different from it. But “lighten up” before 1980 almost always meant “brighten,” or “loosen,” or “abate,” not “take yourself less seriously.”

The origins of our specialized form of the phrasal verb probably lie in the sixties, among either hippies or African-Americans, who didn’t overlap much. Early mainstream uses occurred mostly in reporting on entertainment. Articles about pop stars and movie personalities contained the earliest examples I found; Oliver Stone and Louis Gossett, Jr. both were quoted using the expression in the early eighties, and it made the script of Bill Murray’s film “Stripes” (1981). Johnny Carson used it on the air in 1986; in 1987, Washington Post television critic Tom Shales remarked, “If this odd little decade has a credo, it is probably ‘Lighten up.’” Infrequent in 1980, the phrase had arrived by 1990.

It’s worth asking why Shales chose “lighten up” as the motto for the eighties. I blame everything on Reagan, who definitely had a light-hearted, or perhaps light-brained, quality about him. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to go for the wisecrack, or to admit that you don’t understand everything that’s going on. Hey, it’s morning in America, and we don’t have to sweat the details — David Stockman will take care of that. More generally, the eighties does seem to have been an unusually superficial decade, to the extent that such generalizations mean anything. The sixties were terribly earnest all across the political spectrum, and it took twenty years to shake all that off and decide that what really matters is partying and acquiring worldly goods rather than inner, or even outer, peace. In the sixties, we were self-centered in order to improve, or save, our world; in the eighties we were self-centered because it was easy and fun. Telling someone to lighten up may mean telling them to be less concerned about solving the world’s problems, but it’s also a way to say, “stop gazing at your navel.” Get out more, have some fun, live it up. And while you’re taking everything else less seriously, take yourself less seriously, too.

Google suggests that “lighten up” has become increasingly popular, almost standard, as a way of naming or referring to weight loss programs. Gyms, bloggers, government agencies all use it to encourage the rest of us slobs to slim down. The vocabulary of fitness continues to evolve. “Losing weight” has shrunk to “losing,” and “loser” is carving out space for itself as a compliment. There’s something inspiring about the way Americans fight back against obesity — one television show, or one slogan, at a time. Speaking of slogans, November 14 is “Loosen Up, Lighten Up Day,” a reminder to relieve stress through exercise and humor. “Lighten up” has loosened up. It may mean as little as “have a good laugh,” and it seems to be heading for “relax and unwind.” How wide can it glide?

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