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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: psychology

emotional intelligence

(1990’s | academese (psychology) | “sympathy,” “empathy”)

First we must pay homage to Daniel Goleman, who adopted this week’s expression for the title of a best-seller in 1995, vaulting it into everyday language. Psychologically speaking, his goal was to cast doubt on the primacy of IQ testing as a method for predicting success in life. He followed in the footsteps of Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, who proposed several different types of intelligence, each playing an important role, of which IQ represented only one. Goleman’s work was a summation of research that had been going on at least a decade among psychologists, neuroscientists, etc., and an unusually effective popular treatment of recent science. He was also concerned with childhood development, attempting to prove empirically that children turn out better if they are taught means to deal with and mitigate their emotional reactions — more likely to avoid major trouble and relate well to their peers. His focus on education tended to disguise a strong self-help tendency in Goleman’s popular writing; he seemed to be trying to start a movement. To some extent, he has: there are now a number of tests that measure “EQ,” and emotional intelligence has become a familiar concept, denoting what we used to think of as skill at reading expressions, gestures, and tone of voice, and a willingness to use it.

But that’s not the whole story of this phrase; it had two other uses in the mid-nineties. One, which turned up most often in reviews of the performing arts, denoted the ability to convey a character’s emotions, credited primarily to actors and singers. (That meaning seems to have lapsed.) The other, closer to Goleman’s, had mainly to do with grasping and responding to the emotions displayed by others; whereas Goleman emphasized understanding and controlling one’s own emotional response, other early adopters of the expression made more of looking outside oneself. This distinction may also be observed by introducing the notion of social intelligence — understanding others — in contradistinction to emotional intelligence — understanding oneself. Actual people who boast one attribute are likely to have the other, it is true, and Goleman argued that the emotionally intelligent (in his sense) did better because they played better with others, suggesting that their sensitivity stretched beyond their personal boundaries.

It seems to me that by now the outer-directed sense of emotional intelligence has won. The term has long since outgrown the psychology ghetto and is common all over the lot, including sportswriting and political reporting. Philosophers of business have made a near-fetish of it (as they did, twenty years ago, with a closely related concept, “interpersonal skills“). Today’s business coaches laud emotional intelligence, meaning roughly “ability to fend off drama queens and divas and make everyone else feel less oppressed.” Buffing up your emotional intelligence will make you a better leader and turn your employees into obedient little gnomes. The business press thrives on this sort of thing; every year a new panacea that will make every lousy boss into a good one. And every year, the preponderance of bosses fail to follow the sensible advice of management gurus, which is a darn shame, except it means the bosses will continue to require their expensive services. It’s the employees who won’t get anything out of it.

Business apologists do glom onto expressions that make the boss look better while doing little to improve actual performance. “Mindfulness” and “wellness” have certainly gone that route, while “who moved my cheese?” also deflects responsibility for major disruptions of employees’ lives. Now “emotional intelligence” takes its turn. The phrase conveys increased sympathy and humane attitudes toward employees, but books are written about emotional intelligence because it benefits employers at their expense. Yes, your employees will be happier — because you have become more adept at manipulating them. When executives turn their attention to the wider world, “downsize,” “go green,” “outsource,” and “win-win” treat the rest of us the same way, using euphemisms or feel-good phrases to avoid or disguise harmful policies and acts.

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emotional baggage

(1970’s | therapese | “emotional scars,” “trauma”)

At least in the seventies, when “emotional baggage” wormed its way into demotic language, it could be the property of persons, as it normally is now, but it might also trail along behind a political issue, analogous to what an older generation would have called “freight.” So certain matters of public policy — abortion, capital punishment, affirmative action, anything a lot of people get worked up about — were said to have emotional baggage. Today I think that such usage would sound rather odd, though the meaning would not be unclear. When pundits rather than therapists resorted to the phrase, it took a patronizing cast, indicating that all those simpletons needed to calm down and let the experts analyze the issue dispassionately. One wished to set it aside or get rid of it entirely. That’s true of emotional baggage bogging down an individual, too, but the tone is usually more sympathetic. One’s demons are presumed difficult, and even unsuccessful efforts to cast them out are deemed worthy. It is dangerously easy to recognize and cluck over others’ emotional baggage even as we go right on tripping over our own.

Other common phrases bearing “baggage”: “personal baggage,” which weighs down politicians in particular — past statements and votes, but more juicily, their peccadillos, magnadillos, or killerdillos — Ted Kennedy had a lot of it, for example. “Mental (or intellectual) baggage” also holds you back, but specifically because it consists of outmoded preconceived notions (cf. Wordsworth’s “creed outworn”). Emotional baggage treads the same path — it gets in your way AND takes its lessons from past experience that need not apply to your present or future — yet you continue to carry it with you.

The common denominator of “baggage” is that which weighs you down, but its earliest figurative uses encompassed other meanings. The earliest seems to have been “prostitute” — from Shakespeare’s time — later it went on to mean “saucy young woman,” which persisted into our era. But it could also mean “worthless man” or “nonsense,” neither of which corresponds very well to how we use it now. “Baggage” meaning “impediment” goes back at least to the late seventeenth century and has an extensive historical pedigree. Its most familiar avatar in the twentieth century was probably “excess baggage,” used to denote whatever people or things slow us down or get in the way: could be family, past history, or whatever you’re unable to cast aside. The word has never lost its negative connotations when used metaphorically, but they became less venomous somewhere back there. “Baggage” has a more complicated history than you might suspect, but by now certain strands have crowded out the others, and most old associations of “baggage” seem unlikely to return.

Further usage note: Something immutable, like genetic heritage, would not generally be called “baggage.” “Baggage” is not exactly voluntary, but the implication persists that we can get rid of it, or at least work around it, if we want to bad enough.

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subtext

(1980’s | academese? literese? | “underlying idea,” “hidden meaning,” “substratum”)

Ah, the drama. Dramatists have given us hundreds of new expressions — Shakespeare alone is responsible for dozens — but this expression is different in that we owe it to a theorist of drama rather than a creator of it. At any rate, several sources point to Stanislavsky as the source of this expression. It might be defined in different ways. Story behind the story, undercurrents among the characters, unexplained background, unexpressed motivations. Most simply, it’s the unstated yet significant part(s) of the plot, and it may be made obvious to the audience or not. It is the result of what we used to call “reading between the lines,” even though it places itself under rather than within.

The OED’s examples go back to the late nineteenth century, so Stanislavsky didn’t invent it, but he doubtless gave it a powerful push. That great literary critic Freud’s “unconscious” (das Unbewusste) was carelessly rendered as “sub-conscious” for many years, which probably helped “subtext” gain a toehold in everyday language. Another precursor was “subliminal,” as in message, which spiraled into the language in the late fifties thanks to the underappreciated Vance Packard, who published an exposé of dubious Madison Avenue practices called “The Hidden Persuaders.” Subliminal advertising was intended to bypass conscious understanding or thought and appeal to a part of the mind over which we have limited control (there’s your subconscious), a bit like hypnosis. So you want to buy the product without knowing why. (“Liminal” means “of or pertaining to thresholds”; the messages were intended to stay below the threshold of conscious thought.) It’s not clear how effective subliminal advertising was, but pretty much everyone except the advertisers agreed that it was unethical.

Probably in the late seventies, “subtext” ventured forth from its theatrical cocoon and took wing. LexisNexis would have you believe it entered political contexts first, but that may be due to its indexing bias. Political scientist Larry Sabato recently defined it as “the between-the-lines character sketch that guides and sets the tone for press coverage.” In this definition it has a personal focus; the subtext gives us a frame for understanding coverage of political figures more than issues or developments. While it may come out of a pattern of undisputed facts adduced in previous reporting, it is always more or less subject to bias. That’s part of the reason Trump’s defenders and critics see him in such starkly different terms; they are starting from entirely different premises. Every word and act is measured against antipodal subtexts, both maintained with considerable rancor, each producing a radically different basis of interpretation.

Sabato’s definition is unusually precise. “Subtext” has come to refer generally to any underlying message or idea that must be divined, or ferreted out. Those who grasp it will understand the situation better and respond more effectively. As in politics and fiction, there is room for idiosyncratic judgments, so different observers may see different things underlying a situation, or assign greater or lesser significance to the same underlying element. Applying principles of drama criticism to real life is a touchy business, but it’s inevitable. If you really want to understand what’s going on, you need to look below the surface, in life as in literature.

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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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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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word salad

(2000’s | journalese (politics) | “gibberish,” “incoherent speech,” “obfuscation”)

This expression recently underwent a significant change after a hundred stable years. The first citation I found dates from a psychiatric handbook of 1907, where it occurs in a discussion of dementia precox, the old name for schizophrenia, more or less (they weren’t exactly the same, but that’s the closest term in modern mental health vocabulary). It hasn’t changed meaning in that context; a textbook published in 1970 gave the following: “A jumbled, unintelligible mixture of words, usually containing both real words or phrases and neologisms. This disturbance in verbal communication is most frequently found in advanced schizophrenic reactions.” By 1980, arts writers used it now and then to talk about writers like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, both of whom were considerably more artful than your average schizo, but somewhat less syntactically or semantically forthright than Mickey Spillane, say. It took thirty more years before the expression came to characterize political speeches; the first consistent victim was Sarah Palin in 2008, but in 2016, both Trump and Clinton, widely different speaking styles notwithstanding, were accused of producing word salad. (Somehow this expression doesn’t take to the plural.) The older uses are still found, but in ten short years the phrase has become quite common in political commentary, in which it was never used before Sarah Palin took the national stage. Merriam-Webster On-line provides a history with plenty of examples.

Like “hive mind,” “word salad” has become a favored term of abuse, but it need not be an insult. When used to refer to the ramblings of the mentally ill, it probably was always implicitly insulting — and that origin continues to be felt as we use the phrase today — but literary critics may treat it as a neutral descriptor. Not long before the move into political discourse, “word salad” took on two new uses: one referred to a technique of creating spam e-mails that used blocks of unconnected words in order to fool the filters; more significantly, it started to imply deception, pointing the way to politics. The crucial difference has to do with volition; the schizophrenic babbles uncontrollably, but the purveyor of catch-phrases strung together so as to defeat interpretation is doing it on purpose. In political discourse, it may take either shading, and they’re equally insulting — a variation on the old Reagan cleft stick: if he knows what’s going on, he’s a criminal; if he doesn’t, he’s too out of it to be president. Whether you think Trump just doesn’t know any better or is deliberately snowing us, you probably think he shouldn’t have the job.

Now that “word salad” is firmly enmeshed in political journalism, it is anyone’s guess whether psychiatrists will continue to use it; they may be forced to find a new phrase if the old one changes connotation for good. As late as the nineties, it was pressed into service as the title of a computer game and an on-line poetry magazine, suggesting that it might yet be considered favorable, or at least eye-catching. Those days appear to be over.

Why salad, anyway? The idea of several heterogeneous ingredients, mixed but not blended together, seems to be at the bottom of it, though the expression probably hails from German or French originally, and I’m not certain “salad” carries the same mental picture in those languages. I’ve seen “word hash” offered as a synonym, but if there ever was a contest, “word salad” has won. It’s more memorable than “jumble” or “logorrhea,” that’s for sure (personally, I’d like to see “word avalanche”). And I like the idea of pouring oil (and vinegar) on troubled word salad.

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hard-wired

(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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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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in denial

(1980’s | therapese | “hiding one’s head in the sand”)

My guess is we owe today’s prominence of “denial” in psychological lingo to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. I doubt we would have “in denial” without the predecessor; the phrase as we use it now didn’t turn up before 1970 anywhere I looked. The term and associated concept — refusing to believe that which is clear to others, as by failing to acknowledge an emotional or psychological state, or even sheer physical reality — were already in existence, but Kübler-Ross’s “On Death and Dying” (1969) was very influential; one of its effects was to make the experience of denial common to nearly everyone. Not long after, the term became popular among counselors of alcoholics and other drug addicts who refused to admit they had a problem. “In denial” may be merely a compressed version of “in a state of denial.” It appears to be the most common phrase descended from “denial,” but not the only one; Pam Tillis hit the country charts in 1993 with a song about Cleopatra, Queen of Denial (though I’m pretty sure the redoubtable Rev. Billy C. Wirtz had used the joke before then).

“In denial” has been in use for a long time in other contexts, but the grammar is new. Now the phrase is most common as a predicate complement (e.g., “You’re in denial.”), possibly followed by “about,” but not “of.” In the old days, when it followed a verb it had to be active (e.g., “result in denial” or “engage in denial”). Of course, it appeared everywhere in legal prose (e.g., “in denial of the motion”), and it started to bob up in political contexts in the eighties, particularly around the time the Iran-Contra revelations were unraveling Reagan’s second term. It was kinder to say Reagan was in denial than to contend that he really didn’t know what was going on. Maybe this is one of the many terms Reagan helped into the language directly or indirectly, or maybe it would have happened anyway. By 1990 it had made its mark, though ace sportswriter Thomas Boswell put it in quotation marks as late as that spring. No surprise that it became popular — it’s compact and it packs a punch. The expression conjures a state of passive malignity or dangerous indifference, willful or not; like “passive-aggressive,” it’s always an insult.

Now “in denial” is entirely standard, eligible to be adapted to all sorts of uses, including humor, irony, and wordplay. (Here’s a bouquet of suggestions for compilers of rhyming dictionaries: “infantile,” “spin the dial,” “undefiled,” “linden aisle.”) I haven’t heard “SO in denial” or “in deep denial,” but I don’t get around much; both certainly lie within the universe of possible utterances. Or “Live in denial,” which may also be heard “living denial” (as in “Girl, you are just living denial 24/7“). “Oh, he’s such an old in-denial crocodile” could be the next catch phrase. “Hit denial on the head” might be a self-help slogan, meaning something like overcoming obliviousness and seeing the world without illusions. Why not “The In Denial 500,” which pits the nation’s most noxiously clueless bachelors against each other to see who can act the most idiotic? For you tongue-twister fans out there, it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do: Say “undeniably in denial” five times fast.

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blank on

(1990’s | journalese (arts? politics?) | “forget (temporarily),” “(have it and) lose it”)

I’m not very rigorous about it, but in everyday conversation I try to avoid using the kind of new expressions I write about here, just as I try to avoid using such new expressions in posts except to refer to them directly. But this one is an exception, and I catch myself using it fairly often. It has a host of predecessors. Probably descended directly from “draw a blank on” (be unable to remember whatever it is), it also recalls “blank look” and “let your mind go blank” (or the more involuntary “my mind is a blank”). The word implies a temporary but vertiginous mnemonic malfunction, a moment of vacuity that may lead to a deer-in-the-headlights look. A related verb is “blank out” in its intransitive sense, though that may cover a longer time span. “Blank on” means forget something and then recover it, a short-term lapse, more like a senior moment. It may also mean, on occasion, “fail to respond.” (“Shooting blanks” means something entirely different. “To blank” in sports lingo normally refers to holding the opposing team scoreless. Then there’s that charming if now unnecessary euphemism, “blankety-blank.” It is one of those linguistic oddities that “blank,” descended from the French word meaning “white,” looks and sounds much more like “black.”) “Blank on” has so many ancestors that some don’t even involve the word “blank”; doesn’t the phrase “(totally) blanked on it” remind you of “bank on it”? I continue to maintain, without proof, that such phonological resemblances influence new entries into the language.

One does hear occasional variations in meaning when this expression is used, but they never seem to catch on or persist. I saw this sentence recently in a food column in the Dayton Daily News: “Pasta is always a conundrum as a side dish. I want to pencil it into my weekly meal plan, but then I blank on how to sauce it: Cream? Tomato? Lots of cheese?” Here the emphasis falls on inability to choose among alternatives rather than failing to remember them. This usage may prove a solitary exception to the rule, but the contretemps is one we find ourselves in often enough that another word for it may be welcome.

The verb really did not exist before 1980, as far as I can tell. It started to turn up occasionally afterwards; in one of the first uses I found Reagan was the subject of the verb, and this may be yet another expression to which his presidency gave a boost, on the strength of his well-known absent-mindedness rather than policy initiatives. It had entered the language pretty definitively by 1995, often used by politicians and press secretaries, but actors also use it a lot. During the latest presidential campaign, it quickly became the standard verb to denote Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson’s inability to address the significance of Aleppo. As is often the case when a new phrase resembles an old one, or several old ones, the trail into everyday language is not well-blazed and it may be impossible to determine, even in retrospect, how it wormed its way in.

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