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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: stress

crunch time

(1980’s | journalese? | “when the chips are down,” “time to get down to brass tacks”)

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to notice the great “crunch” cluster. The word unadorned denotes an abdominal exercise. Then ya got “crunchy,” ya got “crunch the numbers,” and “crunch time,” derived from the sense of “shortage” or “crisis,” or, ideally, crisis caused by shortage. In my boyhood, “energy crunch,” which would have translated either as shortage or crisis, became common. (“Crunch” has had that sense for decades, but why? I’m not sure, but it may have to do with feeling crunched, that is, constrained and uncomfortable. See below.) The first examples I found of “crunch time” date from the late sixties, but use didn’t really pick up until after 1980, or so says LexisNexis. During the eighties, it entered sports slang decisively, but it didn’t originate there. The word has become less specific over time, as often happens; now “crunch time” need have nothing to do with shortages but still evokes crisis. It’s time to get serious and give it everything you’ve got — an impending disaster, a looming deadline, the end of a close game. The expression may be used in lighthearted ways, as the name of an apple festival, for example, but the more foreboding use predominates.

The root word calls up a certain sound or texture and pertains originally to chewing, and this sense underlies at least two of the expressions noted above. The fitness term is noteworthy because it abandons the sound that used to be a necessary part of the concept, while retaining the idea of grinding things together. As for the second, used of hippies and tree-huggers, the path back to the root meaning is pretty clear; those who live off the land eat crunchy (unprocessed) food, and the word goes well with both nuts and granola, foodstuffs long associated with the natural set. As I speculated earlier, “crunch the numbers” may go back to the idea of chewing up a big mouthful of cereal, reducing it to swallowable mush — thus, digesting reams and reams of raw numbers into a few useful trends or principles. I have an equally fanciful etymology for “crunch time.” I think of workers caught in the gears of a giant machine, constantly in danger of being crushed between metal teeth (wait, that reminds me of a movie). Or metal plates, if you prefer the garbage compactor in Star Wars. Crunch time is when if you don’t exert yourself and get the job done, you get crunched. Or scrunched. Or crushed.

It’s unusual to see so many different meanings in widely divergent fields sprung from the same root. It’s not like “crunch” has been around all that long — invented in the first half of the nineteenth century, says the OED — and just in the last fifty years it has produced a fine litter of idioms. I’m impressed.

“Crunch time” recalls an older concept, the moment of truth — also a crisis, but of a kind that reveals, or forms, character. Is it just something you have to push through and get past, or is it a more portentous test? Everyday usage doesn’t make much of a distinction. Any crisis might derail the operation, after all; any failure to come through in the clutch may sink the project and ruin a career. In a game, at the office . . . crunch time always carries the potential for heroism. We’re knights enduring ordeals or matadors preparing for death in the afternoon as we hunch over our keyboards, bathed in the stale sweat of stress.

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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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agita

(1980’s | New Yorkese | “heartburn,” “acid indigestion,” “anxiety,” “stress”)

I didn’t know this, but the rest of the internet did: “Agita” originally referred to gastric distress. No one seems to have demonstrated conclusively where the word comes from, but many people blame the Italians, possibly by way of a colloquial pronunciation of “acido” (which means, surprise, “acid”). It may have started life as a euphemism allowing the speaker to avoid unsavory details, just as telling your boss you were out sick with an upset stomach usually ends the conversation. “Agita” seems to have come into use in New York before it did anywhere else — some on-line sources claim it has been around for decades, but the earliest uses I’ve found date from around 1980. Woody Allen’s 1984 film, Broadway Danny Rose, contains a song of that title, and Ed Koch was quoted using the word in the eighties as well. One may doubt Allen’s and Koch’s Italian credentials, but that’s the great thing about New York. Ethnic vocabularies slosh around and get all mixed up in the urban mind just as a big plate of pasta and tomato sauce gets all jumbled in your stomach. For those of us that dislike certain words, there’s even a kind of linguistic heartburn caused by hearing one of them, which provokes an analogous sour, burning sensation in the ear and mind.

Today, the expression is much more likely to refer to a general emotional state than mere stomach trouble. The internet doesn’t answer conclusively the question of how chronic indigestion or aggravation has to be to qualify as “agita.” I tend to think of it as an ongoing condition, but it can also be a temporary tempest that subsides as soon as the irritant is removed. In everyday use, it implies a persistent quality. The substratum of “agita” has changed since the early days: from discomfort caused by indigestion to nail-biting nervousness caused by worrisome circumstances or developments.

Allen and Koch might have had in mind two Yiddish words that are related, though not very closely: tsuris (troubles) and shpilkes (restlessness). At least one commentator equates “agita” with “tsuris,” but they are not an exact match. Tsuris normally come from the outside rather than welling up inside you, but the main point is that they (“tsuris” is plural) are the troubles you are actually having, to which you may react with philosophical tranquility or by waking up in a cold sweat. “Shpilkes” is even farther away, but when “agita” is used as a straight synonym for “agitation,” they have something in common, even though the mood is quite different. “Agita” covers only personal feelings, not “agitation” in the sense of public protest or stirring up unrest. That doesn’t mean entire classes or types of people cannot experience agita, but it’s more a shared experience than a collective one.

“Agita” is a trade name for an insecticide (chemical name thiamethoxam), and in prescription-speak, it means “stir,” which is much easier to understand than the usual cropped Latin found on your medicine bottle. It also appears occasionally as a woman’s name, but I hope in that context it would be pronounced ah-GHEE-tuh, or possibly “ah-JEE-tuh,” not accented on the first syllable as “agita” (AH-ji-tuh). At least I hope so.

Thanks to Anna from the Bronx, friend and colleague of lovely Liz from Queens, who nominated, all unwittingly, this week’s expression.

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decompress

(1980’s | athletese | “unwind,” “relax,” “take it easy”)

This word first came to our attention primarily as a result of the Iran hostage crisis, or rather its end in January 1981. The hostages flew first to a U.S. base in Germany and stayed there for several days. The State Department discouraged family members from visiting them, because they needed time to “decompress.” The word had appeared before with a similar meaning, but it showed up in all the major news outlets and was treated as a novelty. The word was also used on occasion to talk about Vietnam veterans returning too quickly to civilian life.

Much older in the contexts of medicine, engineering, and particularly diving, “decompression” is extremely important to deep-sea divers, who must avoid the bends by returning to the surface very gradually, resting at certain depths along the way so their bodies can get accustomed to lower pressure. This use seems to be the direct ancestor, and it is definitely echoed in both the cases of ex-hostages and ex-soldiers. Moving from a high-pressure environment to less intense surroundings requires time to adjust; the more time taken, the more likely the transition will be smooth. In engineering and medicine, “decompress” meant simply “relieve pressure,” obviously a related usage, though normally transitive. (Why didn’t Jimi Hendrix do a song called “Manic Decompression”?) In computerese, “compress” was in use by the mid-eighties to denote making computer files more compact, or combining them, without deleting data, and “decompress” was its usual antonym; it can still be used that way, though my ear says that “extract” has become the most common term for restoring the files to their original size and configuration.

Soldiers in Vietnam and the hostages in Iran both went through terrible ordeals, and “decompress” was often used in such contexts in the eighties. Now we are more likely to talk about a vacation from work or a little r&r rather than recovering from prolonged physical and emotional strain. One can find instances of “decompress” even in the seventies referring to respite from much less arduous circumstances. Even so, my own feeling is that the word still bears some weight. If you need to decompress, you’ve been under significant stress — “stress” itself has evolved into the verb “de-stress,” which is a competitor — and probably for some time. Or perhaps the average daily stress level (I propose a new statistic to the Labor Department: ADSL) has gone up in forty years to the point that a garden-variety vacation from the office seems tantamount to a break from captivity or jungle warfare. “Decompress” has been helped into prominence by its association with “stress,” not only by virtue of rhyme but by contiguity of sense as well.

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Usually in this space I explore an expression that has come into being or undergone a significant change in the last forty years or so. This week I’d like to do something similar, but with malice aforethought. I have strong feelings about four fine old idioms that have been hijacked in recent decades, from a minor alteration that happens to get on my nerves to a significant and entirely unnecessary change in definition wrought by rank illiteracy. (All you antiquarians out there, what is “wrought” the past tense of? Hint: It’s not “wright.”) Of all my numerous pet peeves, these are some of the pettiest, although one phrase (the last) constitutes a real loss.

hark back

More and more I see this rendered as “harken back” or even “hearken back.” I don’t quibble with the spelling, but the superfluous syllable. It’s a natural confusion; “hark” and “harken” mean the same thing (“listen up”), even if we use them a little differently. “Hark back to” doesn’t pertain directly to listening, though — more like “bring to mind something that happened in the past.” So if the alteration is insignificant and inevitable, why does it stick in my craw? Because it’s a small but telling symptom of cultural decline. Why do I know, with obnoxious certainty, that there is a correct form of the phrase? Because I’ve read a lot, and therefore both my eye and ear told me right away the first time I saw the phrase misrendered, and they continue to curl my lip at each recurrence.

out of kilter

Which has mutated into “off-kilter,” probably influenced by “off-center” and possibly “off-color.” I’m not sure if this is a failure of literacy or not. It certainly looks like it, but the fact is, “out of kilter” had pretty well disappeared before “off-kilter” started getting tossed around. “Out of kilter” is old, and at bottom it meant something like “not working right,” comparable to the later “out of whack.” Used of tools or engines, not people. “Off-kilter” is similar but distinct; it implies something out of alignment, eccentric, or perhaps just unexpected. A rock band’s characteristic sound might be described as off-kilter, or a fictional world, but a person might be, too. Brits and Americans alike use it. There must be other examples of dead phrases returning in new guises. “Ramp up” comes to mind.

under duress

As this expression has become more common its meaning has begun to shift. What did “under duress” always and everywhere mean? Under compulsion or threat of force. You were acting under duress if you were forced to do something against your will; grievous harm would follow if you didn’t obey. It was primarily a legal term and is still used the same way in the law. Now there is a growing tendency to confuse “duress” with “stress” or “pressure” (but think hard day at the office, not Guantanamo). Here’s a recent example: “In addition, distributed critical infrastructure is often located in places that are physically inaccessible, lack connectivity, subject to intemperate climate or otherwise constrained by limited space. As a result, traditional security solutions intended for indoor environments are often ill-equipped to operate under duress or in harsh conditions.” In the old days, there was no such thing as an inanimate object under duress. If we could get computers to behave by threatening them with violence, I would have the best-behaved computer in the world. Here’s another: “[The coaches] don’t trust [Jets’ quarterback Geno Smith] to make the right decisions under duress.” Now this sounds like it means simply “under stress,” but quarterbacks do have to act under immediate physical menace, so it could also partake of the old definition. It’s a transitional form, but it shows a definite trend toward equating “duress” with “stress,” an unnecessary simplification. The old meaning is still predominant. In twenty or thirty years? I’ll bet it will have largely disappeared from general use.

beg the question

“Beg the question” does not does not DOES NOT mean “raise the question.” O.k., I’m done hyperventilating now; here’s a more measured view. It is a time-honored logical term that means “make a circular argument,” which in turn means one of your premises is the same as your conclusion (it’s customary to disguise that fact). So you’re not proving anything, merely restating a position you assumed without any proof. It is a common informal logical fallacy, with a nice Latin name, “petitio principii.”

You will smile indulgently at my outrage and remind me that it’s no use railing against linguistic change. But why this venerable and useful expression? It had a very specific meaning that cannot be stated so elegantly otherwise, and while perhaps not often needed, it’s most definitely useful. What we didn’t need was another way to say “raise the question.” Yet another distressing example of our fellow citizens misusing expressions they don’t understand, or half-understand, wiping away specific, well-defined meanings or shades of meaning like a Muslim fanatic destroying a centuries-old sculpture, but without the passion or even any particular awareness of the destruction. “Duress” reminds people of “stress,” or “beg the question” kinda sounds like a fancy way to say “raise the question,” so that’s good enough, right? When one word reminds you of another, they ought to mean the same thing, and what do complexity and precision matter, anyway?

These crippled expressions all result from a certain kind of illiteracy. The decline in our ear for language isn’t caused by a flat-out inability to read, but by insufficient reading. The more you read, the firmer a grasp you develop of how others use the language, and used to use it. If you don’t have that accumulation of absorbed text, well, a little learning is a dangerous thing, said Pope, and these expressions illustrate part of the reason why. You get overconfident. You develop too much faith in your intuition, your vocabulary, and your ability to deduce meaning from context, and when enough people do that, the language suffers, and our communication suffers with it. I don’t want to sound like a mandarin, but when it comes to language, I have strong tendencies that way. Sure, I’m abnormally sensitive because I’ve spent my life reading and burrowing into dictionaries. I can’t really make the case that we’re going to hell in a handbasket because everyone started misusing “beg the question.” But we do seem to have a harder time talking to each other as we huddle in our like-minded enclaves and wall ourselves off from those who disagree with us, and everyday language does seem to get more meager, constrained, and sloppy every decade. Maybe there’s a connection.

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eustress

(2010’s? | doctorese | “excitement,” “exhilaration”)

I haven’t tried this before, but I’m taking a flyer on a word that is not exactly new — first used in the seventies, as far as I can tell — but which has not attained orthodoxy yet, or even general use. I predict that this word will become more common and be part of our general vocabulary by 2020, probably sooner.

The concept of stress, omnipresent in popular psychology and medicine, is not especially precise. Endocrinologist Dr. Hans Selye was one of its foremost exponents, with a trail of publications dating back to the fifties; he may have coined the term “eustress,” but I haven’t found unmistakable evidence that he did (maybe I just didn’t look hard enough). Even if medically imprecise, we all know what “stress” means in everyday life. It is supremely established in our discourse and will be part of our world view for a long time to come.

“Eustress” is a rejoinder to the notion that all stress (defined roughly as physical reactions to psychologically demanding stimuli) is harmful and debilitating. Short-term stress caused by a deadline, stage fright, or an intense experience may cause us to work, or play, more efficiently and with greater focus, so we do better work or finish the job with greater speed. Heightened attention and concentration make us smarter, at least temporarily. I’ve found a fair amount of discussion of the difference between “eustress” and “distress” (as my girlfriend pointed out, the antonym should be “cacostress,” or as I heard it, “kakistress”), but the one trait common to every discussion is that eustress doesn’t go on and on. Stress resulting from long-term unhappiness or pressure is not going to be good for you. Stress that helps you bear down and think creatively about a problem and goes away once you’ve solved it — that’s more like it.

There is a statistical reason to think this word will grow more common: an increase in its rate of use over time. LexisNexis pulls up 124 total uses since 1979. Exactly half of them occur after January 1, 2000; almost a third after January 1, 2010. That’s a noticeable and even suggestive acceleration, but hardly definitive, particularly given the small number of instances. My intuition is based more on a feeling that misery and its mental and emotional toll are increasing among the general population, despite tentative economic growth and gradual increases in hiring. Long-term unemployment remains high, and those who do find new jobs often earn less than before without a corresponding decrease in expenses. It remains the case that more and more people are struggling just to meet basic needs. Widespread distress among the majority forces the ruling class and its lackeys to put a happier face on things. We must be reassured that stress is natural, uplifting, good for us, or we may get wise and derail the gravy train. Call me cynical, but that’s why I think this word will make the leap into our vocabulary.

“Eustress” is accented on the first syllable, unlike “distress,” but shouldn’t “distress” (noun) be stressed on the first syllable to distinguish it from “distress” (verb)? Should be, but isn’t. “Eustress training,” the only phrase I found that incorporates this word, refers to a weightlifting regimen that involves working slowly with less weight rather than pushing to do as many reps with as much weight as possible.

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coping mechanism

(1990’s | therapese | “what keeps one going,” “how one stays sane,” “one of one’s little ways”)

“I can’t cope” was something overwrought or strung-out people used to say. “Cope,” meaning roughly “get along” or sometimes simply “survive,” goes back to a French word for “hit” or “do battle,” and “cope with” once was used to mean “prove a worthy opponent.” Even today, “cope with” usually means “deal with a situation successfully,” more than merely preventing it from destroying you. Hand-to-hand combat is no longer indicated, and the enemy usually isn’t even another person — it could be, but nowadays the emphasis would be more on avoiding a fight. When we talk about coping, we usually mean warding off the stress caused by deprivation, misfortune, poor upbringing, or plain old everyday life, though it can also refer to effects of traumatic or extraordinary events. “Coping” is handling successfully whatever life throws at you; it doesn’t require a specific object, as “coping with” does.

The phrase “coping mechanism” owes an obvious debt to “defense mechanism,” a much older term, and they overlap to some extent. My sense is that a defense mechanism is more likely to be unconscious, but there’s nothing hard and fast about that; most psychological mechanisms could be deliberate or automatic, physical or mental. (It’s not unusual to talk about the body’s coping mechanisms, which are autonomic.) No one teaches defense mechanisms — they just happen — but therapists and others do try to teach coping mechanisms. One doesn’t invoke a defense mechanism, but you can call on coping mechanisms in time of need. Defense mechanisms are more about avoiding or pushing aside unpleasant thoughts or fears, while coping mechanisms allow you to acknowledge that they are there without necessarily confronting them once and for all.

“Coping mechanism” turned up in psychologists’ jargon beginning in the fifties and sixties. “Coping skill,” a closely related concept, came along a little later. The terms made it to the mainstream in something approaching regular use in the eighties and were commonplace by the nineties. They may have been influenced by Abraham Maslow’s phrase, “coping behavior,” which meant something like actions taken to fill basic physical and emotional needs. A coping mechanism is a method for dealing with a difficult, usually recurring, situation. It’s something therapists try to teach patients, or it may just be something we learn growing up in a dysfunctional family. In fact, it didn’t take very long for “coping mechanism” to apply to undesirable acts: rage, panic, violence, drinking, etc. could all be described as coping mechanisms by 1980, which opened up space for “coping skill” to mean “helpful coping mechanism.” A coping mechanism may be self-destructive, but a coping skill never is. (This may be changing: I have seen the phrases “maladaptive coping skill” and “dysfunctional coping skill” recently, but notice that the speakers still find the adjective necessary.)

Then there is the matter of what exactly counts as a coping mechanism, or skill, for that matter. A “coping mechanism” is usually narrowly defined, a single act or focused series of related actions aimed at a specific problem. You may have more than one way to deal with an obnoxious co-worker, and each way would be considered a coping mechanism. While “coping mechanism” sounds equally comfortable in the singular and plural, it is rare to talk about a single “coping skill”; the phrase is almost always plural. “Coping skills” has a wider field of referents and can include knowledge that helps us navigate the world, like basic literacy or knowing which neighborhoods to avoid after dark. In a meditation on the decline of quality (1980), meaning high achievement produced by concentrated effort, eminent historian Barbara Tuchman sniffed at the sixties: “The decline has been precipitate, perhaps as one result of the student movements of the 1960’s, when learning skills was renounced in favor of ‘doing your own thing’ or consciousness-raising and other exercises in self-fulfillment. It is good for the self to be fulfilled but better if coping skills are acquired first.” Tuchman may well have been using “coping skills” ironically, as an example of jargon, but she clearly is not talking about psychotherapy here. Any sort of knowledge or ability that gets you through the day might be considered a coping skill.

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go ballistic

(early 1990’s | militarese | “go bananas,” “fly into a rage,” “go into a frenzy”)

“Go ballistic,” when used about a missile, denotes the moment when the rocket shuts off and the projectile’s trajectory is determined by momentum, gravity, air resistance, etc. In other words, when all chance of guiding the missile is gone. So maybe “go ballistic” means “lose control,” a short hop from our common metaphorical use. A Straight Dope message board thread supports this view — see the comments below the main post. The same comment section offers another possible origin: the idea that “ballistic” really means “international,” because calculating a “ballistic path” was required to hit targets a long way away. Therefore, “go ballistic” really means “escalate a local conflict into an international one.” Here’s another Straight Dope thread, in which a different commenter etymologizes thus: “People who didn’t know what ‘ballistic’ meant were hearing the phrase all the time, attached to the concept of weapons of mass destruction. So by context, ‘ballistic’ meant ‘intensely threatening,’ and thus, ‘going ballistic’ describes a temper tantrum or rampage.” Long live Cecil Adams and his merry band of renegades.

Used to mean “lose it” or “go bonkers,” the phrase seems to arise in the late 1980’s. It was beloved of politicians when it was young and fresh, which suggests a military origin. Several commentators noted that George H.W. Bush liked the term and used it during the 1988 campaign, and it certainly cropped up a lot more often after that. An odd feature: most of the time, “go ballistic” is something a person does, but occasionally it is used of corporate bodies as well, like a union or a bloc of shareholders. It would sound strange for an organization to “lose it” or “go postal,” but it is possible for a group to go ballistic. The expression doesn’t always refer to rage; an Associated Press article on Pentagon slang (May 18, 1989) defined it as “get overly excited.” But even there, I think one would expect a certain amount of anger, even if only part of a larger emotional outburst. Whatever you think of the origins posited above, in most people’s minds, ballistic = missile = bellicose.

The go + adjective construction has a certain appeal. Mark Liberman of Language Log has filed not one, but two posts on the subject. It’s very old; it has been possible to “go mad” for centuries and there are many other examples. “Go ballistic” seems to fit into this pattern, in which “go” is a synonym for “become,” but it’s hard to be sure. “Go postal” isn’t the same pattern; it’s more like “go Hollywood.” The new state isn’t captured in one word — there’s an extra twist. You have to grasp a sequence of events or a complex of characteristics to get the point.

go postal

(late 1990’s | “go on a (murderous) rampage,” “run amok”)

My memory played me false with this expression, which I distinctly recalled from the 1980’s. But, says LexisNexis, it doesn’t start to creep in until 1994 or so, the year after two post offices were shot up on the same day; other notable attacks had attracted attention not long before. (A long CNN report on violence among postal workers from May 7, 1993, featured several experts and discussed several such incidents in detail. No one used or mentioned the phrase “go postal.”) The term has retained its original quite limited sense: a (usually former) employee entering the workplace to do violence, almost always with firearms. Most on-line dictionaries report the usual metaphorical creep and say that “go postal” can refer to any kind of violent outburst or tantrum. To my ear, that doesn’t sound right. We have so many ways to say “fly off the handle,” and as far as I can tell, “go postal” isn’t one of them. Going postal has to be premeditated.

Although the wellspring of the term was clearly yesterday’s headlines, no one seems to know exactly how it entered the language: computer slang and consultant jargon were two suggestions I found on LexisNexis. It has a certain irreverent tinge to it that suggests the detached mind of the computer jock, but it doesn’t seem obviously related to computerese. Perhaps because it arose so immediately from the events of the day, it didn’t need a route through a particular jargon but could just appear in everyone’s vocabulary simultaneously.

My sense that this phrase has passed its peak and is not as common as it used to be isn’t really borne out by LexisNexis, but it isn’t contradicted, either. Two fairly prominent authors used “going postal” as a title in the same year (2005): Mark Ames, in a book about workplace violence; and Terry Pratchett, in a novel about resuscitating a postal service in a world “a lot like our own but different.” Neither effort seems to have launched the expression into greater prominence.

There was plenty of commentary on the phenomenon of crazed postal employees going after their co-workers back in the 1990’s, and lots of experts who talked about the neuroses of postal workers (always “disgruntled“) or arrogant Post Office management. I’ve never seen anyone mention an obvious factor, the so-called “privatization” of USPS. Actually, the Postal Service is not now, nor has it ever been private; technically, it’s part of the executive branch. But “privatization” was real all the same — here’s a useful if tendentious history. New strategies designed by corporate wizards — based on the pretense that a government agency can or should act like a private corporation — got going in the late 1980’s, not long before a minor wave of workplace violence gave us the new expression. Postal workers, most of whom had spent years as public employees and were used to a certain amount of security, suddenly found their jobs endangered, working conditions made worse, and changes in rights and benefits forced on them from above. Anybody out there think all that won’t increase workplace stress?

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burnout

(1980’s | therapese | “exhaustion,” “depression,” “nervous breakdown”)

In 1960, Graham Greene published a novel called A Burnt-out Case. Like so many white men’s novels of that era, it was about a man who was spiritually exhausted, no longer able to cope with other people or his work or much of anything else. He sailed to darkest Africa and took up residence in a leper colony, his idea of getting away from it all. Perhaps the compound adjective arose simply from the idea of an inner flame extinguished by overwork, exhaustion, or doubt. Based on a less than exhaustive search, my guess is that Greene was one of the first to use the word this way. But I still can’t resist citing the great Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851), in which we learn of the “burnt-out tradesman.” A beggar pretends to be a once-prosperous businessman whose establishment has burned down and seeks alms from a group of well-heeled merchants. Here the use of “burnt-out” is quite literal and distinct from Greene’s, however.

It was not until the late 1970’s that the term began to crop up in print. In the early days, “burn-out” (often hyphenated) denoted a variety of depression or malaise caused by being stuck in a difficult job or routine without a break for years. As a verb, it replaced “wear (oneself) out.” Here’s an example — with a free etymology thrown in — from the Globe and Mail, attributed to an American social worker (March 18, 1978): “They’ve [clients] run out of whatever it is that keeps them going — creative juices, drive. They’re like kerosene lamps that have run out of fuel — they’ve literally burned out. Appropriately, she calls the syndrome burn-out.” The term is used as an adjective in the same article. At first it was used about teachers, nurses, and cops, but it was applied very soon thereafter to stockbrokers, politicians, and housewives.

Webster’s Third gives five meanings of the phrasal verb “burn out,” of which the last is our modern, strictly figurative, one. It can mean “go out” (like a light bulb), but it can also mean “consume everything” (like a forest fire). The end result is the same, but how you get there makes all the difference. Both predate our modern usage, “exhaust oneself.” A burnt-out person has exhausted his or her fuel. Although this may be the result of a fierce blaze, more often it happens gradually but inexorably over time.

flame out

(1990’s | enginese | “go out in a blaze of glory,” “run out of gas,” “bomb out,” “self-destruct”)

An aviation term. Engines “flame out” or undergo “flameout,” meaning that the flame goes out — the damn thing stops working, but not because of an interruption in the fuel supply. (I was delighted to find the term defined not only in an on-line aviation dictionary, but also in the Skybrary.) In this sense, it was around in the 1970’s, and before, but the metaphorical use seems not to have taken hold until the late 1980’s or become common until the 1990’s. The aviation use is clear enough. It generally denotes a sudden and unforeseen occurrence, although it doesn’t have to. It can be calm or violent, quiet or loud, but it always means trouble.

And the figurative sense has followed suit. “Flame out” has developed two divergent meanings: go out with a whimper like a candle guttering and dying, or go out with a bang like a meteor entering the earth’s atmosphere. Glorious or ignominious, thunderous or sighing. At first, the word was almost always used about a person, or at least their career, but now it is commonly used to talk about stocks, or sports teams, or television shows, or even news stories. Often, it is reserved for people who have somehow done themselves in; during the last week, for example, we’ve heard it applied frequently to Amy Winehouse.

It’s never used to mean “blaze forth,” like radiance or fire. Well, hardly ever. Gerard Manley Hopkins used it that way in “God’s Grandeur,” but you don’t hear it nowadays. By now I suspect the metaphorical usage is too well-established to give the variant a foothold. Nor does “flame out” seem to play any role in gay slang, where “flame” is a mainstay, or computer slang. Does a flame war flame out?

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