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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: therapy

emotional journey

(1980’s | therapese | “what one is going through,” “going through changes,” “progress(ion)”)

Wouldn’t “Emotional Journey” be a great name for a band? I know, “Journey” has been used, but that name hits all the right notes somehow.

“Emotional journey” comes up often in arts writing, and it can mean the sequence of feelings that a song, story, poem, frieze, etc. puts the viewer, etc. through, or simply the progressions of people’s feelings that occur within the narrative. (It is something that only individuals or small groups that function as a unit can undergo, but there is no reason an entire nation, or the whole world, couldn’t participate.) In other words, it may be what the character or performer goes through, or it may be what you go through — and there’s no reason they need be the same. Before 1980 or thereabouts, the phrase normally denoted travel of some kind that had a strong cathartic effect on the voyager, as a return to a childhood home, a religious pilgrimage, etc. The therapese usage turns that around; the emotions are the driving force, and the journey tags along as metaphor, a shadow of its former self. Once a comfortable adjective-noun combo, now it’s closer to a compound noun.

“Journey” is the word to watch, because it has grown into many phrases, such as “adoption journey,” “cancer treatment journey,” “mental health journey,” “weight-loss journey.” The use of “journey” is apt, implying progress through sequential stages toward a long-range goal, usually some form of healing, reconciliation, or self-improvement. We used to say “come to terms with” (accept or acknowledge), and often “emotional journey” refers to that process. It appeals to a long literary tradition that includes The Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, and Pilgrim’s Progress, and it has affinities with diaries (“journals”) and the epistolary as well, fictional or otherwise. In its modern uses, it also generally connotes a difficult, grueling time (sometimes it’s simply a euphemism for “prolonged trauma”); it is often used to talk about survivors of serious accidents or illness. That, too, is at least somewhat in accord with the literal meaning. A journey is a long trip (as in “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”) that might very easily include an epic adventure or two, but even if it doesn’t, it will take some time and take something out of you. A literal journey has a destination, and figurative ones do as well, always with the understanding that you may never actually get there — but it remains a reason to keep striving. For all that “emotional journey” suggests pain and sorrow, it retains an optimistic sound; as long as you stay on it, you have a chance to get where you’re going.

While I’m here, I’ll posit “notional journey” to refer to any fictional voyage in the tradition of Gulliver’s Travels or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “promotional journey” for a traveling salesman’s memoir, and “demotional journey” for dealing with lost status at the office.

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own (v.)

(2000’s | journalese? celebritese? | “acknowledge,” “admit,” “take pride in,” “embrace”)

The bottom line here seems to be responsibility. In the old days, ownership conferred certain benefits along with certain duties — some enforced by law, others by custom — that could not be disregarded. More than an echo of that old idea of owner’s obligation remains, although “own” is used much more loosely today. When it started appearing in its up-to-date sense (somewhere around 2000, as far as I can tell), it was likely to be an implicit or explicit confession of wrongdoing or inadequacy. In that sense, it seems like an obvious descendant of “own up,” which is what embarrassed kids did when caught breaking the rules. “Own” owes a lot to “own up” but has gone well beyond it; in the last twenty years, it has taken on a tinge of pride. When advice columnists and therapists use “own,” they are nearly always counseling us to stop being ashamed of whatever it is, causing the word to become less sheepish on the average. Nowadays it may mean anything from “fess up” to “take charge.”

Another modern meaning of “own” is “dominate” or “defeat,” from the notion that ownership gives dominion, the unfettered ability to do what one likes — if you have humiliated someone, you can really rub their noses in it; in fact, it’s an obligation. This sense of the word comes out of computer games, where competitors must endlessly come up with ways to denigrate each other’s performance. It has lifted off in politics, particularly in the phrase “own the libs” (roughly, “aggravate the liberals”), often used ironically to signal a misguided or ill-conceived attack on liberal piety that hurts the attacker worse than the target. Yet when the attacker has political power, the results are not so amusing. “Own the libs” is now firmly associated with Donald Trump’s regulatory policy, which apparently boils down to repealing Obama-era regulations regardless of their effects, because that so thoroughly pisses off his opponents. Trump is a great believer in heaping coals of fire on his enemies’ heads.

“Own” expressions seem to have a disproportionate tendency to be portentous. Think of “on your own” in the sense of not being dependent on anyone else; here “own” marks the transition to adult responsibilities. Or “released on one’s own recognizance,” a legal expression meaning you don’t have to go to jail and never will. Or “one’s own boss,” the mark of success for Americans tired of the rat race. “To own” conveys legal possession primarily, but also individuality. The word brings it home to a single person or group, and while it doesn’t suggest power by itself, it does suggest agency — the ability to act without direction from others.

Here is a fixed phrase I would like to see: “you own this,” meaning “you’ve made this mess, now deal with it.” The dark side of “you got this” (“you can handle this easily”). I’m sure someone has used it somewhere, but I want it to be much more ordinary. The phrase would be a favorite of politicians, certainly, but it could come up in any number of situations — any time one person needs to let another know that they are washing their hands of a problem. We already have “it’s on you (us, me, etc.),” which expresses a similar idea with similar force, but I swear I hear in my mind’s ear a challenger belaboring the incumbent with “you OWN this” rather than expending a paragraph on the failed policies of the present administration. I have proved a very poor predictor of linguistic change, but maybe I’ll get this one right.

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the struggle is real

(2010’s | African-American? teenagese? | “I can see you’re having a rough time,” “things are tough (all over)”)

Which is it? Snarky and ironic or sympathetic and sincere? This expression leads an unusually vigorous double life, not in terms of meaning so much as tone. To some, this phrase is a clarion call to solidarity, a heartfelt affirmation of the hard work required to overcome all sorts of obstacles. We acknowledge each others’ efforts and express our fellow feeling. You can find many examples of this sort of usage. But it is equally likely — or close — to be used jocularly about an exaggerated response to a minor problem or insignificant deficiency. Urban Dictionary is not the only source to link the expression to the phrase “first-world problems,” which has been on my list for years.

The duality, if not duplicity, of this expression is striking in its persistence and consistency. I have covered a few expressions — trophy wife, Joe Sixpack, inner child — that have a similar double tone, capable of bearing respect or sarcasm. “Inner child” is a technical term in psychology and a figure of fun everywhere else. “Trophy wife,” born as a term of praise, soon turned into a term of contempt, although neither mode has quite been able to subordinate the other permanently. “Joe Sixpack” comes with its own class divide, used with a sneer only by the elite. “The struggle is real” swings both ways more readily than any of these except possibly “Joe Sixpack,” but it lacks the clear-cut class distinction of the latter. There may be a gender gap, however. My sense is that women are more likely to use the phrase in earnest, men more likely to turn it into a joke. But I don’t have a large enough sample size to make generalizations (no, twenty pages of Google results does not constitute a definitive sample). It would be significant if there were such a gender split, but I can’t prove it.

“Struggle” conveys an ongoing effort that does not necessarily target an external enemy, which is why “the fight (or combat) is real” wouldn’t work. Such words carry too much belligerence. Struggle requires an adversary, but not feelings of hatred or revulsion. (One does not wish to make light of others’ woes, but in the spirit of levity, I can’t resist pointing out that “The Strudel Is Real” would be a good name for a Viennese pastry shop.)

One site suggests that “the struggle is real” comes out of hip-hop, which sounds plausible. How old is it? I don’t know, but it didn’t enter the vocabulary until after 2010 and didn’t go completely mainstream until the middle of the decade. Christians use it a lot, I was surprised to learn; it has become part of a new proverb: “The struggle is real and so is God.” Now that’s co-opting! But you can find it all over the place; it’s not just kids, it’s sportswriters, scientists, and meme artists of all ages. It has permeated our language in a few short years, however we choose to use it.

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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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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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(1980’s | therapese? | “torn,” “ambivalent”)

“Conflict (with)” has been a verb for quite some time now, and “conflicted” was its past participle, so it has long been able to serve as an adjective, but it rarely did before 1970. And when it did start making adjective appearances, it didn’t quite seem to be doing the work of the past participle of “to conflict.” Why don’t we say “conflictful” or even “conflicting” (as in “conflicting schedules”)? When you’re divided within yourself, two parts of you are in disagreement, so it’s not a completed action, and the present participle seems more suitable. (When a conflict is settled, it ceases to exist, after all.) Maybe I’m being too fussy about grammar, but there’s something irregular about the way we use “conflicted” today. Yet it doesn’t sound strange, even to me.

The definition doesn’t require much explanation, but using the word with the right force is important. You don’t use it when you’re trying to decide between chicken soup or a TV dinner; there must be pretty strong currents at work to invoke the term. One is conflicted about major issues or in the face of important decisions. Powerful emotions or principles must be reconciled in order to make one’s course clear.

In 1977, sportswriter Thomas Boswell referred to the New York Yankees as “wealthy, conflicted and almost-too-talented.” But he meant strife between rather than within, more like “fractious” or “confrontational.” The Yankees were famous for having too many players who didn’t like or respect each other, so the word presumably meant they fought all the time. Today, it’s more common to use “conflicted” to describe a single person, but if you view a team as a single organism, the meaning is basically the same as ours. Instead of everyone pushing toward the same goal, too many people are going in different directions, so the team isn’t single-minded. (The weakness of the baseball team as metaphor for the individual may be seen in the Yankees’ three straight pennants while in such a “conflicted” state; people mired in a dither are rarely so successful.)

If “conflicted” can be used to talk about groups or organizations, why not nations? It has become normal to talk about the U.S. as conflicted about this issue or that, or just across the board. Lovely Liz from Queens suggested last week that the U.S. needs a “republic-whisperer” to help calm all of us down and start working together to identify and solve problems, or at least agree that probably not everyone on the other side is guilty of treason. When a single person is conflicted, maybe you can help him sort it all out, but when half of us are unable to agree with the other half about anything, the task seems impossibly daunting. Our house has been divided before and we’ve survived, but as the retirement fund managers like to say, past performance does not guarantee future results.

Why do I place a question mark after “therapese” as the source of this expression? Could there be a clearer example? The early instances of the term I have found don’t come invariably or even consistently from shrinks and counselors; it turns up in social science and other branches of academese as well. One strong indication: as “conflicted” was taking on its new usage, it turned up in arts writing, especially book reviews, a lot. Arts journalists being more neurotic than average, they tend to be early adopters of therapese, before editorialists or sportswriters. Arguably, journalists do more than anyone — with the occasional exception of an actor or screenplay writer — to make new expressions common to us all. Many of the expressions I have treated started life in a specific professional or demographic subdivision of vocabulary before seeping or exploding into everyday language. Each type of journalist, unsurprisingly, tends to prefer certain subdivisions. Arts journalists are lucky to draw on such a fertile source of new expressions as therapese, sportswriters mine the rich veins of new vocabulary generated by athletese, and editorial writers enjoy the fruit of our prolific military men and bureaucrats.

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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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(1980’s | journalese? therapese? | “unscientific,” “soft-headed,” “frivolous”; also “hands-on”)

“Touchy-feely” is actually a little old for the blog, having arisen in the late sixties or early seventies to talk about Esalen and encounter groups. In its original sense, the term was quite literal; the phrase referred invariably to physical contact, often with the implication that there was something illicit about it. No doubt some of that stuff really was orgies disguised as treatment, but more legitimate forms of therapy also explored the benefits of contact — affectionate, violent, or otherwise. This meaning of “touchy-feely” was always most common but the expression had two other meanings since the seventies that remain available. One is “affectionate” — but “touchy-feely” is often used more specifically to describe someone who subjects students or employees to unwanted touching. The other, less common, is “hands-on,” as in a museum or lesson. So an exhibit where visitors are encouraged to touch the objects on display might be described as touchy-feely. This is not a common usage, but I found examples from the seventies and the teens, so it demonstrates a low-grade persistence. Occasionally, it can even mean “intuitive to use,” as in a smartphone feeling natural under one’s fingers. As far as I can tell, the phrase has nothing to do with “touchy,” meaning irritable or easily offended. Older expressions that may have exercised influence are “namby-pamby” and “lovey-dovey.” A newer one that is used in similar ways is “warm-fuzzy.” (Thanks, Liz!)

The reigning meaning of “touchy-feely” mutated, or grew, rather quickly. By 1980, it was already possible to use it much more loosely to talk about all kinds of human interaction, not just tactile. Anyone who tried to get a group to work, play, or learn together effectively by getting to know each other (or themselves) or talking about feelings rated the term. To this day, it is used to talk about the unquantifiable, the impressionistic, the emotional. Even when “touchy-feely” doesn’t mean touch, it always means feelings.

The expression is generally used with derision, which may be veiled or unconcealed. The state of being “touchy-feely” is the antipode of rigor and analysis, so it is unscientific and its benefits are therefore considered unprovable. But it is also opposed to machismo. Real men do not drag emotions into the conversation, or base their actions on them (which is just as well, because when they do, they tend to turn violent). It is also opposed to law and order; cops and prison guards reserve special venom for those who advocate anything other than forcible and remorseless crackdowns on criminals. The range of people who use the phrase with a sneer is wide: engineers, computer geeks, physicians, businessmen, law enforcement, political conservatives, real men from all walks of life. At its broadest, it becomes a synonym for vague, impractical, effeminate, soft, or weak. Even when it is used jocularly, an undertone of scorn is usually there. When tough-minded executives use the term, they do so to dismiss anything unrelated to the bottom line, and the phrase connotes employees paying too much attention to themselves and not enough to the welfare of the company. The work done, and even the employees themselves, have a dollars-and-cents value, and anything that suggests that they might have other kinds of value, to each other or to the organization, is brushed aside. In extreme cases, human warmth of any kind, even in the briefest manifestations, is considered detrimental to profits.

“Touchy-feely” has come to stand for a wide range of attitudes, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world. In that respect it resembles another sixties word, “holistic,” but it has fewer defenders. You don’t use this term when you’re talking about making the office more productive by creating a collegial and friendly atmosphere, except perhaps with a tone of rueful irony.

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interpersonal skills

(1980’s | therapese | “diplomacy,” “social graces,” “courtesy,” “tact”)

This staple of job descriptions started to appear in the psychological literature during that magical decade, the 1960’s. (“Interpersonal” is much older.) An irresistible example from Laycock and Munro’s “Educational Psychology” (1966): “Probably the most important problem in the world today is that of improving interpersonal and intergroup skills.” Somewhere around 1980, the phrase began to turn up in the mainstream press; even at that early stage, it was frequently associated with employment, touted as an asset valued by employers even if not directly expressed on a resumé. Here is an instance where the business world acted as a megaphone for psychological jargon, rather than the usual popularizers: religion, education, and the arts. Yet the expression also comes readily to hand in talk of relationships and can be used in a range of contexts — the rise of autism in recent years has given it another boost. Its formal, bureaucratic tone makes it perennially useful in situations where one wants to sound fair, or at least neutral. “He’s an asshole” still doesn’t sound right on an employee evaluation, but “he has poor interpersonal skills” fills the bill. “People skills,” the country cousin of this phrase, started showing up a decade or so later; now it has a following of its own. “Soft skills” is another rough synonym. “Leadership skills” is not, precisely, but many leadership skills turn out to be of the interpersonal variety.

I’m still not quite sure whether there’s a difference between “interpersonal skills” and “communication skills.” My initial reaction would be to say that the one is a subset of the other, but when I try to come up with a specific interpersonal skill that isn’t some sort of communication skill, I can’t. N.C. State’s student health center breaks it down into four broad categories: communication, assertiveness, conflict resolution, and anger management. Only the last might not be considered a communication skill, though I would argue that it is an essential prerequisite. Here’s a longer list of interpersonal skills, and a still longer one; nearly all the traits listed directly involve communication. In business, “communication skills” sometimes is a code word for “literacy” (thanks, Liz!), but it is commonly used to talk about face-to-face interaction as well.

“Skill,” at any rate, is enjoying a good run in the social sciences as the word for “useful behavior,” whether learned or innate. “Coping skills” and “life skills” are other examples, among a multitude. It’s almost impossible to imagine a job description that doesn’t demand good interpersonal skills. What noble employer out there will take on the inflexible, inattentive, robotic, rude, slouchy, dense, passive-aggressive, cold-hearted, self-absorbed, and clueless? They have to eat, too.

This phrase can be used in a general, or naive, way, but it normally has a none-too-subtle subtext. Interpersonal skills are in demand wherever there are difficult people to deal with. It can go either way. You may need advanced interpersonal skills because you work with difficult people, or you may be lamenting the absence of interpersonal skills among the difficult. Thus, techies, engineers, doctors, and other terrifying experts are chided regularly for their lack of interpersonal skills and encouraged to develop them through rigorous training, since it is obvious that they will never develop them from within. When advice columnists talk about interpersonal skills, they’re usually answering a question about an unreasonable office colleague. It’s not just a matter of being friendly and nice. Interpersonal skills are prized because they neutralize troublesome people, paving the way for settling disputes and winning battles.

This expression marks the third in an unintentional series, following “win-win” and “play well with others,” and is closely related to the latter. One way to get at the difference between them is to ask the question, “Is my goal to get along or to get my way?” The former is more like playing well with others, but interpersonal skills have more to do with getting what you want, even if all you want is to finish a group project without bloodshed. Assuming you’re competent and effective most of the time, deliberate use of interpersonal skills is inevitably a form of manipulation.

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(1980’s | therapese? counterculturese? | “broad-based,” “seeing the big picture,” “gestalt”)

It’s easy for this word to sound annoyingly broad-brush; it has a very wide range of casual use. Here’s a by no means complete list:

1. concerned about the environment (“nutty-crunchy“)
2. balanced
3. wide-ranging, comprehensive
4. measured, moderate (in terms of time or use of resources)
5. appropriate in context (fitting, suitable)
6. unscientific

The common thread that unites nearly every instance involves awareness of at least one larger system within which the object of your attention lies. Attention to said larger system — also known as a “whole” — will pay off. Why not “wholistic”? That spelling is relatively rare, but it has been around for some time, and you still see it occasionally. “Holistic” was first spelled without the initial “w,” and its sporadic recurrence stems from a stubborn insistence on preserving an orthographic connection to the parent word. “Holism” is relatively rare, but it’s in the dictionary. I haven’t encountered “holist,” but I daresay someone has used it — it’s in the dictionary, too. I’m waiting for “holistry.” “Holistic” modifies “approach,” “medicine,” or “health” far more often than any other nouns.

“Holistic” started its run in the seventies, mainly in the context of alternative medicine. It was part of a blizzard of new vocabulary generated by the counterculture. (Actually, the word dates back to the twenties and was just biding its time, according to the OED.) “Holistic medicine” meant two things:

1. taking into account the mental and emotional state of a patient and allowing it to inform diagnosis and treatment (another way to state this is something like treat the person who has the disease, not the disease that has the person)
2. encouraging patients to take responsibility for their own health, rather than relying too heavily on doctors.

People who talked about holistic medicine also talked about wellness. In 1979, Governor Jerry Brown decried the “medical-industrial complex”: “By employing what is called a ‘holistic’ approach, the Democratic presidential candidate said, he would focus on ‘wellness instead of sickness.'” They also tended to be conversant with such black arts as biofeedback, acupuncture, herbal medicine, etc. Because the basic concept is so simple and powerful, the word has spread speedily into many fields, including computer design, employee management, warfare, zoning, you name it. (In the last few years it seems to have become a code word in the names of medical marijuana dispensaries.)

I assumed it was a sixties word, and in a way it was, even if it didn’t get fully established for a couple of decades. It was part of an explosion of largely feeble resistance to a certain strain of Enlightenment rationalism which taught that selfishness promotes the greater good, a necessary axiom for our consumerist variety of industrial capitalism. That’s one kind of individualism, but partisans of holistic thought were also trying to combat a different kind: approaching problems by isolating their components, studying them ever more closely, and breaking them down ever more minutely. In either case, they were trying to counter the risks of fragmentation and atomism, which continue to underpin notions of American progress, whether economic, medical, or moral. The holist (there, I said it) says we’ve pushed too far in that direction. There’s more to good health than killing the right microbes, and it’s plain foolhardy to pretend the forest isn’t there just because we know so much about each of the trees. If you lose sight of the context and circumstances of your problem, you’ll get too many wrong answers.

Side note: individualism vs. communitarianism is one of the surest ways to distinguish right-wingers from left-wingers in political debates. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to be holistic, but it helps. And it goes right along with other progressive shibboleths like “interdependent” and “interdisciplinary.”

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