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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: therapy

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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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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anger management

(1990’s | therapese | “self-control,” “control of one’s temper”)

The phrase began to appear among psychologists and therapists in the seventies, and began to show up in the mainstream press is the eighties, although it did not become ordinary until later. Quotation marks normally surrounded the expression when it was first used. Although it was adopted pretty early by lawyers and judges as a form of alternative sentencing, the origin seems to lie within therapese. In the eighties, when anyone talked “anger management,” the subject usually was wifebeating, or athletes or schoolkids getting into violent trouble. The idea was to give people who can respond to difficult situations only by blowing up and lashing out a procedure to control themselves — to learn to recognize warning signs that they were about to lose it and take steps to keep themselves in check: lower your voice, take that deep breath, leave the room, or whatever it takes that doesn’t involve hitting someone.

As prisons filled up in the seventies and eighties, there were two kinds of responses: “we need to build more prisons” and “we need to find some other way to punish people for breaking the law.” The former had a good run and still has plenty of partisans. But the latter has always been there in the shadows and has continued to attract influential defenders over the decades. Once you get past the satisfaction of locking up malefactors where they can only hurt each other — and the occasional prison guard — there are lots of problems with locking everyone up. Financial problems, which usually force reform where no other cause can, but also social problems, as illustrated by recidivism rates or the hard-headed observation that prison is a breeding ground and laboratory for crime. Classes and workshops sprang up to help us govern our violent impulses, and judges got used to the idea of sentencing minor offenders to longer fuses.

I’m afraid the concept has become a bit of a joke — the property of celebrities like Charlie Sheen (whose show uses it as a title, for Pete’s sake) or Lindsay Lohan, who don’t feel bound by the same rules as the rest of us. But considering how many angry people there are out there, and how easy it is at any given moment for one of them to cast off restraint and really hurt someone else, emotionally if not physically, it strikes me as a worthwhile pursuit. People who are bad at controlling themselves do a great deal of damage. Not all of them will learn how to deal with their rage, but we can still try to get some of them to learn how to vent without doing too much harm. Even one violent outburst nipped in the bud is an improvement.

community service

(1990’s | legalese | “forced labor,” “restitution”)

Thanks to Adam from Queens for proposing this phrase. I’m not sure it’s eligible, strictly speaking; it has been around for a long time. I have a sense, however, that this phrase has shifted environments over time to become more and more of a criminal-justice word and less and less of a good-government word.

In the old days, community service was straightforward. It could be provided by the government or by a private organization, but government normally had a role, even if it was just contracting with a private partner to offer assistance to the local population. Street lights, libraries, soup kitchens — pretty much any public amenity or benefit came under the heading. The Community Services Agency, succeeded by the Office of Community Services, was a federal agency for a while, back in the days when a few dreamers and Luftmenschen still believed that the job of government was to help everybody, not just the wealthy few who ought to spend their own damn money. It was a time when not very many people felt comfortable arguing against using public money to help the public. In the intervening generation or two, the old notion that public money should be spent mainly on private interests has become popular again, but that wasn’t always true, kids. And it won’t be true again.

When did “community service” become part of the judge’s arsenal? According to this web site, it was 1966 in Alameda County, California (another brief history can be found here). It was a new twist on the Thirteenth Amendment, which permits involuntary servitude — that is, work that you are compelled to do for which you receive no payment — as punishment for a criminal conviction. Eventually, the criminal justice system progressed from chain gangs and breaking rocks to softer, arguably more useful, labor. Sometimes there’s a connection between the crime and the community service, as when an athlete found guilty of drug use has to discourse to kids on the dangers of addiction. The larger point seems to be that almost any crime is an attack on the community or even society at large (the People vs. So-and-So), and therefore community service constitutes restitution, even in the absence of any direct relation between the crime and the punishment.

There will always be a debate about whether community service is merely a way to keep white, wealthy convicts out of jail. Harsh punishment, even of the rich, never wants for defenders in our culture, and studies will happily show that community service sentences are or are not effective (whatever that may mean). The question cuts both ways. Some may wonder if community service really serves the community; others may complain that such a sentence doesn’t convey to the offender the severity of the crime. This goes back to the question of what a sentence is for: to punish (or rehabilitate) the defendant, or to gratify the rest of us. In some cases, community service is a cop-out, to be sure. But it has the great advantage of making malefactors suffer while putting them to use. Maybe it doesn’t satisfy anyone, but it does have certain advantages over the lock-up-anything-that-moves school of jurisprudence.

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dysfunctional family

(early 1990’s | therapese | “messed-up family,” “bad home environment”)

No prizes for guessing the origins of this popular phrase. Could there be a more typical example of therapese? I ought to investigate the uses of the word “dysfunction” and its derivatives in psychology; it occurs everywhere. (I’ve covered one instance already.) From Google Books, I deduce that “dysfunctional family” arose in the literature around 1970, at first primarily as a compound adjective. It was not unusual to see phrases like “dysfunctional family structure or pattern or system.” But the temptation to use it on its own soon grew irresistible. Psychotherapy became more widespread as the passionate sixties dwindled into the neurotic seventies, and it became fashionable to blame transgressions on one’s upbringing, as if the whole country were singing along with the Jets in “Officer Krupke.” By the end of the eighties, “dysfunctional family” was sprouting through all the usual therapese conduits: art critics, advice columnists, clergy, lawyers concocting a defense, and so forth. By 1995 it was paralyzingly common.

What is a dysfunctional family? One headed by a person or persons unable to hold a home together, of course, or more generally one that runs on dishonesty or intimidation or otherwise instills bad relationship habits into hapless children and dooms them to do the same damn things when they grow up. Therapist Barbara Cottman Becnel in 1989: “In a dysfunctional family, you’re generally taught don’t talk, don’t feel and don’t trust.” But these noble core values may effloresce in so many different ways. As Tolstoy would have said, had he thought of it, functional families are all alike; every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way.

The dysfunctional family is, after all, the root of all evil — a handy, ever-present villain that works for all non-orphans (i.e., nearly everybody). We are all more or less damaged by our upbringers. Whatever’s wrong with you, chances are your parents are to blame somehow. This became a popular sentiment, except among parents, who felt compelled to point out that lots of people could claim credit for messing up the new crop of kids. Homes, after all, are not impermeable fortresses. In an earlier century, we noticed that larger social trends and tendencies contributed to individual tribulations, and we took measures at the federal and state levels to discourage cultural forces that increased hardship and misery. Now we insist furiously that adults who haven’t turned out well are responsible for their own individual moral choices. Since blame the individual took precedence over blame society, families have become a natural target, even though, implicitly, this explanation has the effect of once again displacing blame from individuals to their environment. The contradiction between blaming the families and holding the products of their failures absolutely responsible for their own misdeeds never seemed to bother anyone. Actually, it was a nice two-for-one, having another set of people to find guilty of every single example of anti-social behavior. Plenty of upstanding Americans wanted to see any and all kinds of crime severely punished, even though they might concede, if cornered, that maybe it wasn’t entirely the individual’s fault. Blaming society was never satisfying because it was too big and abstract, but particular individuals and families are small enough targets to allow respectable types to reap some reward from reviling them.

The phrase probably would have begun to diffuse during the 1980’s no matter what. But several eighties trends (and I don’t mean Madonna or leg warmers or Brat Pack movies) gave us lots of reasons by the end of the decade to reflect on the causes of what you might call anti-social behavior. We had AIDS, we had crack, we had high murder rates, even a stock market crash. We needed an explanation for all the messed-up people out there, and pundits and bloviators lost no time in declaring that dysfunctional families had done the damage. There go those larger social forces again, hijacking the discussion. The concept of the dysfunctional family is convenient because it helps us focus on the individual wrongdoer and ignore what’s going on in the greater world. Words can be very useful that way.

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