Skip to content

Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: words

yuppie

(1980’s | journalese)

I did not remember that “yuppie” had a competitor in its earliest days: “YAP,” or young aspiring professional, which entered the lexicon upon publication of “YAP: The Official Young Aspiring Professional’s Fast-Track Handbook” by C.E. Crimmins in November 1983. Two months later, “The Yuppie Handbook” appeared and soon swept the field. Why? “Yap” already had an unpleasant connotation (maybe that was the point), and the worst thing you could say about “yuppie” was that it rhymes with “guppy.” “Preppie” was already around; “foodie” came along a few months later, and those resemblances helped to swing the balance. Maybe “yuppie” is just more evocative. It caught fire and burned so hot that within a few years it had become fashionable, if not mandatory, to lament the yuppie world view and express hope that the next generation would embrace better values and practices. That’s about the time everyone started to complain about hipsters.

And so it goes — young urban professionals of the eighties succeeded the aggressive young ad men of the sixties and were supplanted in turn by hipsters of the nineties and beyond. (Is there a new name for the latest generation?) Privileged kids with impressive degrees fast-tracked for lucrative jobs in the city. Based on a light review of the corpora, I can offer the following yuppie characteristics as understood in the mid-eighties. First, they were baby boomers, the post-war generation grown to full adulthood, eagerly studied and analyzed for demographic reasons — there were a lot of them — and moral reasons, as members of the generation that gave us the licentious sixties and were widely suspected of being spoiled and selfish. Most yuppies didn’t do time as hippies, but some did. The generational positioning is significant; part of the reason we heard a lot about yuppies was that we had been hearing about them endlessly for thirty years before that.

Other stereotypical characteristics: materialism (in the consumer sense, not the philosophical), workaholism, physical fitness, keeping up with the Joneses, self-absorption. They wanted to have it all and were willing to work for it — high-powered, hard-charging, create your own adjective — and they liked to play squash, too. Like hipsters, yuppies were known for conformity and predictability. The absorption into the peer group leads to absorption in oneself; if the only people worth my attention are the ones exactly like me, then there’s no penalty for paying still more attention to my own desires and fixations.

Let’s not forget the variants, which have been there since the beginning; an Associated Press article from January 4, 1984 listed three: Buppies, Guppies and Puppies, meaning Black, gay and pregnant urban professionals. The first one got some use, but I never heard the other two (for which I am grateful). “Yumpie” (young upwardly mobile professional) was a variant that meant the same thing. Then there was “dink” (double income, no kids), a demographic coveted among advertisers.

“Yuppie” is used normally as an insult but may have an admiring or affectionate quality about it. It may, like other insults, be adopted by its target as a badge of honor. It’s a little like “Joe Sixpack,” which is used contemptuously by elites and fondly by the rest of us, only with the class polarities reversed. Today, “yuppie” has retained and strengthened its connotations of obnoxiousness and greed while losing any association with ambition or taste. Being a yuppie had some cachet in 1987, but not any more.

What took me so long to get to this one? Its chronological qualifications are unimpeachable, and there’s plenty to say about it. When Lovely Liz from Queens drew my attention to “yuppie,” I realized that it was past time. It seems to be disappearing slowly and may sound archaic in another generation, like “go-getter” or “gay blade” to someone of my generation, or my parents’, for that matter.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

vegan

(1980’s | “non-dairy vegetarian”)

There is such a firm on-line consensus about when, where, and by whom the word “vegan” was invented that I’m inclined to believe it, though I might not if the OED didn’t back it up. No more suspense: In 1944, an Englishman named Donald Watson and a small group of like-minded “non-dairy vegetarians” founded a group to promote their way of life. The story goes that the word is an abridgement of “veg-etari-an” that evolved from group deliberations among Watson and his circle as they searched for a simple, memorable way of referring to themselves. They did not invent veganism, of course; many religious movements and illustrious individuals had attached themselves to it over the centuries. But they did change its course.

It takes a while for tiny groups with unpopular ideas to make headway, but it happens more often than you think. Outside of scientific journals, “vegan” seems to have occurred rarely before 1975, and infrequently until a decade or so after that. One supposes, without having looked for any evidence, that a critical mass had built by then within the culture — that is, enough people practiced veganism and were willing, nay, determined to talk about it — and therefore the existing word began to take up room in our common vocabulary. Well, it might be true, but how would you prove it?

Note on pronunciation: Apparently Watson preferred “veegan” from the beginning; dictionaries printed as late as 1990 gave “vejjan” as an alternative. (“Vaygan,” as in a being from the star Vega, and “veggan,” off-rhyming with legging, seem not to have been considered.) “Veegan” has definitely become standard; I don’t recall ever hearing it pronounced any other way. (I think I first encountered the word around 1990, probably in print.)

The roots of Watson’s veganism lay in an abhorrence of animal cruelty; it stems from anti-vivisectionism. Vegans despised the exploitation of animals and the violence that went with it. That is still true, but I sense that the case for veganism has come to rest more on nutritional and environmental grounds. Raising plants for food is much more efficient than raising animals. (There the argument can be made in terms of going beyond sparing animals to sparing the earth.) Nutritional justifications have had a harder time — vegans have had to combat the perception that their diet leads to various deficiencies, most of which can be corrected with supplements. But in comparison with the effects of meat-eating, veganism doesn’t look so bad.

Vegans must also reckon with our species’ prehistoric domestication of animals, and millennia of hunting before that — we’ve always killed and eaten animals, so why should we stop now? To which the vegan replies, there are many, many ancient practices that civilized people don’t perform any more, and killing our fellow animals for their products, edible or otherwise, ought to be on that list. As the earth continues to groan under us, it’s getting harder to deny that at least some forms of domestication will not be sustainable much longer. Just don’t make me live without potatoes fried in peanut oil.

The cruelty argument, powerful though it is, collapses if we discover that plants are conscious, feel pain, etc. It may be that we cannot feed ourselves without viciously exploiting one or another sentient product of the earth. I suppose we could try eating each other (wait, that sounds like a movie). If we devour ourselves like the cats of Kilkenny, that will save the planet, won’t it?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

bail

(2000’s? | “leave someone in the lurch,” “stand someone up”; “get while the getting’s good,” “scram”)

Our use of “bail,” still slightly slangy but creeping into more formal language, surely comes from the old expression “bail out,” used by pilots and paratroopers when the plane is about to crash. It conjures up parachutes and ejection seats. “Bail” has an odd way of turning up around emergencies and crises across its field of use. When your boat, or basement, takes on water, you must bail, or bail it out. If you’re thrown in jail, your family or friends may come along and bail you out. If they do, and you miss your court date, you’re “jumping” or “skipping” bail. The nautical and legal uses ultimately come from the same Latin root, but via different paths.

If “bail,” meaning “back out” or “escape,” comes with a preposition, it is usually “on” — another person or group, a planned activity or project, a relationship, etc. Cf. “ditch,” meaning “blow off (a person)” or “leave a companion without warning,” and “dip,” which means approximately what my generation meant by “split” or “cut out.” (Thanks, Lucy!) “Bail” may be used in either sense. The implication is not always present — “bail” is developing a casual side — but often there is a strong hint that one is breaking a promise or ignoring a commitment. In my youth, it was possible to say something like “bail out of a deal,” which meant the same thing but hewed closer to the original phrasing. That phrasing didn’t suffice when you were abandoning your friends. The shorter version commends itself, for when you use the word to denote your own action, you are in a hurry, either because you want to be somewhere else or because you want to end the conversation.

There’s no doubt that “bail” has always been a stormy petrel of a word, bringing dread and urgency with it. “Bail” as we mean it today may be starting to lose those associations as the connection to treachery fades. In another generation, “bail” may be just another way to say “leave” without any particular implication. Such loss of sharpness is not so unusual, although I have to admit that I found fewer examples than I expected in a review of the alphabetical entry list. That won’t prevent me from issuing another of my little catalogues: feeling the love, karma, lighten up, male bonding, ratchet up, your mileage may vary. It’s an unusually varied list; you wouldn’t think such a motley assortment would have a discernible connection. These expressions have all lost elasticity over time, the quality that enabled them to hug a narrow range of meaning and avoid flopping loosely over vast semantic tracts. I always decry such slippage, and I have my reasons. Precision doesn’t come easy at the best of times; the less of it we have in everyday language, the harder it will be to accomplish anything. Surely the problems we face demand the most scrupulous definitions we can muster.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

sucks to be you

(1990’s | “(gee), that’s too bad,” “that sucks,” “I’d hate to be in your shoes,” “that’s rough”)

A fixed phrase that goes back to the 1990’s, as far as I can tell, although it does not seem to have become ordinary until somewhere around 2005. It follows the relentless march of “that sucks” into the language. The first significant appearance of the phrase came in the form of a song title by the Canadian band Prozzäk (1998). I don’t recall hearing it until well after 2010 myself, but it was thoroughly established by then.

Most on-line sources — and there are many — agree that “sucks to be you” usually has an insulting or dismissive tone. A few of them even pull out the fine old German word Schadenfreude (pleasure in others’ misfortune). I have heard it used with sympathy, however, or at least bemusement. Even then, I think there is a sense that the addressee’s problems are intractable, and sympathy doesn’t help much. The expression is reserved for those with genuine troubles, except of course when you’re using it ironically to minimize another’s trials and tribulations. That’s where the sarcasm comes in. The ambivalent quality is reminiscent of “the struggle is real” and a few others: “aspirational,” “cougar,” “inner child.” Another echo, if you’ll indulge me: I hear in “sucks to be you” a tenuous connection with “my bad,” which cannot shake its flippant tone, so it doesn’t serve well as an apology. “Sucks to be you” doesn’t serve well as sympathy, for similar reasons. Another factor at work is the use of the second-person pronoun. “You” always sounds more aggressive, especially when emphasized, and to my ear “sucks to be you” suggests that the speaker is blaming the victim at least a little. “My bad” makes it sound like the speaker is accepting responsibility, when he really isn’t. “Sucks to be you” turns the blame back on the other person.

What about “sucks,” anyway? It replaced “stinks,” which is what we said when I was young but is much less common now. The New Partridge slang dictionary says it became current in the sixties, but that it was considered a dirty word at first because of its “sexual connotations” (don’t you love lexicographers?). There is an older British insult, “sucks to you, etc.” that may be an ancestor, but maybe not; that was never commonplace in the U.S., and our use of “suck” seems to be an American phenomenon. I think I learned the word at a Harry Chapin concert in 1979 or 1980 (anyone out there remember “Thirty Thousand Pounds of Bananas”?), when it was already pretty common. I doubt you ever heard it on television back then; it remained a semi-bad word, one that family newspapers had to remove from quotations, long after it invaded and conquered spoken language. Hardly anyone turns a hair any more.

Tags: , , , , ,

flex

(2000’s? | African-American | “show off,” “boast”)

You have to get past a lot of other uses of “flex” to get to this week’s expression. Vastly popular as an adjective suggesting mutability (fine old word, that), or the capacity to adjust to different circumstances, or offering several ways to solve a problem. “Flex time” in workplace scheduling dates back to my youth, when employees were given a certain amount of freedom in scheduling their hours through agreed-upon arrangements. “Flex room” (in a house) is common now, meaning a room that can serve different purposes; “flex space” or “flex property” are related terms. “Flexitarian” in discussions of diet evokes something similar. In all of these cases, there is a straightforward line from “flexibility” and the idea of adapting to change or variety. Today’s still rather slangy usage depends on a different meaning that has taken on a life of its own: displaying the biceps by bending and tightening the arms. That sense of flex, related yet divergent, is the direct ancestor of how we use it now.

Both noun and verb, “flex” most often calls up the idea of personal ostentation, of drawing attention to one’s own superiority. It takes an indefinite article but not generally the definite. When you display a diamond ring aggressively, you’re not flexing the ring, you’re just flexing — the verb is intransitive. Hip-hop seems to be the origin; scholars and observers cite many examples from lyrics, even some titles. One site locates the earliest instance in 1992 in Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day.”

How much linguistic evolution is the result of simple misunderstanding? Major’s dictionary of African-American slang defines “flex” as “spunk” or “energy” dating to the 1990’s. Our more recent use took hold after 2000, as far as I can tell. If the term was already current, is it more likely that a new, not particularly related meaning arose independently within a few years, or that confusion of the existing term with the familiar sense of displaying one’s biceps caused the new meaning to form? It is a natural association, recalling cartoon images of a musclebound man flexing his arms as the resulting breeze knocks a nearby weakling backwards. It was easy for the literal meaning to fall away, even as the effort to impress or intimidate stays in place. But would it have happened if “flex,” meaning something different, was not already around?

Such misunderstandings occur in linguistic development when a later generation fails to reckon with semantic change and alters the meaning of a venerable expression by misinterpreting a crucial word. The process is unusually compressed in this case, a matter of a decade or so — in examples such as “beg the question,” “hot mess,” or “ramp up,” the original expressions are centuries old, enough time for some slippage to occur. Well, they say everything moves faster now than it used to. Unfortunately, it’s mostly the decay and decline that move faster, not the onward and upward.

I have grounds for gratitude to my sister, who suggested this week’s expression a while back. Slow Brother strikes again.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

the science

(2000’s? | “the (scientific) consensus,” “(the best) scientific evidence,” “the latest studies”)

Trust the science. Follow the science. Believe in the science. Government policy will be determined by the science. (“Data” gets the same treatment; you must do what the data tell you. The article is less obtrusive in front of “data” than “science.”) The prescription has drawbacks, most notably that science can’t make up its mind right away and will issue conflicting decisions and rules as the evidence continues to roll in. This lack of certitude does create problems, which scientists themselves may exacerbate by showing certainty before it is warranted or just by talking down to the rest of us. Such problems are not permanent, however; one indication of good medical research is that it gets both more accurate and more sure of itself over time, leading to more effective diagnosis and treatment. Besides, given the complex and uncertain world we live in, the power to adapt to new information ought to inspire confidence rather than undermine it.

One trick of the definite article is that it suggests that science says only one thing, so that it can be counted on for unambiguous guidance. We have all encountered exceptions, but in the case of the coronavirus that has been largely true, I think. Dissension does arise within the scientific ranks; for the most part it is resolved as more tests are run and more results produced.

Of course it has always been possible to plop down a definite article before “science.” But it was almost always followed by something further — the science center, the science headlines, the science of . . . . But science solus has been lumbered constantly with the article during the pandemic, as doctors and public officials implore us to heed infectious-disease specialists. “The science” has become a mantra of sorts, asking us to accept medical research as a reliable source of knowledge that offers maximum protection from a weird and frightening virus. Not everyone wants to listen, of course, and COVID has confounded the experts from time to time, eroding their claim to be the most trustworthy voice.

The plea to “trust the science” is a quasi-religious gesture; we are enjoined to hope that scientists have our best interests at heart and will perform competently. That’s a watered-down version of what Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe about God. Most of us do not understand how the scientists arrive at their results any more than we understand the Lord’s mysterious ways, so our level of helplessness is about the same, for all that scientists can adduce a much longer list of verified empirical results than priests can. Science has what I think is a built-in problem: the more advanced it gets the more it looks like magic, which resembles religion in that it wins loyalty by producing wonders that defy comprehension. Contemporary physics is almost perversely counterintuitive, producing theories that flout what we thought were fundamental principles. Western medicine, whatever its shortcomings, continues to produce cures unthinkable a few generations ago. We can look up almost anything instantly on a cheap handheld device. What comes with these advances? An abandonment of earthbound common sense, and a profession of faith in a select group of mandarins who alone understand how the universe works. That’s not what Paine and Voltaire had in mind.

Ah, the humble definite article — let us not overlook its semantic power. (And prosodic: articles make the iambic a characteristic English meter, even though most of our words are accented on the first syllable.) In English, unlike many European languages, “the” transforms nouns from general to particular. (E.g., “keys” vs. “the keys.” Note that this rule holds in the case of “the science,” if you hear it as a reference to work in epidemiology or another specific branch of medicine.) Sometimes definite articles are indispensable — “make bed,” “walk dog,” or “rock boat” all sound ridiculous — yet other languages get along happily without them. (And their misuse is a quick way to recognize a non-native speaker.) We scatter them thoughtlessly and pay them no mind. We would do better to reckon with the power of “the.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

plant-based

(1980’s | scientese | “plant,” “vegetable,” “vegetarian”)

Confirmed carnivore that I am, I’m always a little bemused by this expression — I concede that it makes sense, though “plant-rooted” might be more poetic. At its broadest, it means “made from things that grow out of the earth.” A plant-based diet means you eat predominantly, but not exclusively, fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, fungi, and things made from them. (Lovely Liz from Queens likes to quote Michael Pollan’s dictum, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) The emphasis is more on avoiding animal products than on supplementing them. So it’s veganism with room for backsliding, but the foundation is clearly vegetarian. That would seem to warrant the firmness and solidity of “based.”

“Plant-based” existed in the seventies, but no one used it to talk about food. That was true as late as 2000. The first citation I found (1979) modified ethanol, intended to distinguish it from petroleum-based gasoline back when we started talking about using it as an additive. (No one was thinking about climate change in those days, just the fact that fossil fuels had gotten expensive and corn prices kept going down.) It might also be used for pharmaceuticals or vaccines, and it frequently modified “product.” It still does all that, and it may have an abstract use as well, as in “plant-based business” or “plant-based lifestyle.”

The beauty of the phrase is its sheer reach; just about anything can be plant-based. We tend to think of it first with reference to food, and it continues to have a strong bias toward products with animal counterparts — fake meat, fake leather, etc. After all, most plant-based products make no attempt to impersonate flesh or hide. “Plant-based” is also widely employed to imply that the product so described is safer and/or healthier to use and less harmful to the environment, and, if food, minimally processed — is a vegetable “plant-based,” or simply “plant”? — even if the details are not spelled out.

Much is made in some circles over the resources required to produce meat, and the point is well taken. Growing animals in order to slaughter and eat them is wasteful, shockingly so in some cases. Plants are more efficient, but they too are born of the earth; exploiting plants means exploiting the planet. Maybe we’ll wear our old earth out a little slower if we switch to plant-based diets, but we will still wear it out. The earth’s carrying capacity cannot be made infinite, no matter how good we get at extending it.

What will happen to this expression and its relatives if we, as a species, consume less and less of our fellow animals? It will last as long as we find it necessary to distinguish alternatives to animal flesh from the real thing, and such distinctions seem likely to be needed for at least a few more decades. If veganism becomes the norm, we may have to go the other way and start saying “animal-based” instead. Presumably, “veggie burger” will go extinct at that time as well. Anything that eases the ubiquity of the vastly irritating “veggie” is all right with me.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

old-school

(1980’s | “from OR of the old school” “classic,” “old-time(y),” “traditional”)

It’s a nice way to say “old-fashioned.” The point is it’s nice; “old-school” is a compliment. It’s not just the old-fashioned way; it’s the right way. It may be used to mean blinkered or backward-looking, but that is unusual; one encounters it much more often in an admiring tone. Some expressions turn sour over time and develop a harsher side (examples: aspirational, comfort zone, game the system, lone wolf), and this one might, but not so far.

Almost certainly a Briticism, the adjective phrase developed from things like the old school tie, where it means something a little different. In that phrase, the main unit is the compound noun “school tie.” (We should also remember the older adjective-noun combination, which usually had a sentimental cast but might also be uttered with regret or mockery.) Now the link lies between “old” and “school,” a compound adjective with or without hyphen. During the eighties it started appearing regularly in the American press in that form, in political and art journalism and no doubt elsewhere as well. Sportswriters and music critics took to it readily to talk about athletes or musicians who emulated performers of previous generations. But it has never settled in one neighborhood of the language; “old-school” can come at you from any side.

Smith Barney commercials from the 1980’s featured John Houseman intoning, “They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it.” The commercial demonstrates why we needed the phrase, even though “old-school” doesn’t actually appear in it. There was no one more old-school than John Houseman. (Though he might be scouted by other old-school types for using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular entity. Then again, if you hear it as “Smith [and] Barney,” it’s plural after all.)

While Americans regularly show a preference for forgetting the past, there is a countervailing tendency to respect achievements and personalities that came before — because they paved the way or had an auspicious effect on later work. It arises from a yearning for a time when we were wiser and more sensible; we look to the past to provide standards and guidance, not just a way to measure our own accomplishments. When it comes to moral superiority, our past has a spotty record at best; some old ways have passed on and cannot be revived. If old-school exemplars want to be successful in today’s world, they have to choose the right practices, customs, and forms of address to hang onto. If you do it well, it still pays off.

Lex Maniac has covered a few other expressions that evoke old times: artisanal, back in the day, epic, retro. They all have the same admiring quality as “old-school,” or at least they did when they started out. I’ll have to come up with some that look back in anger.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

dope

(2000’s | African-American | “cool,” “nice,” “great,” “excellent”)

A rich old word, at least two centuries old. Descended from the Dutch word for “sauce” and related to “dip,” it generally meant gravy or another thick liquid (lubricants, etc.) in the nineteenth century. (That sense, now rare, survives in the practice of calling sundae toppings “dopes.”) I doubt anyone says it any more, but in the South it long denoted Coca-Cola (or other fountain sodas), from the rumor that it contained cocaine. Somewhere around 1900, in a puzzling development, “dope” came to mean information or gossip (as in “latest dope”). Somewhat more understandably, also around 1900, “dope” took on medical uses, as it became popular to refer to drugs licit and illicit (the distinction was less rigid then). The homey term made the exotic and dangerous seem more familiar and acceptable. During the twentieth century, it became an all-purpose word for any illegal drug, most often marijuana or an opiate. From there “dope” merged with another meaning: slow or stupid person; “dopey” still means “stupid” or “out of it.”

Now, for some reason, the culture has adopted from African-American youth the practice of calling anything really awesome “dope.” (See many examples on Urban Dictionary.) Major’s dictionary of African-American slang reports that the usage was current in the eighties among young people; it does not seem to have entered white mainstream print or consciousness until after 2000. Today it is still characteristic mainly of the younger set, but it is creeping into middle-aged mouths and will continue to do so. Already it has shown more staying power than most youth slang, which is usually pretty ephemeral, and it may yet make the roster of long-term vocabulary. Today I saw a t-shirt that said, “God is dope.” At least it didn’t say “Dope is God.”

I wonder why “dope” has held onto the new meaning. (For starters, why an adjective?) The normal purpose of kids’ slang is to confuse adults. The normal way to do that is to take a relatively harmless word and substitute it for whatever you’re trying to conceal. It goes right over the grown-ups’ heads, at least for a while, and then another misleading word comes along. But as late as 2000, “dope” would have had negative associations for many older people — so why turn to it? It does meet the standard of causing confusion, which helps account for its success. Didn’t most of us have to have it explained the first time we heard it? Eighties slogans like “no hope in dope” still ring in my ears, and I would never have guessed “dope” meant “the greatest” unless it was unmistakable from context. The only connection I can imagine runs through potheads admiring a new variety, raving about how good the dope is. “That’s real dope, man” might become “That’s really dope, dude” without too much effort.

My old buddy Charles supplied this week’s expression. It is slangier than the usual subjects, but it’s such a fun word that I couldn’t pass it up. Charles hasn’t steered me wrong yet.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,