Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Fashions in Words

Words turn fashionable and then fade; they also undergo gradual changes in meaning. This occurred to me this morning jotting notes—because, long ago, I used to call my diary entries “neurotic writings.” Today it occurred to me that “neurotic,” and its root “neurosis” have gone out of fashion. In the 1950s, 1960s you heard the world all the time. Back in those days the word “hysteria” still carried a palpable linkage to its origin in “hysterical,” thus “of the womb,” thought to be a female “neurosis” arising from a dysfunction of the uterus. Hysterical laughter is uncontrolled—and therefore disorderly.

Now neurosis is as old as the United States. It was coined by a Scottish doctor William Cullen in 1776. It stayed happily hidden in the medical lexicon until Freudian psychiatry launched it into popular speech in the 1920s; by mid-century it was a pop word; since then it has almost disappeared. The dictionary calls it “a functional nervous disorder without demonstrable physical lesion.” This makes the word very handy and entirely dependent on how we define “disorder.” In a society where you’re supposed to be chatty, cheery, jolly, and adaptive—social, active, with-it, and grabbing the gusto—a moody, dark, questioning, and solitary temperament could and was labeled neurotic even when everything in the environment, viewed rationally anyway, would indeed strongly support a gloomy view. Has the world changed—or has language? Are more people quite naturally a lot more alert and questioning now that the credit card has maxed and the job’s gone by-be-bye? For a lot of people now looking outward produces a quite natural caution—and to give this stance the mildest label of “mental disorder” may not be fitting any more.

My favorite instance of a word that has changed value-tone is “gothic.” It used to mean rude, barbaric, backward but has now gained a more positive meaning. We no longer think of gothic cathedrals as forbiddingly ugly and of Rococo as divine. And lots of us these days use the phrase “modern architecture” much as the Baroque Era used the word gothic—with a face suggestive of revulsion—especially when it’s super-added to a venerable Renaissance structure by some hysterical architect known by only one name.

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