Sunday, July 15, 2012

Neurotic Reinvention

The subject is fashion—in the use of words. The occasion is having encountered the word “reinventing” in four different news stories yesterday morning reading the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and the Detroit News. Invention, as such, played no role in any of the situations to which the word was applied. The problems all seemed to be falling sales, unattractive products, diminished brand awareness, or some other form of malady. I stumbled the other morning in the dark and badly hurt my wrist. Was that an occasion for reinventing my wrist? No. I had to do my typing more slowly—and in opening the peanut butter jar, I had to do the twisting with my left hand—which was rather flattered to be asked.

In the 1960s and 70s, as I remember, “neurotic” was a hot word. It wasn’t used in its formal sense, thus as a disease of the nervous system, which dates back to a Scottish physician, William Cullen, who first used it in 1776 (Online Etymology Dictionary). It was used to describe anxious and nervous personalities, troubled people who were annoying. Back in those days all sorts of behaviors were labeled neurotic, and the word was all over. Pondering these two, I luckily remembered Google’s Ngram viewer—which tracks word usage over time. I thought I’d submit these two words to the Ngram. Here is my result:

Well, what do you know! I was right about neurotic. It was a Himalaya in the 1960s. And reinventing, by comparison, was barely visible at that time. Indeed it has still not achieved great currency. To give that word more visibility, I ran it again, paired this time with “level playing field,” another phrase in the fashionable category. Here the results:

What we see here is the take-off of reinventing, closely linked to that of the level field. And, frankly, this pattern causes me to shudder. Looks like these two might still be rising as I depart for the, ah, Elysian Fields.


  1. Fun post! Language usage is a fun topic. I'm just glad that I don't hear as much these days about the "synergies" being reaped as a result of this or that merger...

  2. Oh, and that Ngram Viewer application is clever. Wonder how they go back so far....

    By the way, is it me or has anyone else noticed that the Blogger security words have become much fuzzier? Perhaps its my glasses.

    1. Had the same impression. Brigitte has me looking at them because she has a hard time making them out...


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