Going Through a Phrase: Psyched Up

By Mordechai Schiller

Pull up a chair. I’ve got a story for you. It may even be true.

Back in the ’60s, a psychology professor at Brooklyn College used to ask his students what they had dreamed. Then he’d give a Freudian interpretation of their dreams. A yeshivah guy in the class, uncomfortable with the discussions, kept telling the professor that he never dreams.

One day, after repeated urging, he told the professor, “I had a dream last night.”

“Great! What did you dream?”

“I dreamed there were seven fat cows and seven skinny cows. And the seven skinny cows ate the seven fat cows…”

The other religious students stifled their laughter as the yeshivah guy went on to recite Pharaoh’s dream (Bereishis 41:1-4) — with feeling. The professor, who was versed in psychology, was clearly clueless about the Bible — a foundation of Western civilization.

In Ideals of a Student (1933), the English economist Sir Josiah Stamp quoted an already-old aphorism: “The time has gone by when we can say that education is ‘the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the ignorant by the incompetent.’”

Before the early 1900s, Western society looked for answers to life’s questions in the Bible and Commentaries. (Relax. I’m not a Rabbi and this is not a sermon. Guaranteed: No atheists were harmed in the production of this column.)

Those of a more secular bent sought wisdom in the classics of literature. Poets, playwrights, and novelists offered their own insights into what makes people tick and how they should live. How did we start seeing everything through the lens of psychology? When did psychology become the criterion for understanding human nature?

Around 1910, our language got caught in a Viennese crunch.

Sol Steinmetz, in There’s a Word for It The Explosion of the American Language Since 1900, wrote that, starting around 1910, the Viennese school of psychoanalysis created terminology that has had a lasting impact on how we speak and think. Soon it seemed everybody was talking about things like the psyche (the human mind, or soul — Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, ODP); repression (a defense mechanism whereby unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or wishes are banished from consciousness — ODP); and the unconscious (a part of the mind containing repressed instincts and their representative wishes, ideas, and images that are not accessible to direct examination — ODP).

What was once the domain of religion and philosophy became the domain of psychotherapists. Values vacated. Mental health moved in. The cardinal sin was guilt. Mass murderers weren’t called evil anymore. They were called sick.

Now that’s crazy.

Another word comes to mind: psychologism (an exaggeration of the importance or significance of psychology; a belief that psychology is the basis of philosophy or of all natural and social sciences; any unjustified or fanciful psychological explanation for a non-psychological phenomenon — ODP).

So how did a school of shrinks change how we think and speak?

(Warning: The following definition is not for the squeamish. If you tend to squeam, please skip the next paragraph.)

Do you know why psychiatrists and psychologists are called shrinks? It comes from headshrinkers, referring to certain tribal societies with gruesome practices frowned upon in polite society. Following that cheerful thought, OED’s second definition of headshrinker is a metaphor: “colloquial (originally and chiefly U.S.). A person who treats mental health problems; a psychotherapist, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, etc.”

(OK, it’s safe to continue reading now.)

Many of the quotes attributed to Samuel Goldwyn were made up by his staff of writers. But according to Leo Rosten, Goldwyn actually said, “Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.” While we’re on the subject, I like Rosten’s definition of a psychoanalyst: “A Jewish doctor who hates the sight of blood.”

Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are psychologists. One of them even told me I’m one of the most normal people he knows. He didn’t say, though, if that was compared to his patients.

In 1975, R.D. Rosen coined a new word: psychobabble. In a book review for The Boston Phoenix, he wrote, “We are living, practically no one has to be reminded, in a therapeutic age. The sign in every storefront reads: ‘Psychobabble spoken here.’ Personal liberation, relating, being in touch with one’s feelings (an aspiration that sadly presumes we are so out of touch with our feelings that we must now make a project of reclaiming them) …”

OED defined psychobabble as “Language including technical terms and concepts of psychology used pretentiously to discuss personality, relationships, and other everyday issues; psychological jargon regarded as meaningless or trite.”

Dr. Benzion Twerski, a psychologist, told me, “I actually encounter psychobabble regularly in my office, and it becomes a clinical issue. The jargon is so prevalent that it frequently overshadows real material and sends me on a guessing game to ascertain what the real issues are.” Some of his patients are so hooked on psychobabble that they look puzzled when the doctor asks them, “What on earth do you mean?”

To the psychobabblers, to ask their meaning is demeaning. We have packaged our language in shrink-wrap.

But don’t worry. It’s all in your head.

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to language@hamodia.com

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