Poor Little Rich Word

“You can’t be too rich or too thin.”

Barry Popik, contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and the Sherlock Holmes of etymology, traces this slogan to several disreputable socialites. One suspect was the Duchess of Windsor, who also said, “All my friends know that I’d rather shop than eat.”

The twin insidious lies of “You can’t be too rich or too thin” helped spread two dread dis‑eases: anorexia and affluenza.

Hamodia’s Inyan magazine recently ran a series on the devastating effects of the “Affluenza Epidemic.” Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis was quoted: “Children are taught to need this game and that sneaker … Europe was ravaged by influenza. … Today we … are being affected by affluenza, which is so much worse. …”

The word affluenza is a portmanteau, or blend word. It combines the sound and meaning of two other words: affluence and influenza. The idea is that affluence — extreme wealth — can be an affliction.

When I was a kid, people were less conspicuous about their consumption. Like the story of the guy who gets hit by a car. … Medics arrive and administer first aid. Then, after putting a blanket on him and a pillow under his head, a medic asks, “Are you comfortable?”

Barely above a whisper, he gasps, “I make a living …”

Then came what economist John Kenneth Galbraith called The Affluent Society — a term defined in Safire’s Political Dictionary as “a semi-critical view of the economic condition of the U.S.: rich and booming, with undertones of unrest from those not participating in the affluence.”

Now let’s try a quiz. I’ll give you a definition and you guess the source:

“Affluenza: A social condition arising from the desire to be more wealthy, successful or to ‘keep up with the Joneses.’ Affluenza is symptomatic of a culture that holds up financial success as one of the highest achievements. … People … find that the very economic success they have been so vigorously chasing ends up leaving them feeling unfulfilled, and wishing for yet more wealth. … Those wishing to avoid the condition should look to be the master of, not a slave to, the things they have or wish to obtain.”

Nope, that was not from John Kenneth Galbraith. And it wasn’t from Occupy Wall Street or some leftist publication. It was Investopedia — the finance and investment educational service.

Maybe that shouldn’t really be so surprising. Barry Popik cites a source for an old adage in a 1905 N.Y. Times “Topics in Wall Street” article. It quotes a speculator who sold out a high-priced stock. Then the stock continued to go up in value. “Instead of reproaching himself he said: ‘I have seen bears make money down here, and I have seen bulls make money, but I have never known a hog to make any.’”

The OED defines affluenza: “A psychological condition supposedly affecting (esp. young) wealthy people, symptoms of which include a lack of motivation, feelings of guilt, and a sense of isolation.”

Affluenza hit national headlines in 2013 when 16-year-old Ethan Couch got drunk in Fort Worth, Texas, then drove his Ford F-350 pickup truck … right into a group of people.

He killed four and critically injured two more.

Couch did not get the 20 years in prison the prosecutor asked for. He got 10-months probation. And he was sent to a therapy center. The judge ruled Couch was not responsible for his actions. He was declared a victim of what a psychologist expert witness called affluenza: Because of his parents’ affluence, he never had to face any consequences for his actions. So he didn’t know right from wrong.

Stay with me now. Watch how words can take on a life of their own — unintended by their originators. The earliest citation in the OED for affluenza is not a psychological study. It’s a 1973 newspaper article, “Burdens of the Rich,” by columnist Ray Orrock. And it was coined in a sense quite different from its current use.

Orrock was commenting on the book Children of the Rich, by a Los Angeles psychiatrist who treated what we used to call “poor little rich kids.” The doctor called the malady of his patients “dysgradia” — a failure to identify with role models and internalize values. They lack any connection between what they do and what they get.

Orrock’s take on dysgradia was an “anxiety that stems from a lack of goals in the lives of people with more money than they know what to do with.” He then listed some medical discoveries of his own, such as what he called “flatbrokia — a vague uneasiness about where your next meal is coming from …”

“The worst of all,” he said, “may be one I find myself afflicted with from time to time: … Affluenza — the morbid desire to contract a severe case of dysgradia.” 


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