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The Word

The issue with issues

Or is ‘problem’ a problem?

By Jan Freeman
June 28, 2009
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THE WORD issues bothers a fair number of people, including reader David Devore, who recently sent me a link to a language complaint in the Times of London - along with the warning, “watch out for escaping steam.” And indeed, the Times letter writer was at the boiling point. “In the media, in the pub, at the bus stop,” fulminated G.B., “no one ever refers to their ‘problems’; they only have ‘issues.’ ”

Mr. B. is a victim of the Frequency Illusion, to use the term coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky. He’s listening for issues, so he hears the word often, and imagines that it’s everywhere. In fact, in the specific usage he objects to - having issues instead of having problems - the problems version is still way, way ahead of issues. A Google News search finds that having problems is 10 times as common as having issues. Limit the search to UK sources and the ratio is even more lopsided, with problems leading issues by 18 to 1.

But Mr. B.’s analysis is more puzzling than his failure to check the facts. For him, the advance of issues is part of an Orwellian plot to solve our “problems” by simply eliminating the word. “This, of course, is a product of the ‘no problem’ culture in which all difficulties depend on one’s point of view, and are open to debate,” he explains. “The word ‘problem’ is politically incorrect.”

This baffled me for a moment - I couldn’t recall anyone calling problem a demeaning or insensitive word - but then I realized that Mr. B. must think “politically incorrect” is a synonym for “euphemism.” In his view, when we use the word issues we are failing to face up to our problems, and there goes civilization as we know it.

(Of course, Mr. B. is probably one of those people who protest loudly when a clerk or waiter answers a request with “no problem,” as if there’s something inherently rude about the phrase. Yes, that peeve has made its way across the pond.)

It’s true that one use of the word issues is a recent invention. But it’s not here by mandate from Big Brother. In fact, if you have an issue with your neighbor - a dispute over a fence, say - you’re using a word that began as a 14th-century legal term (as in “issue of fact”). The meaning broadened over time, says the Oxford English Dictionary, to mean “matter in contention” and then a matter involving important consequences. Our modern political issues shows up in an 1898 citation from the Westminster Gazette: “In the absence of issues politics become a question of self-interest.”

The OED treats the modern issues - a plural, originally American usage, meaning “emotional or psychological difficulties” - as a different animal, first sighted in 1982 in the New York Times: “How do you deal with the emotions and intimacy issues that were largely dealt with previously through alcohol?”

That sense seems likely to have washed in with the tide of psychobabble from the 1970s, and in a 1998 language column, William Safire suggested that issues was psychoanalytic jargon. But Safire also gave examples of sculptors and plastics engineers using issues to mean problems. And that usage appears decades earlier in political contexts, where issues means either “important matters” (as in 1898) or, later, simply “problems to deal with.”

For instance, a CBS transcript quotes Senator Estes Kefauver, who died in 1963, saying, “We’ll have issues of peace, we’ll have issues of what our defense structure is going to be, we’ll have issues of interest rates.” And by 1971, when ex-Attorney General Ramsey Clark - quoted in the New Yorker - says “I really think this country has issues,” his usage sounds a lot like our “personal conflict” sense. So our issues may have been borrowed from politics and retooled for personal use by psychologists, educators, and ordinary citizens.

For politicians, issues may well have served as a euphemism, suggesting something more abstract and complicated than mere problems like unemployment and potholes. But issues aren’t always problems; they are also anxieties, conflicts, and disagreements. And if the word is meant to make those conflicts sound less dire, isn’t that a good thing? After all, anyone who’d rather have problems than issues is welcome to them.

. . .

HAIL MS. MASSACHUSETTS: This week brought exciting news in the sport of antedating, with Ben Zimmer, of the Visual Thesaurus website, announcing that he’d traced the idea for the honorific Ms. back to 1901. The Ms. proposal appeared in the Springfield Republican, where a writer noted the inconvenience of having to choose between Mrs. and Miss when you had no way (or reason) to know a woman’s marital status. (No, it wasn’t a feminist rallying cry.) For details and links, see The Word blog: www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/theword.

E-mail Jan Freeman at mailtheword@gmail.com. For past columns, go to boston.com/ideas.