Houston, We Have an Issue

October 27, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

When did problems become issues?

I remember when an issue was a point of contention, something people disagreed about, like the issues in a political campaign. Now, an issue can be just another difficulty, or what we used to call “a problem.”*

This morning my orthopedist told me that he too has “shoulder issues,” especially when he’s under stress and unconsciously tenses his shoulders. I wanted to say that I didn’t have issues, I had pain, and that the pain was a problem.

But I didn’t. Not enough time. This doctor works fast, and talks fast. “Trap strain” was his diagnosis, and it took him about as long to make it as it took you to read this sentence.

I and everyone I’ve mentioned it to think that issues started among psychotherapists. Patients’s problems became “issues.” (“You seem to have an issue with women you perceive as powerful.”) Those patients were disproportionately educated and wealthy; more of them also might have worked in the media. A Robert Weber New Yorker cartoon shows two parents as their infant child in a highchair throws food wildly all over the kitchen. The caption: “He has some food issues.”

That was in 1999, and apparently issues was fresh enough to be funny to New Yorker readers and their therapists. But I suspect that it was already late in the day and that the term was already filtering out into much broader use. I doubt that the magazine would publish that cartoon today. Last May, their “Ask the Author” page contained the sentence, “There are allergies, peculiar diets, and all sorts of food issues.” And nobody was chuckling.

So it all starts with psychotherapy and the media elite, to use a term of denigration popular on the right (George W. Bush used to pronounce it as a single word – “medialeet”). It then flowed downward and outward, much like fashions in names and clothing. To repeat an anecdote I used in an earlier post on language, only few years after that cartoon appeared, I heard a burly jock, a former defensive lineman for the Jets, talking about the team’s prospects in the upcoming season. “Well, the Jets have right tackle issues.”

At least, that’s my guess. But I need some some evidence. If I were a linguist, I’d know how to track these changes. I tried Lexis-Nexis, searching for “has an issue.” But Lex thought I was just kidding about the has, despite my using quotation marks, and it returned everything with the word issue.

I wish I could figure out how to solve this problem. Or do I mean how to resolve this issue?

*Issue as a point of contention is not the earliest meaning of the word, but it does go back to at least the early 1500s. My OED, admittedly not a recent edition, does not even mention the problem sense of the word.


PCM said...

Seems to me like your issue is not quite a "situation," is which a "problem" has a certain time-sensative aspect.

How about a New York Times search? It can recoginize the "has," but determining the context of "issues" requires more time that I have right now.

Jay Livingston said...

Right. Situation is another of those overused words. I recall a British comedy sketch where they were being Americans (executives? military?) saying things like, "We've got a situation here. . . ." and more elaborate sentences with multiple use of the word.

trrish said...

I watch the show "Mad Men", and sometimes a phrase comes up in that show that makes me think - 'really? we were using that phrase back then?'. Such as "being on the same page" or "emotional baggage".

An interesting place to seach is Google Books. In the advanced search, you can look between two publication dates. I found "emotional baggage" being used in psychology writings as far back as 1920.

It won't give you the original source, but it can help with timeline.

"has an issue" is a tough one because of "stock issues" or other defs of "issue". It's in an interesting issue :-)