Needs (One More Time)

July 10, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Before I read Benjamin Schmidt’s post in the Atlantic (here) about anachronistic language in “Mad Men,” I had never noticed how today we use “need to” where earlier generations would have said “ought to” or “should.” Now, each “need to” jumps out at me from the screen.*  Here is today’s example.

Why not: “Even more proof health care records should go digital”?

In a post a year ago (here), I speculated that the change was part of a more general shift away from the language of morality and towards the language of individual psychology, from what is good for society to what is good for the self.  But now need to has become almost an exact synonym for should. Just as with  issue replacing problem** – another substitution flowing from the brook of psychobabble – the therapy-based origins of need to are an unheard undertone.  Few people reading that headline today will get even a subliminal image of a bureaucratic archive having needs or of health care records going digital so as to bring themselves one Maslow need-level closer to self-actualization.

It looks like need to and issue will stick around for a while. Other terms currently in use may have a shorter life. In the future (or as we now say, going forward), “because + noun” will probably go the way of  “my bad.” Because fashion. And by me, its demise will be just groovy.  I wonder if language scholars have some way of predicting these life-spans. Are there certain kinds of words or phrases that practically announce themselves as mayflies?

Oh well, at the end of the day, the bottom line is that it is what it is.

* As Nabokov says at the end of Speak, Memory “. . . something in a scrambled picture — Find What the Sailor Has Hidden — that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen.”

** In 1970, Jim Lovell would not have said, “Houston, we have an issue.”  But if a 2014 remake of “Apollo 13” had that line, and if the original weren’t so well known,  most people wouldn’t notice.

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