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OnWords: Anxiety

As a new school year gets under way, both students and teachers are likely to report some anxiety.

“Anxiety” is a word with both clinical and common meanings, part of the complex dance we have with such terms in a culture driven by science and technology. In this case, it shows how language users borrow words from science when they resonate with how we feel—and how we want to feel about how we feel. 

The word anxiety itself obliges those feelings by also sounding like what we go through. Out-breathing the “a” sound gets bunched up and caught in the throat by the “n” and the “x.” Saying the word “anxiety” is almost like choking on it, mimicking the throat tightness we might feel in an anxious state.

Yet using the word “anxiety” instead of, say, the word “nervous,” also suggests a need to invoke a medical state. We feel nervous, but we have anxiety. Nervousness is a state or emotion, like anger or joy, and therefore passing. But anxiety we reference the same way we would getting an infection or ingesting a toxin.   

In other words, how we use the word “anxiety” indicates its metaphorical associations. And as we use the word more and more, we reinforce these associations.

But it also allows us some clinical distance: if anxiety is in the realm of medical expertise, the trouble is outside of us, something to treat instead of something to own.

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.