Cultural Studies: Obsessed? You’re Not Alone

March 23rd, 2013

Sharing an Amtrak car recently with four chatty debutantes on their way to a cotillion in Boston, powerless not to eavesdrop, I started cataloging all the vernacular expressions they emphatically overused, transcribing the choicest dialogue to Facebook. (“They’re just jealous of her.” “They’re jealous.” “Because she’s pretty. And has a nice personality.” “She’s pretty.” “So jealous.”) But the short phrase that so got my attention was “I’m obsessed.”

“I hear it all the time,” said Sofia Cavallo, an online editor for the fashion retailer Opening Ceremony who is in her mid-20s. In her industry, “the older set is probably less inclined to use exaggeration,” Ms. Cavallo noted, deeming it “very much specific to our generation.”

When and why did this verb, which once connoted a serious psychological disorder, become hijacked by the fashionable young women (and a few men) of America?

The word “obsessed,” tracked by Google Ngram’s search in books, sees a sharp rise from 1900 to 1920, then a slow and steady increase to 2008 (when Ngram data stops). The phrase “I’m obsessed,” however, is flat and low until the mid-’50s, after which it steeply ascends. The first instance of “I’m obsessed” shows up in the New York Times archive in 1967. There are four examples from that year, and then not again until 1969, in a Joan Baez profile. After that, they’re few and far between, with a five-year gap between 1980 and 1985, totaling just 19 by the end of that year. It heats up a little after that, but remains sporadic, with just 98 total entries through 2007. Then, around 2008, “I’m obsessed” takes off.

It’s now entrenched in our everyday informal language, most often employed by young women, from InStyle’s daily “We’re Obsessed!” feature (one object of obsession: a $ 4,000 Fendi bag) to the ironically titled gossip site A Twitter search for “I’m obsessed” at any time of the day will bring up approximately five results per minute (a recent sampling of obsessions deemed worthy for public display: cream soda, cardigans, ketchup, one girl’s own eyes).

One reason for the mainstreaming of “obsessed,” in fact, may be the very mental malady with which we associate it. According to the World Health Organization, obsessive-compulsive disorder is one of the top 20 causes worldwide among adults for illness-related disability. Formerly a rare diagnosis, it is “the obsessive disease of our time,” said Lennard J. Davis, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of “Obsession: A History” (not to mention “Go Ask Your Father: One Man’s Obsession to Find Himself, His Origins, and the Meaning of Life Through Genetic Testing”).

Erin McKean, founder of the online dictionary Wordnik.com, said she sees it “as a parallel to a word like ‘neurotic,’ which, like ‘obsessed,’ started as a diagnosis and ended up as an adjective that became more social than clinical.”

Though some negative associations linger (boiled bunny, anyone?), saying “I’m obsessed with” as opposed to “I love” might also advertise the speaker’s intellectual heft, given its scholarly implications of philosophers and researchers being obsessed with problems — much as “random” is most closely linked to the highbrow realm of statistical probability. In addition, there’s the sibilant pleasure of hissing those multiple s’s, allowing for an extended “I’m obsessed,” as opposed to clunkier alternatives like “I’m infatuated.”

And while Ms. McKean cautioned that it’s difficult to pinpoint why a word goes viral, I think the introduction of Calvin Klein’s Obsession fragrance, in 1985, and the risqué ads and haunting commercial in 1993 featuring Kate Moss whispering the word over and over, helped bring it into lexical prominence. That campaign, said Professor Davis, was “a perfect example” of our culture “that’s geared to obsession.”

“We think that things are not good unless we’re obsessed about them,” he continued. “If you’re only mildly interested in your partner, that’s not as hot as being obsessed about somebody. Being blandly detached and mild seems like a failure.” Contrary to our claims of obsession, Professor Davis believes that “the generation now is very low key — the emotions are flat — compared to movies from the ’50s, when people look sentimental.” Consequently, he said, “it inflates the language. We’re using this powerful word, but lowering the standard by having everybody be obsessed by everything.” (This jibes with a general culture of hyperbole on the Internet, where in an attempt to stand out from the noise, everything is the best. Thing. EVER!)

Teddy Wayne is the author of the novels “The Love Song of Jonny Valentine” and “Kapitoil.”

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