What I’m about to write is a eulogy for nouns like “problem,” “concern,” and “question.” These were once serviceable words, carrying specific meanings and capable of being “solved,” “addressed,” and “answered.” They were unpretentious, too, never claiming to be more profound than they are.
Let us all bow our heads in silence as they enter the land of the No. 2 pencil, the typewriter and the handwritten thank-you note.
In our brave new world of instant communication, these dinosaurs have been replaced by an upstart word that used to have specific meanings. When someone referred to an “issue,” we understood that the speaker was talking about a copy of a newspaper, magazine or periodical. Political “issues” were things that politicians argued about — taxation, voting rights and military preparedness, for example. Offspring were said to be the “issue” of a particular family; proceeds from an estate were also identified as “issue.”
Somewhere along the usage highway, however, we took the wrong exit and started labeling any problem or question an “issue.” I suspect that the usage might have been born out of the age of psychobabble, when a Dr. Phil’s clinical approach required the employment of neutral language to avoid placing blame on anyone.
Thus, when some lost soul announced to his therapist that he hated his mother, he was told that he must deal with his “anger issues.” Athletes were then described as having “injury issues,” and people struggling to pay bills were facing “money issues.”
It somehow now seemed mundane to be angry or injured or broke; adding “issues” to these conditions made them more dramatic and in need of therapy.
With the birth of the 24-hour news cycle, proliferating talk and reality shows and ubiquitous ESPN commentators, the “issues” virus has gone viral and shows no sign of abating. School children struggle with “homework issues”; overweight citizens are wrestling with “food issues” (as a result of “weight issues”); slumping basketball players face “scoring issues”; and troubled married couples are dealing with “relationship issues.”
It seems that we so strongly desire to characterize our daily struggles as symptoms that we’ve senselessly latched on to a word that sounds cool (or clinical) but requires an adjective to give it any kind of meaning. “Issues” is now so deeply imbedded in our discourse that we don’t even question its euphemistic quality or how quickly it has become a cliché.
As we scatter dirt on the coffins of “problem,” “question,” and “concern,” let’s remember for a moment why they were valued. We didn’t have to add an adjective to modify them: “anger” was clearly a “problem” and didn’t become an even greater one by linking it to “issue.” It could be “solved” by counting to 10 or leaving the room and was not something in need of extended professional therapy. And, let’s face it, we all have “problems” that are shared and not unique; when we use the word, we tend to lessen the blow by acknowledging that others have them, too.
Perhaps if we revived “problems” instead of embracing “issues,” we’d begin to talk (not text or tweet) to one another about them and come to realize that ours aren’t such an “issue” after all.
Robert Willson is professor emeritus of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.