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The Word

Modern angst

The new guise of a word we love to fret over

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
July 6, 2008

FRETTING, OBSESSING, BROODING about the Red Sox: It's an old New England tradition. But a new verb has joined that distinguished roster of synonyms for "stew," reports reader Sean Glennon. Now Sox fans are angsting as well.

Glennon recently heard the verb on sports talk radio, where commentator Butch Stearns was explaining his theory that fans are no longer fixated on the team's regular season record. "They're thinking 'I'll angst about [the playoff hopes] in September,' " Stearns said.

And it's not just baseball fans, nor even just Americans. "France is angsting over its wine laws again," said the London Evening Standard recently. HBO's schedule, noted the Washington Post, was "angsting its way through five nights a week of 'In Treatment' " this spring. "I don't spend my life angsting over it," a cancer survivor told the Globe.

Why create another verb, you may be asking, when we're already well supplied with words for worrying? Even anguish, a close relative of angst, is readily available; it's been an English verb since the 14th century. The words share a legacy of pain, thanks to their common Indo-European root that means "tight, constricted," and that also lives on in anger, angina, and hangnail.

(That "hang" in hangnail is an accident of history; the Old English word was ang-naegl, painful spike [in the flesh], a corn. Hangnail came later, by folk etymology.)

But angst as both verb and noun has shades that anguish lacks, thanks to the path it took from German into English. We didn't adopt the generic noun angst, meaning plain old fear, but angst in its specialized sense of existential dread.

The OED's earliest citation is from the English novelist George Eliot, using Angst (as a German word) in a letter: " 'Die Angst' . . . brings on a pain at her heart." That was in 1849, just a few years after Kierkegaard explained to the world that angst was the natural condition of our modern existence.

By the early 20th century, Freud and Sartre and Heidegger were all on the angst bandwagon; the word joined terms like id and superego, mania and phobia, alienation and authenticity, all becoming essential tools for the self-examination everyone was now expected to perform.

And like the rest of those words, it adapted easily to casual, imprecise use. British writer Cyril Connolly gave angst a workout in "The Unquiet Grave," a collection of observations and aphorisms (including "Imprisoned in every fat man a thin man is wildly signaling to be let out").

For Connolly, in 1944, angst had already gone halfway across the bridge connecting Kierkegaard to Larry David. "The secret of happiness lies in the avoidance of Angst," he wrote. "To keep someone waiting or to be kept waiting is a cause of Angst which is out of all proportion to the minor fault of unpunctuality." Angst "lurks in old loves and old letters or in our despair at the complexity of modern life."

By the following decade, Evelyn Waugh was openly mocking "the fashionable agonics of angst." And the adjective angsty makes an appearance, in a punny 1956 headline from Oxford Magazine: "Angsty young men."

The verb, to angst, might have sprung up at any point along this timeline. But so far, I've found angsting - the conveniently searchable form that indicates verbification is in progress - only as far back as the late 1980s. The Oregonian, in Portland, was first, asking readers in 1988 to name the generation just ahead of "the thirtysomethings angsting around out there."

The second-oldest angsting, appropriately enough, turned up in a 1989 review of a Woody Allen film, "Oedipus Wrecks," in the Washington Post: "The perfect cast includes an angsting Allen, Mia Farrow as his comically colorless shiksa fiancee, Julie Kavner as a sensually frumpy psychic and the marvelous Mae Questel."

There's even a past participle, thanks to Kurt Vonnegut, who in 1989 told the Los Angeles Times that his friend Richard Yates was "a very angsted novelist."

Anguishing (or anguished) wouldn't fit these examples. Angsting, with its invocation of (and ironic comment on) our psychobabble-saturated daily lives, does a lot more work, as good slang should. Anguish is heartfelt, but angst - once a grand philosophical concept - is now merely neurotic. We're angsting over our shoes, not our souls.

Like it or not, this modern angst is much in demand. After percolating gently into print through the '90s, the verb has been gaining ground steadily in this decade. And though Americans are stereotyped as slang lovers, angsting is even more popular in the British press than here.

None of this means angst will land a permanent spot on the team of English verbs. But it could turn out to be a verb worth watching - if you're not too angsted to follow the game.

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com. For past columns, go to boston.com/ideas; visit the Word blog at boston.com/ideas/theword.

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