As a primary school child in the late 1970s, I remember singing a song with the chorus “caring and sharing, caring and sharing.” Even at the time, this ditty struck me as irritating. Unfortunately, the melody has etched itself into my brain, along with “Kumbaya” and other classics of state sector spirituality.
When and how did the word “caring” become so ubiquitous? Amateurs like me are now able to answer such questions with tolerable precision thanks to the Time Magazine Corpus. This free internet research tool spans every issue of Time magazine from 1923 to 2006—a total of 100m words. A click of the mouse reveals the changing fortune of any word or phrase decade by decade. Further clicks bring up surrounding sentences, uncovering shifts of meaning and emphasis. Of course, Time magazine is not the English language as a whole, or even American English. Still, it is sufficiently wide-ranging and middlebrow to count as a decent representative sample.
A glance at the Time corpus shows the word “caring” creep across the language like wet rot. From two words per million in the 1920s, it rose to 4.5 in the 1970s and eight in the 1980s, peaking at 14.5 in the 1990s. Its meaning has at the same time broadened. Originally a present participle with medical or domestic overtones—“she is caring for an elderly relative”—it changed in the mid-1970s into an all-round virtue. Persons, actions and attitudes can now all be caring or uncaring. The word “sensitive” has undergone a parallel transformation. Once used only in connection with avant-garde artists and victims of nervous disorders, it is today a general denominator of tact. So caring and sensitive are we all that an unsuspecting visitor from the past might infer a mass outbreak of neurasthenia.
If caring and sensitive were simply synonyms for “benevolent,” there would be little to object to. But they are more than this; they are words whose root association is with debility and its management. “Caring” in the strict sense is what is done to children, the old and the sick. It implies a relationship of tutelage: one “has” or is “in the” care of. How strange that this same word now designates one of our chief virtues? We are not far from Goethe’s dystopian vision of the world as a great hospital, in which everyone is nurse to everyone else.
Edward Skidelsky is a lecturer in…