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Words that think for us: the past is always present

Seeking closure from the self-help lexicon

By Edward Skidelsky   December 2010

Psychologists have defined the way we speak about ourselves for almost a century. Words like “repressed,” “introverted” and “anal” have long since escaped their original therapeutic niche and entered general speech. Clinical psychiatry has also contributed its share: “autistic,” for instance, can now be used of anyone a bit nerdy. But the most important recent additions come not from psychoanalysis or psychiatry but from the world of self-help. Three of these—“damage,” “baggage” and “closure”—are particularly revealing. All three originated in America in the 1990s.

Damage connotes harm that is permanent, or at least hard to undo. A damaged vase can be…

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