October 29, 2010
America and the ‘Fun’ Generation
By ANAND GIRIDHARADAS
CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS — From the first years of the American republic, a quiet battle has simmered over the words that denote the nation’s soul. And now a count can declare the victors: “achievement” and “fun.”
From the 1810s to the 2000s, the frequency of “achievement” in written American English grew elevenfold, according to a search of the Corpus of Historical American English, a database of 107,000 newspapers, magazines, novels, plays and film scripts. In the same period, the frequency of “fun” multiplied by more than eight times.
Meanwhile, another pair of words met an opposite fate. As talk of “achievement” soared over two centuries, the term “excellence” dropped out of favor, also elevenfold. As “fun” gained influence, mentions of “pleasure” fell by a factor of four.
In the history of language, words rise and fall. We make and remake them; they make and remake us.
The story of a word is as complex as a hurricane. It is difficult to know for sure how it catches on, meets new needs, acquires new valences. It is impossible to blame the decline of one word on the rise of another.
But in the destinies of these two pairs of words is a suggestion of a turning in American culture, and one that has influenced the world. It is a turning away from an arguably aristocratic idea of the intrinsic worth of things: from pleasure, with its sense of an internal condition of mind, to fun, so closely affiliated with outward activities; from excellence, an inner trait whose attainment is its own reward, to achievement, which comes through slogging and recognition.
Merriam-Webster defines “pleasure” as “a state of gratification,” while fun is “what provides amusement or enjoyment; specifically, playful, often boisterous, speech or action.” It defines “excellence” as “the quality of being excellent,” which in turn means “very good of its kind: eminently good.” “Achievement,” meanwhile, is “a result gained by effort.”
The arc of American usage from “pleasure” to “fun” can be traced in the corpus’s database. In an 1812 play, John Blake White wrote, “Wherefore wealth, if not to purchase pleasure? Wherefore health, if not to taste, when pleasure holds the cup and bids us drink.” By 2009, this line from the novelist Hyatt Bass was more typical: “Come on. Don’t you think it’s fun to have a bottle of wine that was released the same month you got engaged?”
“Pleasure” carries a hint of the sublime; it speaks of a state of mind that comes organically, that need not be artificially induced.
“Fun,” though almost synonymous with “pleasure” for contemporary speakers, often involves artificial inducement. You don’t feel fun; you do a fun thing. And fun has no hint of elitism, whereas pleasure vaguely does.
Gushing waterfalls provide pleasure; games of paintball, in which friends playfully (and sometimes painfully) shoot one another with pellets of paint, provide fun. A long, gabby dinner party may well be a “pleasure”; a crowded, sweat-laced night at the six-deep bar is more likely to be termed “fun.”
If “pleasure” comes from being and from talking through ideas, “fun” comes from doing and, often, switching off the brain. The change perhaps partly accounts for the American insistence on activities for all occasions, rather than trusting pleasure to develop on its own.
Rare is the American corporate retreat or after-Thanksgiving party that does not involve a skit or contest or session of Nintendo Wii. Where others might eat, drink and talk, Americans often create themes and talent shows.
In “Eat, Pray, Love,” the best-selling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, she describes discovering the Italian idea of pleasure as if it were a buried city: “During my first few weeks in Italy, all my Protestant synapses were zinging in distress, looking for a task. I wanted to take on pleasure like a homework assignment.” She concludes that “Americans have an inability to relax into sheer pleasure. Ours is an entertainment-seeking nation, but not necessarily a pleasure-seeking one.”
Italians, on the other hand, have mastered “bel far niente,” the beauty of doing nothing, Ms. Gilbert writes.
Then there is the arc from “excellence” to “achievement.” Consider this sentence, from an 1813 poem: “would she thus a moral teach; / That man should see, but never reach, / The height of excellence, and show / The vanity of works below?”
And this one, from a 2005 biography: “the young man pursues his dream while others scoff, he undertakes a lonely journey from the country to the city in search of fulfillment, overcomes obstacles with a combination of pluck, determination, and talent, and finally rises to heights of achievement and prosperity.”
“Excellence” evokes Aristotle with its overtones of virtue. Anyone can achieve, in garbage collection or neurosurgery, but how many can truly be excellent?
“The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along lines of excellence,” President John F. Kennedy once said.
“Achievement” is a word more likely to come from American leaders today, and, like “fun,” it is outward in nature. It comes in doing specific things. It is more about checking boxes than fulfilling inner potentialities.
The achievement culture permeates life today. From elementary-school testing to the incessant pressure to overschedule as a university student, educational culture emphasizes the racking up of achievements over intellectual crackle. Wall Street stumbled in part because so many chased achiever bonuses while neglecting the pursuit of excellence in their vocation. An American culture of instantaneous celebrity teaches young people that fame is an end in itself rather than an incidental symptom of excellence in craft.
The world in which “pleasure” and “excellence” roared was less equitable than our world today. It shut out vast categories of humankind. In the intervening years, those exclusions dwindled; the world opened up for so many, not least in the United States. But with that change has come another: what would seem to be a growing intolerance for merely being, and an anguished insistence on doing, doing, doing.
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