Confessions of a metaphoraholic

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Date: Spring 1995
From: ETC.: A Review of General Semantics(Vol. 52, Issue 1)
Publisher: Institute of General Semantics
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,089 words

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The suffix '-aholics' is a powerful linguistic tool that can turn ordinary words into metaphors by simply connecting the two, as in workaholic and sexaholic. The suffix has its roots from alcoholic, which describes the behaviors associated with an addiction to alcohol, such as denial, lack of an ability to cope without the drug, deception and abuse of others. The entrance of '-aholic' into language may signify a need to escape from the rigors of life.

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In the spring of 1993, I was sitting on a bench in a hotel lobby in Lexington, Kentucky, waiting for a van which would give me a ride to the airport after an academic conference. Next to me on the bench was a man I had never met, but who, like me, was still wearing his conference name tag. I recognized his name and we started talking. (1) Academic conferences, whatever their shortcomings, are still places where you can talk to strangers and not be considered a potential mugger.

I asked him what he was working on. "We're studying talk-aholics," he replied. Right away, I spotted a new metaphor, and, compulsive sleuth that I am, I started quizzing him about it. Where had it come from? Actually, one of their subjects had coined the term. But it was so clear that the researchers had put it on their survey, which they sent out to 800 people. Everybody knew what it meant.

This chance conversation pointed out to me the power of the suffix -aholic. It has the power to create metaphors out of ordinary words, simply through the chemistry of combining with them. In another essay in this series, I noted how the prefix Mc- could create McMetaphors, like McSchool and McPaper. Now, I glimpsed the power of the suffix -aholic, and realized, with a shock, that I might be a metaphoraholic.

A cluster of -aholic metaphors has started to creep into our everyday language. We have the shopaholic, who just can't stop shopping. We have workaholics who devote too much time to work, and not enough time to the rest of their lives. Then there's the chocoholic, addicted to chocolate. Lately we've been hearing about sexaholics, or sex addicts; and foodaholics. I don't know if talkaholic will catch on or not, but it fits into the genre.

The tenor, or underlying ground, for all the -aholic metaphors is, of course, alcoholic. It describes a complex of compulsive behaviors, including loss of control over one's choices, denial that there is a problem, increasing lack of ability to cope without the supporting drug, and deception and abuse of others. Various self-help regimes have arisen to combat this syndrome. They themselves provide elements of the metaphorical territory - the need to confess, "hitting bottom," and surrender to a higher power.

This cluster of -aholic metaphors is but one in a series of drug-related and addiction-related metaphors that have crept into our language since the 1960s. We humorously speak of being junk food junkies or being turned on by someone. Yet all these terms carry with them a sense of dependency, a need for escape, an aura of compulsiveness. Perhaps they are saying something about the quality of life in our current consumer culture. (2)

And so I had to wonder about my own compulsive behavior when it came to metaphors. I search for metaphors everywhere. On the plane, I look at a catalog showing products you can order by phone from the plane. It is called Sky Mall - a metaphor. I start thinking about malls as metaphors for contemporary life - maybe I'll do a piece on that someday. I notice one of the sections of the catalog is called "Jetcetera" - only further fueling my compulsive hunt for metaphors.

Has my search for metaphor interfered with my rational perception? I notice a mental restlessness, an inability to see a thing for "what it is," only for what it might be like. I scan the New York Times, cutting out metaphorical references. I correspond with other metaphoraholics, trading articles and pointing out new coinages. Have I become addicted? I tell myself I am not addicted - but perhaps I am in denial. I think I am happy - but maybe I'm just rationalizing my addiction. Perhaps I need counseling.

Well, I have a confession to make: this isn't really a confession. But the metaphor-making suffix -aholic requires one, so I felt obligated to supply one when writing about it. And it is a means to explore the strange mind trips you can launch when you start to apply the categories of addiction and recovery to your own behavior. Just what is addiction? Just when are you addicted? And how do you know you are not in denial? The answers to these questions are by no means clear, and becoming blurrier all the time.

Of course, we all love to hear "confessions" - a quick scan of the magazine rack will prove that. We are eager to get a peek backstage of other people's lives, to discover whether or not they are prey to the same quirky needs and desires we are.

One writer, whose name I do not recall, said that the main problem of our time was "impulse control." I wonder if this problem is not the inevitable result of a consumer culture which puts so much energy into advertising. Countless times every day we are urged to "see-want-buy," in the words of an advertising textbook.

Studies have shown that people shop more when they are depressed. So our shopaholics are probably depressed people who, instead of dealing with the causes of their depression, try to escape from the symptoms temporarily by shopping. Perhaps similar dynamics are at work with our other -aholics.

In any case, the satisfactions provided by such compulsive behavior are only temporary and partially satisfying. We will have to shop again tomorrow. I am reminded of the Buddhist warning that desire is an enemy, leading to attachment and pain. Is our consumer-advertising machinery a giant apparatus for producing pain? Then all our -aholics will need to search for some higher power that doesn't advertise.


1. The gentleman next to me on the bench was James McCroskey, a Communication professor at West Virginia University.

2. See Gozzi, Raymond, New Words and a Changing American Culture (1990, University of South Carolina Press) Chapter 4, for further discussion of drug-related terms in the language.

Dr. Raymond Gozzi, Jr., is Associate Professor in the Television-Radio Department at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York.

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