The latest addition to the proscribed lexicon is stress, a word with legitimate applications in biology, poetry and structural engineering. In the human realm, the Marines on Iwo Jima were under stress, and so are the innocents in Syria, but in American vernacular usage, stress can be roughly defined as “the way I feel when something is happening, usually something I’ve voluntarily created, that I don’t like.” In short, stress is what used to be known as self-pity and a taste for over-dramatizing, and serves as an excuse for lousy behavior – whining, complaining, verbally assaulting others. Many assume life, beautiful life, has never in human history been so fraught with stress.
In a 1961 interview with Stevie Smith (The Poet Speaks, 1966), Peter Orr asked if she thought people are “more conscious today of the world around us than perhaps our parents were.” Smith agrees that “everyday things impinge tremendously and always have,” and that serious writers learn to eliminate or come to terms with such distractions. She asks:
“So aren’t we being rather unphilosophical, parochial really, about this idea that life is so different today? We rather seem to pride ourselves like children saying, `Never have things been so bad.’ But they have been much worse, surely, in the past. This is a sort of childish boasting, I think—that we are in such a parlous state nowadays. I should think we are not really.”
Citing the growing presence of television and mass communications, Orr asks Smith if the world might not be “too much with us.” She answers:
“Yes, but it needn’t be, you see. This is the terrible excuse people make. They are free agents, they must learn to say no. They are not forced to look at television, though I think it would be foolish to say, `No, I won’t look at it at all.’ I think choosing is using human freedom. You know [E.M.] Forster always said [at least in Howards End], `Connect, only connect.’ Well, I should say, Select, only select.’”