[Ads-l] "burn(-)out", absent from OED

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Jun 3 12:19:05 EDT 2021

I read with interest Jill Lepore's article on “burn(-)out”, n. and “burn out”, v. prt. in a recent New Yorker, recalling Eckert’s classic work on the role of jocks and burnouts in suburban Detroit as evidence for social factors in language change.


I was surprised to find the lexical item completely absent from the OED (aside from the literal instances of “burn out” involving the trajectory of actual combustion and its direct metaphorical extensions), but I guess it’s a question of timing as to when the entries are updated.  If Lepore is right about the history, there should be nothing citable for the compound noun before Freudenberger’s 1974 piece in the Journal of Social Issues, but I’m not sure whether that would also hold for the particle verb (on the metaphorical reading).  It would also be interesting to know when the first metonymic use of “burnout” (applied to those diagnosed with the eponymous symptom) was invoked. To be sure, there’s a difference between the specific cultural referents in the 1970s and the more general application to those burned out not on booze or drugs but on overwork or, well, life.  The metonym (“X is a burnout”) may be restricted to the more specific cause but the compound noun corresponding to the disorder (“X is suffering from burnout”, i.e. a certain kind of malaise), like the verb form, is more general.  

So I opened my HDAS, which of course has a relevant entry for the metonymic use, which Jon classifies as student slang and glosses as ’a person whose intellect, sensibilities,etc. have been notably impaired through habitual abuse of drugs or alcohol; (hence) a shiftless or ineffectual person, (later) a person…who dresses unconventionally and is often pessimist or antisocial’).  The first cite is from “Urban Life & Culture":

1973  One becomes totally dependent on drugs (a “burn out” who cannot honor commitments to friends…)  

The fact that this antedates Freudenberger’s journal piece makes it look as if the metonymic use at least was around earlier.  Not sure about the particle verb underlying the noun (“burned out on…”). Jon may be able to fill in the gaps.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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