Affluenza: “A painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” – Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, by John de Graaf et al. (originally published 2001). Coined from affluence and influenza. Affluenza is sometimes defined as a contemporary version of “keeping up with the Joneses.”*
Last week, a juvenile-court judge in Texas apparently took the “influenza” part of “affluenza” seriously when she sentenced Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old from a wealthy Fort Worth family, to a mere 10 years’ probation for killing four people and critically wounding two others in a drunken-driving car crash. Prosecutors had sought a 20-year prison sentence, according to a New York Times story:
Judge [Jean] Boyd did not discuss her reasoning for her order, but it came after a psychologist called by the defense argued that Mr. Couch should not be sent to prison because he suffered from “affluenza” — a term that dates at least to the 1980s to describe the psychological problems that can afflict children of privilege.
A USA Today story went into more detail about the affluenza “affliction,” defining it as a condition “in which children — generally from richer families — have a sense of entitlement, are irresponsible, and make excuses for poor behavior because parents have not set proper boundaries.” The legal ploy quickly was dubbed “the affluenza defense.”
The term in fact dates back to at least October 1979, according to Word Spy, but its earliest documented use—by the Washington Post critic Tom Shales, who may have offhandedly coined the word—was in a nonmedical context. Writing about the author Ann Beattie, Shales noted that “a Boston paper even referred to the people she writes about, usually disenchanted orphans of Affluenza, as The Beattie Generation.”
[Update: A message last week from Christopher Phipps on the American Dialect Society listserv included a 2001 Chicago Tribune article about new words that traced “affluenza” back to 1954. A follow-up message, from Garson O'Toole, provided a 1908 (!) citation from a London publication that included “affluenza.” Clearly, this is a word that has been invented many times over many decades.]
In 1997, PBS aired an hour-long documentary, “Affluenza,” and a “solution-oriented sequel,” “Escape from Affluenza.” The website for the two films treated “affluenza” both as a made-up illness (complete with diagnosis and treatment) and as a quasi-geographic construct (“escape from affluenza”). Also in 1997, Jessie O’Neill, a psychotherapist and a great-granddaughter of a president of General Motors, published The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence, in which she defined affluenza as “the psychological dysfunctions of affluence”—“these collective addictions, character flaws, psychological wounds, neuroses, and behavioral disorders caused or greatly exacerbated by the presence or desire for excess money”—and devoted a chapter to exploring the condition.
Since then, affluenza has been the subject of a PhD dissertation at Antioch University and has appeared in the titles of at least four books not by de Graaf et al. It is invoked by lawyers and financial planners who advise wealthy families. It has also spawned at least one semi-jocular, not-very-successful spinoff, afflufemza, coined by Sandra Tsing Loh in 2006 to describe her “malaise,” “wherein the problems of affluence are recast as the struggles of feminism, and you find yourself in a dreamlike state of reading firstperson essays about it, over and over again.”
The Texas affluenza case prompted criticism from psychologists who objected that affluenza is “junk science” (perhaps akin to the Twinkie Defense). Even the psychologist who testified in the trial, G. Dick Miller, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he regretted using the word. “We used to call these people spoiled brats,” he said.
* Literary footnote: The Joneses of that idiom are sometimes said to be the birth family of the writer Edith Wharton, née Jones (1862-1937). However, The Phrase Finder traces the saying to Arthur (Pop) Momand's Keep Up With The Joneses comic strip in the New York Globe, first published in 1913. According to The Phrase Finder: “The ‘Joneses’ in the cartoon weren't based on anyone in particular, and they weren't portrayed in the cartoon itself. Jones was a very common name and ‘the Joneses’ was merely a generic name for ‘the neighbours’.”