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Monday, August 24, 2020

An issue with "issue"

 A Wordlady reader has written to complain about the word "issue", to wit

 What about "issues" which in recent years on both sides of the Atlantic has replaced all possible synonyms and more to the further impoverishment of our language. What is its origin and has it always been abused as it is these days?

Whew.  Abuse, impoverishment (nay, FURTHER impoverishment), replacing all possible synonyms, that's a lot to pack into two sentences. Hyperbole is not uncommon when people take against new usages. 

"Issue" has been around since 1325 and has 19 meanings, plus more sub-meanings, in the OED, so it's definitely a polysemous word. When it entered English from French (ultimately from Latin exīre to go out, < ex out + īre to go) it had the meanings "a flowing out" and "offspring". If you object to all other usages than those being "abuse", well... good luck with that.

It certainly has not replaced all its possible synonyms. Let's look at some of them, from the Oxford Paperback Thesaurus:

  • 1. the committee discussed the issue: matter (in question), question, point (at issue), affair, case, subject, topic; problem, bone of contention.
  • 2. the issue of a special stamp: issuing, publication, publishing; circulation, distribution, supplying, appearance.
  • 3. the latest issue of our magazine: edition, number, instalment, copy.
  • 4. (Law) she died without issue: offspring, descendants, heirs, successors, children, progeny, family; informal kids;
  • 5. an issue of blood: discharge, emission, release, outflow, outflowing, outflux; secretion, emanation, exudation, effluence; technical efflux.
  • 6. (dated) a favourable issue: (end) result, outcome, consequence, upshot, conclusion, end. 

Last time I checked, all these words are alive and well. 

I think what this reader is objecting to is the use of "issue" to mean "problem". This usage has been around since the 70s and has certainly taken off since the 80s. Its origins were in psychology in the US, most likely, I suspect, to avoid the negative judgemental connotation of "problem". Personally I don't see anything wrong with avoiding negative judgemental connotations. I like to give the example of a ballet teacher of mine who would give us an exercise and when we were done making a hash of it would say,  "Three issues:..." This made me feel much better than if he had said "Three problems".  And in the great scheme of things, was I going to turn out as a better ballet dancer if he'd crushed me with a word with demeaning connotations?

This is a perfectly normal outgrowth of the sense of "issue" meaning "point of contention, difficulty to be resolved" which has been around since, oh, 1400.

I really do not understand why people claim that some change in the language is an "impoverishment". English has a history dating back to the arrival of the Normans of loving synonyms. When a word acquires another meaning, surely that is an enrichment. "Problem" is not going anywhere, but now we can reserve it for really negative difficulties, while we also have "issue" for the kind of difficulty that is discussed on the psychiatrist's couch (or is susceptible to correction by a patient ballet teacher). I have to admit to having a chuckle on hearing a 6-year-old whose backpack strap had got caught between the seats on the subway saying, "Mum, I have an issue with my backpack"!

I have to wonder if, in the late 1500s, people objected to the newfangled meaning  of  "problem" usurping, or adding to previous words.  "What is wrong with ye "hardnesse" or ye "dyffycultie"? This word "problem" is being abused! It should only mean "riddle"," they might have said.

Another issue with "issue" is its pronunciation. Judging by the medieval spellings, it has been pronounced ISHoo since it first came into English. Probably under the influence of the spelling, British English dictionaries started recommending ISSyoo in the early 20th century, but ISHoo is making a comeback. In North America ISHoo has always been the preferred pronunciation.  I can't help it, but ISSyoo sounds precious to me. 

There you go, I can be negative and judgemental by moments too.

5 comments:

  1. Loved the final analysis agree wi the issue/ problem differentation

    ReplyDelete
  2. What about the pronunciation ISHyoo? That's my favourite.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was wondering the same thing as Jody. If I cry a lot about some slights, big or small, do my issues need rhyming tissues?

    ReplyDelete
  4. ISH yoo is also possible. Tissue has had the same pronunciation history as issue.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I think the main problem I have with 'issue' as a synonym for 'difficulty', is that all other meanings of the word appear to have been subsumed by it; that, to me, is real impoverishment of the language. Whether or not this use is pandering to modern hypersensitivities or not is another issue entirely. My personal preference for most problems is 'challenge', but I have been known to let the word 'issue' escape me on occasion! Being a Scot, I've always used the pronunciation ISHoo, just as I still adhere to the old Anglo-Saxon 'hw' in words like 'where'

    ReplyDelete

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.