Wanting your life back

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Since BP is "refusing to confirm the widespread reports" that CEO Tony Hayward is just about to be fired, I assume he will be out by the end of the day (if you get up in the morning and find your employer is refusing to confirm reports that you are on the way out, start removing passives from your resume, because you're already toast). Hayward is the man who incautiously said to the press that no one wanted the oil spill cleaned up more than he did: "I want my life back", he said, disastrously misjudging America's attitude toward the ecological catastrophe his company had wrought. And from the hour of that incautiously casual and selfish remark onward, he was toast. But I find myself wondering: whose remark was it, originally?

I want my life back feels to me like a recent coinage by somebody. (Of course, I could be wrong; I am reporting a mere intuition, which could be solely due to the recency illusion.) It is not a normal sort of phrase. When you lend something to a neighbour and need to have it under your control again, you can go and ask for its return: "I want my lawnmower back." Everybody uses phrases like that. But they use them about things you can lend or give or buy or steal. Your life doesn't have that property. It's yours in a deeper way: no one else can have it, so there's no serious literal sense in which anyone can give it back to you.

Linguists have a term for this second kind of ownership: inalienable possession. And many languages have a different grammar for expressing inalienable possession as opposed to the ordinary alienable possession that applies to lawnmowers and cups and Dan Brown novels. French is one such language. The French for "to save his life" is pour lui sauver la vie ("for to-him to-save the life"), not (as a beginning Anglophone learner might have thought) *pour sauver sa vie ("for to-save his life"). The French for "costs him his life" is lui coûte la vie ("to-him costs the life"), not *(lui) coûte sa vie ("to-him costs his life"). French doesn't treat having a life like having a lawnmower, grammatically.

That image of having your life just taken away by the swirl of events, as if the general public had come to your house and taken away your lawnmower, is a vivid and original one — or was once, I suspect not too long ago, before it became a bland cliché about events having made things too busy and hectic for you.

So when was "I want my life back" coined? I don't know. Ben Zimmer is the Language Logger who's best at doing these phrase-dating things. John McWhorter and Mark Liberman are pretty good at it too. Perhaps they will chime in. But you readers could get in earlier if you think you have an answer for me. Like my mind, the comments area is open.

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  1. Ray Girvan said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 8:51 am

    A starter, from 1933:

    "I want my life back again!" she said. "Just you get me out of this bed and I'll tend to all the rest of it!"
    - NYT, December 23, 1933

  2. Ray Girvan said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    And at least in essence rather than precise wording:

    Oh ! my father ! write to me those words which will give me my life back again
    - Ladies' magazine of literature, fashion, and fine arts, 1844

  3. h. s. gudnason said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 9:04 am

    Affected perhaps by "Get a life!" or "I have no life."? I think both those phrases (in the U.S. at least) are meant as fairly humorous comments on spending too much time on a work or study related subject.

  4. Rolig said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 9:28 am

    I find nothing unusual or recent about the statement, "I want my life back." It seems a reasonable reaction to the feeling: "My life is not my own," which might reasonably describe a situation where an urgent and intractable problem at work consumes all one's energies. A related notion is that one's work life/public life is not one's real life, which consists of sexual pursuits, family, and other creative and recreative interests — the things we do without expecting to be paid for them. In general, anyone who feels that they no longer have control over their time might well say, "I want my life back." In Hayward's statement, I do not think "life" means the same thing as in the cited examples "to save his life" and "costs him his life"; it does not mean "the state of being alive", but rather something that implies "control over one's time", "personal freedom", "privacy".

  5. John Cowan said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 9:29 am

    It seems to me that the weight of the phrase is not in the possession, but in the specificl sense of life here, the one listed as 12k in the OED3, s.v. LIFE n.:

    A full, interesting, and productive existence; a worthwhile, meaningful, or fulfilling lifestyle. Usu. in contexts implying a lack of this. Cf. to get a life at Phrases 12k.

    1980 T. WILLIAMS Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur II. 55, I don't want heartbreak for Dotty. For Dotty I want a — life. 1988 S. MCCRUMB Bimbos of Death Sun v. 59 What's the matter with you, pinhead? Don't you have a life? 1994 Denver Post 5 June 2/2 It's about people who ‘have a life’ and are celebrating it. 2003 Yours Oct. 117/4 (advt.) Couple 50s..seek similar for days out, meals, theatre, walking — we need a life!

    In any case, I thought you'd quote one of the more interesting alienability contrasts, like in the Maori Bible, where the Book of Joshua is Te Pukapuka o Hōhua (alienable), because it's just about Joshua, whereas the Book of Jeremiah is Te Pukapuka a Heremaia (inalienable), because Jeremiah wrote it.

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 9:31 am

    From 1897, a relevant passage in Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, published in an appendix to vol. II of Frank Harris' Oscar Wilde, p. 556:

    There are apparently more than 100 books now on sale whose titles include something about getting your life back — so frequencies have certainly increased, even though the roots of the concept clearly go back to the 19th century if not before.

  7. Dunx said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 9:38 am

    I agree with Rolig – "I want my life back" doesn't feel like a remarkable or unusual coinage to me, but then I share Tony Hayward's cultural background (ie I am British too). I cannot pinpoint where I have encountered the phrase, but I am sure that I've heard, rather than read, it before.

  8. bill said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 9:47 am

    Searching Google Books: The rose of life, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. 1905. Page 57:

    "I want my life back again. To be young and fresh and believing."

  9. Mark Liberman said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 9:53 am

    I agree with John Cowan that the key issue is what life means. In the 18th-century examples that I've been able to find, transfers of possession of someone's life involve "life or death" rather than issues of quality or control. One example:

    And another one:

    These are examples of OED sense 2. a. "Animate existence (esp. that of a human being) viewed as a possession of which one is deprived by death; also as a count noun", for which there are citations going back to Beowulf.

    The use that Geoff asked about seems to be related to OED sense 12.d. "With modifying adjective, as another, new, old, other, etc.: a period of a person's life regarded as entirely different or distinct from his or her previous (or subsequent) experience", for which there are citations (mostly of a religious nature) going back to 1450.

    But something happened between 1450 and 1980, the date of the first citation for OED sense 12.h. "orig. U.S. A full, interesting, and productive existence; a worthwhile, meaningful, or fulfilling lifestyle. Usu. in contexts implying a lack of this. Cf. to get a life at Phrases 12k". Maybe what happened was Romanticism? That would explain the apparent change between the 18th and 19th centuries…

  10. Mr Fnortner said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    While many consider I want my life back as an "incautiously casual and selfish remark", I want to offer another opinion (since I can't compete in providing ancient validation of the topic phrase). When I first heard him, I interpreted Hayward as expressing empathy. I judged him slightly clumsy in not also adding ",too" to the sentence. In the interview in question, he was asked what he would tell the people whose lives were affected. And by saying "No one wants this over more than I do. Y'know, I'd like my life back." I think that he was mirroring the feelings of everyone harmed. The peril in his remarks is that no one accepts the perpetrator as a victim.

  11. DW said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    "if you get up in the morning and find your employer is refusing to confirm reports that you are on the way out, start removing passives from your resume,"

    LOL!!

  12. JC Dill said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

    I found a more recent use of "I want my life back" that might be the coinage you are seeking. It was the title for a People article on Elizabeth Edwards (John Edwards's wife): http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20342817,00.html

  13. Jon Weinberg said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    @John Cowan: Thanks. It makes my day to know that the OED3 contains a usage of "life" from . . . Sharon McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death Sun.

  14. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    I've been shown enough to make me realize that this phrase has antecedents going back more than a hundred years. It felt like some modern cliché to me, out of some play or film or something — more recent than the Elizabeth-Edwards-tells-all People magazine cover this year, but not more than a decade or two… and it looks like my feeling was quite wrong. It has been increasing in frequency a bit, I noticed it as something I hadn't been hearing thirty years ago, and bingo, the Recency Illusion worked its magic, as it so often will!

  15. JanetK said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    I'm 70 and I do not remember 'like my life back' ever being a new phrase – I am sure it is older than me. But also I was very surprised at the American reaction to it. People seemed to pull and tear at the meaning to make it sound like a terrible thing to say. I assume that they were so angry that it would not have mattered what Hayward said, they would have found it insulting.

  16. Swede said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

    JanetK: the hubbub was due to the collision of these older and newer meanings (per Liberman's comment). Hayward seems to equate the loss of life of the dead oil workers to his loss of social and family life. The families of the dead want their loved one's "life back" in a very literal sense – not just time to hang out on the yacht. Adding "too," as Mr Fnortner suggests, would have only emphasized this linkage.

  17. George said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    Swede: Yes, and Hayward was perceived as equating his loss of time on the yacht (but not too much as evidenced by pictures) with those whose livelihoods were at risk. Further, this comment suggested that he was another innocent victim rather than one with any responsibility for the disaster.

  18. Rodger C said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

    @Jon Weinberg: That's Sharyn. We know each other. My wife owns a copy of one of her novels that McCrumb, on autographing it, told her is a collectible because it has "Sharon" on the dust jacket.

  19. David Walker said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    Even though you're talking about the phrase and not Tony Hayward, I seem to recall that last week BP said "he is not leaving the company". Today I hear that he will be out in October.

  20. Ken Lakritz said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

    In 1987, Ronald Reagan's Labor Secretary, Ray Donovan, was indicted for fraud and larceny but acquitted at trial. He is then quoted as saying,'Where do I go to get my reputation back?'

    Reputations are more alienable than lives but less alienable than Dan Brown novels. Can a lurking Francophone tell us how French expresses their loss?

  21. Jon Weinberg said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

    @Rodger C: Oops — you're (of course) right; that's what I get for posting without checking. Sad to say, all of the copies on my wife's and my bookshelves have the name spelled correctly.

  22. Nathan Myers said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

    Whatever the origins of the expression and of its possibly recent vogue, commendations to Prof. Pullum for raising the question. It led, for example, to Ken Lakritz's question.

  23. MJ said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

    I'm not entirely sure "I want my life back" in Braddon's novel (and variants in other Victorian novels) is expressing precisely the same sentiment as today's "I want my life back." In context, the sense seems to be more along the lines of "I want to go back in time and live my life over again."

  24. Rubrick said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

    The widespred use of "life" to mean "free time; quality time" — as in "How did you manage to write an entire operating system in two weeks?" "Simple. I have no life." — still strikes me as fairly recent.

    It may be that that's not quite the sense Hayward had in mind, but I think that sense certainly contributed to the perceived insensitivity of the remark; it implied to American ears "I want this mess over with so I can go yachting."

  25. Xmun said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

    I'm hardly a Francophone, but I am trying to read Sartre's La nausée in French at the moment and have the Concise Oxford Dictionary ready to hand. The phrase "perdu de réputation" is said to mean "disreputable; disgraced; of tarnished reputation". That word "perdu" suggests clearly enough that one's good name, once lost, is almost impossible to get back.

  26. blahedo said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

    Looking at Mark Liberman's citation from De Profundis, I wonder if he's actually turned up a transitional case. When I read "got my life back into my own hands", I see "get" not in its "receive" sense, as would be used in "got my life back" by itself, but in its ditransitive causative sense, as in "got the food ready" or "got my homework done" or "got the cards [back] in order". (Sorry I don't have my OED access from home, or I'd look up the sense number there.) This version *doesn't* require the figurative "alienable possession" reading of "life", and appears to be syntactically distinct, although it's semantically a close relative to the simpler phrase that Hayward used.

  27. Ray Girvan said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

    MJ: Yes. There's a fuller preview here, and the speaker definitely wants to 'rewind' and live their life again making different choices. However, the 1844 citation I found – from Marmontel's The Error of a Good Father – does appear to be in the modern sense. The son's life is on hold because his father has rejected him; he's begging his father to relent so that he can have his life back.

  28. Xmun said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

    @John Cowan: . . . one of the more interesting alienability contrasts, like in the Maori Bible, where the Book of Joshua is Te Pukapuka o Hōhua (alienable), because it's just about Joshua, whereas the Book of Jeremiah is Te Pukapuka a Heremaia (inalienable), because Jeremiah wrote it.

    I fail to see how Joshua, in the Book of Joshua, is alienable. I've read a good few discussions of the distinction between "o" and "a" (the two words for "of") in Maori, but none of them have mentioned alienability or inalienability. See, for example, pages 392-393 of The Reed Reference Grammar of Maori, by Winifred Bauer.

    But maybe I'm just exposing my ignorance of linguistic discussion of this topic . . .

  29. tablogloid said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

    His life is in Siberia now.

  30. MJ said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 8:45 pm

    @Ray–

    Yes, and interestingly, the original French has "la vie": "ce mot qui me rendra _la_ vie," which perhaps has its source in _Candide_ ("Venez ; votre présence me rendra la vie ou me fera mourir de plaisir").

  31. Nick said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 11:56 pm

    @Xmun: I know nothing of Maori, but the difference in English would be that Jeremiah is an argument of "book", with "book" having the denotation of something like "y wrote the book x", so "of Jeremiah" fills the y argument slot. In "book of Joshua", "Joshua" doesn't fill any argument of "book" and "book" would likely be suppressed to a simple one-place noun, like "x is a book", and then some sort of predicate modification would need to combine that with "Joshua", so the meaning would be "x is a book and x is about Joshua"

    This may have gotten a bit too semanticy but the inalienability of "book of Jeremiah" would stem from the interpretation of Jeremiah filling an argument of Book, whereas Joshua doesn't, and requires some sort of external relation. This is all based on Barker's analysis of English possession. My apologies if I haven't gotten it quite right.

  32. John Laviolette said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

    As for why we Americans objected to Tony Hayward's "I want my life back," I think it has less to do with us misunderstanding him or him misunderstanding the meaning of the phrase and more to do with Mr. Hayward's misjudging how the phrase would be interpreted in context. I don't know about the UK, but in the USA, when there is a catastrophic or other horrible situation, it's not all that uncommon for a victim to say "I want my life back" during an interview. However, Hayward isn't a victim, and thus it seems callous to Americans that the CEO of a company trying to correct its mistake would compare himself to people whose lives were tragically ruined.

    I'm sure the response would have been the same if he had said "we're all victims here." In fact, I vaguely recall (American) CEOs or politicians getting in similar trouble for playing victim after a tragedy. I remember former President Bush saying something about a Mississippi Senator losing one of his homes to Katrina and getting in trouble for that.

  33. marie-lucie said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 12:54 am

    Xmun: Reputations are more alienable than lives but less alienable than Dan Brown novels. Can a lurking Francophone tell us how French expresses their loss?

    I am a francophone and I don't see myself as a "lurking" kind of person.
    Reputations are in the hands of other people.

    Xmun: The phrase "perdu de réputation" is said to mean "disreputable; disgraced; of tarnished reputation". That word "perdu" suggests clearly enough that one's good name, once lost, is almost impossible to get back.

    I am not familiar enough with Sartre's work to remember the context, but this phrase is (or was) more used in the feminine than the masculine – about a girl who had forever lost her reputation for chastity and was therefore disgraced for life. "Perdue" referred to the person, not the reputation.

    MJ: Yes, and interestingly, the original French has "la vie": "ce mot qui me rendra _la_ vie," which perhaps has its source in _Candide_ ("Venez ; votre présence me rendra la vie ou me fera mourir de plaisir").

    This expression is hardly unusual in 18th century literature, and there is no need to attribute its origin to the line from Candide: notice the contrast between me rendra la vie and me fera mourir de plaisir, both of which are grossly exaggerated but at the time clichéd expressions of happiness. Both phrases have me as the affected person. If the first one had been me rendra ma vie it would have meant that the writer's lifestyle had been disrupted (like "get my life back"), but me rendra la vie means "bring me back to life" (from being at death's door).

  34. fs said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 5:53 am

    marie-lucie: You may be interested to know that "lurking" here probably only meant "reading but not commenting". The word "lurk" has long since (in terms of internet timescales) lost its negative connotations in this usage. In some circles one might even commonly be exhorted to "lurk more", were one to show a naivete born of too much talking and too little listening.

  35. MJ said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    @marie-lucie Right–Right, it's "la vie" in Marmontel that made me wonder whether in fact the sense of "me rendra la vie" is different from "me rendra ma vie," but the bring-me-back-from-death's-door sense is not transparent in the "the words which will give me my life back again" of the 1844 English translation of Marmontel's story. Which in turn makes me reconsider the possibility that the sense of the phrase in Victorian writing may be subtlely different from the contemporary sense and that that difference may be hard to discern in part because in English we don't have the ma vie/la vie distinction.

  36. ken lakritz said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    Fs is right. I used 'lurking' in the benign internet sense. No offense to French speakers was intended.

  37. marie-lucie said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    fs: thank you for pointing out the connotation of "lurk", which I did not know.

    mj: I don't know the precise context of the Marmontel text, but when I wrote of the meaning of a possible "me rendra ma vie" (not a common phrase as far as I know, but possible especially in the current context of heavy English influence) I was not suggesting that it would have been freely used in earlier centuries. But what is true is that "rendre la vie" and "(faire) mourir (de …)" are both clichés in 18th century French literature, where characters declare themselves about to die whenever they are experiencing a strong emotion. One text I think of where such exaggerated expressions of emotion abound is Manon Lescaut, where the male narrator is in conflict with his father and alternates between heights of passion and depths of despair in his relationship with Manon, so he is frequently "dying" and "coming back to life". It is possible that in the Marmontel story the son feels that he is "dying" under his father's strictures and wants to be "given life" again (under these circumstances, the English translation may not be right in adding "my").

  38. Xmun said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    Re: "perdu de réputation", Marie-Lucie wrote: "I am not familiar enough with Sartre's work to remember the context, but this phrase is (or was) more used in the feminine than the masculine – about a girl who had forever lost her reputation for chastity and was therefore disgraced for life. "Perdue" referred to the person, not the reputation."

    Thanks for the explanation. The phrase came from a sub-entry under "réputation" in my Concise Oxford French Dictionary, not from Sartre. I mentioned Sartre's La nausée only because that's what I'm reading at the moment and why I need to keep the COFD within arm's reach.

    By the way, the first remark you attribute to me was actually from Ken Lakritz.

  39. Xmun said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

    @Nick: Thank you for interpreting John Cowan's comment for me. I'll try — but not too hard — to find out more about Barker's analysis of English possession.

  40. marie-lucie said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 6:59 pm

    Xmun, sorry about the mixup. I thought I had looked caredully for the sources of the comments.

  41. marie-lucie said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

    ken lafritz too.

  42. John Cowan said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

    My OED citation is wrong: it should be 12h (as myl has it), not 12k. The citation to 12k within the text itself is correct.

  43. Xmun said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 1:32 am

    John Cowan's positing (in the fifth comment above) of an alienability contrast in the Maori Bible is not supported by Winifred Bauer, William Parker, and Te Kareongawai Evans in their book _Maori_, which can be consulted in Google Books. See page 202.

    The explanation of the distinction between Maori "a" and "o" is to be found elsewhere.

  44. harrison said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 8:53 am

    Interestingly, at least one French paper (that I could find on Google News) translated "I want my life back" as "J'aimerais récupérer ma vie," which seems to translate roughly as "I would like to recover my life." (Although I don't speak French, so maybe that's not quite correct.)

    So it would seem that even in a language with inalienable possession, the idiom is understood; any Francophones out there know if it's in common usage?

  45. marie-lucie said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

    harrison, "J'aimerais récupérer ma vie"

    As I wrote earlier, if you are talking about translations from English you are likely to find literal translations rather than actual native idioms, and some of those translations find their way into regular speech. For instance, "j'aimerais" (a literal translation from "I would like") seems to be supplanting "je voudrais" (lit. "I would want") which is the normal polite phrase used to express a wish. As an expatriate of long standing living almost entirely in English, I notice translationese in French when I run across it, even though other French speakers in their native environment might not realize they are using "franglais".

    Earlier clichés such as "me rendre la vie" are talking (although metaphorically) about life as opposed to death, while "my life" in "I want my life back" means "my way of life, my lifestyle as I like it to be". In that sense, "ma vie" is all right. The phrase "récupérer ma vie" still sounds awkward to me, because the verb "récupérer" is normally used in a concrete sense, but you could not possibly use "me … la vie" in that context, which is not that of life or death.

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