Peevable words and phrases: journey

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They mostly start out clever, cute, and catchy:  e.g., "curated".  The problem is that they soon go viral, and then just never go away, even after they have become banal and overused, as with "perfect storm":

I'm campaigning to have "perfect storm" added to peeve polls in the future. As in "at the end of the day it was a perfect storm." It's not unheard of for a book title to turn into a catch[22]phrase, and maybe perfect storm will become a permanent part of the language, but it smacks of fad to me. I feel like I hear it at least three times a week in NPR interviews.

[Comment by Dick Margulis to "'Annoying word' poll results: Whatever!" (10/9/09)]

That was 2009, but "perfect storm" is still with us, and so is "curated", which begins to appear with increasing frequency in the early 70s and really takes off in the 80s.

Now we're facing a veritable onslaught from "journey":

When Did Everything Become a ‘Journey’?

Changing our hair, getting divorced, taking spa vacations — they’re not just things we do; they’re “journeys.” The quest for better health is the greatest journey of all.

by Lisa Miller, NYT (5/13/24)

Contemporary usage of "journey" is so protean and indicative of our age that I wish I could quote almost the whole of this revelatory article.  Instead, I'll just mention some of the rubrics it covers, but focus mostly on the linguistic aspects.

Drew Barrymore has been talking with Gayle King about her perimenopause “journey,” and the soccer phenom Carli Lloyd has just divulged her fertility “journey.” By sharing her breast cancer story, Olivia Munn has said she hopes she will “help others find comfort, inspiration, and support on their own journey.” A recent interview with Anne Hathaway has been posted on Instagram with a headline highlighting her “sobriety journey,” and Kelly Clarkson has opened up about what Women’s Health calls her “weight loss journey.” On TikTok, a zillion influencer-guides lead pilgrims on journeys through such ephemeral realms as faith, healing, grief, friendship, mastectomy, and therapy — often selling courses, supplements or eating plans as if they were talismans to help safeguard their path.

“Journey” has decisively taken its place in American speech. The word holds an upbeat utility these days, signaling struggle without darkness or detail, and expressing — in the broadest possible way — an individual’s experience of travails over time.

It’s often related to physical or mental health, but it can really be about anything: “Putting on your socks can be a journey of self-discovery,” said Beth Patton, who lives in Central Indiana and has relapsing polychondritis, an inflammatory disorder. In the chronic disease community, she said, “journey” is a debated word. “It’s a way to romanticize ordinary or unpleasant experiences, like, ‘Oh, this is something special and magical.’” Not everyone appreciates this, she said.

Now, moving on to the more specifically linguistic aspects of "journey":

According to the linguistics professor Jesse Egbert at Northern Arizona University, the use of “journey” (the noun) has nearly doubled in American English since 1990, with the most frequent instances occurring online. Mining a new database of conversational American English he and colleagues are building, Egbert could show exactly how colloquial “journey” has become: One woman in Pennsylvania described her “journey to become a morning person,” while another, in Massachusetts, said she was “on a journey of trying to like fish.”

Egbert was able to further demonstrate how the word itself has undergone a transformative journey — what linguists call “semantic drift.” It wasn’t so long ago that Americans mostly used “journey” to mean a literal trip, whereas now it’s more popular as a metaphor. Egbert demonstrated this by searching the more than one billion words in a database called COCA for the nouns people put before “journey” to clarify what sort they’re on. Between 1990 and 2005, the most common modifier was “return,” followed by words like “ocean,” “train,” “mile,” “night,” “overland,” and “bus.”

But between 2006 and 2019, usage shifted. “Return” remains the most common noun modifier to journey, but now it’s followed closely by “faith,” “cancer,” and “life.” Among the top 25 nouns used to modify “journey” today are: “soul,” “adoption,” and “hair.”

In almost every language, “journey” has become a way to talk abstractly about outcomes, for good reason: According to what linguists call the “primary metaphor theory,” humans learn as babies crawling toward their toys that “‘purpose’ and ‘destination’ coincide,” said Elena Semino, a linguist at Lancaster University who specializes in metaphor. As we become able to accomplish our goals while sitting still (standardized tests! working from home!), ambition and travel diverge. Yet we continue to envision achievement as a matter of forward progress. This is why we say, “‘I know what I want, but I don’t know how to get there,’” Semino explained. “Or ‘I’m at a crossroads.’”

Journeying along with cancer, instead of doing battle against it, has become one of the most frequent applications of this current buzzword, and it is also employed in what used to be thought of as a fight against many other diseases as well.  The journey to health and wellness is one that more and more people are striving to take.

Some of my friends are almost what I would call professional travellers.  They have visited scores, even upwards of a hundred, countries all around the world (see, for example, Stefan Krasowski at Rapid Travel Chai, who once visited (and toured through) three Middle East countries within 24 hours)  For them, life is a literal, perpetual journey, not a metaphorical one like changing your hair.

A peevable feast?  No, journey is their raison d'être.



I'll never forget the shock I experienced the first time I heard someone use the expression "bad hair day".  Until that moment, I had never realized to what degree some people look upon the hair on the top of their head as virtually extrinsic to and independent of themselves.  Learning now about hair journeys that certain individuals engage in, I can see how they are possible.


Selected readings

[Thanks to June Teufel Dreyer]


  1. Scott P. said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 8:15 am

    I'll add "legend" and "legendary," perhaps influenced by their common use in a variety of video games. Nowadays, everything is 'legendary,' from a visit to the barber shop to food delivered to your door.

  2. Coby said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 8:25 am

    How about "amazing"? It's what every child referenced in letters to advice columnists seems to be.

  3. Graham said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 9:13 am

    This was an important conversation. Oh…

  4. Topher Cooper said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 10:46 am

    An interesting, older, now traditional use of :"journey" popped into my mind while reading this, but it is in a sense reversed. A literal journey is used to sharpen a powerful emotional sequence of events. It's the Doris Day standard "Sentimental Journey/"

    "Gonna take a sentimental journey; Gonna set my heart at ease. … Sentimental journey home."

    The character supposedly singing is just starting, with great anticipation, a train trip to their (childhood?) home.

    While writing, the above, I realized that the classic literary theme about personal growth (of some kind), the "Night Journey", is also quite relevant to the topic. It is frequently but not exclusively in the form of being about an adolescent coming of age, and only occasionally takes place over the period of a single night, but the movement from the darkness of night to the dawning of a new day always is a relevant metaphor even if never hinted at in the text.

  5. Quodlibet said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 11:07 am

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. Andrew Usher said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 6:39 pm

    No one has noted that all the cited uses of this new 'journey' are from women. Further, it's hard for me to see anyone, man or woman, use this in ordinary conversation with a straight face. This suggests that it is a kind of euphemism used in speaking publicly, if only to be vague about the _reason_ for the action being labeled a 'journey'. E.g. "journey to become a morning person" may not seem euphemistic, but if I were to say it about myself, I'd have to phrase it differently if I considered it voluntary or compelled by circumstances.

    From that perspective, it's not hard to see why the use should be so gendered; given the well-known fact that women talk more about their personal lives in places like blogs, one should be able to figure it out.

    As it was mentioned, I'll say that 'perfect storm' is the one that irritates me every time: it's a malaprop metaphor, as mangled as "I could care less" and giving a similar impression.

    k_over_hbarc at

  7. martin schwartz said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 8:35 pm

    Yes, "journey" haa traveled a long way, ever since, long before Ms.
    (@ Topher Cooper) Day, when it meant "a day trip' . And Arabic
    razzāq, Allāh's epithet as "All-Provider', has jouneyed quite a lot, via rizq
    'daily sustenance etc.', from Middle Persian rōzīg 'provision sufficent for a day' from rōz 'day'.We all know that language changes, but we don't have to like it, and I'm particularly peeved off e.g. For a start,
    –@ Coby–yes. t's literally incredible how such clichés spread.
    And –@Quodlibet–whatever, thanks for reaching out. Nice that we're taking a deep dive into "journey", etc., and hopefully (i.e. 'with hope')
    we'll come out more resilient.And what ever happened to "problem"?
    Problems have, to most peoples apparent relief, disappeared; not there
    are only issues, ans many of those of all sorts, but the current courtesy
    still offer "no problem" or the ¿euphemistically? hispanizing "no problemo" with gringo pronunciation. But don't even get me started.
    Martin Schwartz

  8. martin schwartz said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 8:39 pm

    p.s. make that last item pseudo-Spanish; real Spanish has "problema".
    Martin Schwartz

  9. martin schwartz said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 8:40 pm

    p.s. real Spanish has "problema".
    Martin Schwartz

  10. martin schwartz said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 8:43 pm

    Sorry to be redndant–I was only trying to get around LL's
    robo-redundancy-censor, which was giving me a hard time.

  11. martin schwartz said,

    May 18, 2024 @ 11:14 pm

    One more thing while I'm peeving (long peeve): "different from"
    is now furked; the bifurcation is: on the US side, > "different than"
    and on the Brit side, > "different to".
    Martin Schwartz

  12. bks said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 4:12 am

    "You're traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Twilight Zone!"

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 4:18 am

    Not for this Briton, Martin — for him, it is normally "different from", easily remembered because one never writes "differs to". Gowers writes :

    There is good authority for different to, but different from is today the established usage. Different than is not unknown even in The Times […] But this is condemned by the grammarians, who would say that than in this example should have been from what.

  14. Julian said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 4:37 am

    @graham and quodlibet
    Love your comments.
    I'm often in awe of the ability that human beings have to pack so much humour and allusion into a few words. It's up there with the two legged gait and the opposable thumb.
    For some reason this puts me in mind of Burnistoun's** hilarious "sarcasmaholic"sketch (on YouTube)
    ** Better known in these columns for their "ASR elevator" sketch.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 8:27 am

    @Andrew Usher:

    "No one has noted that all the cited uses of this new 'journey' are from women."

    I'm so glad you mentioned this because it was the first thing I noticed about this new emphasis on "journey" as a transformative experience, but didn't put it in the o.p. because I didn't want to prejudice the discussion.

  16. Tom Dawkes said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 10:36 am

    On "journey" there is a similar over-extension of "mission", whether in business speak "mission statement" or "on a mission" to indicate plans or intentions.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 1:06 pm

    And of course every applicant for a new position is "passionate" about something, although in my experience very few of them demonstrate this passion once they have been taken on …

  18. Mrtin Schwartz said,

    May 20, 2024 @ 12:00 am

    @Philip Taylor: Philip, like you, u I say "different from". However,
    I listen to (too) many hours of National Public Radio and BBC;
    on NPR"'different than" more common than "different from",
    as "different to" is more common than "different from" on BBC.
    I recently heard David Bellos on NPR–refreshingly beautiful English!
    Martin Schwartz

  19. Martin Schwartz said,

    May 20, 2024 @ 1:00 am

    @Philip Taylor: Philip, like you, I uphold "different from".
    But on BBC and National Public Radio, which I listen too perhaps too much, against "different from" BBC more frequently has "different to"
    and NPR "different than".

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    May 20, 2024 @ 9:36 am

    The BBC is not what it once was, Martin (for example, in Lord Reith’s day), and sadly one can no longer regard it as authoritative when it comes to matters of speech, pronunciation or even grammar. When I have time, I will seek out some recent recordings of Kate Adie and see whether her preference is for "different from" or "different to". I assume that she writes her own scripts, but of course I may be wrong …

  21. Jim said,

    May 20, 2024 @ 7:32 pm

    I'm familiar with the phrase "The goal is the journey", which seems to flow into this observation.

    Of course, that has become so overused that the next time someone says it, I have threatened to burst out in song:

    Just a city boy
    Born and raised in South Detroit

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    May 23, 2024 @ 1:07 pm

    Serendipity — on BBC Radio 4's "Unspeakable" programme today, in response to a request from the presenter to nominate a word that the panellist would like to see banned, Laura Smyth responded "journey". Audio capture (00:01:46.6) here.

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