GLOSSARY / Psycho-babble empowers the inner child

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The Independent Online
I NOTICED an intriguing trial report last week which suggested that a peculiarly contemporary form of legal defence had been further refined. 'During his first day on the stand,' wrote the reporter, 'it became clear that Mr Reenboog (a Belgian citizen accused of murdering his wife) had recently taken to confiding in his psychiatrist and after 300 hours on the couch now talks in baffling psycho-babble.' This is highly ingenious.

There's nothing new in psycho-babble as such, of course. It has been an important weapon in the defence attorney's1 armoury for some time, particularly in American cases. But to spot the opportunity for all-out incomprehensibility is a stroke of genius, because it presents the court with an unpickable lock.

If the accused can conduct his defence only in psycho- babble, a translator will have to be found for the jury. But psycho-babble cannot be translated into plain English (or plain Flemish for that matter). It can be translated only into more psycho-babble. If I were Mr Reenboog's lawyer, I would be aiming for a mistrial.

The report was not explicit about the words in question but you can guess the sort of thing. Mr Reenboog probably talks of how he has come to 'own his anger', how he has been 'empowered' by his experience and has become more 'centred' since he loaded his wife's body into the car with several bottles of flammable liquid and staged a somewhat far-fetched accident (the cigarette lighter apparently flew from its socket on impact, igniting the broken bottles).

Mr Reenboog may even have got in touch with his 'inner child', in which case I hope he asked him what on earth made him think he would get away with such a juvenile explanation.

What all these phrases have in common is the illusion of concrete simplicity they deliver. Only 'empowered' could be described as newfangled and you hardly need a dictionary to work out what it means. In fact, neither the Oxford English Dictionary nor the current two volumes of its Additions Series contain citations for the psychotherapeutic use of 'centred' or 'grounded', despite the fact that you are as likely now to encounter them in psycho-babble as in their more mundane meanings, in wood-turning, say, or electrical engineering.

Like these last two activities, the sort of therapy which relishes this language usually takes place in a 'workshop'. The brochure for Spectrum, a 'centre for humanistic psychology' in north London, is very fond of the word 'workshop' (I have a 1991 copy, but I doubt whether the terminology has changed much), probably because it conveys such a reassuring sense of practical activity.

You could, for instance, have attended a 'Weekend of Family Sculpting' with Rex Bradley, 'using other members of the group as living clay', or a mixed workshop called 'The Family Web', in which, 'by identifying the threads that belong to us and those that do not, we can see more clearly the pattern of this web and so become less trapped and entangled'. So, then, what's it to be? Mental pottery or a bit of emotional macrame?2

What is promised is a do-it-yourself kit, evening lessons in which you can lift the hood on your mind and do some fine-tuning ('focusing', another word that implies minor adjustments, is also a recurrent favourite). What you often end up with, though, is the same old character with a grotesquely swollen vocabulary. It would not greatly matter if explanation were not so frequently confused with excuses, which brings us back to the unfortunate Mr Reenboog, swaddling himself in a bubble-wrap3 of jargon. Psycho-babble always pretends to be sharply defined, practical and revelatory when, in fact, it is yielding, evasive and enveloping - the perfect packing material for fragile personalities.

1 From the Old French atourne, from the verb atourner, to attorn, or to assign or appoint. Thus, one appointed.

2 From the Turkish maqrama, a towel or napkin. The reference is to the ornamentally knotted fringes on such items.

3 Probably an onomatopoeic or imitative word (perhaps deriving from the action of the lips in forming a bubble). It is closely connected with the earlier burble.