Monday, September 24, 2007

Tattoo Regret

The following excerpt comes from this past Sunday's (9/23/07) popular "On Language" column by William Safire in the New York Times Magazine.
As tattoos become more popular,” reads a headline in The International Herald Tribune over an article by Natasha Singer of The New York Times, “so does ‘tattoo regret.’ ”

On the other side of the world, in Brisbane, Australia, The Sunday Mail warned last year: “Think before you ink. That’s the message skin experts are preaching as ‘tattoo regret’ booms.” It reported that a Queensland athlete — embarrassed about a smiling devil’s face etched on his back — complained in rhyme of suffering “severe tattoo-rue.”

“The regret combining form is found in a lot of current writing,” notes Ann Rubin Wort, a former Times colleague. “Nowadays people are acting more impulsively; thus, regrets aplenty and the resulting need to nullify capricious choices.”

Regret about the permanence of skin illustration is rising. The Washington Post reported that a Harris Poll a few years ago indicated that nearly half the young women between 18 and 29 surveyed had at least one tattoo, and that 17 percent of all tattooed Americans who had tattoos regretted getting them. It seems that many of the aging former teenagers have had a skinful.

Etymology of the dermatology: Earliest use I can find of nostalgia for an unmarked epidermis is a headline above a 1989 Times column by Lawrence K. Altman, M.D.: “For Those With Tattoo Regret, Here’s Hope.” Back in that day, laser treatment was the great hope; now it seems that a new tattooing ink has been developed that, it is claimed, may make removal of tattoos by laser more practical.

This column’s interest, as Wort notes, is in the collocation combining form — the way a new phrase is made by substituting one element of a familiar phrase. (A generation ago, the lexical response to backlash was frontlash; applying that replacement technique to a phrase, a moderate critic of our present war policy suggested that the answer to the charge of “cut and run” should be a centrist approach of “cut and walk.”)

Tattoo regret is formed on the analogy of buyer’s regret, more vividly and widely expressed as buyer’s remorse. Until this collocation was formed, the idea took longer to express, as in this 1891 citation from a San Antonio paper: “They who bought winter hats . . . early in the fall are now repenting their rashness at leisure.” The same anguished repentance happened this year to early buyers of Apple’s hotly touted iPhone, who plunked down $600 only to find the item reduced to $400 a couple of months later, lowering the puissance of the status symbol.

Buyer’s remorse is a phrase probably coined in the auto industry a half-century ago. Grant Barrett, editor of the online Double-Tongued Dictionary, has a citation from The Los Angeles Times in 1946 reporting a customer’s complaint that her auto dealer “told her she had ‘buyer’s remorse’ and since she had signed the contract she had to stick to it.”

In 1957, Leon Festinger came up with a theory of “cognitive dissonance,” in which he posited the opposite of buyer’s remorse: Most of us tend to embrace the choice we make, so as to reduce the self-critical dissonance in our minds. When we buy a Ford, we read Ford ads and shy away from reading the ads of Toyota.

The regret or remorse combining form has an immediate future in politics. As the states play backward leapfrog with their primaries, we face a stretch of nine months of campaigning leading up to the national parties’ conventions next summer. As the political winds blow hot and cold, as candidates’ poll ratings rise and fall after each statewide election, primary voters and contributors will experience a kicking-oneself feeling when their candidate fades and they wish they had chosen the victor to oppose the other party’s choice.

And what will we call that sinking sensation felt by all the primary voters who failed to back the winning candidate of their party? Those afflicted with tattoo regret will have company: as we plod through the primaries, watch for voter’s remorse.

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