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`Headshrinkers' is '40s jargon

Q. Why are psychiatrists called "headshrinkers"?

A. "Headshrinker" as a slang term for "psychiatrist" appears to have originated as Hollywood jargon in the 1940s. Various theories have arisen as to just what the original, unknown user had in mind. Here are a few: the word is meant to suggest "shrinking or deflating delusions of grandeur" or shrinking or lessening problems in a patient's "worry-bloated" head; the word is a reflection of "considerable unconscious hostility" toward mental health professionals; the word, like the similarly used "witch doctor," simply implies that a psychiatrist is a practitioner with powers beyond our understanding. A more gruesome theory is that the originator was thinking of the way psychiatrists figuratively, like headshrinkers literally, get "inside" one's head. (Without going into too many gory details, we can tell you that headshrinking does involve some cutting into the skull.)

That "headshrinker" acquired this new, slang sense back in the mid-'40s isn't so surprising when you realize that headshrinking, as practiced by the Jivaro people of the Amazon, was something that was in the news at the time. A 1945 anthropological text expressed concern that "shrunken heads made by the Jivaro Indians have received undue publicity in the United States." Not surprisingly, this minor obsession spawned movies. The 1939 film "Five Came Back" (remade in 1956 as "Back From Eternity") concerned a plane crash in the Amazon, with some of the victims falling ultimately into the hands of headshrinkers. "Jivaro" in 1954 featured Fernando Lamas and Rhonda Fleming as treasure hunters risking death in the Amazon.

It was during the mid-'50s that the term gained prominence - at first more so on the West Coast than the East. The Jivaro gave up headshrinking some 25 or 30 years ago, so there hasn't been much concern about literal headshrinkers for quite some time. That may be part of the reason "headshrinker" was being casually shortened to "shrink" by the 1960s. "Shrink" is now much more common than "headshrinker," being applied, rather routinely, to psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, psychologists and psychotherapists.

Q. It seems that the news these days is constantly filled with stories of what public person is next to be put on trial. Can you explain the origin of the word "trial"?

A. A study of English legal terms reveals the great influence of the French language in this area. For more than a century after the Norman Conquest of 1066, England's legal language was French; most of the technical terms of law, especially of private law, are of French (and ultimately Latin) origin.

"Trial" derives from the Anglo-French verb "trier," meaning "to try," which in turn derives from the Old French verb "trier," meaning "to pick out or cull." The earliest known written use of "trial" is from 1577, but the word no doubt dates further back than that. Although trials existed among the Anglo-Saxons, the word that has lasted as a name for these proceedings is of French, not Old English, origin because of the social and political dominance of the Normans during that important period.

Trials by jury can also be traced back to the Saxons. An accused per-son might be "vindicated" (from the Latin "vindicare" meaning "to set free") or "exonerated" (from Latin "exonerare" meaning "to free from a burden") if a number of persons ("juratores" meaning "sworn witnesses") came for-ward and swore to a "veredictum," that is, "an answer or decision given to a court," that they believed the accused in-no-cent.

"Veredictum" was formed in Medieval Latin from "vere" meaning "truly," and "dictum" meaning "said." This noun was taken into Anglo-French and from there into Middle English as "verdict," which then became the modern French form as well.