Special Issue

A problematic discussion

Gene Foreman has an issue with “issues.”

“I see the misuse of ‘issues’ as a synonym for ‘problems’ as part of the annoying trend toward euphemisms in journalism,” Foreman, a legendary newspaper editor, wrote. “It may be less threatening to tell someone you have ‘issues’ with him or her, but that erodes language precision.”

Let’s look at that simple word, “issue.” As a noun or verb, it has dozens of definitions, from something sent forth (“The government issued a decree banning the practice”) to progeny (“All of the rich man’s issue gathered for a reading of his will”).

Reading the entry for “issue” in The Oxford English Dictionary is like walking through etymological history. One of the earliest citations for any use of “issue” is from 1374, with the definition “in reference to things immaterial, or to coming out of a condition.” It’s from Troilus and Cressida: “His sorwes that he spared hadde, He yaf an yssue large, and deth he cride.” (Very loose translation from Chaucer’s Middle English: “His sorrows finally caught up with him, and he cried for death.” You could even say he “issued” a cry for death.)

After that, new definitions were frequently added; the new coinages came to a screeching halt in the eighteenth century and resumed in the nineteenth. In the early group are the roots of Foreman’s “issue” with “issues”: Among the definitions, according to the OED, were “to join in issue” (1430); “to proceed to argument with a person on a particular point, offered or selected” (1551); “to take up the opposite side of a case, or a contrary view on a question” (1697). In other words, to have “issues” with something, though not yet with someone.

The OED is not the unbending, stodgy authority it once was (if it ever was). It now updates quarterly, with new words and revisions to old ones, which means that it sometimes reacts faster to changes than many other dictionaries. So it’s easier to watch the evolution of newer coinages. In 2003, for example, it added another definition for “issues”: “Emotional or psychological difficulties (freq. with modifying word); points of emotional conflict.” That usage, it says, first cited in The New York Times in 1982, is “chiefly U.S.” That’s pretty close to the usage Foreman objects to, though not quite there.

We’re not at the point where an authority as accepted as the OED has endorsed referring to my problems with you as “issues,” and English speakers have a time-honored—and legitimate—habit of using words however they want to, often leading to dictionaries’ adopting those uses. And even some “hip” and “looser” dictionaries join Foreman in rejecting “issues” as a synonym for problems: Most of the definitions of “issues” on urbandictionary.com call it a euphemism. More MSD (mainstream dictionaries) don’t include it, though Merriam-Webster does: “I have issues with his behavior.”

We’re not in a position to “issue” a proclamation banning this euphemism, but in the interest of keeping English and journalism as precise as possible, and avoid euphemisms, it might be a good idea to ditch it. You got a problem with that?

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.