Word Matters Podcast

The Invention of 'Introvert' (with Science Diction)

Word Matters, Episode 51

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We're joined this week by Johanna Mayer and Chris Egusa from the Science Diction podcast to discuss the psychological origins of the word 'introvert'!

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, the story of three psychologists, one dictionary and a complicated word. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On this special episode, Peter Sokolowski and I are joined by Johanna Mayer and Chris Egusa from the Science Diction Podcast to tell the story of the word introvert.

The word introvert as we know it today was born out of the troubled relationship between two pillars of modern thought: Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. We'll begin our exploration with Johanna Mayer and Chris Egusa telling the story of Freud and Jung in a segment from the Science Diction episode "Introvert: The Invention of a Type." Here's Johanna and Chris.

Johanna Mayer: In February of 1907, two men met in a richly decorated apartment in Vienna, both giants of the psychology world, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. At that point, Freud was well-known as the founder of psychoanalysis. Intensely ambitious, often controversial, he introduced the world to ideas like repressed trauma and the ego, but he had yet to find a contemporary who he felt was at his level. Enter Carl Jung. Nearly 20 years younger than Freud, Jung was obsessed with dreams and spirituality. When they met that first time in Vienna, they talked for thirteen straight hours about theory and practice and the extramarital affair that Jung was having. This cemented an intense relationship, which often walked the line between friendship and rivalry. The two toured conferences together, wrote each other letters. And after only a month of knowing each other Freud was ready to appoint Jung as the era parent to the psychoanalytic movement. And at one point Jung wrote to Freud to confess that he had what he called a religious crush on him. Yeah, I am not entirely sure what that means, but nevertheless Freud had found a younger protege to take under his wing, whose ideas and intellectual curiosity rivaled his own. And Jung had found a mentor, colleague, and as time went on, even a father figure. But it wasn't perfect.

Carl Jung: I liked him very much.

Johanna Mayer: This is Jung much later in life, talking about his impressions of Freud.

Carl Jung: But I soon discovered that when he had thoughts on something, then it was settled while I was doubting all along the line. So from the very beginning, there was a discrepancy.

Chris Egusa: And that discrepancy slowly opened a rift between the two. Professionally, their critiques of each other's work intensified and often got personal. Jung felt that Freud placed far too much importance on feelings of sexual repression, while Freud looked at many of Jung's ideas as pure mysticism. Finally, the two had a blow out fight. In 1913, only six years after their first meeting, Freud wrote a letter to Jung in which he suggested that they "abandon our personal relations entirely. I shall lose nothing by it for my only emotional tie with you has been a long thin thread, the lingering effect of past disappointments." And that was the end. They never saw each other again. It was devastating for Jung. And in the midst of the fallout, this one question kept bothering him. How could two people look at the same set of facts and come up with completely different conclusions? The more he thought about this, the more he decided that there must be something innate within people that makes us who we are, something that makes us fundamentally different from each other, different types of people who approached the world in radically different ways. He put his ideas down on paper, and in 1921 published a book called Psychological Types. In it, he lays out several distinct personality types and it was in this book that Jung popularized the words introvert and extrovert.

Johanna Mayer: Introvert is taken from Latin. Intro means "inward" or "to the inside," and vertere means "to turn," so together they mean "to turn inward." And extrovert means to "turn outward." For Jung, it was a matter of energy, where it's directed and where it comes from. Introverts are attuned to the internal world of thoughts, ideas and feelings. This internal world is also the source of their psychic energy, as Jung called it. And extroverts, of course, are just the opposite. Their energy comes from the world around them. He also thought both sides had a tendency to misunderstand each other. The extroverts could see introverts as aloof, dull, maybe self-centered, while the introverts often see extroverts as superficial and insincere.

Chris Egusa: For the record, Jung thought of himself as an introvert and Freud as an extrovert.

Emily Brewster: That was from the Science Diction episode "Introvert: The Invention of a Type" with our guests, Johanna Mayer and Chris Egusa. Johanna Mayer and Chris Egusa, welcome to Word Matters. We are so happy to have you here to talk to us about the origins of the word introvert.

Johanna Mayer: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Chris Egusa: Yeah, happy to be here.

Emily Brewster: There's a whole story behind this word that I did not know, plus the idea of an introvert and an extrovert, it's of course fascinating.

Peter Sokolowski: This actually came about because of a specific relationship. These are two of the most famous people in sort of 20th century thought and philosophy, not just psychology. And they knew each other, which is by itself kind of an astonishing thing. Maybe not so astonishing, both German speakers, they were rough contemporaries, but it's because of that one relationship that we got these terms that everybody uses as a shorthand for personality now.

Johanna Mayer: Yeah, I would say it was kind of the jumping-off point. The term introvert I think it's not that Jung invented it. I think that it existed before in medical terms. They would talk about introverted origins I believe. But yeah, it was those two that really brought the word into the realm that we use it today.

Emily Brewster: Right. The actual word introvert and the word extrovert are both these very classic English constructions made out of Latin bits that are shoved together. And they did have these other uses, but Jung is the one who gave them their familiar uses, the ones that we know now, the ones that we take quizzes to find out which one we are.

Johanna Mayer: So many quizzes.

Peter Sokolowski: That's right. And even Noah Webster himself, back in 1828, had a definition for introversion, the act of turning inwards. Intra is the toward itself, and the versus is turning, the same route that many other words have. And for them it was this literal motion or movement or orientation, but nothing to do with this personality trait. It's so incredibly well absorbed by our society. It just seems like sometimes people are surprised that a certain word was coined at a certain time because what did they call it before then? Did they not have a word for that? And certainly personalities existed before then, but it does seem like this sort of changed the way we see personalities.

Chris Egusa: Yeah. I think what Jung did, he coined it as a noun. Before that it was really used I think more as a verb, coined the idea of an introvert or an extrovert as a person. And his ideas about it were really specific and kind of far away from the way we use it now. Jung, in his mind, being introverted was really all about energy, and he called it libido, which Freud also used that word. But for Jung, instead of sexual energy, libido was more about life energy. So for Jung, an introverted person, their energy was focused inward to the world of the subjective and really focused on their ideas, on their experiences. And an extroverted person was focused on the objective world, the world outside, objective reality, other people, things. And so, that was really kind of the crux of Jung's ideas about introversion. And it's not until later that we have all of these other layers that are added onto it.

Peter Sokolowski: That is fascinating. And that makes perfect sense because I was a little confused by the definition that was originally written. The very first definition of this use of the term entered into Merriam-Webster dictionary happened to be in 1934 in the big unabridged edition, the so-called Second Edition. And the wording of it is very much what you just described. It's labeled psychology and it says, "Interest directed inward. A propensity finding one's satisfaction in the inner life of thought and fancy." Now, if you were to read that to someone, that's not the way we understand it today, but that is exactly what you just described.

Emily Brewster: It's certainly in the lineage of the modern use of the word also.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, absolutely. But now we have the sense and it's written in our current definition, "a typically reserved or quiet person who tends to be introspective and enjoys spending time alone." That's far down the train tracks from that original one.

Chris Egusa: Yeah. A funny thing to me about Jung's coining the word in his definition is that definition that you just read, which is focused on ideas and the world of thought and ideas, that is very much part of how Jung saw himself. He saw himself as this very deep thinker. And so, in him describing the split between himself and Freud, him being an introvert and Freud being extrovert, he was ascribing the characteristics that he kind of prized about himself, this focus on thought, introspection, the world of ideas, and was making this distinction between the two. So it came from a very personal place and ended up being an extremely widespread word that everyone uses.

Johanna Mayer: Yeah, Jung was clearly such an introvert.

Peter Sokolowski: Was he shy? Would we recognize his introversion in the way that we understand it today?

Johanna Mayer: Well, that's the thing that a lot of people push back against. Everyone that we talk to for this story says shyness should not be equated with introversion. Shyness is kind of more about avoidance or anxiety over certain things, and introversion is more about just kind of what you prefer, what sorts of situations you like to be in.

Peter Sokolowski: I always think of a profile in the New Yorker magazine of Al Gore by David Remnick, and I still remember it to this day. He has the sentence, "The classical difference between an introvert and an extrovert is that if you send an introvert into a reception or an event with a hundred other people, he will emerge with less energy than he had going in. An extrovert will come out of that event energized, with more energy than he had going in. Gore needs a rest after an event. Clinton would leave invigorated." That's almost a definition, and it's a neat way of thinking about it, but it doesn't actually involve shyness. In other words, Al Gore, who was a prominent politician, he wasn't actually preternaturally shy necessarily, but he might've been an introvert, at least in this kind of way.

Emily Brewster: Well, and it's interesting that it's in particular about energy levels, which is what you were just talking about, Chris, about the energy, and Jung, the way he thought about libido as this energy. And it ties in again to that Latin root vertere, which means to turn right. It's this very active verb there.

Chris Egusa: That description about Al Gore is very much in line, or I think shows an evolution of the idea of energy, which really started with Jung. And now I think where that's gone and what's really prevalent that people think about is this idea of a person has a battery almost. And so the question is where do you get charged up from? Where do you get your energy from and where does it get spent? And so, that idea of a battery, an introvert, they get their energy, as you said, from being solitary and use it up with other people. That idea, it makes a lot of sense. It came into question with some of the experts we spoke to in terms of some of the academics and scientific research, but it's definitely, I think on a fundamental level, it makes sense. And I think it's the way people use it a lot.

Emily Brewster: Something I really love about the terms introvert and extrovert is just what they say about the human, very human, deeply human desire to categorize. Take it all the way back to Aristotle. The inclination, the desire, the need to put things in boxes, to label things it's so well presented by these terms that we take these online quizzes to figure out which we are.

Johanna Mayer: Oh, it's so seductive. It's so satisfying, especially when you take something like the Myers-Briggs-type indicator and it all clicks into place and it feels like it all makes sense. But that's actually something that one of the psychologists we talked to for this episode really, really pushed back against that. And his argument is that we shouldn't even be using the words introvert and extrovert really, because that assumes that they're just kind of two different types. And that's very limiting. That would be like, the analogy that he used, it would be like saying there are tall people in the world and there are short people in the world, and there's nothing in between. So his pitch was that we should stop using the terms introvert and extrovert, and instead we should say, "So-and-so falls closer toward the introverted end of the introvert/extrovert continuum." But of course, no one's ever going to say that because it sounds wildly pretentious and is clunky, and it's just not as satisfying as categorizing ourselves like that.

Emily Brewster: The little boxes are so satisfying, but very often they're really failures as far as accuracy goes.

Johanna Mayer: Oh totally.

Peter Sokolowski: Emily brought up this idea of organization and the mania for categorization. And so, we have to talk about Allport and his study, which is to me an extreme version of this and absolutely fascinating.

Emily Brewster: This is something I knew nothing about before the Science Diction podcast, and this is such a great story.

We'll be back after the break with more of the tale of introvert, which happens to include an important cameo from one of our very own dictionaries. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Neil Servin: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the definition and history of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: Here's Chris Egusa to tell us about the significance of Gordon Allport in this tale.

Chris Egusa: So Gordon Allport was a contemporary of Jung's. He came along a little bit later, but he's really thought of as almost the father of modern personality psychology. And what he really draws a distinction is this idea that Jung had, which is types, types of people, and what he focuses on are psychological or personality traits. And a person can have any number of traits. So what he did is really fascinating. He built off this idea called the lexical hypothesis and the lexical hypothesis basically says that if certain personality traits are, in fact, real and they are important enough, they will get names. They will be named in language, and people will eventually come up with words to describe them. In the same way that we came up with words like tree or fire or the color blue to describe things that were important to us, the same thing would happen with personality traits, and these intangible things would get words that become embedded in language. And so, he took that idea and decided what's the easiest, simplest way to test this and try and understand it? So he actually went to the dictionary and he took the dictionary that was published at the time, combed through all, I think, 400,000 words of it. He combed through the entire length of the dictionary, and he pulled out any word that could be used to describe a person or could possibly be connected to personality trait. And what he came up with was a list of literally 18,000 words. In research for this piece I actually looked up and found the study that he published, and it's fascinating. It is 130 pages long. And looking through it, it is literally top to bottom words, just lists of words through this entire thing. And all kinds of different words, things like baffled, deliberative. There was one I found that I loved which was more mordacious.

Peter Sokolowski: Tendency to bite?

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Biting or caustic.

Chris Egusa: Yes.

Emily Brewster: Now we know which dictionary this was. It was actually a dictionary that was published by Merriam-Webster. And was this the seventeen-pound, largest dictionary ever manufactured?

Peter Sokolowski: It was the New International. It was the one that proceeded what we call Webster's Second. And it's odd because Webster's Second was published in 1934. This study was published in 1936. It's possible that it took him so long that he was using an earlier edition and kept using it. The 1909 original copyright of what was called the New International Dictionary, but was the largest Merriam-Webster dictionary ever up to that point? It has to be said that the new edition was significantly bigger. What's interesting to me, and maybe Emily and I view these things differently because we work from the inside of a dictionary, it just seems like there's so much concrete faith placed in this tome, in this body of knowledge, this collected knowledge. And I think that faith is well earned. And at the same time, maybe 18,000 words becomes less and less helpful as you make that list longer. And it strikes me, and Emily said this earlier to me, they would have been better off using a smaller, more current and contemporary dictionary that was really dedicated to the current active vocabulary of a language rather than the big, unabridged, which tends to have things like dead wood, long lists of words that maybe no one has used in generations, but are still recorded in the dictionary.

Emily Brewster: Chris and Johanna, as non-lexicographers, What do you think of Allport's effort and his approach to this? What do you think of his lexical hypothesis and this means that he used to collect these words?

Johanna Mayer: Well, my primary reaction is that it sounds just absolutely exhausting, and I can't imagine how many hours he would spend bent, just combing over this dictionary. We were talking about categorizing ourselves and putting labels on ourselves and the tendency to want to shove ourselves into these little boxes. The act of looking through and finding a word that so perfectly describes you or that kind of makes something click and have an aha moment, I think that that can be really affirming. And people say it a lot, but words are powerful, and I think that it just speaks to how essential language is to the way that we see other people into the way that we see ourselves.

Chris Egusa: Yeah. I would just add on that from Allport's perspective, I think that he saw this as essential, even though it took so long to come through all of these because for a psychologist to actually test and understand what personality traits are actually meaningful for people, they have to have words to ask people. The only way they can find out about personality is by talking to people and giving them questionnaires and things like that. So from his perspective, it's really working from the bottom up, looking at what are all the words, and then trying to finally understand what are the words that are meaningful and represent something that is true about human personality. And as Johanna said, I think it's really only in language that we can understand that.

Johanna Mayer: And unfortunately there's no machine that personality psychologists can just stick into people and see where they fall on the kindness meter. You score an 87 on the morodacious index, so you have to rely on people describing themselves, and language is the only way that we have to do that.

Emily Brewster: You certainly had a point, and certainly going to the language to look at what the speakers of a language, if we're talking about the English language, there are a lot of speakers of this language, every word that he encountered in that dictionary is a word that is established in the language, that is used in print. And so, collecting all of the words in a particular dictionary that have application to human personality, it does tell you something. It tells you something about the words that are used to describe people in books and magazines, journals, and conversation and letters. It really does provide information.

Johanna Mayer: Well, and what ended up happening later on with the hypothesis was over several decades, they did just whittle that list down and down and down, further and further and further, and confirmed it across several languages and cultures until a group of researchers in, I believe, the 1980s eventually got it down to five words. From that list of 18,000, they got it down to five, and they make up kind of the five arms of what I would say today is the most accepted and scientifically sound personality indicator. It's called The Big Five. And those five words that they whittled it down to was conscientiousness, openness to experience, agreeableness, neuroticism, which feels kind of outdated. And the last word that they landed on that made the cut was extroversion. So those, they say, are sort of the big five umbrella traits that make up each person. So from the 18,000 word list, extroversion made the cut.

Peter Sokolowski: It makes me think language is also limiting. It's almost as if we're trying to describe a spectrum by just labeling some of the points on that spectrum. It's very difficult to have language be so accurate in its description of personality traits. And I get the sense that what he made with this is like a concordance. Concordances used to be the height of scholarship. A concordance of Shakespeare or concordance of the Bible are common versions, but a concordance would simply alphabetize every single occurrence of every single word used by a given author. And that strikes us today, I think in the 21st century, is kind of almost a simpleton's scholarship. It's kind of an easy task for a computer to do today. Yet, what it used to represent was almost a pillar of scholarship, which is to get to the actual tools, the working words that Shakespeare used, for example.

So I think that's what he was going for. He was going for a kind of concordance of traits. And I just happened to open his study and he had four columns that go for a hundred pages. One is personal traits. One is temporary states. One is social evaluations, and one is metaphorical and doubtful. But just to give you a couple examples of personal traits in this particular page, they include cruel, crusading, crybaby, cryptic, and culturist. And then temporary states include crumbling, crushed, and cumbered. And then, social evaluations include crude, crummy, cubbish, cuckoldly, and cuckoo. And then, finally metaphorical and doubtful, I see a crystal, cultivated, cultured, and careless. So it is fascinating. You could spend an hour just glancing at this list and finding all kinds of connections, which is what we do when we browse dictionaries. It reminds me of the old serendipity of paging through a paper dictionary because you end up being fascinated by things that you weren't necessarily looking for.

Emily Brewster: I get the feeling that Allport enjoyed this project.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: I love that he included metaphorical extensions of these words as personal, like crumbling, right? We know what it is for a person to be described as crumbling, but that's not the literal use of the word and its primary meaning, and still he attached it because it can describe the way a person feels.

Johanna Mayer: Yeah. Very specific kind of researcher, Gordon Allport.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. I love him.

Chris Egusa: In another life, he could have been a lexicographer.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, do we think he was introverted?

Johanna Mayer: Absolutely. Hands down. Who else would spend hours of solitary combing through lists in the dictionary? Absolutely.

Peter Sokolowski: His work ended up, the categorizing actually does look a lot like lexicography in a lot of different-

Johanna Mayer: Really?

Peter Sokolowski: Well, sure, because even just to create those four larger categories into which he would then put each describing word that he found in the dictionary, that involves a huge amount of mental labor, it seems to me. It seems exhausting to try to categorize every word. It's hard enough just to look up a word and try to absorb its definition, and then you may be write a definition. These things are taxing, but this project certainly was taxing in its own kind of way.

Emily Brewster: This has been just a fantastic conversation. Thank you so much for telling us the story of the creation of the word introvert in the way that we know it.

Johanna Mayer: Thank you. We came out of our introverted shells to do it.

Chris Egusa: Now, we're going back in. Yeah, thank you so much. This was fun.

Peter Sokolowski: I've got to go take a nap.

Emily Brewster: To hear the entire Science Diction episode "Introvert: The Invention of a Type," visit the Science Friday website at sciencefriday.com. There you can also hear an episode that Peter and I recorded with Johanna called "Language Evolves: It's All Fine." And be sure to subscribe to Science Diction wherever you get your podcasts.

Special thanks to Johanna Mayer, Chris Egusa and Elah Feder for making this episode possible. Let us know what you think about this episode and Word Matters in general. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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