Encyclopedia Neurotica

Encyclopedia Neurotica

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by Jon Winokur

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Our modern Age of Anxiety threatens to overwhelm us all with angst, ambivalence, and dread. Most of us manage to cope, but not without displaying some pretty bizarre behavior. Enter Encyclopedia Neurotica, an irreverent A to Z guide to the tics, twitches, and safety-valve nuttiness of modern life.

Learn about such fascinating foibles as retailSee more details below


Our modern Age of Anxiety threatens to overwhelm us all with angst, ambivalence, and dread. Most of us manage to cope, but not without displaying some pretty bizarre behavior. Enter Encyclopedia Neurotica, an irreverent A to Z guide to the tics, twitches, and safety-valve nuttiness of modern life.

Learn about such fascinating foibles as retail therapy, "shopping as a means of comfort, relaxation, or mood elevation," or cell yell, "loud talking on cell phones in public places by people with a neurotic need to invade their own privacy." Find out whether you suffer from cyberchondria, "hypochondria resulting from seeing one's symptoms on a medical Web site," or pronoia, "the irrational belief that people like you."

From a master of witty compilations, this wry catalog of mishegoss, containing hundreds of illustrative quotations from the famous and the wise, may convince you to lie back and enjoy your neuroses. Or congratulate yourself on not being quite as neurotic as the next guy.

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Have you ever searched for a definition for acquired situational narcissism? Wondered why being human is so tough? Felt a need to understand the appeal of television neurotics like Larry David or Tony Soprano? How about a new list of previously unknown phobias? If you are sometimes neurotic, need to understand someone neurotic, or just need a laugh, this is the encyclopedia for you. The prolific Winokur (The Portable Curmudgeon) has collected an array of neuroticisms for our reading enjoyment. Entries vary in length from a word or two (the definition of self-destructive) to eight pages (famed neurotic Howard Hughes). Bottom Line Usually humorous, sometimes wry, occasionally straightforward and a little scary, this amusing work is recommended for leisure reading collections in all public libraries.-Denise Johnson, Bradley Univ., Peoria, IL Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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Encyclopedia Neurotica

By Jon Winokur

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2005 Jon Winokur
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6030-8



Note: words in italics within definitions will also be found as separate entries.

Absurd, the

Literally "out of harmony," the bewildering state of existence in a purposeless universe.

Why does a person even get up in the morning? You have breakfast, you floss your teeth so you'll have healthy gums in your old age, and then you get in your car and drive down I-10 and die. Life is so stupid I can't stand it.

— Barbara Kingsolver

The absurd is born of the confrontation between the human call and the unreasonable silence of the world.

— Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)

I hope life isn't a big joke, because I don't get it.

— Jack Handey

See also catch-22, human condition, Myth of Sisyphus.

"abuse" abuse

Indiscriminate use of the word "abuse" as the second element of a compound, referring either to the thing misused, or the thing or person harmed, as in "fragrance abuse" (wearing too much perfume), "laxative abuse" (excessive purging as part of an eating disorder), "racket abuse" (see McEnroe, John), "river abuse" (riparian pollution), and "math abuse" (figures lie and liars figure).

Abyss, the

Literally, the bottomless pit of primeval chaos from which the universe was formed; figuratively, the yawning, unfathomable chasm of existential terror.

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

— Friedrich Nietzsche

See also angst, dark night of the soul, undertoad.

acquired situational narcissism

An adult-onset form of narcissism characterized by grandiosity, lack of empathy, rage, isolation, and substance abuse. According to Cornell Medical School psychiatrist Robert Millman, acquired situational narcissism mainly afflicts celebrities, who tend to be surrounded by enablers.

addiction (formerly "habit")

Compulsive need for a habit-forming substance such as nicotine, alcohol, or heroin. Some psychologists hold that applying the word addiction to compulsive behaviors involving sex, overeating, or gambling dilutes the meaning of a term that should be reserved for biogenetic diseases like alcoholism.

See also plastic surgery addiction.

Addiction has become one of the cant terms to explain less-desired behavior of all sorts. In the 1950s, when I was growing up, addiction meant horrible obsession and dealt almost exclusively with drugs, usually alcohol. With the rise of the self- help movement addiction has come to describe a less-pleasing behavior than one might like. You can now be addicted to chocolate, video games, procrastination, late night TV, sex, eating and/or not eating, and buying expensive things you don't need.

— James B. Twitchell, Living It Up: Our Love Affair with Luxury (2002)

Could it be that by labeling common problems addictions we're actually magnifying their power over us and making it even harder to conquer them?

Utne Reader, November–December 1988

addiction memoir

Increasingly popular literary genre (or at least book category) in which the authors congratulate themselves for their triumphs over substance abuse.

See also celebrity sufferer.


One who suffers from hormone-induced dementia.

Weird clothing is de rigueur for teenagers, but today's generation of teens is finding it difficult to be sufficiently weird ... because the previous generation, who went through adolescence in the sixties and seventies, used up practically all the available weirdness.

— P. J. O'Rourke, Modern Manners (1990)


Person between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four who lives with his parents. The 2000 U.S. Census counted four million adultolescents, and according to another survey, 60 percent of college students plan to live at home after graduation. Independence is thus no longer a universal goal, and "living at home" after college is no longer stigmatized.

The conveyor belt that once transported adolescents into adulthood has broken down.

— Frank Furstenberg, sociologist

See also scaffolding.

adult temper tantrum

No longer the exclusive domain of small children, the temper tantrum is now acceptable grownup behavior, and not just for athletes and celebrities: Some management experts actually offer tips on how to lose your temper at the office for maximum advantage. Owen Edwards, author of Upward Nobility: How to Succeed in Business Without Losing Your Soul, claims that "a good old-fashioned temper tantrum can send the message to others that you aren't willing to be pushed around," and suggests that some bosses have a grudging respect for employees who know how to throw well-timed tantrums. But mental health professionals say that temper tantrums do nothing but alienate and frighten those around you, and can be hazardous to your health. The adult temper tantrum has been elevated to cinematic art by Jack Nicholson.


Virus of affluence that psychotherapist Jessie H. O'Neill defines as "the collective addictions, character flaws, psychological wounds, neuroses, and behavioral disorders caused or exacerbated by the presence of, or desire for, wealth." Affluenza victims, regardless of their socioeconomic level, falsely believe that money can solve all their problems. Other symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem, inability to delay gratification, low frustration tolerance, workaholism, and feelings of isolation and separation. According to O'Neill, affluenza is not only highly contagious, it is also hereditary.

Americans become unhappy and vicious because their preoccupation with amassing possessions obliterates their loneliness. This is why production in America seems to be on such an endless upward spiral: every time we buy something we deepen our emotional deprivation and hence our need to buy something.

— Philip Slater, Wealth Addiction (1980)

In our view, the affluenza epidemic is rooted in the fact that our supreme measure of national progress is that quarterly ring of the cash register we call the Gross Domestic Product. It's rooted in the idea that every generation will be materially more wealthy than its predecessor, and that, somehow, each of us can pursue that single-minded end without damaging the countless other things we hold dear.

— John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2001)

See also hedonistic treadmill.

Age of Anxiety, the

Appellation bestowed on the twentieth century by the poet W. H. Auden in his book-length poem of the same title which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948.

Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today's jobs with yesterday's tools.

— Marshall McLuhan


Dyspepsia, Italian-style.


Greek for "fear of the marketplace." The agoraphobe fears crowds, lines, trains, planes, cars — any situation that might trigger a panic attack.

The recluse imagines that if he can reduce the possibility of surprises the world will become orderly, but the more order he contrives, the more it is vulnerable to fortune. The wish to eliminate chance leads to the madness of which method is the symptom.

— Frederic Raphael, Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick (1999)

See also loner, recluse, solitude.

alcoholic (formerly "drunkard," "alky" "lush," "rummy," "dipsomaniac," "wino," "sot," "booze-hound," "barfly")

Someone who drinks to excess as a result of the disease of alcoholism. It was once thought that problem-drinking was a failure of willpower, but since the advent of 12-Step programs, the idea that alcoholics are powerless over their addiction has become an article of faith.

If the headache would only precede the intoxication, alcoholism would be a virtue.

— Samuel Butler

When I was a practicing alcoholic, I was unbelievable. One side effect was immense suspicion: I'd come off tour like Inspector Clouseau on acid. Where'd this cornflake come from? It wasn't here before.

— Ozzy Osbourne

I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.

— Winston Churchill


Alleged disorder that prevents its victims from expressing their feelings. As if that were a problem.

Allen, Woody (Allen Stuart Konigsberg, 1935–)

Short, insecure, self-absorbed, ambivalent, Jewish, and funny, Woody Allen was America's favorite neurotic until he dumped Mia Farrow for her twenty-one-year-old adopted daughter.

He contributed gags to a newspaper column while still in high school and became a comedy writer for Sid Caesar after graduation. At twenty-three he began performing his own material and was soon a popular stand-up. He wrote humorous essays for the New Yorker that he published in three anthologies, and wrote his first screenplay, What's New Pussycat?, in 1965, but so abhorred the Hollywood experience that he resolved never to work in that town again. The movie, however, made money and Allen was suddenly bankable, and he went on to direct a long string of "personal films" about his twin torments, sex and death, and became a rarity in the American cinema: an independent auteur. He appeared in most of his films as a wisecracking New Yorker, a nerdy, quasi-intellectual kvetch. In the process he became the world's most famous analysand who perhaps did more for Freud than a whole convention of psychoanalysts.

After two failed marriages, Allen's relationship with Diane Keaton inspired his first serious film, Annie Hall, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1977. The disastrous split with Farrow occurred after she discovered "pornographic Polaroids" of her twenty-one-year-old adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn in his apartment (he was fifty-seven at the time). Asked about the propriety of the relationship, his only explanation was, "The heart wants what it wants." He has since tried to rehabilitate his public image by making himself more accessible to the press and by allowing a documentary film crew to follow him on a tour of Europe with his Dixieland band, but for those who loved his early work, the Wood Man, alas, just isn't funny anymore.

With me, it's a genetic dissatisfaction with everything.

— Woody Allen

Daily life for this brilliant, courteous man seems to be a matter of endlessly fending off guilt, which settles on the balconies of his intellect like the pigeons on the terraces of his apartment.

— Penelope Gilliatt, The New Yorker

He has been called the modern version of Chaplin's Little Man, yanked into the Age of Anxiety. But that's only part of it. More than any contemporary performer, Allen has turned nervousness and insecurity into an art form. Beset by fears of death — remember him shopping for books on death while Annie Hall looks for books on cats? — he's not much more secure when it comes to sex, or the ability to believe that any pleasure can be more than fleeting, and in any case thoroughly undeserved.

— Jay Carr, The Boston Globe, March 5, 1989

Woody Allen didn't even buy sheets without talking to his psychiatrist. I know that several sessions went into his switch from polyester-satin to cotton.

— Mia Farrow, What Falls Away (1997)

If I were building a statue to Dr. Freud, and I were going to put it in New York, and the statue was going to be Freud in his office, it would be Woody Allen on the couch.

— Edward Koch, former mayor of New York

ambient fear

Background anxiety of everyday life.

See also free-floating anxiety.


Dubiousness; uncertainty; vagueness.

Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.

— Sigmund Freud

See also ambivalence, doubt.

ambivalence (formerly "confusion")

Coexistence of contradictory ideas, attitudes, or feelings, such as love and hate, toward a person, an object, or a situation, which may or may not be fully conscious.

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.

— E. B. White

Part of me suspects that I'm a loser, and the other part of me thinks I'm God Almighty.

— John Lennon

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up (1945)

anal retentive personality (formerly "tidy")

One who is excessively meticulous and orderly. According to psychoanalytic theory, the anal retentive personality results from guilt and anxiety caused by early efforts to control bowel movements, which the child finds pleasurable. Go figure.

I'm full of fears and I do my best to avoid difficulties and any kind of complications. I like everything around me to be clear as crystal and completely calm. I don't want clouds overhead. I get a feeling of inner peace from a well-organized desk. When I take a bath, I put everything neatly back in place. You wouldn't even know I'd been in the bathroom. My passion for orderliness goes hand in hand with a strong revulsion toward complications.

— Alfred Hitchcock

People try to tell you that the secret to pepper steak is the seasoning — but we know different, don't we? Uh-huh. It's getting all the pieces the same size. And that's what I've done here. Beaut — Uh-oh. This one's a little bigger than the rest, so we'll just discard that one ... and I don't think this little wrinkly one belongs in here ... and this, well, I just don't like the look of that one at all. In fact, why don't we just start over and throw this out.

— Phil Hartman as "The Anal Retentive Chef" on Saturday Night Live

The apartment was plastered with photos of naked men. One showed a penis as long as my arm. There was a whip stand in the bedroom and hardware on the walls and a stack of Meatmen magazines on the back of the toilet. Yet, the house was unbelievably orderly. These guys were so anal they alphabetized their laundry products: All, Bold, Cheer, Dash, Fab.

— Louise Rafkin, Other People's Dirt (1998)

Martha Stewart's house is not the biggest one on her street in Westport, Connecticut, but the shrubbery gives away its owner. The bushes aren't just wrapped in burlap, the ne plus ultra of winterization; the fabric has been tailored to fit the precise dimensions of each plant. ... Her kitchen is dense with Stewarttouches: forty-eight gleaming copper pots hang above the stove, hundreds of antique dishes fill the glass-fronted cabinets, and the dish-washing liquid is decanted into a glass cruet beside the sink.

— Jeffrey Toobin, "Lunch at Martha's," The New Yorker, February 3,2003

"Tidy" is a dear little word, and Miss Manners is sorry to find it pass out of use. Swept under the rug, as it were.

It is true that we have other ways of referring to people who enjoy keeping things neat, who pick up after themselves without being threatened, and who maintain their homes nicely for themselves and other residents, instead of making desperate swipes at order only when guests are expected.

But the modern terms for "tidy" don't have the same charm. Miss Manners doesn't care for either "compulsive" or "control freak."

Even less does she care for the modern habit of redefining good habits as signs of bad character. It is clever to declare one's weakness a virtue and demand to be not just forgiven for one's lapses, but admired. However, this ploy is done at the expense of the dutiful, who are made to feel sheepish and apologetic about doing the right thing. ...

The notion that messiness is a warm and endearing trait, while orderliness is freakish enjoys amazing success. Even people who truly love order commonly refer disparagingly to their own good habits.

— Miss Manners (Judith Martin), Chicago Tribune, March 26, 1998


Excerpted from Encyclopedia Neurotica by Jon Winokur. Copyright © 2005 Jon Winokur. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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