Q: In a hearing transcript I was reading the other day, an attorney complained that a proposed settlement would cause “issues” for his client. As a law professor, I’ve noticed that “issue” has come to replace “problem.” Do you have any idea how this linguistic evolution or devolution has occurred?
A: You aren’t the first to notice or take issue with this use of “issue.” Many of my readers and listeners have noticed it too.
The noun “issue” (as well as the verb) entered English in the 1300s and has had a variety of meanings over the centuries, all of them arising more or less out of its early meanings of egress, outflow, exit, discharge, or output.
The “issue,” in other words, is what comes out, whether from a drain pipe, the human body, a stressful situation, or a problematic legal settlement.
Thus “issue” has been used to describe progeny (that is, children); bodily fluids (as in blood from a wound); the outlets of streams and rivers; the proceeds from rental property, and an outcome, product, event, or consequence.
Also, it has meant a distribution or a giving out (as when a soldier is given an “issue” of rations or pay), an “issue” of a newspaper or magazine; and a point in question (a legal usage dating from 1308).
The legal usages, with their contentious overtones, might have influenced a relatively new meaning of the noun, as exemplified in the phrase “to make an issue of” (that is, to make a fuss about or make a subject of contention).
The Oxford English Dictionary dates this sense of the word from 1927, when a writer in the New Statesman remarked, “There seems to be an attempt to create a big issue of Communism versus anti-Communism.”
And we’ve been making issues of things ever since.
The use of “issue” to mean an emotional or psychological problem seems to have cropped up about 30 years go.
Here’s one of the entries under “issue” (noun) in the OED: “In pl. orig. and chiefly U.S. Emotional or psychological difficulties (freq. with modifying word); points of emotional conflict.”
And here’s the OED‘s first published citation, from the New York Times on Dec. 8, 1982: “Then it becomes how do you deal with the emotions and intimacy issues that were largely dealt with previously through alcohol?”
As we all know, by the time a term shows up in a major newspaper it’s probably been in use for a while. So this sense of the term might have been in the air before 1982.
As of this writing, the online version of the OED doesn’t deal with “issue” as a synonym for a plain old problem (as in “he has cholesterol issues”).
But both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) include problem as a meaning of “issue.”