Fixation and the alchemist’s art

Q: Is “fixate” really a verb? If you’re strongly fixed on something, then you have a fixation. But are you fixated? It seems that people have turned the noun into a verb.

A: Yes, “fixate” is a real verb. It was first recorded in the 1880s in the physical sense (to fix in place or stabilize). It was first used in the 1920s in a psychological sense (to form an abnormal emotional attachment).

This latter meaning is the one familiar to most of us, with the word usually appearing in an adjectival form (“fixated”) or in the passive (“to be fixated”).

The Oxford English Dictionary says this sense of “fixate” was originally a term in Freudian theory.

This is how the OED defines the psychoanalytic term: “to cause (a component of the libido) to be arrested at an immature stage leading a person to abnormal attachments to people or things, etc.”

Oxford’s first citation for this usage comes from William McDougall’s Outline of Abnormal Psychology (1926). In commenting on the Oedipus complex, McDougall wrote that “every infant normally becomes fixated upon the parent of the opposite sex.”

However, “fixated” has a looser, less technical meaning too. It can simply mean “obsessed with,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s first example of this looser usage is from George Orwell’s Critical Essays (1945): “It is clear that for many years he remained ‘fixated’ on his old school.” (He’s referring here to P. G. Wodehouse.)

Some commentators have suggested that this use of “fixate” may be a back-formation from “fixation,” though we haven’t found any standard dictionaries that say so.

A back-formation is a word formed by dropping part of an older one, and “fixation” is certainly older! It has its origins not in psychology but in alchemy.

“Fixation,” which comes from the medieval Latin fixationem (of action), referred in the alchemist’s art to the “process of reducing a volatile spirit or essence to a permanent bodily form,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the usage is from a reference to alchemy in  Confessio Amantis (1393), a Middle English poem by John Gower: “Do that there be fixation / With tempred hetes of the fire.”

The noun “fixation” still has various meanings in the modern physical sciences. But, like “fixate,” it also has a technical meaning in psychology, first recorded in 1910 in a translation of Freud.

And, like “fixate,” the noun also has a looser meaning, one the OED compares to “an obsession, an idée fixe.”

The parent of these words is, of course, the verb “fix,” meaning to fasten—that is, make fast—or stabilize.

The earliest recorded use, says the OED, is “to fix (one’s eyes) upon an object,” although its “use in alchemy is nearly as old in English; it is found in the Romanic languages and in the medieval Latin writers on alchemy.”

For centuries, “fix” has been used to mean to fasten or concentrate one’s mind, attention, or affections on someone or something.

This brings a question to mind: Why the “-ate” in “fixate”? It seems that “fix” would do as well and that the suffix is superfluous.

We can think of two explanations.

It may be that other uses of “fix”—to adjust, arrange, prepare, put to rights, make ready, repair, and so on—just became too numerous. When a new usage came along, the suffix “-ate” was used to differentiate it from the rest.

Or perhaps the explanation is simpler, and “fixate”—at least in the Freudian sense—really is, as you suggest, a back-formation from “fixation.”

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