The Grammarphobia Blog

The life of ‘lifestyle’

Q: The more student papers I read at my university, the more certain usages drive me crazy. For decades I have resisted “lifestyle.” As Alfonse, a professor, says in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, “Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.” I believe he’s right on the latter point, but what about the former?

A: You may have to blame the Germans, not the Californians, for the all-too-common “lifestyle”—or at least for its earliest and rather isolated appearance in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, we have our own opinions about the origin of the contemporary term, which we’ll discuss later.

The word is “perhaps” modeled after the German Lebensstil, the OED says. The German word, which dates from 1849, is a compound of leben (“life”) and stil (“style”), Oxford explains.

The earliest known example in English appeared in 1915, when a British philosopher, reviewing a book written in German, translated Lebensstil as “life-style.” Here’s the passage, as cited in the OED:

“This spirit of expediency … excludes any possibility of peace or rest in unity with the universe. The author applies to it, as the ‘life-style’ of our age, the term Impressionism.” (From the January 1915 issue of the journal Mind, where Bernard Bosanquet reviews Emil Hammacher’s Hauptfragen der Modernen Kultur, which means “main questions of modern culture.”)

The German book, published a year earlier, has Lebensstil twice, in the phrases “der Lebensstil unseres Zeitalters” (“the lifestyle of our age”) and “den impressionistischen Lebensstil” (“the Impressionist lifestyle”).

The OED defines this use of “lifestyle” as “a style or way of living (associated with an individual person, a society, etc.); esp. the characteristic manner in which a person lives (or chooses to live) his or her life.”

It’s defined more briefly in Merriam Webster Unabridged—”the typical way of life of an individual, group, or culture”—and illustrated with the phrases “a healthy lifestyle” and “an alternative lifestyle.”

We haven’t found any earlier examples of the term, whether written as one word (“lifestyle”), two (“life style”), or hyphenated (“life-style”). And even after 1915, it didn’t catch on for several decades.

The term in this sense—a way of living—wasn’t sighted again until 1947 (the OED also has a 1946 example, but it’s for a different meaning, as we’ll explain later). Here’s the 1947 citation:

“While ostensibly setting about the freeing of the slaves, they became enslaved, and found in the wailing self-pity and crooning of the Negro the substitute for any life-style of their own” (from an article by Marshall McLuhan in the October 1947 issue of the Sewanee Review).

The term wasn’t recorded again, as far as we can tell, until the 1960s, when it became widely known.

The next OED citation is from the March 22, 1961, issue of the Guardian, London: “The mass-media … continually tell their audience what life-styles are ‘modern’ and ‘smart.’ ”

Today the word has become so common that many consider it trite. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (5th ed.) regards it as “shopworn.”

And, more to the point of your question, “lifestyle” has become associated with consumerism and conspicuous consumption. We might ponder the “lifestyle” of the Kardashians, but it would be jarring to write a college paper about the “lifestyle” of prisoners in the gulag.

Since the 1970s, the OED says, “lifestyle” has also been used as an adjective, describing something “designed to appeal to consumers by association with a lifestyle regarded as desirable, glamorous, or attractive.” Oxford uses examples like “lifestyle advertising,” “lifestyle brand,” and “lifestyle magazine.”

But we have some more thoughts on the origins of the noun that means a way of living.

Certainly the earliest “lifestyle” on record, that 1915 example, was modeled after the German Lebensstil; it was a direct translation.

However, we wonder whether the later use of the word in ordinary English wasn’t simply spontaneous. We say this for two reasons:

(1) That early appearance in a review of an obscure German book seems unlikely to have inspired either the isolated 1947 example or the surge in the use of “lifestyle” beginning in the 1960s.

(2) The concept itself—a way of living—dates from an earlier time, when it was commonly expressed as “style of living” or “style of life.” And it seems likely that those phrases inspired the shorter, catchier “lifestyle.”

We’ve found many examples of “style of living” from the late 18th century onward, and of “style of life” from the mid-19th-century. These phrases—meaning the same thing as the modern “lifestyle”—were and still are found on both sides of the Atlantic, though they’re not nearly as common as they once were.

For instance, here are some early uses of the older of the two phrases, “style of living”:

1784: “You can conceive nothing so charming as the Grecian women!—nothing so interesting as their style of living!” (From More Ways Than One, a comic play by Hannah Cowley.)

1785: “In a few years she resumed her equipage, and recommenced her usual style of living, with as much or rather more splendor than ever.” (A Philosophical, Historical, and Moral Essay on Old Maids, by William Hayley.)

1785: “This [Switzerland] is not a cheap country. … In some respects my style of living is enlarged by the increase of my relative importance, an obscure bachelor in England, the master of a considerable house at Lausanne.” (From a letter written on March 21 by Edward Gibbon to Lord Sheffield.)

1793: “His style of living is not equal to his fortune; and I have heard of several instances of his attention to petty economy.” (Evenings at Home, Vol. III, a collection of children’s pieces by Anna Laetitia Barbauld and John Aikin.)

1794: “ ‘Our notions are somewhat enlarged since those days,’ said M. Quesnel;—‘what was then thought a decent style of living would not now be endured.’ ” (The Mysteries of Udolpho, a novel by Ann Radcliffe.)

1797: “In food little luxury seems to have been known, till James I, who had resided nineteen years in England, set the example of a higher style of living.” (A History of Scotland, by John Pinkerton.)

By the mid-19th century, “style of living” was so familiar a phrase in British and American literature that some writers were overusing it (as they would later overuse “lifestyle”).

For instance, in Six Lectures Addressed to the Working Classes (1849), the Scottish minister William G. Blaikie writes: “It is very desirable that the working classes stood higher in the esteem of the community, and enjoyed a more comfortable style of living.”  Later he goes on to use phrase six times on a single page—”a very wretched style of living” … “a thirst for a higher style of living” … “the Irish style of living” … “the desire of improving his style of living,” and so on.

If those authors were writing today, our bet is that they’d use “lifestyle” instead.

A search of Google Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in millions of books, shows that “lifestyle” sprang to life in the mid-1960s and spiked sharply, just when “style of living” and “style of life” dropped away. You might almost say that “lifestyle” replaced them

So we suspect that the “lifestyle” that vaulted into use in the mid-20th century was a product of those earlier phrases, not of Lebensstil.

Before we go, we should mention a very different meaning of “lifestyle” that’s much less common and not known to the average reader.

In the psychology of Alfred Adler, the OED explains, it means “a pattern of reactions and behaviour that is established in childhood and remains characteristic of an individual.”

This technical meaning of “lifestyle” came into English in 1929 from Lebensstil, the OED says. The German word used as a psychological term, Oxford says, was first recorded in “1928 or earlier.”

The OED‘s earliest English example is from Adler’s Problems of Neurosis, which he wrote in English and published in 1929: “This fragment of memory records the two typical motives of the main life-style.”

The 1946 example we mentioned above, which the OED cites for the other sense of “lifestyle,” belongs in this category, in our opinion. The author, George Orwell, used the word in the Adlerian sense to mean a pattern of behavior:

“True to his life-style, Koestler was … promptly arrested and interned by the Daladier Government.” (From Critical Essays.)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.