“Jaded” didn’t always mean what it means today. It’s a centuries-old word that has adapted to fit our media-saturated, sensory-overloaded culture. But as John Steinbeck and Kathleen Norris demonstrate below, you can describe the concept without using the word.
I like etymologies (a word’s history). On my bookshelf I have an enormous 1913 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, the definitive work of its day for American English. It’s new enough to include etymologies, and old enough to demonstrate them through its obsolescence. (It has “aeroplane,” for example, but not “airplane.”)
According to this edition, jade is a fourteenth-century word that originally referred to a broken down, worthless or vicious horse, and could also refer to a disreputable woman. The etymology traced it to Scottish and Icelandic words for mare.
The 1913 dictionary includes a quotation related to mental weariness, but the word still hadn’t fully acquired its present meaning. [UPDATE: But see my comment below.]
Next I checked a 1983 Merriam-Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary. To the word jaded (adj.), it adds the idea of being “dulled by surfeit or excess,” which is getting close but perhaps not quite there. Finally a 1994 Roget’s Thesaurus defines it as “exhausted” or “indifferent” and suggests synonyms such as “been around,” “blah,” “done it all,” “satiated,” “sick of,” “wearied,” and “worn out.”
There it is. The sense we all know and are thoroughly bored with.
The word has come a long way from horses, and its evolution makes sense. Most of us no longer need many words for describing horses, but we do need a word describing the state of jadedness. (Do other languages have words with equivalent meanings? Presumably they’d have very different etymologies.)
“The eye never has enough of seeing,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes, but in a sense it does. John Steinbeck describes the sensation in his 1962 book Travels with Charley. Many miles into his cross-country road trip across the United States, he writes:
I was driving myself, pounding out the miles because I was no longer hearing or seeing. I had passed my limit of taking in or, like a man who goes on stuffing in food after he is filled, I felt helpless to assimilate what was fed in through my eyes. Each hill looked like the one just passed. I have felt this way in the Prado in Madrid after looking at a hundred paintings — the stuffed and helpless inability to see more.
A few pages later Steinbeck imagines his dog Charley asking him, “What makes you so moony?”
“It’s because I’ve stopped seeing. When that happens you think you’ll never see again.”
I said before on this blog that I love the Internet and love that information is so much more easily available than it was when I was growing up. But there’s a downside. Today the visual and auditory and informational meal never stops. Course after course arrives and the guests sit idly at the table picking indifferently at their food. No one has a chance to get really hungry.
Here is the antithesis: The poet Kathleen Norris moved from New York City to a small town in western South Dakota. In 1993 she published Dakota, a book of essays that became a surprise bestseller. In a chapter titled “Deserts” she writes,
The silence of the Plains, this great unpeopled landscape of earth and sky, is much like the silence one finds in a monastery, an unfathomable silence that has the power to re-form you… I am conscious of carrying a Plains silence with me into cities, and of carrying my city experiences back to the Plains so that they may be absorbed again back into silence, the fruitful silence that produces poems and essays.
Of course it isn’t necessary to move to a rural area to experience what Norris is talking about, which is creating times of silence for oneself, times when you shut off all that input. The level of satiation ebbs, the jadedness fades, and gradually you start hearing and seeing and comprehending again. Norris’s word-picture is a powerful one, this idea of carrying silence into the city and the city back into the silence. Norris meant it literally — it’s how she lives her life — but she’s also a poet so it’s easy to find a beautiful metaphor in her words, the secret to unjadedness, if there is such a word.