Sun, May 07, 2000 - Page 9 News List

From eccentric to micromanager to dominator

Irrespective of the etymology of the term used to describe them, "control freaks" are a force to be reckoned with. Gaining control of the term's freakish nature will help put the task masters to task

By William Safire

William Hague, leader of the Tory opposition in the House of Commons, rose to denounce the prime minister: "Tony Blair is the control freak who has lost control." In an editorial about the devolution of power to Wales, Britain's Daily Telegraph noted, "Tony Blair has acknowledged that he has occasionally acted like the control freak his opponents accuse him of being."

The charge has equal puissance on this side of the Atlantic. The Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, used the phrase to describe his Republican counterpart, Trent Lott. And during the recent presidential primary elections, The Austin American-Statesman quoted an unidentified aide to Governor Jane Dee Hull of Arizona as derogating Senator John McCain in these words: "The senator gets very heated about things. He's a control freak."

The favored political attack phrase means "one obsessed by the need to dominate; a person driven by the urge to be in total command." It is not as serious a blast as "totalitarian" and does not carry the sexual overtone of "dominatrix," but -- by suggesting the control is for control's sake rather than for any rational purpose -- imputes more neuroticism than "micromanager."

That is because control as a noun has become a double-edged sword. To be out of control is to approach what used to be called "raving mad," but at the other extreme is the grim-faced, white-knuckled control freak, with his obsession to extend untrammeled authority into every detail of others' lives.

Meanwhile, the meaning of the slang noun freak -- first recorded in Finley Peter Dunne's 1895 "Mr Dooley" in The Chicago Evening Post as "the deluded ol' freak" -- has also been getting quirkier with the passage of time. A century ago, it meant "eccentric" or "abnormal," as in the carnival freak show exploiting specimens of obesity or dwarfism, and later as an adjectival synonym for "aberrational," "deviant" or "hard to imagine," as in "freak accident."

In the 1960s, it was adopted in drug lingo as a verb, to freak out, meaning "to rave under the influence of hallucinatory drugs." It was then applied as a noun in speed freak and acid freak. In his 1977 book, Dispatches, Michael Herr, who had covered the Vietnam War for Esquire magazine, applied the term control freak to "one of those people who always ... had to know what was coming next."

The term became favored by Hollywood screenwriters and producers dealing with that war; it was repeated in the 1978 film The Deer Hunter and in the 1979 Apocalypse Now By 1986, the meaning softened to "enthusiast, aficionado, maven," and Steven Spielberg freely confessed to TV Guide, "I'm a control freak." (In the same way, language mavens call themselves word freaks.)

In current use, the meaning of the combination of control and freak has veered toward "neurotic." In The Boston Globe in 1992, Matthew Gilbert noted how crowds prized the singer Madonna's "control-freakishness." Writing four years later about Barbra Streisand, The Sunday Times could not decide whether she was "America's greatest female singer or a power-mad woman whose control-freakishness makes working with her all but impossible save from a kneeling position."

That latest interpretation of freakishness as "off the deep end" is why Daschle, when asked about his use of control freak about Lott, hastily backed off: "I say it in a light-hearted way. I don't mean he is a freak. I'm just saying he's a control nut."

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