Most of us have discovered since Anders Behring Breivik killed 78 people on 22 July how well Norwegians speak English. We heard many use the phrase in shock. Two days after the shooting, the Catholic bishop of Olso said: ‘Norway is still in shock.’ The killer’s father some days later said: ‘I am in a state of shock.’ After a week, a woman working near the scene of the crime, said: ‘We are still in a state of shock.’ International Gymnast magazine was told by the veteran gymnast Espen Jansen: ‘We are all in shock.’
To my husband’s generation of medicos, to be in shock was to suffer a serious fall in blood pressure, which can deprive vital organs of oxygen. The popular metaphor, though, seems to come from the acute stress reaction, a state leaving one dazed and confused, then perhaps agitated, anxious, detached and depressed. The extent to which the concept has been popularly modified is demonstrated by the Michael Jackson lyrics: ‘She looks so great, every time I see her face, / She puts me in a state, a state of shock.’
This cliché is different from feeling shocked. The Queen wrote to her cousin the King of Norway: ‘I am deeply saddened and shocked by the tragic loss of life.’ That sense of the word is itself a metaphor taken from the original 16th-century meaning of a shock: a clash in battle. Perhaps some of the original idea carried over into the title of the influential paper on battlefield dominance, Shock and Awe, in the journal of the US National Defense University (1996).
But, leaving the military behind, by 1711, Richard Steele was able to write in The Spectator (for 7 March) that those guilty of ‘blunting the fine Edge of their Minds in such a Manner that they are no more shock’d at Vice and Folly than Men of slower Capacities’ deserved to be hanged.
Among the byways of shock, lies the forgotten 1930s Soviet phrase shock workers, for factory Stakhanovites. I suspect it was borrowed from German Stosstrupen ‘shock troops’ (whom we called stormtroopers), deployed in the Great War. But our interest today is in raising public emotion to a level of psychopathology.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 6, 2011