Why are Psychiatrists Called Shrinks?


Here’s an answer from the internet:

‘The largest brain in the world was found in the head of an insane man, and the psychiatrist’s job is to remedy the psychological problems of people, thereby shrinking their head from border line nuts to a regular or average size’.

I’m not sure that this is right, and will be avoiding wikianswers for the foreseeable future. 

A wider internet search gives a consensus that psychiatrists are so-called because of a pejorative comparison between them and tribes whose custom it is to shrink the heads of their slain enemies.  I almost wrote ‘primitive tribes’ there, but I have no idea how to shrink a head, and it might be very difficult.  This ‘head-shrinking’ explanation sounds plausible. 

As luck would have it, I joined Camden Libraries* today, and membership has given me access to the complete online Oxford English Dictionary.  With this resource at hand I am able to tell you that the term was first used by American novelist Thomas Pynchon in his book ‘The Crying of Lot’, where he says:

‘It was Dr Hilarius, her shrink or psychotherapist’

This is merely the word’s first recorded use and doesn’t means that Pynchon invented the term.  He is famously reclusive, and so it’s unlikely I’ll be able to ask anyway.  This website suggests ‘magazine cartoons of the 1950′s and 1960′s were awash in cannibalistic natives, witch doctors and the like, so the imagery of "shrink" is not all that surprising’.  Like a lot of expressions it was probably in use before a novelist, like Pynchon, with an ear for vernacular, picked it up. 

I’m making less progress on the history of ‘trick cyclist’ and all I’ve managed to find out so far is that it’s a ‘humorous alteration of psychiatrist’ (OED again), which I knew already.  If anyone knows anything about this please let me know. 

*I love libraries.  It’s like going to a bookshop where you don’t have to pay anything. 




8 Responses to “Why are Psychiatrists Called Shrinks?”

  1. Paul says:

    Is ‘trick cyclist’ not a play on tricyclic?

  2. Frontier Psychiatrist says:

    Maybe, but why would this have come about? There are not many people who would know that this is the name for a class of anti-depressant apart from psychiatrists and pharmacologists.

  3. SHP says:

    No, it’s not. It’s just what the OED says, nothing more. Sometimes it’s billed as rhyming slag but that’s not strictly true. Given that it doesn’t rhyme and everything.

  4. Andrew says:

    Most problems come from an exxagerated opinion of one’s self. The job of a shrink is to help you realize that you are not Napoleon.

  5. Andrew says:

    Hence, shrink the size of your ego. You must realize that you are just a pissant in God’s universe and your only significance is the service you provide to others.

  6. Barbara says:

    And here I thought they were called Shrinks because antipsychotics shrink brain tissue.

  7. dohavior says:

    Shrink is a derogative term for one whom “belittles” others in a formal setting by cutting off reflected failure ie a blame game or other such.

    However words with a be- prefix or self- are frowned upon by those whom apply the word Shrink. The word “behavior” being a compound logical operator of be-have-or suggesting an irrational course of action that one should lie.

    Often times when one hears the term “Condescending” the term con-job is associated and applied thereby associating the meaning that Shrinking is entailed.

  8. porter smith says:

    I think you are all far from the truth on this “shrink” origin. Psychologists deal with human perception and response. Visual perception cannot be relied upon. Seeing is not always believing. It was found that observing a rotating spiral figure causes a 3D effect to be perceived by the brain. The outer edges of the circle ( a disk about the size of your head works well ) begin to collapse inward or shrink. If a person stares at this figure for perhaps 1 to 2 minutes, the permanence of image effect takes place and the next thing the person looks at will appear to shrink the way the rotating spiral seemed to. A brick wall is interesting, as are most objects with a familiar pattern. Heads work great. You can try this. Note: rotating the opposite way expands heads.

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