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Friday, December 13, 2013

‘Affluenza’ Sets Off a Linguistic Contest

One of the more lighthearted reactions to a well-off Texas teenager’s being granted probation after killing four people while driving drunk has been a quest online to create terms equivalent to “affluenza” to explain the actions of poorer, nonwhite defendants.

Affluenza was the word used by a psychologist, G. Dick Miller, during sentencing in the Texas trial. Acknowledging how the term had attracted intense scrutiny, Dr. Miller tried to define it as a term for someone who has “too much.”

“I wish I had not used that term,” he said in a CNN interview on Thursday. “Everyone seems to have hooked on to it.”

One reason is the sense that many people have, according to what they are posting online, that the scales of justice are weighted toward the wealthy and the white â€" a serious charge that has led to a number of whimsically and sometimes bitter linguistic sendups.

On Dec. 10, a judge gave the teenager 10 years of probation for causing the wreck in Burleson, Tex., according to a statement from the Tarrant County district attorney’s office.

The district attorney’s statement did not use the term “affluenza” and it did not make clear to what extent, if at all, the notion influenced the judge’s decision. “She told the court that she will not release the teen to his parents, but will work to find an intensive, long-term treatment facility for the teen and will place appropriate probation conditions on him in the near future,” the statement said.

Juvenile information is generally confidential under Texas law, and the reason for a judge’s decisions is privileged, a spokeswoman said in an emailed message. But as the case was shared online, speculation arose as to how the judge had ruled in previous teenage violence cases.

The perceived lack of justice for the victims of the white teenage motorist seemed to inspire a new lexicon on Twitter. The trending topics included permutations of words playing on “affluenza” that could apply to less advantaged defendants.

Goldie Taylor, a journalist and contributor to MSNBC.com, shared on her Twitter feed some of the debate around the possible terms.

Other permutations on a possible new defense term based on family financial standing were put forth in a conversation thread in which she suggested, with sarcasm, a play on the words “broke.”

The debate on Twitter was not just around would-be legal terms, but also other possible, fancifully vivid descriptors. Instead of diabetes, there could be “brownbetes.” How about “negropox?” “Poornesia?” So wrote Anselm Fernandez, a New York City resident, on his Twitter feed.

According to a report by The Associated Press, the term affluenza was popularized in the late 1990s by Jessie O’Neill, the granddaughter of a past president of General Motors, when she wrote the book “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.”

It’s since been used to describe a condition in which children â€" generally from richer families â€" have a sense of entitlement, are irresponsible, make excuses for poor behavior, and sometimes dabble in drugs and alcohol, explained Dr. Gary Buffone, a Jacksonville, Fla., psychologist who does family wealth advising.

But Dr. Buffone said in a telephone interview Thursday that the term wasn’t meant to be used as a defense in a criminal trial or to justify such behavior.

“The simple term would be spoiled brat,” he said â€" which is what G. Dick Miller, the psychologist who famously used the term in the Texas case, said on CNN.