When Did Everything Become a ‘Journey’?

Changing our hair, getting divorced, taking spa vacations — they’re not just things we do; they’re “journeys.” The quest for better health is the greatest journey of all.

Article by Lisa Miller

Changing our hair, getting divorced, taking spa vacations — they’re not just things we do; they’re “journeys.” The quest for better health is the greatest journey of all. Photograph courtesy of Tyler Comrie/The New York Times.

Drew Barrymore has been talking with Gayle King about her perimenopause “journey,” and soccer phenom Carli Lloyd has just divulged her fertility “journey.” By sharing her breast cancer story, Olivia Munn has said she hopes she will “help others find comfort, inspiration and support on their own journey.” A recent interview with Anne Hathaway has been posted on Instagram with a headline highlighting her “sobriety journey,” and Kelly Clarkson has opened up about what Women’s Health calls her “weight loss journey.” On TikTok, a zillion influencer-guides lead pilgrims on journeys through such ephemeral realms as faith, healing, grief, friendship, mastectomy and therapy — often selling courses, supplements or eating plans as if they were talismans to help safeguard their path.

“Journey” has decisively taken its place in American speech. The word holds an upbeat utility these days, signalling struggle without darkness or detail, and expressing — in the broadest possible way — an individual’s experience of travails over time.

It’s often related to physical or mental health, but it can really be about anything: “Putting on your socks can be a journey of self-discovery,” said Beth Patton, who lives in central Indiana and has relapsing polychondritis, an inflammatory disorder. In the chronic disease community, she said, “journey” is a debated word. “It’s a way to romanticise ordinary or unpleasant experiences, like, ‘Oh, this is something special and magical.’” Not everyone appreciates this, she said.

According to linguistics professor Jesse Egbert at Northern Arizona University, the use of “journey” (the noun) has nearly doubled in American English since 1990, with the most frequent instances occurring online. Mining a new database of conversational American English he and colleagues are building, Egbert could show exactly how colloquial “journey” has become: One woman in Pennsylvania described her “journey to become a morning person,” while another in Massachusetts said she was “on a journey of trying to like fish.”

Egbert was able to further demonstrate how the word itself has undergone a transformative journey — what linguists call “semantic drift.” It wasn’t so long ago that Americans mostly used “journey” to mean a literal trip, whereas now it’s more popular as a metaphor. Egbert demonstrated this by searching the more than 1 billion words in a database called COCA for the nouns people put before “journey” to clarify what sort they’re on. Between 1990 and 2005, the most common modifier was “return,” followed by words like “ocean,” “train,” “mile,” “night,” “overland” and “bus.”

But between 2006 and 2019, usage shifted. “Return” remains the most common noun modifier to journey, but now it’s followed closely by “faith,” “cancer” and “life.” Among the top 25 nouns used to modify “journey” today are “soul,” “adoption” and “hair.”

In almost every language, “journey” has become a way to talk abstractly about outcomes, for good reason: According to what linguists call the “primary metaphor theory,” humans learn as babies crawling toward their toys that “‘purpose’ and ‘destination’ coincide,” said Elena Semino, a linguist at Lancaster University who specialises in metaphor. As we become able to accomplish our goals while sitting still (standardised tests! working from home!), ambition and travel diverge.

Yet we continue to envision achievement as a matter of forward progress. This is why we say, “‘I know what I want, but I don’t know how to get there,’” Semino explained. “Or ‘I’m at a crossroads.’”

So it’s not surprising, perhaps, that as Americans started seeing good health as a desirable goal, achievable through their own actions and choices — and marketers encouraged these pursuits and commodified them — the words “journey” and “health” became inextricably linked. In 1898, C.W. Post wrote a pamphlet he called “The Road to Wellville,” which he attached to each box of his new product, Grape-Nuts. In 1926, the Postum Cereal Co. republished the pamphlet as a small book, with the subtitle “A Personally Conducted Journey to the Land of Good Health by the Route of Right Living.”

The language (and business) of self-help so completely saturates culture that “it gets kind of hard to trace where a word started and where it came from,” said Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, author of “Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture.” Americans like to put an optimistic, brave spin on suffering, and “journey” seeped in because, Lamb-Shapiro speculated, it’s bland enough to “tackle really difficult things,” yet positive enough to “make them palatable and tolerable.”

“Journey” had fully entered medical-speak by the 2010s. Many cancer patients recoiled from the “battle” language traditionally used by doctors, as well as by friends and relatives. In “Illness as Metaphor,” Susan Sontag had noted in 1978 that “every physician and every attentive patient is familiar with, if perhaps inured to, this military terminology.” But now, opposition to the notion of disease as an enemy combatant reached a crescendo. To reflexively call an experience of cancer a battle created “winners” and “losers,” where death or long suffering represented a failure — of will, strength, determination, diet, behaviour or outlook — on the part of the patient.

Many patients “detest” the military metaphor, Robert Miller conceded in Oncology Times in 2010. Knowing this, Miller, then a breast cancer oncologist affiliated with Johns Hopkins, said he struggled to find the right words in composing a condolence note to a patient’s spouse. “I welcome suggestions,” he wrote.

“Journey” seemed less judgmental, more neutral. In Britain, the National Health Service had started to almost exclusively use “journey” language in reference to cancer (treatments were “pathways”). Semino, the metaphor expert whose father had died of cancer at a time when patients’ diagnoses were hidden from them, wanted to examine how patients talked about it — and whether that language caused them harm. In a research paper Semino published with colleagues in 2015, she looked at how patients talked about their cancer on forums online and found that they still used “battle” as often as they did “journey,” and that “journey” could be disempowering as well.

For some people, talking about cancer as a “journey” gave them a sense of control and camaraderie — buddies traveling the same path — but others used the term to convey their exhaustion. Having cancer “is like trying to drive a coach and horses uphill with no back wheels on the coach,” one man wrote. Patients used “journey” to describe just how passive they felt or how reluctant to bear the burden of their disease. Separately, patients have told Semino how much they hate the word, saying it trivialises their experience, that it’s clichéd.

But it was too late: The metaphor already was everywhere. In 2014, Anna Wintour was asked which word she would like to banish from the fashion lexicon. She said, “journey.” The following year, Yolanda Foster, the mother of Gigi and Bella Hadid, told People magazine that while she was on her Lyme disease journey, two of her children were afflicted, too. Medical journals and government publications began describing insomnia, the effort to achieve health care reform, diabetes and the development of RSV vaccines as a journey. The term “healing journey,” in use since at least the mid-2010s, blew up around 2021. The phrase in news media referenced the experience of cancer, celebrity weight loss, trafficking of Indigenous children, Sean Combs’ creative process, spa vacations, amputation and better sex.

On the Reddit channel Chronic Illness, one poster eloquently fumed that persistent sickness is not a journey. “It’s endless, pointless and repetitive. There’s no new ground to gain here.” The cultural insistence on illness as a journey, from which a traveler can learn useful, or even life-changing lessons, becomes something to “disassociate from, survive, endure.” It “causes social isolation.”

Although she concedes its downsides, Stephanie Swanson likes to think of herself as on a journey. Swanson, who is 37 and lives in Kansas City, was an engineer by training, with three young children, a career and a sideline as an aerialist, when she got long COVID in the summer of 2022. The things that had made her successful — her physical stamina, her ability to solve problems — evaporated.

“I’ve had to give up my career, my hobbies, my physical abilities,” she said. “I’ve gained 30 pounds on my tiny dancer body. I’m doing the best I can with what I have.”

“To me, the word ‘journey’ resonates with choosing to be on a path of acceptance but not standing still,” she said. “I’m not giving up, but recognising that this is the path I’m on.”

Ramani Durvasula uses “journey” advisedly. A clinical psychologist in Los Angeles who treats women in emotionally abusive relationships, she recognises how “journey” has been “eye-rollingly cheapened” and has started to experiment with alternatives. She’s tried “process.” She’s tried “healing trajectory.” But she falls back on “journey,” because it, more than any other word, expresses the step-by-step, sometimes circular or backward nature of enduring something hard.

“Arguably, a journey doesn’t have a destination,” she said. “Have you ever taken a hike in a loop and you end up exactly where you parked your car?”

But Durvasula does object to the easy-breezy healing so many journey hashtags promote, what she calls the “post-sobriety, post-weight-loss, now-I’m-in-love-again-after-my-toxic-relationship” reels. Too many TikToks show the crying in the car and then the cute party dress, skipping over the middle, when people feel ugly, angry, self-loathing and hopeless.

“I want to see the hell,” she said. “I want to see the nightmare.”

When in 2020 a Swedish linguist named Charlotte Hommerberg studied how advanced cancer patients describe their experience, she found that they used “battle” and “journey,” like everyone else. But most also used a third metaphor that conveyed not progress, fight or hope. They said cancer was like “imprisonment,” a feeling of being stuck — like a “free bird in a cage,” one person wrote. Powerless and going nowhere.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.