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When did “issue” come to mean “problem” ?
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Sadly it is true that we no longer have problems - everything is now an issue. No more health problems, financial problems or problems with our computers or TV cable - we have issues. An issue used to be something with more than one point of view, such as gun control or abortion, and a problem was something everyone agreed needed to be solved. But now issue is regularly used as a synonym for problem, which it isn't - you cannot universally substitute problem for issue. One would never talk about the women's equality problem or the gay-rights problem, because a problem always has a negative connotation. If my cable goes out, my computer freezes, or a hotel loses my reservation, those, my friends, are problems, not issues.
My understanding is that the widespread use of "issue" to supplant "problem" stems from a desire to be more positive, particularly when broaching a topic with your boss. "Issue" has become just another management speak weasel word.
One should move on to the next level, becoming a TOP person (totally-oriented-positive) leapfrogging hurdles and challenges in one smooth single bound....
jayles the unwoven
I am afraid that in the States "issue" has indeed almost fully replaced "problem," at least in informal English.
I mean, when you take your car to your local service station for an oil change and the manager asks, "Any issues we should look at?", you know some kind of watershed moment has arrived. (Yes, this happened to me recently.)
This issue (I use the term appropriately here, I think) surfaced a good seven years ago online, at http://languageandgrammar.com/2008/01/14/youve-got-problems-not-issues/
Have to say I am in agreement with the original poster and the commenters there, and I'm relieved to see posters here expressing some concern about conflating the two terms.
Now Warsaw Will, I definitely have a problem with that last example from the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary: my goodness, surely the advice to "call this number" would pertain to a problem, not an issue, don't you think? (Unless the number is for, say, an agency that collects topics for group discussion or something. But absent a context I expect such advice is much more likely to involve something like a plumbing emergency.)
I rather like the saying, "If you've got an issue, get a tissue."
@jayles - good choice of parameters - to which I'd add - http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=she+has+an+issue%2Che+has+an+issue%2Cyou+have+an+issue&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1800&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cshe%20has%20an%20issue%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Che%20has%20an%20issue%3B%2Cc0%3B.t4%3B%2Cyou%20have%20an%20issue%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Byou%20have%20an%20issue%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BYou%20have%20an%20issue%3B%2Cc0
OOPS meant to post:
@DN Do you have some kind of an issue with that??
jayles the unwoven
I don't think the way people use it today, it is totally synonymous with problem, or at least only in certain contexts. Sure "Do you have an issue with that?" has to a certain extent replaced "Do you have a problem with that?", but that was always a very specific use of the word 'problem'. On the other hand, I don't think many people would say they were having an issue getting their car started in the morning.
Especially in the plural it can suggest baggage (history) of a certain type - the song "She's got issues" suggests a lot more to me than if it had simply been called "She's got problems".
These examples are from the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary definition of "issue", under the subheading:
2 [countable] a problem or worry that somebody has with something
Money is not an issue.I don't think my private life is the issue here.I'm not bothered about the cost—you're the one who's making an issue of it.Because I grew up in a dysfunctional family, anger is a big issue for me.She's always on a diet—she has issues about food.He still has some issues with women (= has problems dealing with them).If you have any issues, please call this number.
As I said, I think that this is a very specific meaning of problem (apart perhaps for the first and the last last ones), and that "issue" is unlikely to replace the more standard meaning of problem. It may be an unfashionable view, but I believe that new words often become popular because they have a more precise meaning than existing ones - they fulfill a need.
As for the trend, and it doesn't seem to be a huge one, at least not in books, it seems to have started around 1990:
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