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TWTS: Need something? Manifest it

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Here at That's What They Say, we take pride in staying on top on the latest language trends, including whatever it is the kids are saying these days.

Today though, we hang our heads in shame. That’s because a few years ago a new sense of the verb “manifest” became a huge internet craze, and we completely missed it.

Of course, we were familiar with what we now must consider “traditional” uses of “manifest,” such as "to make evident" or "to show." For example, "She manifests no fear."

Traditionally speaking, "manifest" can also be used as an intransitive verb, i.e. one that doesn’t take an object: "Depression can manifest as irritability.” It can also be used as an adjective to describe something that is “readily perceived by the senses,” as in, “His happiness was manifest in his voice.”

Here's where we missed the boat. "Manifest" can now be used to refer to the practice of thinking aspirational thoughts in order to make them real. In other words, thinking things into being.

This use of "manifest" was popularized by Rhonda Byrne's 2006 self-help book The Secret. However, there are examples of this use dating back to the 1980s, with a possible connection to the New Age movement.

Spotted on a Meijer clearance rack. How did we miss this?
Rebecca Kruth
Spotted on a Meijer clearance rack. How did we miss this?

As Rebecca Jennings points out in a Vox article from October 2020, interest in “manifesting” started growing in 2017, “alongside burgeoning conversations around wellness and self-care.”

In 2020, “manifest” was one of the year’s most popular memes. Considering that we were in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s not terribly surprising that people latched on to the idea of trying to imagine something, like a better future, into being.

If you’d like to try manifesting, there are plenty of resources to guide you. A quick Google search yields YouTube videos, Tik Toks, wikiHows, etc. explaining the process. Even Oprah is in on it.

However, as Jennings says, “the act of manifesting either has a ton of complicated rules or is whatever you want it to be, depending on who you ask.”

You how who you can’t ask about this new sense of “manifest” though? Standard dictionaries. Until they pick it up, we’re sticking with Jennings' second option, “whatever you want it to be.”

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.