Terms and human condition apply – Frank McNally on the mysteries of ‘lived experience’

An Irishman’s Diary

Of all the moronic tautologies now current, is there a worse one anywhere than “lived experience”? I’m fairly sure the thing it describes is what we used to call simply “experience”. Or sometimes “life”. Now, suddenly, the airwaves are full of people talking about “lived experience” and stressing the first word as if it adds a whole new level of meaning.

Is it possible to have unlived experience? Surely not. Even artificial intelligence, from the demented Hal 2000 to self-driving cars, must be supplied with information gleaned from biological life forms.

I seem to spend more and more of my time these days, for example, resolving those weird Captcha puzzles – many now involving traffic lights and other challenges that automated vehicles will face – which are designed to tell people from computers but are presumably being fed back into computers to make them even smarter.

In the meantime, it is mostly humans who talk of their “lived experience”, combing two words that each used to do the same job alone. I don’t know when this corporate merger happened, but I suspect it was indeed a corporate event: probably involving management consultants. Whenever I hear service providers boasting of their “lived experience” these days, I sense I’m paying extra for the adjective.


The developments may or may not be related, but a regular reader Damien Maguire has emailed me a cutting from elsewhere in this newspaper recently about a new company that was said to be "based out of Dublin". As Damien asks: "Since when did 'in' become 'out of'?"

That’s a good question too. Perhaps it’s relevant that in this case the company is an airline, whose business involves leaving Dublin regularly. But the planes will presumably have to come back just as often. And in the meantime, there was no suggestion that their headquarters would be anywhere other than on the ground. “Out of” seems to be a new, more dynamic version of “in”, although logically, it implies the opposite of what it says. If an office is based “out of Dublin”, that could be read as an extremely vague hint as to the office’s whereabouts, ruling out Dublin alone while leaving everywhere else, from Bray to Beijing, as possible locations.

Then again, for many of us in the Covid era, the new usage may be apt. Like most journalists in this newspaper, come to think of it, I am currently based out of The Irish Times offices in Tara Street. So you needn’t be looking for me there.


Getting back to “lived experience”, it is of course true that some experiences are more lived than others. Certain moments of our lives remain vivid for decades afterwards, while most quickly becomes a blur. Even in our waking hours, much of the time, we may be only half alive.

The intense moments are intense for often obvious reasons: stress, excitement, novelty. Others stay with us more mysteriously. Speaking of Bray – but in this case Bray Hill in Cornwall – I chanced of late on a poem by John Betjeman, set there, that wrestles with just this mystery.

“By the Ninth Green, St Enodoc” recalls a moment on a golf course where the poet found himself surrounded by “primeval pine”, the “distant thunder of an angry sea”, and by slate hills formed before human life existed.

“A million years of unrelenting tide/Have smoothed the strata of the steep cliffside:/How long ago did rock with rock collide/To shape these hills?” he asks, a question geologists could answer.

But then Betjeman, who is now buried in the churchyard at St Enodoc’s, ends the poem with a deeper question: “Why is it that a sunlit second sticks?/What force collects all this and seeks to fix/This fourth March morning nineteen sixty six/Deep in my head?”


Food is one of the more powerful agents for fixing such moments. The most famous example in literature is Marcel Proust’s tea-soaked madeleine, which supposedly triggered part of the flood of memory that became À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (although as mentioned here recently, in an earlier draft, he gave the same invocative powers to a slice of toast).

As for tautology, the translated title of his book was long the subject of one of the more egregious examples. In a triumph of poetic sound over meaning, it used to be “Remembrance of Things Past” in English: a forerunner of “lived experience”, all the worse for being perpetrated by publishers. Either the “Remembrance” or the “Things Past” was redundant, clearly. In the event, both were laid off. Only the preposition retained its job in the now-standard: “In Search of Lost Time.”