The word "shrink" has long been a common way of referring to psychotherapists, including both psychiatrists and psychologists. However, the origin of this slang term springs from a completely different treatment of the human head. Shrink derives from "headshrinker," a word that was initially popularized by reports of the distinctive headhunting practice of the Amazonian Jivaro people.

The First Headshrinkers

The first known use of "headshrinker" as a slang term for a psychotherapist is in the Nov. 27, 1950 issue of Time magazine, which asserted that anyone who had predicted the phenomenal success of the television Western "Hopalong Cassidy" would have been sent to a "headshrinker." The article explained in a footnote that headshrinker is Hollywood slang for a psychiatrist. As Dr. Silas Warner observes, the fact that author felt the need to explain the reference in a footnote is evidence of the slang term's recent coinage.

Headshrinking and the Jivaro People

According to Dr. Warner, the only group of people known to have shrunk the heads of enemies captured while headhunting are the Jivaro, an Amazonian tribe in Ecuador and Peru. Jivaro headshrinkers had been the subject of news reports for several decades, with a prominent explorer making a return visit in 1949 in conjunction with a major feature-length documentary, "Jungle Headhunters," the release of which the major Hollywood studio R.K.O. announced little more than a week after the Time article.

The First Shrink

A 1953 New York Times article on television-industry jargon once again described headshrinker as Hollywood slang for a psychotherapist, but the term became more widely used after the 1955 movie "Rebel Without a Cause," which included scenes in which characters discuss going to a headshrinker. In 1966, novelist Thomas Pynchon made the first known reference to a psychotherapist as a "shrink" in describing the character Dr. Hilarius in "The Crying of Lot 49."

Jargon Analysis

The significance of calling psychotherapists shrinks has been the subject of discussion. The headshrinker metaphor arguably reflects the feelings of fear, mystery and hostility traditionally associated with the profession. Another theory holds that it implicitly refers to shrinking a patient's narcissistic, inflated sense of self. Although many mental-health professionals have come to accept the term with self-deprecating humor, it has also been criticized as a relic of an outmoded therapeutic approach that reduces people to mere causes and symptoms rather than regarding them as complex individuals.