The generally accepted view is that by the early 1960s "shrink" began
being used as a slang term referring to a psychotherapist. It became
common by the late 1960's, very possibly because of its use by the
influential author Thomas Pynchon in his short novel "The Crying of
Lot 49," which was published in 1966.
"Shrink" is a shortened form of "headshrinker," and was originally
meant as a mildly derisive term for psychotherapists.
"Headshrinking," of course, refers to the practice of certain
primitive tribes of decapitating enemies and preserving their heads as
My favorite plain-English etymology site, "The Word Detective," offers
this explanation of why the use of "headshrinker" as a metaphor came
quite naturally in the 1950s and 1960s:
"If "headshrinker" seems a bit exotic for an insulting metaphor, it
may help to note that magazine cartoons of the 1950's and 1960's were
awash in cannibalistic natives, witch doctors and the like, so the
imagery of "shrink" is not all that surprising.
The Word Detective: "Oh Yeah? So What's That Big Cauldron Doing In Her
Office?" (almost 1/2 way down the page):
One psychiatrist has the following to say about the link between
"shrink" and "headshrinking:"
"Shrink" has paradoxical meanings and uses and, by all analytical
standards, has classic potential for connoting ambivalence (a favorite
shrink word!). "Shrink" allows us to compare psychotherapy to
primitive rituals, shamanism, and "sorcery" while still recognizing
the more modern and scientific principles of mental wellness."
DearShrink.com: "The Word 'Shrink'"
I recommend that site for some additional instructive and informative
detail on the term from a psychiatrist who obviously doesn't take
himself too seriously. Here is one more example:
"'Shrink' attempts to create a balance between respect and
irreverence, between affection and distancing -- can't live with 'em,
can't live without 'em."
A word-of-the-day item on "Shrink:
Poppy's Community: Today's Word
As a bonus, some "shrink jokes" from a counseling website:
Google Search Terms:
headshrinker OR shrink psychiatrist
If any of the above needs clarification, please let me know before
rating the question.