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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

proactive

(1990’s (late 80’s) | businese | “showing initiative”)

This word has more of a history than I had supposed. Random House dates it to the 1930’s, meaning “anticipatory,” or “taking care of a problem you know is coming.” Apparently the word didn’t catch on particularly. I’ve seen it cited as an educational term referring to earlier learning that impedes current learning (a little puzzling, I agree). Both of those usages had been around for a while when no less than James Kilpatrick named “proactive” as an example of a “toadstool word” (as in sprung up all of a sudden) in a September 1993 column. Now it’s all over the place.

Another interesting thing about this word: When it came in, it came in fast. Some new expressions dip their toes cautiously into the language, appearing occasionally for a year or two, fenced about with quotation marks and earnest definitions. But as far as I can tell, everyone sort of knew what “proactive” meant right away. It’s not too complicated etymologically, and it’s easy to see as the opposite of “reactive,” which had already been around for a while by the early 1990’s.

It seems to me that its common contemporary use has broadened quite a bit from the 1930’s definition, which is certainly the ancestor. You don’t need a specific problem to be proactive any more. Doing anything to put yourself ahead of the pack makes you proactive.

It’s a word that deplorers of neologisms love to hate, but we really didn’t have a snappy adjective for “showing initiative.” I’ll admit it grates on my ears, too, but it does fill a useful purpose.

think outside the box

(1990’s? | advertese | “be creative,” “be unconventional”)

This one always makes me think of Taco Bell, after their witty (by advertising standards) “Think outside the bun” slogan that began as an ad campaign in 2001. Score one for Madison Avenue. The phrase captures in short and memorable fashion a perennial push in our culture toward innovation and creativity, and also getting a jump on the other fellow. According to http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/think-outside-the-box.html , it originated in the late 60’s or early 70’s, but it didn’t become standard outside of business and advertising circles until later–I would say the mid-1990’s. It soon achieved cliché status, almost as fast as “back in the day,” “not so much,” or, of course, “viral.”

The phrase has its origins in a particular logic puzzle, where one is asked to draw four straight lines that connect all the dots in a three-by-three array. The only way to do it is to draw lines that extend beyond the perimeter of the array, hence “outside the box.”

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