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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | businese (manufacturing) | “amount of time out of commission,” “time to unwind”)

This word has always been a little slippery, but in my day it had a fairly specific, if specialized, meaning. “Downtime” was the period during which the plant (like a power plant, or a factory) was out of commission, whether because of equipment problems or for planned maintenance. But it was already starting to crop up in the sense of “time to relax and regenerate.” Now it has loosened its stays and spread, with any number of personal and business uses. The original sense is still going strong, having worked its way into all kinds of fields—it’s a particularly common term in the Internet universe, which has spawned, inevitably, “uptime” (as in a “99.9% uptime guarantee” made by a web host).

It’s the personal uses of the term that have come a long way. “I need some downtime” would have sounded weird in the 1970’s, unless you happened to be a factory owner. Now you hear it a lot. Seems like a useful word in that sense—short and easily grasped. It could be a vacation from your job or a period of recovery after spending too much time in a frenetic environment. What it doesn’t mean is “time to mope.” That sense of “down” (“listless,” “mournful,” “depressed”) doesn’t apply.

Another word that has made a big move into the sphere of personal life is “partner,” which as recently as the 1970’s was still primarily used as a business term (“limited partner,” “silent partner,” etc.). Now the word is used frequently to denote a “spouse” or “mate,” albeit generally one without a sanctioned ceremony.

In the 70’s and 80’s, it was not unusual to see “downtime” spelled as two words, or as hyphenated. I believe the compound word has taken over and the other spellings are decidedly old-fashioned now.


(1990’s? | businese | “company” (as in “telephone company”))

The definition of this term as I learned it was “breadwinner,” as in “Oh, she works so hard. What a good provider she is.” You don’t hear it used that way much any more. Now it is used more commonly to denote individuals and institutions that offer services, particularly medical and Internet services. It seems to have become common in the business press (e.g., “capital provider,” “insurance provider”) by the 1970’s, but not in general use, as far as I remember. It appears to be a relatively simple back formation from “provide” rather than derived from the old meaning.

I still cringe when I read or hear “content provider,” a limp, gassy phrase that just means “writer,” “photographer,” etc. (“artist” was the general term in the good old days). “Content providers” don’t need any art or wit, just facility; they just fill up server space, and like lexicographers may be considered harmless drudges. Calling a doctor a “healthcare provider” (when did “healthcare” become one word? Did anybody notice?) is just as bad–it dehumanizes a group of people that already has many inhuman members. That points up a pronounced change in the usage of the word: in the old sense of “breadwinner,” it was almost always applied to a person, but now it can be applied indiscriminately to persons or corporations. Oddly enough, the sense of “company that offers a certain kind of service,” like cable or DSL, now seems easy and natural, but the word seems slightly unpleasant when applied to an individual. In the mid-20th century there was a thing called a “service bureau,” where writers sent manuscripts to be typed and photostated. That term may be an ancestor of “service provider.”


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