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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

due diligence

(1990’s | legalese | “legal responsibility or duty,” “background research,” “doing your job right”)

Maybe this word doesn’t belong in the blog, because it really hasn’t spread much beyond its primary contexts of legal, later financial, jargon. I include it because you have to understand this expression now to follow the news, and you really didn’t before 1980. For a legal term, it’s pretty transparent, meaning something like “minimum amount of work needed to complete the task properly.” (See for a fuller explication.) What it meant when judges first used it, I suspect, was “It’s unfortunate, but we have to set some standards because there are people out there who just will not do their jobs.” In financial terms, it means “adequate background research.” That is also a legal responsibility, but of a very specific kind. And then sometimes the phrase is used quite literally, as in the 1995 Human Rights Watch report: “With this declaration, the U.N. member states recognized explicitly that states are obliged to fight specific forms of violence against women and called on governments to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, and punish acts of violence against women.” It’s not a legal obligation, and they’re not talking about background research. It’s due meaning “obligatory,” diligence meaning “sustained, directed effort.” And that’s really all it ever meant anywhere.

The preferred verb seems to be “do,” despite the awkward alliterative assonance of “do due diligence.” That’s why it’s usually phrased “do your due diligence” or something similar. I like “exercise,” myself. Or “carry out,” which lends an elegance only verbosity can impart. You see “make” and even “give” once in a while, too.


(2000’s | businese?, miltarese? | “resistance,” “objections”)

Before 2000, you didn’t see this word often, and it had a handful of specific meanings. It was a technical term in the aviation industry, where it meant “the act of moving the plane away from the gate,” and once in a great while it was used to mean “postponement.” Almost as infrequently, it was used as shorthand for “pushing back” (“repulsing”) as in a military operation. It was a small-time word with one significant usage that most of us weren’t even aware of, although it was easy enough to figure out in context.

I’ve been having trouble figuring out exactly where this word arose. It became much more common after 2000, but there doesn’t seem to have been a single channel through which it entered everyday language. It’s new enough to have come out of internet usage, and I found a number of citations in internet-related stories and publications, but there didn’t seem to be any particular connection to the internet business; they just happened to be the people who started spreading the term first. It’s now used in political and military circles a lot, having become a common term for resistance from the pesky natives, or the opposing political party or the interests it represents. But it’s also used a fair amount in businese, where it can refer to resistance within a company — say from middle managers trying to thwart a reduction in their numbers — or from customers objecting to a new policy or procedure.

The inevitable question, when it comes to political usage, is what’s the difference between “pushback” and “backlash”? For one thing, backlash is a more potent, dangerous word, connoting a fiercer, more visceral reaction to a policy or ruling. More fundamentally, pushback comes from an organized group that represents a limited interest and is relatively simple to name, like your customer base or the energy lobby or the Christian Coalition. In that sense, it is a refinement of “backlash,” which could be applied to a specific group’s reaction, but more generally means resistance from a broader segment of society that’s harder to define and not particularly structured. “Pushback” in that narrower sense may replace “backlash” entirely; we’ll see. Pushback is more focused and controlled.

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