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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

ahead of the curve

(1990’s | militarese | “out in front,” “having a jump on,” “anticipating”)

Turns out this expression requires some unpacking. My original guess was that this had something to do with grading on a curve, and had mutated from “having better grades than everyone else” to “being ahead of everyone else” due to the influence of “ahead,” which suggests temporality and therefore, etc. and so forth. Maybe, I said to myself, it will turn out to have something to do with the “learning curve” (see below), and it will all devolve into an academese lovefest.

No cigar, in fact not even close. To begin with, the phrase has a perfectly intelligible literal meaning, as in “pull up well ahead of the curve so other cars can see you.” To be “ahead of the curve” translates as safe and prudent, avoiding possible difficulties. And that could be the origin, but I doubt it’s the whole story. The phrase cropped up most frequently in military and political contexts in the 1970’s (The term appears in Nixon’s Oval Office tape transcripts in conjunction with the phrase “ahead of the game,” an implicit gloss); when I dug a little deeper I found “ahead of the power curve,” an important term in aviation that has to do with an aircraft’s ability to maintain altitude and airspeed and overcome drag. I don’t know anything about flying or physics, but here’s a guy who does, and here’s a helpful discussion. Wikipedia’s article on “drag” provides further information.

“Power curve” has other technical meanings, but here’s the important thing about the aviation usage: the expression is generally used with “ahead” and “behind” because it matters a lot whether you’re ahead of it or behind it. If you’re ahead of the power curve, everything’s o.k.; the plane is able to climb and in no danger of stalling. If you’re behind it, you may crash. The metaphorical potential is obvious, and it doesn’t take too much ingenuity to connect it with our current usage — “ahead of the curve” meaning “in the catbird seat” and “behind the curve” meaning “struggling to catch up and in danger of failure.”

“Ahead of the power curve” does not turn up nearly as often in print as “ahead of the curve,” but it’s out there. I would read it as a needless elaboration of “ahead of the curve” if I didn’t know better, but it’s probably the root. I don’t have a missing link that demonstrates a shift from “ahead of the power curve” to “ahead of the curve.” But I do know that politicians often adopt military locutions (“stand down,” “bad guys,” “mission creep”) in order to appear manly and patriotic, and the politicians did their part to popularize this one, if only by feeding it to the businessmen; the term was current in businese by the end of the 1980’s.

Being ahead of the curve is a lot like being proactive. Here’s a rather baroque example from the late Senator Ted Kennedy (1982): “‘A President,’ he said, ‘has got to stay ahead of the curve. The one institution in this Government that has the ability not to be crisis-crushed is the Presidency of the United States. You can’t wait,’ he said, growing angrier, ‘until the crisis is upon us . . .’” (Crisis-crushed?! Give that speechwriter a promotion, or the gate.) Here is the original meaning of “proactive”: anticipating a problem and taking care of it ahead of time. The idea of stopping a problem before it starts is almost always implicit and sometimes explicit in the idea of being ahead of the curve.

learning curve

(1980’s | businese (industry) | “getting up to speed,” “on-the-job training”)

Another fine old technical term, this one invented by a German psychologist in the nineteenth century. (See Wikipedia for some historical background.) This term made itself felt in the U.S. as an industrial concept used to figure out how fast a worker could learn a new set of tasks and, beyond that, the effect of learning acuity on productivity; the term still denotes a measure of productivity in businese and economics. The speed at which people learn a new task or process varies predictably with time, and that relationship in turn has a predictable effect on the number of units they can produce.

“Learning curve” has gone sadly slack, and now it means no more than “effort needed to acquire new knowledge or techniques,” or even the process of such acquisition. It comes with a new job or responsibility, and the ones you hear about are usually steep (sometimes sharp), because a shallow learning curve is not interesting. (A “long learning curve,” which you see occasionally, connotes a more gradual process.) If you hire someone who already knows everything about the job, it’s possible to say that the person has “no learning curve.” A worker who is still getting up to speed and learning the ropes is “on the learning curve” or “moving along/up/down the learning curve,” the direction of movement being in the eye of the beholder. If it’s hard work, you “climb a steep learning curve.” I’ve even seen sentences like “This job is (not “has”) a real learning curve” recently.

The “steep learning curve” is a little peculiar. It’s almost always used to suggest that a new job is difficult to learn, and you have to cram a lot of learning into a short amount of time. But if you think about a simple graph of how much a person learns plotted against time, a steep learning curve would mean that you learned a lot in a short time, suggesting that the task was simple and easy to learn, not difficult, demanding extra effort. That would be a slower-rising line. The fact that we consider learning curves the property both of people and tasks or jobs doesn’t help.

In case you were wondering, it is possible to be “ahead of the learning curve.” This phrase does not occur often, but it has a distinct meaning when it does: “to be farther along in understanding how to do something” (i.e., “ahead ON the learning curve”). Like “ahead of the curve,” it almost always implies being ahead of the competition.

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