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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | businese (auto industry) | “shrink,” “scale or cut back,” “lay off workers”)

A word that flat-out didn’t exist before 1970, as far as I can tell. (Random House Unabridged says the word arose in the early 1970’s.) In 1984, George Will noted that the phrase came out of the auto industry; at first, it was used almost exclusively about cars, and it meant they were getting smaller — it wasn’t about the workforce. Here’s a good quick summary treatment of the word. You’ll see that no one really knows where it came from — I certainly don’t — although one source speculates that it was sparked by someone at General Motors. It caught and spread quickly. Now it’s an adjective — one that sounds a little awkward to me but for which there are plenty of citations — as well as a verb.

This is one of those verbs, like “shrink” before it, that became transitive or intransitive with little difference in sense. We need to downsize this model year’s cars, or this year’s models will have to downsize. At first, the transitive was probably more common, but the intransitive has also become standard, although you might say it’s implicitly transitive: “downsize” is simply short for “downsize workforce” or whatever. I even found one reflexive use, in something called Industry News, October 31, 1983: “‘Atari is in trouble on all fronts,’ he agrees. ‘Basically, the company has got to downsize itself.’” Whatever happened to Atari?

The particular spread of the intransitive “downsize” to mean “fire workers” (as in “That company needs to downsize”) occurred in the 1990’s, followed by the loathsome “right-size.” By the mid-1980’s, executives were talking about “downsizing operations” or “factories,” and you can’t do that without getting rid of workers, so it was an easy path to the more specific usage. There’s no warm, snuggly way to say “You’re fired,” but it did take workers a couple years to catch onto “downsize.” Michael Moore — one of our most successful and productive provocateurs — cemented the association with his book Downsize This! in 1996.

The Tea Party has brought us much talk of “downsizing government,” but there need be nothing so large or institutional about it. You can downsize your wardrobe, your dessert, or your dreams. It’s become an all-purpose, easily understood term that pops casually into conversation, whether about corporate management or self-help. We live in the uneasy conviction that we have grown too big at all levels of our society. But our population continues to grow, and our waste stream, and our consumption, despite recessions caused by powers far beyond the control of the average consumer. Maybe we can get ourselves to eat less ice cream, but we have no idea of how to consume less generally or leave a smaller footprint.


(early 1990’s | businese (auto industry) | “farm out,” “contract out,” “hire workers elsewhere”)

Whether we use this word to talk about goods or services; whether it applies to foreign or domestic transactions; whether it is used as a euphemism for “employ people in other countries to do work Americans used to do,” it means only one thing: find cheaper labor elsewhere. The first example I found in LexisNexis dates from 1981, quoting Roger Smith of General Motors saying “high labor costs” were forcing GM to “outsource,” a term the Washington Post defined thus: “buy foreign-manufactured parts, usually produced at lower cost” (December 9, 1981). There you have it. The urge to increase profit by cutting labor costs runs strong and deep in corporate culture, and if profits and stock price go up, we are trained not to notice the decline in standard of living left to the majority of the population.

“Outsource,” like “downsize,” bloomed as a code word for “cut jobs” in the 1990’s, but of course “outsourcing” involved an extra step: hiring workers in other countries to do the same work — cheaper labor elsewhere. It’s rather an odd word. There are many examples in contemporary English of the prefix “out-” used to mean “surpassing” or “in excess”: outdo, outfox, outrun, etc. There are only a few in which it’s used to mean “outward,” “away from oneself,” “in another place,” like outflank, outlay, outlaw. A prefix used in an unaccustomed way mated with a new verb to create a useful euphemism. It took about ten years for “outsource” to become a dirty word. Finally, advocates for labor dragged the word out into the open, and now everyone knows what it means. Most of us don’t like it, but no one has figured out how to prevent corporations from doing it.

A few hundred years ago, “out-” was used much more commonly as a prefix in the second sense above (e.g., “outbreak,” “outlie,” “outpour”). “Source,” on the other hand, has only recently come to mean “locate products or resources needed to run your company.” I’m a little fuzzy on the chronology, but it looks like “source” became a verb around the same time as “outsource” did, so “outsource” may not be derived from “source.” Perhaps our neologism was not formed according to centuries-old rules after all.

As the word was used originally, it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with foreign countries. Outsourcing just meant finding a function or process — running a computer network, managing the accounting system, or making equipment you need to manufacture your product — that the company used to do for itself and contracting it out to another company. So “outsourced” is the opposite of “in-house.”


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