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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

workaround

(1990’s | enginese | “plan b,” “way around it,” “alternative”)

Dear old Wikipedia defines this word thus: “A workaround is a bypass of a recognized problem in a system. A workaround is typically a temporary fix that implies that a genuine solution to the problem is needed.” Pretty good, but a little too specific for this day and age. The word arose from the iron triangle of military brass, government technocrats, and engineers that has given us so much vocabulary in the half-century since President Eisenhower’s famous speech. It was not infrequently used as an adjective in the 1970’s, when it was still exclusively an engineer’s term, as in “workaround plan” or “workaround solution.” I haven’t found any sign that is any more than a mashing together of the phrasal verb “work around” (meaning “circumvent”).

In the 1980’s, the computer world gobbled the word up and made it its own, and it came to my attention first in that context — it was what a sheepish techie offered when your recalcitrant software refused to do the simple, straightforward thing you wanted. This usage, still quite common, underlies the Wikipedia definition. The word took off with the rise of the personal computer during the early 1990’s, and it started to turn up in other contexts shortly thereafter. An early non-technical example from the New York Times in an article on public schools in Queens (June 8, 1994): “But for their teachers and administrators, life is a scramble of workarounds and desperate compromises.”

Occasionally it smacks of the shady or illegal, as in this example from the San Jose Mercury News (September 29, 2004): “San Jose’s new lobbying law . . . won’t prevent big labor and big business from finding workarounds designed to keep the public from knowing who’s pulling strings.” But that connotation has never become ordinary. Only recently, the word has started to appear as a synonym for “alternative,” deprived of the more colorful sense of “jury-rigged solution.” From Slate (December 29, 2009): “Unfortunately, lending your time to charity can mean spending less time socializing with friends. . . . Patty and Sandy Stonesifer recommend workarounds for the busy volunteer and ways to make community service a group activity.” Or this from the Herald-Sun of Durham, NC (August 3, 2011): “Buying organic fruits and vegetables to avoid or eliminate pesticide residues can put a crimp in any food budget. And, if you’ve made an all-organic commitment, then the other items in your shopping cart, like peanut butter, breakfast cereal, milk, eggs and even coffee can be true budget-breakers. There’s not much of a workaround for foodstuffs like milk and eggs; they’re either organic or not.” The sense of seeking a way around an obstacle remains (“workaround” really means “detour”), but not the sense of a clumsy or second-rate approach.

Aviation engineers and computer geeks live in a sphere in which an ideal solution is presumed for every problem: an elegant, economical maneuver just waiting to be discovered by the most ingenious programmer. (We have all learned by now that when it comes to computers, this belief is generally an illusion, but it’s stubborn.) Anything less is inferior, fit only to be denoted by that lovely engineer’s term, “kludge.” Move “workaround” into a wider, less governable context, and that notion can’t really persist. No equation or line of code will ever give you the optimum way to organize your society or your household, and often it’s impossible to say one means is better than another. Sometimes your workaround turns out to be the smartest thing you ever did. So it’s not surprising that a wider use of the term points the way to a less specific meaning.

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