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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(late 1980’s | businese (banking) | “fence,” “Maginot Line,” “quarantine”)

“Firewall” is a word of ill omen that rears its head only when there’s trouble. When it starts cropping up in the news, someone has broken the rules or violated the standards. I had thought the term grew out of computerese, but it starts to show up shortly after 1985 among bankers and financiers. The godlike Alan Greenspan used it in Congressional testimony in 1987, and it was commonplace by the end of the decade. (There were a couple of uses in political reporting from the Washington Post early in 1987, but these show up as outliers in LexisNexis.) That was a good five years before laypersons had the faintest idea what a computer firewall was and ten before general internet use made everybody need one. In both cases, the idea of an impregnable barrier persists from architecture, as between one part of a building and another, or between the engine and the passenger compartment of a car.

In financial terms, firewalls are supposed to insulate the depositing and lending arm of a bank from the part that invests in securities, so the friendly neighborhood bank isn’t sunk when the traders screw up. In journalism, the firewall separates the editorial and advertising departments so the news side isn’t pressured to whitewash a sponsor’s misdeeds. In either case, you don’t have to squint very hard to see the metaphorical wall — this side and that side simply do not touch. Recently, we’ve been treated to much talk of firewalls in the eurozone, which are needed to protect other European countries from a default in Greece, or Spain, or somewhere. Something has changed: the term still indicates a barrier against spreading calamity, but it’s much less solid. Sure, the lenders of last resort have agreed to protect investors from sour economies and political unrest, subject to certain conditions, of course, and there’s no guarantee. They’re not building permanent walls to keep financial disasters from spreading, just throwing up ad hoc barriers that may or may not be there next week.

Bankers talked about firewalls in the late eighties to show that they were unnecessary or counterproductive and should be dismantled, freeing them up to do any fool thing they wanted. Their thinking was deregulating the S&L’s had worked so well we should try it on the banks, too. It was yet another version of the right-wing argument that businesses will naturally avoid excessively risky or criminal behavior, because it will put them at a competitive disadvantage. Why do we still fall for this? This notion was flatly disproven over 100 years ago by the Pure Food and Drug Act, which obviously wasn’t needed because any fool can see that those selling food and medicine wouldn’t want to poison their customers (yeah, right!). We deregulated the S&L’s, and within a few years the industry was all but destroyed and we were paying through the nose. Then we deregulated the banking industry, and now it continues to teeter on the edge of disaster because of — surprise! — excessively risky and criminal behavior, requiring a trillion here and a trillion there to save its neck and, if we’re lucky, our retirement funds. A hundred years ago, the mountebanks and butchers knew if everybody ignores basic sanitation and uses inferior ingredients, there’s no competitive disadvantage. And if every bank is investing in securities based on bad debts and playing fast and loose with even the most basic rules, same thing. Can we please put to rest once and for all the idea that profit-making ventures will cheerfully regulate themselves in the public interest?


(2000’s | advertese?, computerese? | “word of mouth,” “like wildfire”)

Now we associate the overused word “viral” with Youtube, and I thought it was pure computerese, but it seems to have come from the fertile swamp of advertising, immortalized in a phrase you may remember from around the turn of the millennium, “viral marketing.” Championed as a successful new form of guerrilla (unconventional) marketing, it generally meant advertising designed to create or take advantage of word of mouth. One adman described it as an “attempt to establish a grass roots phenomenon” (Adweek, June 20, 1994). The point was to startle people into talking about the product and spread the word like a contagious disease, rather than making sure as many people as possible see your commercial. was a slightly later example that took advantage of the ease of automation on the internet. By adding a brief advertisement to every message sent from a Hotmail account, they increased their customer base mightily in a short period of time. Hotmail was gobbled up by Microsoft and never heard from again, but it was a raging success back in the go-go nineties, when it seemed more important to attract lots of clients than lots of money.

Advertisers soon discovered that the internet was well-adapted to the viral strategy (funny how that works), and so the two titans quickly came together, causing inexact observers like me to conclude that “viral” had always been associated with the web. Then again, the slightly older use of “virus” in computerese may have midwifed the advertese sense. A computer virus, like an advertisement, comes from the outside and establishes itself covertly. The idea of sneaking past defenses is common to both uses, and both posit an extraneous and unwanted influence controlling you (or your computer), compelling you to do something. Computer viruses became a topic of conversation around the same time as viral marketing, and computer jocks had already been talking about them for a few years. So there’s a decent chance that the advertese usage was influenced by the computer usage.

“Go viral” went viral about five years ago and seems to mean no more or less than “be seen by lots of people on-line.” It’s not clear to me that the phrase retains the original connotation of people passing word of something new along. It’s easy enough to find out what Youtube’s most popular videos are and watch them — no need for an excited friend to send you a link. Whether a video is considered to have gone viral or not is just a function of the number of views (not likely to be the same as the number of viewers). It seems to mean no more now than “sell like hotcakes.”


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