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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

tipping point

(2000’s | academese (sociology)?, doctorese? | “turning point,” “brink,” “crucial moment”)

Here’s an unusual state of affairs. With most new expressions, it’s difficult to determine an origin point with any precision. It may be possible to nail down the type of jargon from which a new word comes, but even such broad conclusions may be dogged by doubt. Now here is an expression that has TWO frequently cited origins. The term was already around in the 1970’s, but was generally recognized to come from sociology and pertain to white flight. The “tipping point” was the moment at which enough black families moved into a neighborhood that all the remaining white families moved out, the implication being that the whites exited pell-mell after a gradual build-up (cf. gentrification). A few black faces didn’t cause a general exodus, but once the number of black homebuyers reached a certain level, the remaining white people decided the neighborhood was gone, and what had been a slow process sped up dramatically.

Google Books from the 1970’s and 1980’s reveals a solid consensus that thus was the meaning and origin of “tipping point.” I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s better attested than the one you find twenty years later: the term arises from epidemiology and was popularized by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. There’s no doubt that Gladwell popularized the phrase with his book, “Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” (2000). He borrowed the term from epidemiology, he said, and Google Books turns up many instances of other authors asserting the same thing, generally citing Gladwell. (Google Books shows few instances of epidemiologists using the term, however.) Among other things, Gladwell was trying to answer a particular question: How come major social changes seem to happen all at once rather than at a gradual, predictable pace? The answer: When it was happening gradually, you didn’t notice. After enough subtle, incremental changes, the pace of evolution increases sharply, and everyone notices. It’s the same definition as the sociological usage discussed above, which was already current, though not particularly common, by the early 1980’s.

So you reach a tipping point when a change that has been happening slowly starts happening fast. Another way to put it is that it’s the moment everything lurches out of control, and a situation that has seemed manageable gets away from us — as one commentator puts it, the moment an irreversible development begins. (The term as used in discussions of climate change takes on such a coloring.) When I was young, our expression for that phenomenon was “chain reaction” (resulting from a “critical mass”), although these borrowings from nuclear lingo had to be used slightly differently. But is that the main point? Here’s a recent definition: “a small change that can have a large effect on the end state of a system.” The underlying idea is similar: all these small, imperceptible changes happening, clouds no bigger than a man’s hand, and then, ka-boom, your computer freezes up for good, the stock market goes into free-fall, or all the children are mouthing off in public. The emphasis is different in the last definition, but not if you adjust it to read “a small change at the right moment”; then it falls right back in line.

Here’s how I imagine the origin of the phrase, although I have no reputable authority to back me up. I picture someone pushing a heavy object up a hill, closer to the top, closer to the top, until the instant when slightly more than half the object crests the ridge and starts down the other side — faster and faster, then completely out of control. It helps if you imagine the object to be angular rather than spherical, so you can imagine it literally tipping from pointing up to pointing down at the top of the hill. (I admit, the image works better as animation than live action.)

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