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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | athletese? advertese? | “employees,” “staff,” “group”)

Grouping your employees into “teams” and calling them “team members” may not have originated with Whole Foods, but I give the company credit for popularizing it and giving so many other retail establishments incentive to follow suit. Many large stores now throw around talk of “team members” freely. (Walmart uses “associate,” which also has its followers.) I don’t have any hard evidence that Whole Foods was primarily responsible, but when they became a national success story in the 1990’s, there was much breathless talk of their management structure, which depended heavily on teams and was so reported. Whole Foods management and journalists alike spoke as if there was something entirely new going on, but I haven’t seen anyone attribute the notion to Whole Foods or its management, nor have I seen anyone from Whole Foods take credit for the origin or spread of the idea. Someone else may have done it first, but Whole Foods seems to have given the concept momentum.

To most Americans encountering such a usage for the first time, the sports team was probably the quickest and strongest association, but any group engaged in a common pursuit could bear the name. From my youth I remember news accounts of “teams of scientists” working on complicated projects. The word had a fairly specific connotation: a relatively small, close-knit group in which each participant plays an important role in pursuing a common goal. That is the idea Whole Foods is appealing to, although there is some on-line dispute about how well they succeed. The association with a pair of draft animals, which probably still would have occurred to many Americans as late as 1950, has disappeared definitively, I think. How old do you have to be to make head or tail of the brand name “Mule Team Borax”?

It seems obvious that both “team member” and “associate” attempt to make ordinary employees (none dare call them underlings) believe they have some sort of genuine status. The rhetorical emphasis directs attention away from the authority of the employer and toward autonomy of the employee. It’s not hard to see why executives (that is, the management team) might propagate the change in vocabulary.

“On our team” has taken some of the space formerly used by “on our side” — my guess is that the increased use of “team” in this context did not happen before the rise of Whole Foods. The other newly common usage of the word is names in the form “Team X.” My first thought was that we’re indebted to another large corporation for this one, namely Xerox. The earliest example of their “Team Xerox” campaign I’ve found dates to 1984; it was a hit for them in the eighties. And the school slang term followed very soon — engineering students at Vanderbilt (who shall remain nameless) were using it in 1986, to my certain memory. But as my beautiful, brilliant girlfriend reminded me, before there was Team Xerox there was Team USA. That’s correct, but it seems to predate Xerox’s appropriation by only a few years. At first, it seems to have been used mainly to talk about hockey teams assembled for international tournaments like the Canada Cup (this was a little like barnstorming in the early days of baseball, when major league players toured and played exhibition games in the off-season). The miraculous 1980 U.S. hockey team was not generally known as “Team USA” at the time, any more than the 1992 men’s basketball squad was known as Team Dream. I still say Xerox should be credited with an assist for pushing this use of “team” into everyday use — a way of adding a little drama to a walk for cancer research, or a bunch of high school kids working on a class project.

I’m not really sure where the “name-after-Team” construction comes from (the capital “t” is necessary — such phrases are always proper names, unlike “team of scientists” or “management team”). I noticed something funny in looking at old Olympic records that made me wonder. Some events, like swimming, have individual and team competitions. When medal lists were compiled, at least in the seventies, the name of the medalist would occur after the category “individual” and “team,” so an entry under archery might read “Team USA.” There was usually a large space between the word “team” and the country, but maybe that’s where sports insiders got the idea. I concede that this insight probably would not have occurred to me without Google Books’ idiosyncratic search capabilities, and the rational part of my mind thinks it unlikely, but who knows?

p.s. For lovers of obscure words, I give you “toxophily,” a synonym of a word used in the last paragraph. First one to send it in to wins a free subscription!

July 11, 2013: I walked by my local Domino’s Pizza, and the sign in the window says they’re looking for “new inspired team members.” That’s asking a lot for ten dollars an hour.

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