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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

time-sensitive

(1980’s | businese | “on a deadline,” “urgent,” “pressing,” “critical”)

Of all the words we limped along with before 1980, “urgent” comes closest to capturing the meaning of “time-sensitive,” although it often can’t be substituted directly for the newer term. But in fact the word was occasionally used with “urgent” in its early days, as a complementary term, because it’s not precisely the same thing. “Urgent” means drop everything and deal with this now. “Time-sensitive” means this may not be the highest priority but you can’t let it slide, either. The distinction is clear, even if “time-sensitive” is frequently used simply to mean “urgent” and always has been. The phrase has always been available hyphenated or as two words, and the two-word spelling remains widely seen today.

“Time-sensitive” arose in the press around 1980, says LexisNexis, largely the property of business and finance types, along with their inevitable fellow travelers, the generals. From that day to this, it is frequently used in official government documents. It modified a relatively small group of things: shipments and their contents, issues, targets (of assassination), data, documents, projects. For contrast, here are two recent examples that probably would have sounded peculiar in 1980: “time-sensitive aspects of driving,” which refers to reaction times, and “time-sensitive product,” meaning something that spoils quickly. Though the meaning can get a little slippery, the notion of a deadline is always there. Something must be done quickly, because the crucial object is about to expire (or become obsolete), or someone at the other end really has to have it, or because new conditions are taking effect.

I believe one of the things that made this phrase go was the rise of Federal Express, which was well-established by 1980 and had begun to familiarize us with the concept of overnight delivery of important packages, be they medical supplies, legal papers, or housekeys. By then it was even starting to teach us to find such a thing a matter of course. (Fellow Americans my age will have no trouble remembering the slogan “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”) There had been overnight, intercity, door-to-door deliveries before Federal Express came along, but they were the first ones to get famous doing it. (Anybody out there under fifty ever heard of Purolator?) Their success provided the soil for the growth of “time-sensitive,” even if it didn’t give birth to the expression. The couriers dealt with many different degrees of urgency, and it was handy to have a word that covered them all.

Once I stopped to think about it, I realized that “sensitive” as used in this expression makes for an odd appendage. “Time-sensitive” ought to mean acutely aware of the passage of time, perhaps to the point of neurosis, or maybe merely to the point of making sure you get your work done. And it really ought to apply to a person, dammit, and once in a while it does, as in a time-sensitive customer fuming at a long wait in line, or a historical re-enacter taking pains to look the part (“time” as in “era” rather than “money”). Or maybe it should refer to someone who goes into a tailspin at the thought of hours passing. “Sensitive” was a big word in the seventies, just as this week’s expression was starting to appear in print. As a personality trait, “sensitivity” meant a better-than-average awareness of emotion, especially other people’s emotion, a quality highly prized — because so rare — in men. “Sensitive” was an important word in the booming beauty products industry, and sensitive skin became the latest accessory. The word sometimes was used to talk about allergy sufferers. None of these quite matches the use of the affix in “time-sensitive.” I think it lies closer to the national-security meaning of “sensitive,” meaning kept under wraps, top secret, that sort of thing. This usage is not a precise analogue, either, but it comes closer to capturing that sense of something it would be foolhardy to ignore. Another possible cognate: “sensitive” used to mean “touchy” or “easily set off.” Here again, another usage with the requisite force, even if it isn’t identical.

Thanks to lovely Liz from Queens and her doughty sister for proposing this term this week. Free subscriptions for everybody!

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