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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | businese? | “mutually advantageous,” “everybody gets a piece of the pie,” “everybody’s happy,” “best of both worlds”)

“Win-win,” now commonly used as a noun but originally an adjective, rose up within the art and science of negotiation, whether in discussions of pre-divorce mediation, collective bargaining, sales, or politics. Everyone gets something; no one goes away mad. At first it pertained only to adversarial situations; originally the term was conventionally opposed to “win-lose,” where one party bests (or even humiliates) the other. Rare in 1980, by 1990 it was used frequently in almost any situation where all concerned are at least vaguely satisfied, whether as a result of negotiation or not. “Win-win” could be spelled with a comma or a virgule, but to me it looks most normal with a hyphen. Although the meaning has remained pretty stable over thirty years, I found an interesting variant from the early days in an article on the cable industry. Communications Daily in 1984: “Many remain confident that [the cable] industry is . . . in a ‘win, win’ situation” regardless of whether a piece of legislation passed or not. Not “everyone wins,” but “I win either way.” That seems just as plausible, and just as sensible, as the accepted sense.

A book called “Getting to Yes” was published in 1981. Written by a couple of Harvard eggheads, it proved a very popular and durable guide to negotiation — the third edition was published less than five years ago. I haven’t determined if “win-win” actually appeared anywhere in the first edition, but the spirit of the thing breathed from every page. The authors emphasized resolving conflicts to mutual advantage whenever possible. Keep your cool, think about how the issues look from your adversary’s point of view, and look for answers that offer something to both sides. By 1984, the nation’s first master’s program in conflict intervention was established at George Mason University. This had to do with settling violent international disputes, rather than the smaller-scale conflicts that “win-win” usually covers — not that it couldn’t refer to the resolution of a war or comparable conflict. But regardless of the magnitude of the stage, this kind of negotiation embraces the principle that the purpose of bargaining is not that one combatant grind the other into the dirt.

This expression lends itself to a particular unsavory use due to its optimistic, reassuring character. It is often used by spokespersons for powerful corporations or the government to describe a policy change, regulatory effort, or private-public partnership. They trot out “win-win” in order to convince us that we all benefit as much as the massive impersonal institution benefits. Most of the time, that means we get a bone thrown to us that doesn’t cost the institution anything, while the institution gets just about everything it wants in return, no matter how harmful or costly the results. Just another straightforwardly Orwellian (and highly effective) misuse of the language. Not all wins are created equal, and you have to look very closely when a powerful organization invites you to accept its version of the new state of affairs.

A further note on origins: The first director of the conflict resolution program at George Mason (now known as S-CAR), a psychiatrist named Dr. Bryant Wedge, was also the first person recorded using “win-win” in LexisNexis, five years earlier. Perhaps the unheralded Dr. Wedge, an important advocate for peaceful resolution of disputes, deserves some credit for the popularity of this expression.


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