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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

low-hanging fruit

(1990’s | businese | “the easy part or stuff,” “easy pickings,” “quick results”)

The primary point of this expression is quick, easy, and beneficial; the secondary point is making yourself look good. New managers often go after low-hanging fruit to get quick, eye-catching results. This may lead others to denigrate their accomplishments as cheap, but fixing obvious problems for the sake of an obvious improvement (in the bottom line, productivity, or morale) is something no one ought to apologize for. The expression is generally used to hint that it will be impossible to continue to make progress at the same pace, but it may also suggest the quick progress made so far promises more of the same. My sense is that the expression has never really borne the dishonorable connotation of “easy way out,” although I have seen a few examples very recently, so the concept may be coarsening as we speak. A recent post on greentechmedia.com defines the expression as “do a few small things, and big results will happen.”

I can’t discern a definite origin, but this expression was used most often in the business community and started to show up regularly after 1990, with scattered use at best before then. Executives, consultants, and bankers used it, usually with “pick the” in front of it. Politicians, ever keen to be where the money is, latched onto it quickly, and it mostly remains the property of those with power. The meaning of the phrase has changed little: obvious ways to improve efficiency or profit, or maybe just your life. (Wisegeek has the best discussion I found in two minutes closeted with Google.) The phrase can cover more ground now, of course. In the nineties, cheerleaders for technology used the phrase to refer to savings or gains in output rendered by computers. More recently, the emphasis has shifted. Now, rather than harvesting the fruit, you try to avoid being harvested, that is, avoid becoming an easy target for hackers and cyberthieves, ever on the cyberprowl for low-hanging cyberfruit.

One interesting point about this expression is that it is nearly always used with the past tense. By the time anyone mentions it, it is all gone; its notable absence reminds everyone that the easy part is over, and everything from now on will be more costly and harder to obtain. It is beloved of managers warning their bosses that they can’t be expected to keep producing at the same rate, but it might also be an executive claiming that an industry has done everything reasonable to meet regulators’ demands, or a salesman telling you the most likely customers are already sewn up. When it’s all picked, we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. The processes or upgrades that constitute low-hanging fruit change over time, and yesterday’s complications are today’s low-hanging fruit: “There comes a time when new technologies are no longer new and become a series of low-hanging fruit components to assemble into new and disruptive opportunities.” (citation)

Another interesting point about this phrase is that even after all the low-hanging fruit has been picked, there must be more opportunities; it can never be used to mean that we have exhausted all the possibilities. There can be no low-hanging fruit without high-hanging fruit.

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