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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

startup

(1990’s | businese, computerese | “new business, firm, etc.”)

Hyphenated or not, this expression was well established as both a noun and an adjective by 1975, particularly in the business press, and it doesn’t appear to be much older than that. Google’s n-gram viewer finds almost no instances before 1950, and the curve doesn’t start to rise sharply until 1970, so it was fairly new then, but easy to use and soon absorbed. When it was a noun, it meant “commencement of operations,” or more colloquially, “opening” or “launch.” Normally it went with heavy industry, so it was common to talk of the startup of a plant or pipeline, for example. But businessmen love to scoff at grammar distinctions — there’s no denying startups invariably entail startup costs, a startup period, or, heaven forbid, startup problems — so they converted it effortlessly into an adjective. “Startup” may also clock in as a verb, but in that part of speech it is usually two words, even today.

By 1990, the concept of a “start[-]up company” had emerged, and occasionally the noun disappeared, leaving “startup” on its own. That wasn’t normal then, but today it is the rule. Back in the eighties, the shift from galumphing old factories to nimble new firms that didn’t make anything three-dimensional was driven by a hostile takeover of American life by the personal computer, a fait accompli by 1995. So many new companies concerned themselves with computer hardware and software that “startup” became common in computer publications by the late eighties. The word is older, but the way we use it today was probably driven by increasing computer sales, and computerese became the funnel for a businese expression — no surprise there. Michael Dell (of Dell Computers) was quoted recently on the “startup ecosystem” in India, and he even spoke of “meeting” (without “with”) several startups, not a use of “meet” I’ve encountered before. Since I haven’t actually offered a definition, here’s one I encountered on a German web site that does the job pretty well: “Startups sind Jungunternehmen mit besonderen Ideen – sehr oft im digitalen Bereich.” (Roughly, “Startups are new enterprises with unusual ideas, most often in the computer sector.”)

My sense is that “startup” had primarily a favorable connotation when it was getting established between 1985 and 1995. Such budding concerns were generally pegged as plucky or scrappy, determined pioneers taking on long odds with heads held high and a sound business plan. In that respect, it was more or less the opposite of “upstart,” which was always uncomplimentary. But as the term has lost novelty, it may have lost its sheen. Anyway, I don’t have the sense any more that it is complimentary. It seems more neutral than anything else.

The key related concept is the entrepreneur, always a figure celebrated in American mythology. Entrepreneurs breed startups, or shed them, or bring them forth from their heads, like Zeus giving birth to Athena. The crashes and recessions that have become frequent since the Nixon years may have dampened the spirits of some of these go-getters who start their own companies, but their flame burns bright as ever in our official worship of business. Entrepreneurs take the initiative, do their homework, embody healthy risk-taking, create jobs and prosperity, and otherwise exemplify the American way. Entrepreneurs are lauded especially on the right, because entrepreneurism is all about me rather than all about us. (That’s an oversimplification, but I’ll stick with it.)

According to my calculations, this is the 300th expression I have written about, at greater or lesser length. (I have become more loquacious over time, not less. Brevity is the soul of wit, indeed.) I chose “startup” as anniversary fodder partly because no operation was ever more shoestring or quixotic than this blog. I say thank you to my readers, to the ones who landed here once off of Google and never came back as well as the ones who read every post and comment faithfully. (You know who you are, and there ain’t very many of you.) I don’t do enough to encourage comments and feedback, but at least here I will say, if you ever feel an impulse to fire off a reply to one of my posts, or to send me an e-mail at usagemaven at verizon dot net, do it. Even if I don’t answer, I am grateful that you took the time, and I will profit from your wise words.

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