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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

power nap

(1990’s | teenagese? therapese? | “siesta,” “catnap,” “forty winks”)

I grew familiar with this term as businese, through articles about frazzled employees needing a way to get back on track during the workday. That’s probably where you learned it, too, but the phrase more likely saw the light of day elsewhere. It was in use among college students in the late eighties, and still is, but it became much more familiar to the rest of us in the nineties when psychologists started pushing the benefits of resting and recharging at the office. The businese definition has largely won out, yet students even today may assign the phrase a slightly different meaning. Businesspeople use the term to mean a short period of sleep intended to increase alertness, vigor, and therefore productivity. Students use it that way, too, but it can also mean a period of deep sleep without any indication of duration. In 1988, New York Times columnist Richard Bernstein defined it as “deep sleep induced by extreme exhaustion,” and cited it as an example of college slang. That sense has not disappeared completely, though it has been largely eclipsed.

The reason it sounds like businese is that it goes with “power lunch” and “power tie,” which became clichés in the eighties, when the cult of the world-bestriding businessman, brought low for a couple of generations by the Great Depression, ramped up again. Flaunting was in, and executives took pride in asserting their prerogatives. In the early nineties, when psychologists like Dennis Shea, James Maas, and Bill Anthony began writing about the benefits of brief rest periods for white-collar workers, “power nap” made our vocabulary more productive and efficient. (I can’t resist: “Feeling logy at work? There’s a nap for that!”) But powerful people don’t generally sleep on the job if they want to stay that way, and a power nap wasn’t a way to project one’s own muscle (like a power tie) or extend one’s dominion (like a power lunch). The fit isn’t as neat as it sounds, more evidence that “power nap” was not native to businese.

In 1992, the Guardian, reporting on the U.S. military’s methods of keeping soldiers minding sensitive or complex equipment as sharp as possible, noted that those charged with such duties were instructed to rest regularly: “to avoid implications of sissiness, such rests are called ‘power naps.’” Another possible origin story for “power nap,” one I don’t find very convincing. There’s no doubt that our armed forces are a great source of euphemisms (collateral damage, anyone?), and it’s also true that there is a lot of stubborn machismo in the ranks. But even the Army must put aside long-cherished prejudices when science and experience team up to demand it. “Soldier, I order you to take a power nap before your next eighteen-hour shift!” “Yes, sir!”

No matter how many studies demonstrate that short rests during the workday improve employee performance, most bosses still view power naps as proof that workers aren’t serious about their jobs. I’m as prone as anyone to get sleepy after lunch, but I shudder to think of how my boss would react if he caught me in an actual doze. Your average boss just can’t get past that rock-bottom-line calculation: time spent sleeping is time spent not working, and you’re here to work, so sleeping on the job is dereliction, dress it up as you will. American bosses are not, on the whole, a very imaginative or innovative lot. The experts can talk till they’re blue in the face, but the boss knows what he knows. Power naps are for weaklings.

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