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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

who moved my cheese?

(late 1990’s | businese | “what the hell just happened?,” “now what?,” “now what do I do?”)

I was surprised to learn that the insubstantial book whose title gave us this week’s expression spent ten years on the business best-seller lists. Management guru Spencer Johnson published it in 1998, and soon it became immensely popular among bosses, who bought it in bulk for their employees — one commentator wryly noted that if your boss leaves a copy of “Who Moved My Cheese?” on your desk, you are about to be laid off. References in the press were ubiquitous from 1999 until 2005 or so, at which point hits in LexisNexis began a noticeable decline that has continued to this day. Such a decline is unusual. I can’t think of many locutions that have gone from widely used to infrequent: “cocooning” is one, “bobbitt” another. It seems plausible that expressions that arise from short-lived trends or specific people or events would be more prone to obsolescence. You don’t hear “peace dividend” or “Where’s the beef?” much any more. But there must be other factors: “truly needy” has pretty well died off, and we have as many poor people as ever. One continues to encounter “who moved my cheese?” almost invariably as a direct reference to the book, which most people regard as either a life-changing parable or an insult to our intelligence; it’s too popular to inspire indifference.

It was a skinny book with large type and lots of illustrations. The standard blurb read, “A management expert offers techniques for dealing with change in the workplace and in life,” although the titular cheese actually referred to your primary goal, toward which your path is strewn with obstacles. So the title might be translated as “I was making progress in the right direction, and then something changed and made everything harder.” Or, more simply, “Who messed me up?” Johnson’s moral: people who expect new circumstances, recognize them, and adapt to them are winners in the game of life. They get all the cheese they want. (Full disclosure: I detest any kind of runny or smelly cheese, so I have a personal antipathy to this particular book that goes beyond my usual resistance to feel-good corporate nostrums.)

Since the book is intended to persuade people to manage their lives and make the best of things, it comes under the broad umbrella of self-help; more than one observer places it in a distinguished lineage that began with Dale Carnegie (“How to Win Friends and Influence People”). The business world, contrary to its crusty, hard-boiled reputation, now goes in for touchy-feely — or pretends to — and “Who Moved My Cheese?” is a relatively painless, soft-soap way to tell employees to get with the program, to accept whatever the bosses throw at them, no matter how unfair. Like mindfulness training, business self-help books offer executives a way to avoid making the office a better place. Give away this little book, and you can be as callous, arbitrary, and profit-mad as you want.

The most important question is the most basic: Is this phrase an expression or just a title? “Who moved my cheese?” doesn’t have a discernible definition, and reviews of the book rarely explained the title in detail, beyond pointing out that the cheese stands for whatever is most important to you; it doesn’t even have to work-related. We don’t use it in conversation and never did; how many people say “Geez, who moved my cheese?” when they find out they’re fired? And yet everyone who was sentient learned it back around 2000 and had at least a vague idea what it meant. Actually, the less you understand what the title means the more effective it is; that air of mystery rescues it from stultifying banality.

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