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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(late 1990’s | businese | “executive suite,” “boardroom,” “front office”)

It’s “C” as in CEO, CFO, CIO, COO, etc. — the C-suite stands for the very top brass, possibly a physical location or, more often, as shorthand for the executives themselves. So there are many things it doesn’t stand for: Caesarean, clostridium, century (as in “c-note”), control (as in “c-panel”), capitalist (o.k., maybe that one), California, the programming language, the middle note on the keyboard, etc. Or the mathematical sense of “constant.” My high school calculus teacher used to say, “Don’t forget the seven c’s” while we were taking quizzes, to remind us not to neglect an essential part of the solution to an indefinite integral. Then there’s the homonymy with “sea,” “see,” “si” . . . It’s a rich range of referents, but here it is stands for something less even than “chief”; the “C” stands on its own and the abbreviations no longer need their spelled-out forms. “Chief-suite” would sound very strange.

I believe the expression was invented by consultants (another “c”), and it started to show up in the late nineties in LexisNexis. It soon made its presence felt all over the English-speaking world — in the U.S., U.K., and Australian business press — suggesting the easy global reach of the rentier class, through which new vocabulary gets around the world faster than the latest strain of the flu. “Executive suite” just took too darn long to say, I reckon, but the jargoneers reached for “C-suite” rather than “E-suite,” for alliterative reasons? I started noticing it in news reports in the last year or two, so it is not a specialized term any more. It would still be theoretically possible to misunderstand the phrase, but it’s generally quite clear in context.

“C-suite” is fast and glib, and glibness goes with arrogance. The informality of the expression seeks to draw our attention away from the sheer power exercised by a very small group of men (mostly) at the top. Two quick spondaic, sort-of rhymed syllables represent the power to make or break thousands of people, yet they make that power seem less forbidding. If you get the right ear of the right boss at the right time, fortune smiles upon you, and if you don’t, well, there’s a tough adjustment period ahead. Not for the boys in the C-suite, for you. They will do fine, getting paid hundreds of times what the rest of us make whether they do the company any good or not. The bigger the screw-up, the more they take home, and even outright lawbreaking shaves only a few million off the total compensation package. In the U.S., we have historically tolerated this sort of thing until the infallible C-suite boys drive the entire economy into a ditch, which they came close to doing in 2008 before the government bailed them out, allowing a semblance of economic normality — the rich get richer and the rest of us don’t do as well — to persist. What happened in 1929 was worse, and now the government (both parties, but especially the Republicans) is busily replicating the conditions that made the Great Depression possible, by encouraging Brobdingnagian wealth disparities and refusing to regulate financial institutions. The only good thing that happens during such calamities caused by a tiny group of oligarchs is that the rest of us finally see them for what they are — amoral, irresponsible greedpigs — and stop buying their lies. But even then the C-suite never goes away or gives up much. At worst, they have to pull in their horns for a while.


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