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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: business

exit strategy

(1980’s | businese | “way out,” “cutting one’s losses,” “covering all the bases”)

You would think this is a militarese term, but it isn’t, or it wasn’t. Used almost exclusively in the financial press until 1990, its definition was straightforward: a contingency plan to get out of an unwanted obligation, partnership, or any foreseeable situation in the most advantageous way possible. In case everything goes south, figure out an escape route that will spare you penury or embarrassment. Before 1990 it appeared typically in quotation marks, but that was no longer true by the mid-nineties; by the time William Safire immortalized it in a December 1995 column, it was common currency. The financial usage has not disappeared, but in the public mind it has been overwhelmed by the political. Candidates looking to get out of a losing campaign picked it up before 1990, at least in a couple of cases. After 1990, foreign policy analysts grabbed the expression, and it soon became de rigueur for invasion planning. How do you take out the bad guys, bring your people home, and avoid a quagmire?

You don’t have to be an astute observer of foreign policy to know that the advent of the new expression has not made our military leaders any better at formulating or executing workable plans — we are still stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq. Which raises a significant point: In warfare, only invaders need an exit strategy. If you’re being invaded, you just have to sit there and take it, unless you can force the invader out by causing enough casualties and mayhem. (An official of the invaded country might also need an exit strategy, a way to leave town quickly and quietly if the political winds shift.) When a financial institution needs an exit strategy, it’s usually a matter of extricating itself from an internal decision that isn’t working out, or of getting out of a contract between two more or less equal parties. In the military, you have to commit offensive action; there’s no need for an exit strategy if you never leave the base. When one field borrows an expression from another, naturally the meaning may change, but this is quite a twist.

The odd thing about the expression is that it is not used literally. You don’t hear one nervous moviegoer ask another, “What’s our exit strategy?,” in a crowded theater. It doesn’t sound right when you’re talking about a building or vehicle. It may, however, be used whimsically to talk about a job, relationship, or some other important sector of our lives. It’s not hard to imagine two brokers discussing the most effective ways to get away from their employers, or two men discussing how to get away from the girlfriend if she loses her appeal. (Mercifully, Paul Simon didn’t call the song “Fifty Exit Strategies for Leaving Your Lover.”)

It’s a little far-fetched, but I hear in this phrase the echo of stage direction. Here’s how it might be used: Imagine a king suffering a reverse and announcing that he intends to lash out blindly and abandon reason from now on. Like Macbeth, for example. When he finishes, the stage directions say, “Exit King. Exit strategy.” Yes, it is a little far-fetched.

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branding

(1980’s | businese | “marketing (strategy),” “image”)

You are wondering about the connection between branding oneself or one’s organization and branding cattle, so I will tell you. They are both ways of marking salable property. Your brand is the quality, whatever it may be, that sets you apart from the competition, just as branding a calf designates it exclusive property. A possible intermediary would be “brand” used as a verb meaning “accuse someone of being,” as in “he branded his opponent a liar.” (The occurrence of “as” in between the object and the article was already possible in 1980, though perhaps less common then.) “Branding” in this sense is the act of pinning a disagreeable attribute on someone, but “brand” does not refer to the scarlet A that dogs the victim (à la Hawthorne). Nowadays, individuals and organizations improve their brands — which would have sounded very strange back on the range — in order to increase their appeal, rather than repulse customers. It is the flavor or feature or je ne sais quoi that renders them more worthy of the sacred ritual of opening the wallet. It must be tenderly nurtured and aggressively developed, with much overtime and expensive consultation.

Not just for-profit businesses; universities, foundations, hospitals, even nations are expected to burnish their brands in order to attract more people and make themselves more relevant — that is, closer to the money spigot. Just as IT departments became necessary a generation ago, branding consultants (or in-house staff) are now de rigueur for any business serious about staying in business. Anything an organization does to increase its status or revenue might qualify as a branding venture. For now, at least, it remains grounded in consumer behavior; the true measure of branding success is consumer appeal. Thus such projects tend to take on an anxious or abject tone; consumers are capricious gods whose whims must be catered to in order to part them from their money. Americans have seen a steady erosion of their political power for a century or more. To some extent it has been replaced by consumer power, but consumers don’t get to hire and fire corporate executives.

“Brand” and “branding” broke new ground in the eighties; it was rare before then to see either term as we use it now. By 1990 they both showed up regularly in the business press, though not perhaps in everyday vocabulary. One team of researchers defined “brand” as consisting of three components: “physical make-up, functional characteristics, and characterization — i.e., personality.” “Branding” goes with words like “messaging” (conveying a selling point) and “positioning” (proving yourself superior to the competition). “Brand” meaning simply “name of manufacturer” or “name of particular product” has been superseded, though it has not disappeared. It’s not enough to be Heinz or Kleenex any more. Heinz and Kleenex have to get out there every day and prove they’re better, or at least more compelling. You can’t just maintain a good reputation and rest your name on it. You have to build, respond, and work, work, work to make sure you remain irresistible.

There seems to be a strong tendency in corporate America to find or create new methods and theories of improving sales or employee retention or customer loyalty (cf. the recent entry on “emotional intelligence“). They don’t all involve branding directly, but they do involve purchasing books, hiring consultants, and supporting researchers who seem more and more like a parasitic class, feeding off their high-powered hosts and justifying it by dispensing advice that doesn’t — and can’t — work most of the time, because in most fields winners must always be in the minority. Even if you follow your consultant’s report to the letter, it probably won’t improve your market share much. But another consultant will come along next year, and you’ll have to shell out for that one, too. It’s just another way to make the money trickle down, I suppose, but one can’t help but wish that all these corporate geniuses might put a bit more effort into innovation and investment than convincing us by more or less fraudulent and manipulative means that we should buy their product. Maybe it will turn out that the best long-term branding strategy is finding a gizmo nearly everyone uses and making it better than anyone else can. But it’s a lot easier to talk about what the logo should look like and where it should go than to re-envision the entire chain of people and duties required to improve the merchandise. The point is not the product, it’s your ability to convince the gullible to pony up. I’m beginning to think we should put P.T. Barnum on our money, not George Washington or Harriet Tubman.

This is the five hundredth expression I have written about, assuming I’ve counted correctly. I encourage everyone to head over to the alphabetical entry list and look around to see if I’ve covered a favorite expression, or a pet peeve. If so, comment! If not, send it in (usagemaven at verizon dot net).

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disruptive

(1990’s | businese? athletese? | “shaking things up,” “causing a stir”)

A word of long standing, but when did it take on a favorable connotation? Not everywhere, of course, but executives use it approvingly now, unthinkable in the days of Henry Ford or even Lee Iacocca. Successful corporations have traditionally avoided boat-rocking and sought the even keel, but now executives congratulate each other on their disruptive business practices. It is not solely a matter of hobbling the competition; a certain amount of disruption is tolerated within the organization if it keeps employees on their toes, for example, or pushes a complacent division into activity. The buttoned-down set seems to have loosened their vests.

The first occurrences in the press that I found date from the late nineties, a few due to far-sighted business gurus but more from coaches describing the defensive unit, particularly in football and basketball. (Often it applied to a single defensive player.) I couldn’t guess which source influenced the other, but there’s nothing new about businessmen borrowing vocabulary from athletes — in this case, giving it more of an offensive than a defensive cast. By 2010 the word was ordinary in business contexts. Nowadays artificial intelligence and business models or strategies attract the label “disruptive.”

It’s a very forward-looking buzzword, associated with innovation, technology, and improved corporate management. Senior executives sling it around confidently, extolling the virtues of novelty and adroit exploitation of one’s strengths, or just crowing about how they’re going to mess with their competitors. There’s the usual tension between the goal of making the world a better place (if only for p.r. purposes) and simply extracting greater profit from it.

“Disruptive” is close to a newer expression — “game-changing” — and an older one, “revolutionary.” But these are both stronger than “disruptive,” which encompasses lesser shocks to the system. You can be disruptive without altering the playing field permanently or overthrowing an old order. It reminds me of Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of “creative destruction,” a hallmark of capitalism, which requires not just that single enterprises should fall so that better ones might rise, but that the rules of doing business, or other received wisdom, must fall to the new and improved. (Schumpeter believed strongly in innovation and entrepreneurism, by the way.) In today’s world, disruptive tactics are mainly intended to weaken or drive out competitors, but getting rid of rivals was always part of the entrepreneur’s toolbox. The fine talk of less able businesses fertilizing their successors didn’t disguise the fact that Schumpeter was merely peddling social Darwinism dressed up as economic law — yet another instance of trahison des clercs.

We owe this week’s expression to Will from Paris, a first-rate student of the language and a damn fine host to boot. He says, based on recent dealings with the corporate set, that this word will soon take over the world, and Lex Maniac wants nothing more than to get in on the rez-de-chaussée. Merci!

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emotional intelligence

(1990’s | academese (psychology) | “sympathy,” “empathy”)

First we must pay homage to Daniel Goleman, who adopted this week’s expression for the title of a best-seller in 1995, vaulting it into everyday language. Psychologically speaking, his goal was to cast doubt on the primacy of IQ testing as a method for predicting success in life. He followed in the footsteps of Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, who proposed several different types of intelligence, each playing an important role, of which IQ represented only one. Goleman’s work was a summation of research that had been going on at least a decade among psychologists, neuroscientists, etc., and an unusually effective popular treatment of recent science. He was also concerned with childhood development, attempting to prove empirically that children turn out better if they are taught means to deal with and mitigate their emotional reactions — more likely to avoid major trouble and relate well to their peers. His focus on education tended to disguise a strong self-help tendency in Goleman’s popular writing; he seemed to be trying to start a movement. To some extent, he has: there are now a number of tests that measure “EQ,” and emotional intelligence has become a familiar concept, denoting what we used to think of as skill at reading expressions, gestures, and tone of voice, and a willingness to use it.

But that’s not the whole story of this phrase; it had two other uses in the mid-nineties. One, which turned up most often in reviews of the performing arts, denoted the ability to convey a character’s emotions, credited primarily to actors and singers. (That meaning seems to have lapsed.) The other, closer to Goleman’s, had mainly to do with grasping and responding to the emotions displayed by others; whereas Goleman emphasized understanding and controlling one’s own emotional response, other early adopters of the expression made more of looking outside oneself. This distinction may also be observed by introducing the notion of social intelligence — understanding others — in contradistinction to emotional intelligence — understanding oneself. Actual people who boast one attribute are likely to have the other, it is true, and Goleman argued that the emotionally intelligent (in his sense) did better because they played better with others, suggesting that their sensitivity stretched beyond their personal boundaries.

It seems to me that by now the outer-directed sense of emotional intelligence has won. The term has long since outgrown the psychology ghetto and is common all over the lot, including sportswriting and political reporting. Philosophers of business have made a near-fetish of it (as they did, twenty years ago, with a closely related concept, “interpersonal skills“). Today’s business coaches laud emotional intelligence, meaning roughly “ability to fend off drama queens and divas and make everyone else feel less oppressed.” Buffing up your emotional intelligence will make you a better leader and turn your employees into obedient little gnomes. The business press thrives on this sort of thing; every year a new panacea that will make every lousy boss into a good one. And every year, the preponderance of bosses fail to follow the sensible advice of management gurus, which is a darn shame, except it means the bosses will continue to require their expensive services. It’s the employees who won’t get anything out of it.

Business apologists do glom onto expressions that make the boss look better while doing little to improve actual performance. “Mindfulness” and “wellness” have certainly gone that route, while “who moved my cheese?” also deflects responsibility for major disruptions of employees’ lives. Now “emotional intelligence” takes its turn. The phrase conveys increased sympathy and humane attitudes toward employees, but books are written about emotional intelligence because it benefits employers at their expense. Yes, your employees will be happier — because you have become more adept at manipulating them. When executives turn their attention to the wider world, “downsize,” “go green,” “outsource,” and “win-win” treat the rest of us the same way, using euphemisms or feel-good phrases to avoid or disguise harmful policies and acts.

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C-suite

(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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secret sauce

(1990’s | journalese? | “secret ingredient,” “secret formula,” “magic (trick),” “trade secret”)

Back in the day, only food writers used “secret sauce,” usually in reference to this great chef or that. By the eighties the expression had acquired an association with fast food, probably prompted by the “Colonel’s secret recipe” for Kentucky Fried Chicken and the McDonald’s mantra anyone my age can still rattle off: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.” True, that was “special sauce,” not “secret sauce” — which isn’t secret any more; there’s a recipe in Woman’s Day — but some linguistic cross-breeding was inevitable, and over time the expression has acquired the taint of the Golden Arches. Whether concocted by Escoffier or a corporate chemist, your secret sauce enhances the other ingredients and makes the dish unforgettable, so diners keep coming back. It’s what gives you an edge over the competition.

And that’s the figurative meaning, too. It may be a person, or a bit of wisdom won through observation, or just something you know that the others don’t. Whatever form it takes, it’s the catalyst or the solvent; that is, it makes the heterogeneous elements on the job, in the dugout, or in the studio work together toward superior results. A 2014 article in USA Today defined it thus: “that thing that you do that is unique, different, and special.” It is used strikingly often in the negative to remind us there are no shortcuts to success — it’s mostly hard work and trial and error. (In 1990, NBC Television executive Brandon Tartikoff observed, “Once you reach a certain level of success in this job, people start to believe you have a secret sauce. They want to know, why isn’t that sauce spread across the whole [programming] schedule?”)

We started using “secret sauce” figuratively right around 1990, as far as I can tell; there were a few tentative examples before that, but it started to show up in quantity then. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious channel from the literal to the figurative use. Its earliest avatars tended to turn up in entertainment reporting (including sports). Somewhere back there, someone got the idea of taking the old culinary expression, which had already dropped a brow-level or two through persistent association with fast food, and applying it to non-comestible situations. And it stuck, then spread into more and more contexts like a béarnaise slowly smothering your entrée.

A new adjective, “awesomesauce,” has recently come to my attention. It’s still a young person’s word, I think, that sounds strange to older people like myself, though I suppose the built-in rhyme makes it catchier. Also used as an interjection, the word implies a state of felicity beyond mere awesomeness, tending toward exhilaration or delirium. It first showed up in Urban Dictionary in 2005 (they spell it with a space), but those people are early adopters, and I doubt it was in general use that soon. It’s not in general use now, for that matter, but I’ve come across it and I’d guess most alert readers have as well. Can “criss-cross awesomesauce” be far behind?

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laser-focused

(1990’s | journalese? athletese? | “single-minded,” “intent (on)”)

The output of a laser meets a casual definition of “focused”: a light beam formed from many waves, all of the same wavelength, projected through a very narrow opening. There are those who believe that the uniformity of the light waves means that it is incorrect to describe a laser as “focused,” because focusing happens only with light of many different wavelengths, but it’s also true that there are such things as focused lasers. Besides, it’s the uniformity that gives the impression of focus, optics notwithstanding. So it’s not surprising that we took to talk of “laser focus.” I can’t think of any precise noun equivalents from before 1980, except perhaps for “undivided attention,” but we had several closely related concepts, such as “bearing down,” “bound and determined,” “powers of concentration.” It suggests not only purpose but precision, not only concentrating effectively but concentrating on the right thing. “Laser focus” has also done spot duty as a verb for twenty years at least, though it is not used in the imperative, as “focus” by itself is.

The expression seems to have arisen in sportswriting, if you believe LexisNexis (in this case, I’m not sure I do); the first unmistakable instances popped up in articles about boxers in the late eighties (the laser industry trade magazine “Laser Focus” had been around for several years by then). As with “wonk,” Bill Clinton did not invent the expression but helped solidify it in the early nineties when he promised a “laser focus” on the economy. For all that, it does not seem to have become rife until after the turn of the millennium; I don’t recall hearing it until probably after 2010, though it might have crossed my path earlier.

The advent of the CD player, which was for most of us the first practical, everyday use of a laser, helped make this term possible. Lasers were exotic then (they’re still kind of exotic), but there one was in your own home, bringing your favorite tunes to life. There was a vague understanding in the air that a laser was the magical part of the new piece of equipment, much spookier and more advanced than a diamond stylus or magnetic tape. So lasers were ushered into the general consciousness, opening up room for a new figurative expression. A mere thirty years later, “laser-focused” was declared business jargon by Bloomberg News, and it is clearly a term businessmen have picked up, more than politicians, though it is available to anyone now.

We generally hear the term as praise, but calling someone “laser-focused” may just be a nice way of saying they are wearing blinders; that is, it may imply the wrong kind of workaholism or micromanagement. It’s one thing to pour your efforts into reaching a commendable goal, but obsession has its own risks even in the service of a noble cause. I would say the term generally continues to have a positive connotation, but it certainly can suggest something else: an unhealthy involvement in a single pursuit that leads to exclusion or isolation. We don’t hear that when a corporate spokesman boasts of a laser focus on customer service, but when an individual exercises laser focus, we may wonder.

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economic engine

(1980’s | journalese (economics) | “economic driver,” “principal industry, etc.,” “catalyst”)

Somewhere in there, the mere act of job creation came to justify nearly any form of bad corporate citizenship, came in fact to embody our highest civic values, the framers be damned. “Economic engine,” less noticed but more eloquent, has been swept along in its wake. It made infrequent appearances in the 1970’s, nearly always referring to the U.S. economy as a whole, which was stalled (get it?) for much of the decade. Occasionally a wistful economist would talk about what we need to get the economic engine purring again. Our gross national product (as we called it then) was envisioned as propelling the nation, creating ever more prosperity for more people. The nation was the car; the money the motor.

The term has been demoted since then, even though you will still see it used that way sometimes. Now “economic engine” typically applies to a sector or an industry — even a single company, if it’s a big firm in a small town, or a product line within a single company, like iPhone for Apple. Or it may be an institution like a university or airport, which acts more as a handmaiden to prosperity than as its mother. It’s what helps make hiring and spending and stock prices go up, which makes the economists happy, so they don’t notice the looming crash, which by tradition takes everyone by surprise except the executives who sell blocks of stock just before it all comes tumbling down. But in the periods between crashes, everybody claims credit for being the economic engine, ginning up jobs and disposable income and keeping the money moving around.

It does raise the question of who exactly maintains the economic engine. At the level of a single firm, the economic engine is whatever goods or services bolster the balance sheet, so whoever’s in charge of that wears the mechanic’s overalls. But on a national level . . . Do you ever get the feeling that there are no greasemonkeys, or they’re on permanent break? An engine left to run on its own, without inspection or repair, forever? The trouble with metaphors is that they create their own consequences. And the fuel? Raw materials, a bewildering variety of assets, and . . . us.

job creation

(1980’s | journalese (economics) | “expanding opportunities,” “filling job openings”)

Of course, they created (and destroyed) jobs in the olden days, and “create jobs” was a common enough phrase in the 1970’s, but “job creation” does not seem to have been widespread before 1980. By the end of the decade, it was the benchmark of economic success for public officials, and the solemn duty of businesses small and large, as it remains to this day. You don’t hear “jobs creation,” though it might pass muster in England. “Job destruction” has not become commonplace, but it’s not hard to imagine one candidate abusing another in such terms.

We forget that making a new job that never existed before is actually a lot of work. When a company prospers, more people must help carry the load. So what has to happen? The boss has to authorize a search, you have to interview candidates, the responsibilities of existing employees may need to be shifted around (or at least the furniture), forms filled out and filed, insurance companies notified and placated, etc., etc. “Create jobs” involves an active verb, but “job creation” makes it sound like the whole process just happens magically, with no human intervention. Positions called into being ex nihilo, as Jehovah produced the universe, with no more than a word. All the work of making work is concealed by this phrase.

So what? It only worries me because I’ve seen all of us become more and more alienated (to use Marx’s term) from the fundamentals of economic life as I’ve grown older. Sure, we have our jobs, we pay taxes, we save and spend. But the national economic engine is so huge and so abstract that we no longer have any sense of what’s really going on, or even what it bodes for us. The economists pore over the statistics — if they don’t look so good, don’t worry, they’ll be revised soon — the Fed has its meetings and makes its little adjustments, the mandarins assure us they have everything under control. Then one day everyone (well, almost everyone) goes over a cliff, and it turns out the economists didn’t really understand what was going on, either, or not quite enough of it. Expressions that further the feeling that it’s all magic wrought far out of our reach are dangerous; we need to be more aware, not less.

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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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bring to the table

(1980’s | businese | “have to offer,” “start out with”)

What one brings to the table by definition benefits the party already there. It is a positive term, rarely used ironically, indicating qualities that will improve an existing situation or resolve a problem. In a job interview, it’s the thing that makes you desirable. Among athletes, it’s what will make the team into a winner. In diplomacy, it’s a bargaining chip that helps move the process along. Generally, it’s what you can do to help. There was a time when it might connote baggage as well as benefit; what you brought to the table was simply what you had, good or bad. But since 1980 or so, it has taken on the favorable connotation exclusively. The phrase arose in business and government; nowadays athletes also use it a lot. To my ear at least, when a phrase becomes popular among athletes, it has stepped irrevocably over the border into cliché country. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it has to do with the fact that professional sports figures are quick to adopt new expressions from each other and use them frequently thereafter, rarely with any imagination or creativity.

You have to keep your eye on the table, because idioms that rely on that word come from different places. “Bring to the table” calls to mind negotiation: the big table everyone sits around to hammer out an agreement. “Everything on the table” almost certainly comes out of gambling — the moment of showing your hand. “Seat at the table” could come from either, or from the dining room. To get anywhere at any table, a seat is the minimum requirement. Waiters bring things to the table all the time, but that sort of pig-headed literal-mindedness doesn’t get the blog written. In all these expressions, the table by now is purely metaphorical; when an actual table is involved, we understand it to be a play on words.

There’s a certain kind of new expression that develops a settled usage even though it is not particularly distinctive and could occur in everyday conversation without any reference to the specialized meaning. That description is a little vague, so let me offer some examples: “at the end of the day,” “be careful out there,” “do the math,” “don’t even think about it,” “good luck with that,” “I’ll shut up now,” “in a good place,” “play well with others,” “smartest guy in the room,” “what’s your point?.” All of these expressions have in common an ordinariness, almost a triviality, that allows us to notice, if we think about it, that they could just as well have no meaning beyond that carried by the word string itself. And yet, when we hear such phrases, we grasp an extra dimension, so that even if the sense of the expression is not much different from the literal sense of the words, we know we are hearing a distinct expression. There must be a process that allows such utterances to transmogrify into idioms, but I don’t understand it. Is there any way to predict that “I’ll shut up now” would take on a universe of connotation while “I’ll go to the store” (so far) has not?

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