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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: business

failure is not an option

(1980’s | “we have to get this right,” “we can’t afford to fail, lose, etc.,” “we have no choice”)

This expression remains forceful despite its evident falsehood. As long as Murphy’s Law holds sway, very few prospects are so free of defect that failure is impossible. “Failure is not an option” runs directly counter to that earliest of childhood maxims — everybody makes mistakes — which turns out to be one of the only reliable absolutes we have. If enough people screw up, any enterprise can misfire, and it usually takes only a small percentage of the personnel to bring on downfall. Of course, naïve logic is not all there is. The phrase is effective because it reminds everyone that we really might fall short, and we really, really don’t want to. That’s why the phrasing is crucial; if you say “there’s no way we can fail,” the staff will slack off.

The main thrust of the phrase is inspirational — a signal to all involved that they must exert every effort. The sports cliché “must-win game (or situation)” is quite similar. It’s also a bit like “you can do this” as we use it now, which has replaced “you can do it.” (It is more distantly related to “everything on the table.”) If the boss can convince you, or you can convince yourself, that no other outcome is tolerable, you will do what’s necessary to bring home the prize. The phrase may bear a hint of “no holds barred.” Sometimes it’s no more than false bravado. It would be interesting to figure out how many times a military campaign, business initiative, athletic team, or curriculum has failed after the brass said, “Failure is not an option.” If it’s intended as an incantation to ward off disaster, it doesn’t work a lot of the time.

This expression is one of a small number that have roared into popular consciousness from the movies: “Apollo 13” (1995), a fictionalized account of the safe landing of a badly damaged lunar capsule carrying three astronauts. According to Wikipedia, the exact phrase was invented in the nineties, derived from a longer utterance of a NASA flight controller named Jerry Bostick by screenwriter Bill Broyles, who knew a winner when he encountered it. That is not to say that the full phrase had never appeared before; I found examples as far back as the late eighties, but not very many. The film must take credit for popularizing if not introducing it. Bill Clinton soon picked it up; thereafter it became more common. It is still around today, beloved of all who would sound resolute. But there’s no getting around the fatuity (or futility, if you prefer) of the phrase understood literally. “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley,” said the poet, and sounding resolute doesn’t change that.

Lovely Liz from Queens scores again; she is by far the all-time leader in expressions nominated. Let’s not always see the same hands.

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pivot

(2000’s | politese? businese? | “change course,” “turn one’s attention from/to,” “shift,” “crucial point”)

From an Old French word for “hinge” imported into English in the sixteenth century. For a long time, it was nothing more than a special case of “revolve,” denoting movement around a fixed point, not necessarily smooth, or the fixed point itself. I learned the word first from basketball, where it refers to the movement a player is permitted to make when holding the ball and not dribbling. (In this case, the fixed point was called the “pivot foot.” To this day, “pivot” is used in Spanish and French to mean the center on a basketball team.) As the word has evolved, it has lost its connection with revolution and now refers to any change of strategy or objectives. This new sense, now widespread, did not really take hold until after 2010; I found only a few examples before then, primarily in political coverage.

The prominence of the term in politics is easily understood, considering that officials generally have to alter their policies when they butt up against the real world. As old words for this sort of thing grow stale and predictable, new ones arise, and “pivot” has certainly had its fifteen minutes. Often it’s not just a matter of doing something different; the notion of pivoting in politics contains an element of distracting the audience in an effort to make them forget the debacle that caused you to pivot in the first place. The word probably hit its political peak in 2016, when NPR decried it and many observers cited it as a buzzword. But if this looser definition of “pivot” originated in politics, it has come on strong in the business world, particularly in discussion of startups of various kinds; you pivot if your initial business model fails to generate adequate profit. My sense is that it is primarily businese now, but it remains available in other contexts.

The connection with the original meaning shows through in the following definition: “change directions but stay grounded in what [one has] learned” (source). Past experience and lessons learned remain the pivot, and keeping one foot there gives you a firmer foundation from which to launch. When a politician or business owner announces a pivot, part of the point is that they have considered the matter carefully and are making a deliberate change, not flailing around mindlessly. Or at least that’s what they want you to think. (Then again, another commentator remarked that “pivot” is a word used by executives who can’t admit they’ve made a mistake).

“Pivot on,” a substitute for “turn on” (as in “hinge on” or “depend on”), has likewise grown more common in recent years. Compare “pivotal,” meaning “essential.” “Pivot on” often carries that same implication of necessity, even urgency; with “pivot” they are in the background yet not absent. “Pivot” occurs more frequently in contemporary language and has become much less precise. Usually when that happens to an expression I sense that it has been trivialized or cheapened, but not in this case. The word has hung onto a bit of dignity and mystery, even as it has become clichéd.

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actionable

(1980’s | businese | “ready-to-use,” “useful”)

When I was a boy, “actionable” was a legal term meaning “subject to sanction or penalty.” A bit more broadly, it meant “subject to any legal process,” as for example something it would be legitimate to sue over, so it could refer to a deed that might be punishable, rather than one that certainly is. It was a lawyer’s or investigator’s term. I could write a book about words that have sacrificed precision to the onrush of modern civilization, which for some reason rests on the axiom that words must mean what they look like, regardless of how we have used them for centuries (cf. “concerning,” “dress down,” “flag.”) It seems to be the fate of words with counterintuitive definitions that at a certain point, a newer meaning that corresponds to the apparent, “literal” meaning of the word (or part of the word) will outstrip the original, which may persist in specialized vocabularies. All non-obvious or confusing definitions must be swept aside, leaving their words free to wallow in the most mind-numbing meanings you can imagine.

Ooh, crabby! But by 1980, “actionable” had started to tread this path. The legal use is still available, but it has been swamped in the business press, and now the mainstream, by the most boring definition possible: “capable of being acted on.” (Why not “actable”?) Oh, Lord, it’s all over the place, modifying data here, insights there, plans, advice, results, and on and on. Most of the time it combines with its noun to mean something like “hot tip,” straight from the experts and ready to use right away. That sense of urgency does seem to be part of it, at least in some fields, like finance or data processing. The idea is that you’d better use that actionable what-have-you right away, with a strong hint that someone will steal a march on you if you don’t.

The watering-down of “actionable” stems from the tone-deafness of the three-quarters literate — the kind of person who has heard more words than he knows and is not shy about throwing words around that he doesn’t quite understand. I’ve covered some of this ground before.

It took some time for the original legal usage to be overshadowed, but the new sense was thoroughly established by 2000. It’s not easy to come up with pre-1980 equivalents that achieve the same combination of value and urgency. How would we have said it? “Hot off the presses.” “News you can use.” “You can plug it right in.” “It’s ready to go.” None of these sounds quite right, and none could replace “actionable” in a sentence. Clumsy and mindless as it is, “actionable” has settled into the language, filling a need we didn’t know we had and creating simpler sentence patterns. If it swells the profit stream, it doesn’t have to be clever.

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chief happiness officer

(2000’s | businese)

How did this expression get started? With a McDonald’s ad campaign, ca. 2004, that’s how. Ronald McDonald was anointed “Chief Happiness Officer,” a fanciful title (and understood to be obviously so) whose holder was in charge of pleasing customers by cutting capers and dispensing his brand of cheer. It was a joke, people.

The office, if not the title, apparently owes much more to Google than McDonald’s; Google was among the first to install a Chief Happiness Officer (known as the Jolly Good Fellow). Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos.com, published a book called Delivering Happiness in 2010, and that gave the expression a big push, though it had been percolating before that.

There is considerable debate over whether there is a genuine need for such executives in the c-suite or not. But the chief happiness officer has joined the ranks of corporate nostrums, and blogs and magazines feature a steady stream of articles on the new phenomenon. The main point is that the CHO is primarily responsible for employee morale, not customer satisfaction. Happy employees are productive employees, and increased productivity brings higher profits. The chief happiness officer’s job is to oversee efforts to keep the staff content, by offering perquisites or helping people over rough patches. Most commentators regard it as a human resources position — the CHO may be head of HR — but customer relations may also play a part. Some CHO’s do monitor employee/customer interaction closely in order to head off problems. That level of surveillance bothers critics. In order to keep employees happy, you have to have a lot of information about how they do their jobs, or deal with co-workers and management. That knowledge can be abused, and it’s unwise to concentrate it in the hands of an unscrupulous executive. The CHO is supposed to be benevolent, but what if your CHO cares more about feathering his own nest than improving the lives of workers?

I have said much about sneaky ways employers have of showing concern for their employees that either increase their own sway or conceal the ways that their actions and policies make workers’ lives more difficult and less certain. On the surface, the chief happiness officer seems like a noble corrective, but it can be part of the same package. They may be as adept as any executive at figuring out ways to shift blame to employees for the misery the bosses are creating, deflecting responsibility away from the higher-ups to the lower-downs. That puts them firmly in management’s camp, regardless of their job description.

Thanks go once again to Will from Paris, wry observer of the corporate jungle, who fed me this phrase months ago. You wouldn’t want me to move too fast and write a hasty, uninformed piece, would you? These things need time to ripen.

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sweet spot

(1980’s | athletese | “happy medium,” “splitting the difference,” “best combination”)

. . . rhymes with “moonshot,” last week’s entry. I haven’t done that before. Got close once, with “comfort zone” and “standalone” falling but two weeks apart. And a couple of off-rhymes.

Down to business. The phrase dates back at least to the thirties in athletese, with reference to pieces of equipment designed to hit things — golf club, tennis racket, baseball bat. (The first reference I encountered involved a putter.) It was the area from which the ball took off with the greatest force with the least effort from the player. All-time baseball great Willie Mays described the sensation thus: “I know when I hit it there, because when I don’t it shakes up my whole body. When I do, it feels like I don’t even have a bat in my hands” (Life magazine, 1964). As of 1980, the term was still most used in that way, but somewhere around there it began to acquire what we might call a less literal meaning. For one thing, it could be used to name an actual place, such as a superior location to prospect for oil or station a satellite. That alley turned blind somewhere in the intervening thirty years, however, for you rarely hear the term so used now.

Now it has a few different meanings. Most simply, it refers to an optimum range, setting, or quantity in almost any type of process. So you could recommend a burner setting by saying, “The sweet spot for cooking oatmeal is medium.” While “sweet spot” is used very occasionally to mean “erogenous zone,” persons do not normally have one (so that it differs from a related word, “wheelhouse“). Most often, the sweet spot is an incorporeal and somewhat mystical yet altogether real place where two categories, often inversely or at least not directly related, intersect for the greatest advantage. So you might talk about the point where maintaining employee morale and high standards hit a sweet spot to generate maximum productivity, or where sales and expenses meet to create the easiest profits. In this sense, it resembles what we used to call the right balance — the most effective combination of two or more attributes for achieving a given goal.

The modern usage of “sweet spot” unquestionably goes back to athletese. My question is why call it that in the first place? I posited that it should be called the “heart,” or maybe “core” of the club, racket, or bat. Not that “sweet spot” sounds completely unnatural or counterintuitive, but it doesn’t seem to get to the heart of the matter (sorry). The clue lies in the word “sweet” as an interjection — think of a frat boy responding to a friend’s good news — where it means utterly satisfying or gratifying. Willie Mays’s definition upholds this interpretation; it’s sweet because it’s about how you feel when you hit the ball there, not a property of the bat.

I wonder if the G-spot, much discussed in the eighties, was influenced by “sweet spot.” No one ever used “sweet spot” to mean “G-spot” that I ever heard. No reason it couldn’t happen that I can see, but it never did. Another road not taken.

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work-life balance

(1990’s | academese (psychology)? therapese? | “personal satisfaction OR fulfillment”)

An expression that settled quietly into the language over at least a decade or two, “work-life balance” was the distillation of years of hand-wringing over work-induced stress and its effect on employees and their home life. Articles about balancing work and life (or family) were showing up here and there in 1980, and by the end of the decade, the first instances of the exact phrase had been sighted. It’s worth a bit of time to map the variants: “work-family balance” also appeared in the eighties but was retired when single and childless employees felt left out. “Life-work balance” showed up a few times but was quickly extinguished, because work must always come first. Sometimes the gerund got into the act: “work-life balancing.” The virgule was used now and then and still is: “work/life balance.” It appears only a couple of times in LexisNexis before 1990 and was well in place by 2000. The expression seems to have arisen among psychologists in the seventies, judging from a few examples found in Google Books, but it didn’t start to show up in force until the nineties. By 2000 most of us had heard it.

Today’s mantra is “work-life integration,” meaning that you work at home and do personal stuff at work, or that you incorporate a certain amount of work into vacations or vice-versa. (A new adjective, “bleisure,” (business + leisure) has arisen to describe such travel. Blecch.) American workers have been doing that for decades; the new phrase seems a bit more forthright and therefore probably a net gain. “Work-life blend(ing),” “work-life harmony,” and “work-life stability” are others. Such expressions acknowledge that office work during off-hours is the not-so-new normal. At least now there seems to be a general understanding that it’s only fair to use a certain amount of work time for personal matters, which was not always considered kosher fifty years ago. Yet workers must remain vigilant, lest “work-life integration” turn into all work and no life.

“Balance,” in its most literal form, suggests half-and-half, as in someone on a tightrope, leaning to one side or the other but remaining upright. “Stability” has some of the same character, though it is even more likely to be heard figuratively; “blending,” “harmony,” and “integration” make no such pretension. If “work-life balance” fades in favor of these others, it will be yet another victory for the bosses over the bossed.

It’s striking how many expressions I’ve covered that have been put to use by executives against employees, promising concern and compassion while actually tightening the screws a little further with each buzzword. I call the roll (part of it, anyway) for the sake of posterity: “emotional intelligence,” “mindfulness,” “side hustle,” “team,” “wellness,” “who moved my cheese?.” Then there are some that don’t belong to the same family but are closely related: “downsize,” “go green,” “human capital,” “interpersonal skills,” “lean in,” “outsource,” “trickle down,” and “win-win.” Probably not invented by consultants, “work-life balance” nonetheless took an honored place in their vocabulary, offering itself to executives eager to look a bit more humane by encouraging employees to enjoy their free time and discouraging them from noticing how much the boss was horning in on it. Increased hours, demands, and pressure from the suites are then thrust back on the employee: your work-life balance is all wrong, but we’ll help you fix it. Whether the employer is sincere or not, it’s just one more way to blame employees for conditions they did not create.

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take to the next level

(1980’s | athletese? journalese (arts)? | “push myself (etc.) harder,” “move up,” “graduate”)

There was always a next level, of course. In any hierarchy, any given rank — except the top and bottom — has another above and below it. “Go to the next level” could be used easily in such a context: get promoted, or (less often) get demoted. It might even turn up in a building evacuation plan. It was an uncomplicated expression with little or no metaphorical dimension.

The form of the phrase is fixed, though the verb may vary (“go” or “move” frequently stand in). “Take to the next level” has two obvious interpretations which are not exclusive but which have much different significances. One is playing the same game better. Another is playing the same game in a better league. In athletese, the former usage has become the norm, but the latter is more common elsewhere. Take, for example, an outstanding college athlete joining the NFL or NBA draft; suppose he says “I’m taking my game to the next level.” My contention is that we would hear that to mean, “I’m going to improve as a player” rather than “I’ll be playing in a higher league.” In other cases — such as in a financial context, in entertainment journalism, even in international relations — it means being promoted, in effect; bettering your own or someone else’s performance, or just changing the situation so much that you break into a new stage, or provoke a new intensity. Often, the point of taking it to the next level is outdoing another person or overshadowing an earlier event. The expression turns up frequently in discussions of relationships, where taking it to the next level denotes getting serious — going steady or becoming engaged, for example. Such a usage may bear a hint of improving one’s performance as a romantic partner, but it partakes more of the idea of a different league.

Most people probably hear it now as an athlete’s expression, but there were some early instances in performance reviews, and in the earliest days it didn’t seem more likely to appear in one than in the other. I’m not sure who got hold of it first — artswriters or sportswriters — but by the end of the eighties one was already more apt to hear it from athletes. In either case, it suggests an advancement outside an established hierarchy, as in a team or player summoning resources not normally available for a big game or a stretch run. It might be a pitcher adding a new delivery that will fool hitters, or a guard taking extra shooting practice so she’ll be more reliable in game situations. On the one hand, it is something athletes are always trying to do: develop their abilities and win more often. Yet the phrase gets trotted out most often before a big game or series. One must reach deep inside oneself and find new strength and skill to defeat a formidable opponent.

The expression is quite similar to “raise your game” and is used in the same way at the same junctures. It has a bit more of a mystical side to it, I would say. You can prepare to raise your game on the practice field, but taking it to the next level requires finding something you didn’t know was there, an unguessed reservoir of will, adrenaline, and physical ability that leads to victory. That’s how I hear it, anyway. On the field there’s probably no way to tell preparation from inspiration, certainly not for the spectators, and maybe not for the players themselves.

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step up

(1990’s | athletese | “rise to the occasion,” “step in,” “do your part,” “take a stand”)

I’ll tell you what’s up: “Step up” used to be transitive. Now it has a well-established intransitive use. That sort of thing happens now and then, but I think not very many people notice. We grumpy grammarians, on the other hand . . .

It was still transitive most of the time in 1990, but the intransitive had emerged, primarily among athletes. Other verbs, including “ramp up” and “ratchet up,” have made space for “step up” to meander into another meaning. “Step up” meant “increase” or “augment,” also sometimes “increase the pace of.” These senses have not disappeared, but they have been joined by “step up” shorn of all its appendages, used to mean take charge of handling a problem or situation (it crops up a lot in crunch time). When it was transitive, even if it didn’t have an object, it was followed by a prepositional phrase, notably “to the plate.” That expression is likely the progenitor of today’s use, which may be followed by an infinitive, as in “step up to make sure the job is done,” but more often closes a clause or sentence.

As so much athletes’ vocabulary does, this has spread to politicians and businessmen. “Who will step up?” has a ring to it, it’s true, although “step up” also sounds like a kind of baby dog. To me it evokes a medal-winning Olympic athlete mounting the podium, or the older expression “step forward” (think of a line of soldiers, a few of whom have stood forth to volunteer for a dangerous assignment). Stepping up emphasizes crucial duty more than unpleasant duty, but the latter implication can definitely creep in. I’ve covered a couple other locutions like it — “designated driver,” “real MVP,” “take one for the team” — that express a blend of solidarity and heroism that may be found in the humblest office or in the seventh game of the World Series. I haven’t covered “stand-up guy” (not “step-up guy”) but that’s part of the group, too.

It’s not easy to pin down precise opposites. (“Step down” is not one of them, although you might step down after failing to step up.) The most direct, I think, are “flop” or “fall down on the job” — not nearly so pithy — and a less closely linked but still related antonym is “stand down,” which refers to disengagement, which may in turn result from failure. You can try to go above and beyond and fall short, or you can simply back away from the problem and leave it to others; either would constitute a failure to step up. When you use the past tense, you’re implying pretty strongly that the intervention was successful; it isn’t nearly so common to say “so-and-so stepped up” when he gave it his best shot but didn’t pull it off. (“He gave it his best shot” wouldn’t make a bad epitaph, would it? Some rich ambiguities there.)

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business model

(1980’s | businese | “business plan,” “grand strategy,” “big idea”)

Putting a business model into practice requires a lot of attention to detail, but the business model itself doesn’t. It can usually be summed up in a few sentences, a statement of general means to achieve broad goals, or a couple of concepts connected loosely with a method of bringing them about. These are not the fiendishly complex models of the hobbyist; they’re like economic models that set up a highly simplified map of how money moves around intended to make reasonably accurate predictions about real life. Business models look to the future, and they are subject to change; executives must recognize when they need a new one, lest the firm fail or fall behind. A start-up might boast of future profit infallibly brought to pass by their business model, while an established concern is more likely to tout a business model that is serving them well in the present and doesn’t need changing, thank you very much.

In everyday use, the expression is pretty casual, but there is a bit more to it. A 1990 definition in Computerworld magazine broke it down thus: “[Business] models, generally developed by a data administration unit, describe current and planned business activities and the related information requirements. A model is typically a four-level hierarchy that identifies business functions, the processes within each function, the activities within each process and the information needed to accomplish each activity.” At some level there must be attention to detail, even in the most devil-may-care industries.

Before 1990, “business model” also meant something else and was more likely to be paired with institutions of higher learning, or perhaps government agencies and even individuals. The idea was “act like a business,” that is, subscribe to the reigning corporate nostrums and show no regard for employees. If you did that, the financial poobahs would congratulate you on following a business model. That use remained in play into the nineties, which is when today’s understanding of the term took over. The tech companies dragged it into prominence; the computer industry seems to be the first that was generally expected to produce “business models.” That’s probably because new firms can’t attract funding without one, and computer start-ups were a dime a dozen in those days. Also because with a few off-the-charts exceptions, most computer companies have never quite figured out how to be profitable, even with an enthusiastic customer base and lots of love from investors. (In that respect the tech industry resembles American society in general, where a tiny minority is staggeringly prosperous while the vast majority does its best many levels below.) But even an unsuccessful venture may pull the wool over the eyes of investors long enough to free them of their money and give the principal shareholders time to grab the capital and run.

For the business model is the blueprint for making money. It helps if it has been proven by others; if it’s untried, you’d better have a good line of patter to back it up. A common way to disparage an enterprise is to say that its business model is the same as that of another company that failed or is in the process of failing. But how much success can be traced back to the business model? If the product’s no good, the business model won’t save it; if your employees don’t do their jobs, your big idea won’t go far. If the theory isn’t put into practice effectively, it doesn’t matter how good it is.

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craft beer

(1980’s | businese? journalese?)

“Craft” has taken on new life as a verb, but in this expression it acts as adjective — anything but a noun! It’s a little strange to call it “craft beer,” anyway. Why not quality beer (an echo of Qualitätswein in German), artisanal beer, or all-natural beer? Now we might even contemplate “small-batch beer,” though that comes too close to “small beer.” Where else is “craft” used as an adjective? I went through urbandictionary.com, and there are dozens of phrases in there that use “craft” that way. I have never heard a single one of them; yet it sounds so normal in front of “beer.” The brewers had to do something when a few popular microbrews found wider audiences in the eighties and early nineties. “Microbrew” started out as an answer to the giant breweries that dominated the industry — Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Miller, et al. — so the size of the operation is an essential part of the term’s definition. Local guys producing much smaller quantities, which allowed them to experiment, try out new ideas, and aim for uniqueness rather than uniformity. Some of them gained national distribution — Samuel Adams, Anchor Steam, Redhook, the lamented Pete’s Wicked Ale — and couldn’t be microbrews any more. They needed a term that said “better than the slop the national brands make” that also allowed for a larger scale. Ergo, “craft beer,” an ingenious if unorthodox coinage.

Microbrews come from microbreweries, and “craft breweries” quickly joined the language. (Again, “craft beer” seems like the odd phrase out, but I’m grateful that “craftbrews” has not become a thing, not to mention “craftdraft.” The participles “microbrewing” and “craft brewing” do not sound normal to me, but I may be behind the times.) Their inevitable complement is the brewpub — it’s not enough to craft amazing beer in your basement; you also have to provide a friendly barkeep, or good Buffalo wings, or something, that inspires customers to return. The brewpub was not just part of the business model but a new entry in the language as well. One important driving force was connoisseurship, that is, assuming the mantle of superior knowledge and discernment and discoursing learnedly on lambics, mouth-feel, or the German Reinheitsgebot. (Actually, the Reinheitsgebot is pretty simple; it says you can use only barley, malt, hops, and yeast when making beer for public consumption. Rice, corn, or corn syrup are considered adulterants, prohibited by law.) So craft beer rose with hipsters, inevitably, right around the same time as gourmet coffee on every corner. The coffee shops are still there, but now brewpubs (sometimes “alehouses” or “taprooms”) have elbowed their way into respectability.

The earliest incidence of “craft beer” I found in LexisNexis dates from 1987, and it was rare until 1994, when the business press was abuzz with it — the behemoth breweries had started to take notice — no less than lifestyle columnists. The initial boom fizzled after a few years, but the movement recovered and has been quite successful. At least in New York, craft beers take up more and more room on the grocery store shelf; now every town has at least one or two places with ten or twenty craft or microbrews on tap. Even the top five beer manufacturers have to create brands that can pass for craft beers now. Craft beer not only tastes better than mass-produced beer, it also tends to be stronger, which gives it a certain appeal. It gives every sign of continuing to hold its gains. Sophisticated beer is here to stay, and all we lager lovers are the better, if poorer, for it.

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