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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: business

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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done deal

(1980’s | businese | “sure thing,” “fait accompli”)

“Done deal” always makes me think of the mob expression “made man.” The alliterative spondee lends both expressions the necessary sense of finality and irrevocability. I don’t know of any connection between “done deal” and organized crime; the earliest uses of the term I was able to find come out of the financial industry, soon absorbed into political discourse. As you might expect given its business origins, “deal” clearly refers to transactions, not cards, although I can imagine a casino employee responding to a poker player’s complaints with “Shut up — it’s a done deal.” Newsweek noted in 1985 that the phrase was a favorite of Treasury Secretary James Baker, and such early patronage by politicians favored its fortunes; there’s no doubt “done deal” is as useful in politics as in banking (or the Mafia, for that matter). Even today, the phrase turns up most often in financial and political news — not that they’re different. “Done deal” has now come to be used more often, if not predominantly, in the negative, to caution us that there’s no guarantee the contract will be completed as advertised (e.g., “this is not a done deal”).

“Done deal” originally referred to business maneuvers, but as politicians picked it up it came to mean any sort of dead certainty (a little like “slam dunk,” but used in different situations). A way of saying “we’re not going back” or “you can count on it.” A done deal need not actually be done, but the point is that even if the papers aren’t signed, they will be soon. It does seem to me that “done deal” is often used to refer to a transaction or agreement that is not yet formal or final; once the deal is truly executed, it is no longer necessary to call it “done.”

“Done deal” represents a form of grammatical displacement not uncommon among new expressions. The concept is an old one, so how did we express it in the old days? “Settled,” or more poetically “chiseled in stone.” In a simpler key, “all over.” These are all adjective phrases that cannot serve as subject or object. Commonplace ideas look for new parts of speech to inhabit, and nouns may slip into power where once ruled only adjectives. To some extent I am speaking fancifully in attributing will to words, which are but bits of breath and ink, but if you spend enough time observing the language, it’s easy to slip into the belief that words have life and motive independent of us, their creators but not their controllers.

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off the charts

(1980’s | journalese (economics) | “through the roof,” “extreme(ly),” “amazing(ly),” “off the scale”)

Investigation has led me to revise my understanding of the rise of this week’s expression. First, the old meaning of “chart” is irrelevant; I haven’t found any evidence that “off the charts” has any connection with maps. I thought it had something to do with pop music charts, and sure enough, the earliest reference I found dates from 1956 in Billboard, describing a new record featuring Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby: “It has now registered very strong on all fronts and is just off the charts.” The little bagatelles of research I carry out are not what you would call comprehensive, but the phrase didn’t show up again for twenty years in my usual sources. When it did, it was in the context of graphs displaying economic data. Picture the stock graphic that goes with business news reports on television: the line with an arrow on the end of it zig-zagging up and down across a grid. Now picture that line sloping so steeply upward or downward in a brief period of time that it goes below the x-axis or rises beyond the upper margin. THAT’s “off the charts.” (After all, even the most successful record in history can’t go any higher than no. 1, and therefore must still be ON the charts. “Off the chart” was used interchangeably with “off the charts” in the eighties, another clue that the origin of our expression is not pop music charts, which are always plural. Oh, and by the way, when we say “pop music charts,” we’re talking about record sales, not instrumental arrangements.) The expression was used several times during the primary and general election campaign of 1980 by George H.W. Bush, and that seems to have given the phrase a boost. Bush also played a role in popularizing “out of the loop,” “you’re history,” and “go ballistic.”

Graphs and charts are merely means of making economic data quickly intelligible, so other kinds of statistics — demographic, medical, meteorological — could go off the charts, too. Music sales rankings definitely did spawn a closely related term, “knock (or fall) off the charts,” also available before 1980. That use represents an early stage in the evolution of this phrase. Falling off the charts was as common as flying off of them until 1990 or so, but that concept has disappeared. And the verbs have gotten lazier over time, too. In the old days, “off the charts” generally went with active verbs like “zoom” or “soar,” “slide” or “drop.” Such verbs still crop up occasionally, but today we are much more likely to get the copula, usually “is” or “was.” A noticeable difference, but probably rather minor in the grand scheme of things. And another change in range: “off the charts” is used as an adjective (or adverb) phrase much more often than it used to be, though examples may be found as far back as the seventies.

From political and economic pundits the expression spread to sportswriters, who found its vigor useful in describing athletes. Today it can show up almost anywhere. Politicians are not above using it, but they seem less enamored of it than the rest of us now — or maybe it’s just that the rest of us have caught up. “Off the charts” has not become so overused that it has been stripped of excitement; it still has a little pizzazz. May it keep its sizzle rather than turning into a flaccid echo of itself.

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(1990’s | businese (finance) | “provide incentive,” “encourage,” “promote”)

Editors and writers made a sport of deploring this word in the eighties and nineties, when it was reviled as unnecessary and clumsy, an obvious instance of a noun turned awkwardly into a verb by adding the “-ize” suffix, like “prioritize.” As late as 1997, E.J. Dionne expressed hope that “incentivize” could be expunged from the language. But it was not to be; this word has taken root and become quite common, though we already had several equivalents and it sounds clunky and jargony. The contexts in which it arose — business and politics — remain the ones in which it is most regularly used. How do you incentivize car sales or job creation? Customers or executives? Agriculture or high tech? The expression straddles the divide between creating incentive TO do something and incentive FOR someone to do something, and can apply with equal facility to either. It always boils down to creating compelling reasons for people to act a certain way, but it is not always necessary to explain what you’re doing. Gov. (now hapless presidential candidate) George Pataki once talked about “incentivizing work” among welfare recipients; Congressman Bob Inglis asked how to incentivize good health. It’s the same idea, but they skipped the part about rewarding people for finding paying jobs or adopting salubrious habits.

“Incentivize” first appeared in LexisNexis credited to chair of the Federal Reserve G. William Miller, who used the word repeatedly in testimony before Congress early in 1979. He certainly did not invent it; Google Books offers several examples as far back as 1969. In 1985, J. Peter Grace used it and was given tentative credit for the coinage by UPI. It’s all wishful thinking. Neither Miller nor Grace invented the term, but the fact that experienced reporters were inclined to give them the honors gives proof of its slow rise. “Incentivize” appeared now and then in the eighties (Jack Kemp used it in 1989) but did not really get rolling until the nineties.

A minor but nagging variant is the verb “incent,” which still makes most people with an ear for English wince, but does turn up occasionally. George W. Bush used it in the mid-1990’s as governor of Texas, though according to Texas Monthly, his aides made him stop. It was pretty new then and may not really have qualified as a word, depending on your standards, and it may not make the cut even now, for all that it appears in several dictionaries. It still sounds more illiterate than cutting-edge, and it seems to incense usage mavens more than “incentivize,” which is longer and windier but has the oddly comforting, or just anesthetizing, tone of bureaucratic language.

For while “incentivize” originated among our business mavens, it is a classic example of bureaucratese. No surprise that bureaucrats and financiers share a lingua franca, but one may wonder about the special needs of bureaucrats that bring forth words so obnoxious to the rest of us. To form a verb from a noun by adding a suffix — a practice nearly universally scorned among authorities in usage — may be seen as an attempt at precision, avoiding the use of a synonym, or near-synonym, that may be misconstrued or misunderstood, preferring to work with the exact word at hand. Cynics will reply that precision and clarity are the furthest things from the minds of bureaucrats, and their real intent is to bewilder us by creating strings of not-quite-comprehensible English sculpted to mean the opposite of what they appear, or carefully avoid saying anything at all. Both sides are right at least part of the time, but the debate has less to do with language than with politics. Ha! Just try keeping them apart.

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(1990’s | businese, computerese | “new business, firm, etc.”)

Hyphenated or not, this expression was well established as both a noun and an adjective by 1975, particularly in the business press, and it doesn’t appear to be much older than that. Google’s n-gram viewer finds almost no instances before 1950, and the curve doesn’t start to rise sharply until 1970, so it was fairly new then, but easy to use and soon absorbed. When it was a noun, it meant “commencement of operations,” or more colloquially, “opening” or “launch.” Normally it went with heavy industry, so it was common to talk of the startup of a plant or pipeline, for example. But businessmen love to scoff at grammar distinctions — there’s no denying startups invariably entail startup costs, a startup period, or, heaven forbid, startup problems — so they converted it effortlessly into an adjective. “Startup” may also clock in as a verb, but in that part of speech it is usually two words, even today.

By 1990, the concept of a “start[-]up company” had emerged, and occasionally the noun disappeared, leaving “startup” on its own. That wasn’t normal then, but today it is the rule. Back in the eighties, the shift from galumphing old factories to nimble new firms that didn’t make anything three-dimensional was driven by a hostile takeover of American life by the personal computer, a fait accompli by 1995. So many new companies concerned themselves with computer hardware and software that “startup” became common in computer publications by the late eighties. The word is older, but the way we use it today was probably driven by increasing computer sales, and computerese became the funnel for a businese expression — no surprise there. Michael Dell (of Dell Computers) was quoted recently on the “startup ecosystem” in India, and he even spoke of “meeting” (without “with”) several startups, not a use of “meet” I’ve encountered before. Since I haven’t actually offered a definition, here’s one I encountered on a German web site that does the job pretty well: “Startups sind Jungunternehmen mit besonderen Ideen – sehr oft im digitalen Bereich.” (Roughly, “Startups are new enterprises with unusual ideas, most often in the computer sector.”)

My sense is that “startup” had primarily a favorable connotation when it was getting established between 1985 and 1995. Such budding concerns were generally pegged as plucky or scrappy, determined pioneers taking on long odds with heads held high and a sound business plan. In that respect, it was more or less the opposite of “upstart,” which was always uncomplimentary. But as the term has lost novelty, it may have lost its sheen. Anyway, I don’t have the sense any more that it is complimentary. It seems more neutral than anything else.

The key related concept is the entrepreneur, always a figure celebrated in American mythology. Entrepreneurs breed startups, or shed them, or bring them forth from their heads, like Zeus giving birth to Athena. The crashes and recessions that have become frequent since the Nixon years may have dampened the spirits of some of these go-getters who start their own companies, but their flame burns bright as ever in our official worship of business. Entrepreneurs take the initiative, do their homework, embody healthy risk-taking, create jobs and prosperity, and otherwise exemplify the American way. Entrepreneurs are lauded especially on the right, because entrepreneurism is all about me rather than all about us. (That’s an oversimplification, but I’ll stick with it.)

According to my calculations, this is the 300th expression I have written about, at greater or lesser length. (I have become more loquacious over time, not less. Brevity is the soul of wit, indeed.) I chose “startup” as anniversary fodder partly because no operation was ever more shoestring or quixotic than this blog. I say thank you to my readers, to the ones who landed here once off of Google and never came back as well as the ones who read every post and comment faithfully. (You know who you are, and there ain’t very many of you.) I don’t do enough to encourage comments and feedback, but at least here I will say, if you ever feel an impulse to fire off a reply to one of my posts, or to send me an e-mail at usagemaven at verizon dot net, do it. Even if I don’t answer, I am grateful that you took the time, and I will profit from your wise words.

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(1980’s | computerese, businese | “independent,” “unconnected,” “separate,” “isolated”)

The earliest instances of “standalone” (sometimes hyphenated, even in this day and age) in Google Books date from the sixties and seventies, nearly always in talking about non-networked computers. The first hits recorded in LexisNexis all date from 1979 in that trusty journal American Banker — but invariably in discussions of the use of computers in banking. The word was used often in the early days of ATM’s, which could, in the manner of computers, be divided into the ones clustered together for protection (e.g., in a bank lobby) and the ones out in the field, far from help. (The latter had to be connected to a mainframe somewhere or they wouldn’t have access to anyone’s account data, of course. And even a standalone computer had to be connected to a power source. No computer is an island; no computer stands alone.) ATM’s were brave and new in the eighties, and I suspect their spread pushed “standalone” into prominence. Other business types were certainly using the word by 1990, generally in reference to computers. It was widely understood by then but remained primarily a hardware term at least until 2000. One mildly interesting point about “standalone” is that it could apply to an entire system as well as to a single device. A standalone device can function even if it is not part of a larger system, but an entire system can also absorb the adjective if it doesn’t depend obviously on comparable systems.

“Standalone” retains a strong business bias, even today, but it is available to describe many things besides computers. A complicated piece of legislation might be broken up into standalone bills. Or a film for which no prequels or sequels are planned (or one in which a character that had been a supporting player in other films becomes the protagonist) might be so described. A government agency that doesn’t rely on another agency for its writ. A restaurant that isn’t part of a chain. “Standalone” is not generally used to mean “freestanding,” although it seems like it ought to be, literally speaking. I am a little surprised that I find almost no examples of the word used as a noun (one does see it used as a trade name), although that seems inevitable. All it takes is the careless insertion of one lousy one-letter article, and the deed is done. You’d think it would be harder to blur fundamental grammatical categories, but no.

The rise of this term inevitably accompanied a change in how we use computers. In the seventies and eighties, when we began to get serious about turning them into tools for business, the idea was that each employee’s work station had to be connected to the mainframe, where all the applications and data were stored. In the nineties, we shifted to the opposite model: each employee’s computer should have a big enough hard drive to store software and data; every work station became its own mainframe (or server, as we would say now). In the last few years, we’ve pushed the other way, and now minuscule laptops and tablets run software from the cloud, and store data there as well. The same shift has taken place outside the office; home computers have undergone a similar evolution. There are no doubt good reasons for the shift; the rules and conventions of the computer game have changed quite a bit. But like many such sizable shifts in our culture, it has taken place with little or no consideration of why we did it the other way. Are the once highly-touted advantages of standalone computers no longer real or significant? We don’t know, because the issue was never debated out where most of us could hear. We did it the old way because there was money in it, and now the powers that be have found a new way to make money. You’re stuck with it whether it helps you or not, and you’re not even entitled to an explanation. That should be surprising, but in practice, it isn’t. Our policy debates routinely fail to explore how things got to be the way they are. It’s as if we all woke up one day and said, “Look, a problem! Let’s fix it!” With insufficient historical understanding, we attack large-scale problems with little or no attention to how they arose and fail to acknowledge the evils the existing approach has successfully prevented.

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low-hanging fruit

(1990’s | businese | “the easy part or stuff,” “easy pickings,” “quick results”)

The primary point of this expression is quick, easy, and beneficial; the secondary point is making yourself look good. New managers often go after low-hanging fruit to get quick, eye-catching results. This may lead others to denigrate their accomplishments as cheap, but fixing obvious problems for the sake of an obvious improvement (in the bottom line, productivity, or morale) is something no one ought to apologize for. The expression is generally used to hint that it will be impossible to continue to make progress at the same pace, but it may also suggest the quick progress made so far promises more of the same. My sense is that the expression has never really borne the dishonorable connotation of “easy way out,” although I have seen a few examples very recently, so the concept may be coarsening as we speak. A recent post on defines the expression as “do a few small things, and big results will happen.”

I can’t discern a definite origin, but this expression was used most often in the business community and started to show up regularly after 1990, with scattered use at best before then. Executives, consultants, and bankers used it, usually with “pick the” in front of it. Politicians, ever keen to be where the money is, latched onto it quickly, and it mostly remains the property of those with power. The meaning of the phrase has changed little: obvious ways to improve efficiency or profit, or maybe just your life. (Wisegeek has the best discussion I found in two minutes closeted with Google.) The phrase can cover more ground now, of course. In the nineties, cheerleaders for technology used the phrase to refer to savings or gains in output rendered by computers. More recently, the emphasis has shifted. Now, rather than harvesting the fruit, you try to avoid being harvested, that is, avoid becoming an easy target for hackers and cyberthieves, ever on the cyberprowl for low-hanging cyberfruit.

One interesting point about this expression is that it is nearly always used with the past tense. By the time anyone mentions it, it is all gone; its notable absence reminds everyone that the easy part is over, and everything from now on will be more costly and harder to obtain. It is beloved of managers warning their bosses that they can’t be expected to keep producing at the same rate, but it might also be an executive claiming that an industry has done everything reasonable to meet regulators’ demands, or a salesman telling you the most likely customers are already sewn up. When it’s all picked, we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. The processes or upgrades that constitute low-hanging fruit change over time, and yesterday’s complications are today’s low-hanging fruit: “There comes a time when new technologies are no longer new and become a series of low-hanging fruit components to assemble into new and disruptive opportunities.” (citation)

Another interesting point about this phrase is that even after all the low-hanging fruit has been picked, there must be more opportunities; it can never be used to mean that we have exhausted all the possibilities. There can be no low-hanging fruit without high-hanging fruit.

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(1980’s | journalese? therapese? | “unscientific,” “soft-headed,” “frivolous”; also “hands-on”)

“Touchy-feely” is actually a little old for the blog, having arisen in the late sixties or early seventies to talk about Esalen and encounter groups. In its original sense, the term was quite literal; the phrase referred invariably to physical contact, often with the implication that there was something illicit about it. No doubt some of that stuff really was orgies disguised as treatment, but more legitimate forms of therapy also explored the benefits of contact — affectionate, violent, or otherwise. This meaning of “touchy-feely” was always most common but the expression had two other meanings since the seventies that remain available. One is “affectionate” — but “touchy-feely” is often used more specifically to describe someone who subjects students or employees to unwanted touching. The other, less common, is “hands-on,” as in a museum or lesson. So an exhibit where visitors are encouraged to touch the objects on display might be described as touchy-feely. This is not a common usage, but I found examples from the seventies and the teens, so it demonstrates a low-grade persistence. Occasionally, it can even mean “intuitive to use,” as in a smartphone feeling natural under one’s fingers. As far as I can tell, the phrase has nothing to do with “touchy,” meaning irritable or easily offended. Older expressions that may have exercised influence are “namby-pamby” and “lovey-dovey.” A newer one that is used in similar ways is “warm-fuzzy.” (Thanks, Liz!)

The reigning meaning of “touchy-feely” mutated, or grew, rather quickly. By 1980, it was already possible to use it much more loosely to talk about all kinds of human interaction, not just tactile. Anyone who tried to get a group to work, play, or learn together effectively by getting to know each other (or themselves) or talking about feelings rated the term. To this day, it is used to talk about the unquantifiable, the impressionistic, the emotional. Even when “touchy-feely” doesn’t mean touch, it always means feelings.

The expression is generally used with derision, which may be veiled or unconcealed. The state of being “touchy-feely” is the antipode of rigor and analysis, so it is unscientific and its benefits are therefore considered unprovable. But it is also opposed to machismo. Real men do not drag emotions into the conversation, or base their actions on them (which is just as well, because when they do, they tend to turn violent). It is also opposed to law and order; cops and prison guards reserve special venom for those who advocate anything other than forcible and remorseless crackdowns on criminals. The range of people who use the phrase with a sneer is wide: engineers, computer geeks, physicians, businessmen, law enforcement, political conservatives, real men from all walks of life. At its broadest, it becomes a synonym for vague, impractical, effeminate, soft, or weak. Even when it is used jocularly, an undertone of scorn is usually there. When tough-minded executives use the term, they do so to dismiss anything unrelated to the bottom line, and the phrase connotes employees paying too much attention to themselves and not enough to the welfare of the company. The work done, and even the employees themselves, have a dollars-and-cents value, and anything that suggests that they might have other kinds of value, to each other or to the organization, is brushed aside. In extreme cases, human warmth of any kind, even in the briefest manifestations, is considered detrimental to profits.

“Touchy-feely” has come to stand for a wide range of attitudes, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world. In that respect it resembles another sixties word, “holistic,” but it has fewer defenders. You don’t use this term when you’re talking about making the office more productive by creating a collegial and friendly atmosphere, except perhaps with a tone of rueful irony.

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play well with others

(1990’s | academese (education) | “cooperate (be cooperative),” “get along well,” “work well with others”)

This expression got my attention when Allan Gurganus published his similarly titled novel in 1997. LexisNexis shows pretty clearly that the phrase, while going back a couple of decades in educational parlance and even political reporting, hadn’t been widespread for more than a few years. In the early nineties, it started popping up in a variety of sources, notably computer magazines and arts writing. In 1982, political columnist Richard Cohen attributed the phrase — in its expanded form “work and play well with others” — to the “education biz.” (In case you were wondering, he was referring to Muammar Gaddafi and using the phrase in the negative, as it so often is.) Cohen was an early adopter, but it turned up occasionally in political journalism throughout the 1980’s. There is little doubt that the expression goes back to that American scholarly institution, the report card. It’s one of the criteria used to evaluate how well small children deal with other kids, so that the self-centered, sulky, or withdrawn ones might be spotted early. With adults, the phrase takes on a more general coloring, so that it denotes someone who is easy to work with, affable, unselfish, responsible, and able to contribute to group efforts, light or serious, without making the rest wish he or she hadn’t. Playing well with others requires good interpersonal skills, to use a term of the same vintage. If you’re not good at those things, then you don’t play well with others. You may be any of a thousand things, but you are always difficult. Prickly, idiosyncratic, egotistical, sullen, whatever — failing to play well with others never connotes commendable individualism. It’s all about orneriness.

A slightly older word for such a person is “team player,” the same verb used in more of an athletic and less of an educational context. Before that, you might have said that a person “pulled her weight,” or that he was a “good scout,” though that was a more general compliment. The phrase has for years frequently been used in businese, most often in articles about how to keep your employees happy, or just how to keep your employees. I’m not sure when or why we started using “play” to talk about what used to be known as work. Elementary irony aside, the shift takes advantage of the original connotation of “play well with others.” Like “on task,” its origins in teachers’ dialect forced on it a patronizing character even after it came into general use. Particularly when used in the negative, the phrase tends to sound snarky, and there is often more than a hint that the target is not just unreasonable, but downright childish. On the other hand, when used unadorned, it seems to have shed most of that tinge by now. By and large, “plays well with others” has evolved into a compliment. The negation has retained its original patronizing inflection, but the affirmative has lost it and become positive over time. At least that’s how I hear it.

You would think the phrase “play well with others” would fall naturally from the lips of musicians, and occasionally you run across a book about ensemble playing or being a good accompanist that uses it in the title. But it still has the air of a play on words rather than a straightforward, literal phrase.

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