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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: corporate culture

death spiral

(1980’s | financese (from athletese) | “vicious circle,” “irrevocable decline”)

“Death spiral” is a noun, but as we use it today it is influenced by the verb “to spiral,” as in “spiral out of control.” However auspicious a spiral may be for the quarterback, in most contexts it portends widening disaster, an ever-growing series of calamities, each fed by the one before. I can’t be the only one who hears an echo of Yeats’s “The Second Coming”: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre . . . Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” But maybe I am the only one that finds a resemblance between “death spiral” and “perfect storm.”

In its classic form, the death spiral denotes a financial situation in which the seller faces declining revenues and responds by raising prices. Thereupon even fewer people buy the product or service, leading to untenable losses. The first industry in which commentators adopted the expression consistently was utilities, especially electricity. Now we’re most accustomed to hearing the phrase with reference to the health insurance marketplace; that usage was common long before the Affordable Care Act. In the eighties it appeared in in non-financial contexts, but even today buying and selling still provide the most fertile ground. By now it has spread; I’ve come across references within the past year in articles about opiate addiction, declining sperm counts, Venezuela, etc.

There’s another, more specific, financial use that denotes a particular type of corporate raiding: an equity firm buys into (or lends money to) a small publicly owned company, agrees to lend or invest more provided the stock price doesn’t go below a certain level, then drives the stock price down by selling large blocks of shares — robbing the company of its assets and forcing it into bankruptcy while walking away with a profit. (Ain’t capitalism grand? This is an example of what I call vulture capitalism, except vultures don’t kill their prey first.)

For all that “death spiral” conjures up disaster and political gamesmanship, the expression comes originally from ice skating, not aviation, as I had guessed, though it describes airborne maneuvers occasionally. (How it made the leap from skating jargon to the business world I don’t know.) It denotes a move in pairs skating, where the woman holds her partner’s hand as she circles him, one leg in the air, bent all the while at the waist so that her upper body is parallel to the ice. When well-executed, it’s breathtaking. The “death” part has to do with sheer riskiness, as far as I know, but anyone who knows anything about ice skating — or high finance — is invited to jump in here.

I am indebted to lovely Liz from Queens for providing another expression for the blog. Inspired, as always.


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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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(1980’s | academese (economics) | “cautious”)

This expression carries a couple of odd dichotomies considering how straightforward it appears. The most obvious pertains to that which it modifies; either persons or corporate bodies — whatever the Supreme Court says, they’re not the same — may be risk-averse, though presumably the risk-aversion of a corporation is ultimately traceable to individuals, whether executives or independent shareholders. More interesting is the fact that risk-averseness may proceed from two entirely different kinds of experience. A conservative corporate board avoids sudden shifts and grand initiatives because they feel prosperous; there’s no incentive to rock the boat. Yet it is a tenet of pop psychology that those who have lived through times of deprivation are suspicious of all but the safest investments, and, in extreme cases, may refuse even to keep their money in banks. (Both sides have in common assets to protect; if you have nothing to lose, there’s no point in being risk-averse.) But then there’s an absent dichotomy that one might naively expect to find in an expression beloved of bankers: the distinction between sensible risk likely to pay off and a crazy scheme. The risk-averse will stay away from both, desiring only the steadiest and safest.

The expression comes out of the discipline of economics and was most used originally in finance, starting in the sixties and becoming commonplace by the eighties. Soon it came to be used often of politicians and lawyers. Among corporations, insurance companies attract it the most; their risk-aversity comes from a visceral understanding of actuarial tables. Yet any stodgy company merits the term. Slowly but surely over time, it has spread into other kinds of prose, with movie reviewers and even the odd sportswriter resorting to it nowadays. More kinds of writers use it to describe more kinds of people — it’s not just for stockholders any more. The point of the compound seems to be neutrality; it strives to avoid any imputation of prudence or cowardice, and largely does, as far as I can tell.

In a previous post I remarked on the curse of capitalism — if one guy works harder, everyone has to work harder — and risk-aversitude bears the seeds of a different manifestation of it. In competitive markets, each company watches the innovations of others like a hawk. When they succeed, the other competitors follow; when they fail, everyone else drops plans to do something similar. Television works this way, though maybe less so now, when there are so many networks (an obsolete word, I know). Any change — introducing a new character into a popular series, or a new show about a controversial subject — carries with it a chance that your audience will flee in terror. But if it pays off, your competitors take note and resolve to do the same damn thing, backed up by shareholders who noticed that it made big profits for the other guy. Within a season or two, everyone is sick of the no-longer new gambit, and most of the imitators have made no headway. Whereupon they lose advertisers, another risk-averse group famously shy of causing offense, taking the money and running at the first sign of any immoral or objectionable acts that might result in lost market share. (Bill O’Reilly is only the latest in a very long line of such embarrassments.) Sometimes, what looks safe turns out to be dangerous. Risk avoidance, like any other strategy, is subject to misuse born of misunderstanding or bad timing, whether by the humblest investor or the loftiest board of directors.

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skill set

(1990’s | computerese | “skills,” “what one is good at,” “profile”)

The first question I asked myself about this term was whether it pertains to a person or a job. You see it used either way, which is fitting because a skill set is really what we would now call an interface between a person and a job. The earliest uses I found more often associated it with a person, but always in an occupational context. That made it hard to separate the individual from the position, as when you talk about “the skill set a manager needs.” But “skill set” was never quite as restrictive as “qualifications.” A skill set generally includes at least a few talents extraneous to a given line of work, but “qualifications” covers only those skills useful for the job.

Taking a skill set as characteristic of a person permits a synecdoche that I have seen a few times on the sports page recently, as in a baseball GM looking for “the right skill set” or “a specific skill set.” That is, a player who does a few specialized things very well, or who gives the team an advantage in certain situations. Often, the implication is that the player has only these skills or is useful only in these situations.

The interesting question semantically is whether the term is singular or plural. (I’m not talking about how it’s construed grammatically.) Does each person have one skill set, which comprises all their useful characteristics, or do people have several skill sets, applicable to different situations, that comprise complexes of selected skills? If you see the term as applied to persons, then the former will make more sense; if you see it as characteristic of a job or task, you’ll favor the latter. You might have an employee versatile enough to write reports, keep books, and maintain the network. Does that person have multiple skill sets? My sense is that she does. Although you will see the word used as if it means “all one’s skills considered as a group,” that sense is less ordinary and easy.

Computer-industry executives provided the first examples I found in LexisNexis, from around 1985. There are a few examples in Google Books before 1980, as a technical term in statistics, but it denotes an abstractly considered set of skills rather than referring to a group of abilities characteristic of a particular person or group of people. We will never know who invented this term. It’s not striking or provocative, and there’s no rush to take credit for it, or to trace it back to some celebrity or other. It’s a humble, anyone-could-have-thought-of-it coinage, representing a modest inflation from the old word for it, “skills” (as in “O.k., what are your skills?”), which is mostly what it has replaced. Like a lot of expressions we didn’t need, it has carved out a place for itself.


(1980’s | businese? | “interested party,” “participant”)

This word goes back a long way in legalese, denoting a neutral party who holds money pending the resolution of a dispute. The way we use it now, its sense has pivoted 180 degrees to “anyone with an interest in any institution or policy” — the opposite of a neutral party. I can’t say for sure that today’s usage can be traced directly back to the legal term, though; maybe it’s a simple back formation from the idea of a “stake” as a significant interest. If the progress of a company, or a school system, or a neighborhood really matters to you, you hold a stake.

The word as we know it came along circa 1980 among bankers and executives as a way of including more people, or at least pretending to include more people, in working out a bank’s or company’s plans. A local manufacturer would make a point of consulting stakeholders — distinct from stockholders — so employees, customers, suppliers, and the community at large all could have a say. The point was to give voice to someone besides the usual heavyweights, to include the people who may not have a direct financial interest but do have something riding on the decisions made by the company. In many cases, no doubt, appeals to stakeholders were intended to keep them from interfering with the shareholders by acknowledging their grievances and throwing them an occasional bone.

Now “the stakeholders” is more or less synonymous with “everyone involved.” The word has fanned out: financial writers distinguish between internal and external stakeholders, and stakeholder relations has taken its place as a subfield of public relations. Our society being as interconnected as it is, you can come up with a long list of stakeholders for any venture. Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) recently provided the following list for “Prescription Drug Take Back Day”: the Collaborating and Acting Responsibly to Ensure Safety (C.A.R.E.S.) Alliance, the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators, the American Society of Pain Management, Project Lazarus, Walgreens, and the Palm Springs Police Department. That about covers the ground, don’t you think? So many stakeholders, so little time.

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