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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: corporate culture


(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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