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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: corporations


(1980’s | bureaucratese? legalese? financese? | “recoup,” “recover”)

No longer the sole property of sportswriters, this noun-verb complex has invaded the financial pages and legal journals in force. When I was young, you clawed your way back into a contest through determination and effort, not quitting until the game was on the line and you had a chance to win. It didn’t have to be a single game; it could happen over course of a season, as in a baseball team clawing its way back into the pennant race. It might be used in the context of an individual sport like tennis or golf, but I think it more often went with team sports. In the business world, you might claw your way to the top, but you don’t claw back your way to the top — though you might claw your way back to the top. There’s something ruthless about clawing when people do it; it requires unreasoning vigor, like a jungle cat, blindly fighting its way forward as long as it can move.

In the late seventies, the U.S. began imposing treble (i.e., threefold) damages on defendants who lost certain kinds of civil suits. The U.K. responded by passing a law of their own that gave a British person or corporation the right to recover the portion of the total damages that was not actually compensatory (in other words, the part that was multiplied on after actual damages were awarded). In both the British and American press, this was widely referred to as a “clawback provision.” The expression was much more common in the British, Canadian, and Australian press for at least a decade thereafter, and it is indubitably a Briticism.

My impression was that the expression refers mainly to something governments do, as in the Bernie Madoff case, but a corporation can do it, too; take Wells Fargo’s repossession of stock from disgraced executives in the wake of a banking scandal. I suppose that a business partner could claw back money that another partner had misused, but for the most part it seems to be something an institution does. Clawbacks normally occur when assets have been stolen or used illegitimately; when you hear the word, you can be pretty sure that there was some funny business that has been found out, and a governing body, private or public, is doing something about it. (That isn’t always true; for example, when the British government was privatizing public industries in the eighties, they decreed that a certain number of shares had to be available to British investors. In some cases, that meant “clawing back” shares bought by foreigners to make sure enough shares were available.) The government generally needs some kind of judicial ruling, but a corporation needs no more than the approval of the directors.

In truth, the new expression here is “clawback” (n.) since “claw back” (v.) has been a permissible construction for a long time. (As we saw above, “clawback” also serves as an adjective. I hope I am cold in my grave before “clawbackly” becomes standard English.) But its present sense seems to have arisen around the same time, and I wouldn’t want to state with certainty that one preceded the other, though I would guess the verb came first. It has never left legal and political contexts, or spread outward from them. Law and justice must have their own language.

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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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feeding frenzy

(1980’s | businese?, journalese? | “pigs at the trough,” “every man for himself,” “swarm (of . . .),” “melee”)

This expression had to learn to stand on its own in order to take its place in our vocabulary. It was quite possible in 1980 to use it as part of a simile, almost always juxtaposed with the noble shark. “Feeding frenzy” seems to have been invented after midcentury to describe the way hungry sharks eat; the first citation in the OED dates from 1960. The first citation I found in LexisNexis that dispensed with the sharks occurred in 1981, in the context of corporate mergers. Within a few years, it had come to be applied to lots of other things: the press, government officials, greedy litigants, or investors, for example. (Nowadays it may often evoke criminals or consumers.) It’s my sense that the merger mania of the eighties did more than any other cultural excrescence to propel “feeding frenzy” into prominence. Now the phrase most commonly refers to the press, especially the entertainment press, as in “tabloid feeding frenzy.” We have no trouble envisioning mobs of desperate reporters and photographers competing for the smallest scraps of sensation. But it’s also used to talk about political reporting, at least partly as a result of political scientist Larry Sabato’s 1991 book, “Feeding Frenzy: Attack Journalism and American Politics.” And then, surprise! sometimes it just refers to a lot of people stuffing their faces, as at a barbecue or banquet.

Metaphorically (for now we switch from simile to metaphor), “feeding frenzy” denotes a group of people competing in aggressive or violent ways. The violence may be wholly figurative, and it may be real, as when newshounds or shoppers jostle each other. Feeding frenzies usually arise suddenly and end soon, but always in relative terms — the feeding frenzy following Lindsay Lohan lasts until she can duck into a car, but dueling corporations can keep it up for months.

One highly mutable aspect of this term: when does it have an edge of contempt? When corporate executives snap up profitable firms, it doesn’t seem to bother anyone very much, but when paparazzi hound Princess Diana, the sneer is clear. For profit-minded executives, or consumers on Black Friday, the feeding frenzy is the norm, nay, commendable. On the other hand, some of us cling quaintly to the notion that unchecked intrusion into celebrities’ private business is not a worthy occupation. The expression may call to mind indiscriminate acquisition (especially when referring to wealthy collectors at tony auction houses), crude gorging, or even bestial cruelty. But it may also suggest fierce competition, which we generally celebrate, at least in the abstract. Most of the time, “feeding frenzy” bears at least a touch of scorn, but you have to watch the context. It’s not always there.

Who remembers John DeLorean? His lawyer in 1983 called prosecutors’ pursuit of his client a “feeding frenzy,” but with a twist. He used the image of sharks surrounding a wounded creature, eager to tear it to pieces. Why isn’t this idea more common? Sharks go ape at the scent of blood, right? We’ve all learned from a hundred disaster movies that the minute a drop of blood hits the water, the sharks close in. Real life has something to say about it, of course: Executives prefer to go after a healthy corporation to a hemorrhaging one, and the gutter press doesn’t wait until the movie star is down to start kicking. I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect such similes to hew too faithfully to their referents.

Back to the literal use at last. When we use the term “feeding frenzy,” it’s always aquatic animals, for some reason. Sharks, mainly, occasionally some kind of fish. Why? Rats, coyotes, and other land animals feed in voracious packs, but we don’t use the term in that context. Maybe sharks are just more evocative, or maybe “Jaws” was the most influential film ever, but this continues to seem strange to me.

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(1990’s | teenagese (African-American)? | “around the clock,” “always on or up,” “constantly,” “non-stop”)

I had assumed that this expression came out of stodgy corporatese, shortly after (perhaps even before) the ubiquity of ATM’s and all-night shopping or possibly the tech support call center, but now I think it’s more likely that it arose in African-American youth culture, especially rap. The earliest instance I found in LexisNexis, from 1993, came up in a glossary of rap terms printed in the Straits Times of Singapore. I didn’t do an exhaustive search, and it may have appeared earlier, but African-Americans do seem to have been early adopters. Actually, the first allusion may date from 1986: an all-black band named 24-7 Spyz. They were “known for mixing soul, funk, reggae, and R&B with heavy metal and hardcore punk” (Wikipedia), so they weren’t rappers. It’s not clear to me that “24-7” meant the same thing in the band name as it does now, but if it did it was ahead of its time. Hardly anyone uses the hyphen any more; the virgule has become standard, as if it were a fraction, but it isn’t. (I was bedeviled as a child by this brain-teaser: Where do you commonly see the fraction 24/31? The answer? On a calendar.) Fact is, the hyphen makes more sense, but history will not be denied.

Before our use of the expression crept into the language in the early nineties, you found numerous examples of this sequence of numbers, particularly in football scores and stock quotes, representing America’s favorite spectator sports. That made it more difficult than usual to figure out when this term really began to appear. By 2000, “24/7” was widely understood in hipper circles, and it didn’t generally require a gloss by then. Whether out of African-American culture or not, this is a phrase that bubbled up from below, definitely not forced down our throats by corporate headquarters or celebrity central. Early uses of the expression were typically ordinary people talking about their lives, not executives bragging about all-night grocery stores. Now the expression may be used metaphorically to indicate something closer to “full-time,” rather than “available at any moment, day or night, including holidays (as in “24/7/365”). Like many new terms, it has become less rigorous over time. Exclusively an adverb at first, its part of speech has drifted so that now it can serve almost as easily as an adjective.

There’s no doubt that commercial forces have latched onto “24/7,” which sounds like a descendant of 7-Eleven (the name dates back to 1946). America’s favorite convenience store was named for its sixteen-hour day, and the first 7-Eleven stayed open all night in 1963. Before then, the only places open all night were hospitals, cheap restaurants, and a few factories that employed multiple shifts. The idea that you should be able to order a hamburger or buy milk at any hour barely existed outside of major cities. You closed the store at a decent hour and went home to your family. Nobody worked on national holidays. And hardly anyone was expected to be reachable at any time. The pager and the cell phone made us subject to summonses from the office at all hours; the funny thing was, hardly anyone seemed to mind.

It’s tempting for everyone on the political spectrum to see such changes as due to declines in some moral value or another, but I’m more inclined to blame this one on the curse of capitalism. In its purest form, the curse of capitalism says, “If one guy works harder, everyone has to work harder. If one guy stays open late, everyone has to stay open late.” Etc. We always look at competition from the point of view of the consumer — and to be sure, competition benefits customers, at least up to a point (having too many choices becomes confusing and onerous). But from the other point of view, competition places every producer at the mercy of every other. Thousands of eyes on the main chance, endlessly scheming, out to make a buck and the rest of ‘em be damned. Every time one person or firm comes up with a profitable innovation — of any kind — everyone else has to match it, if not surpass it (this is particularly true if stockholders are involved). The exception would be an innovation that reduces the expenditure of time or capital, but even a true labor-saving device just opens up more time for work of other kinds. It doesn’t matter who first had the idea to staff a 24-hour hotline to help you fix your computer. If you want to start or stay in business, you have to offer it now.

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(2000’s | bureaucratese | “fast-track”)

New administrations bring new vocabulary with them, in the form of catch-phrases and more fundamental concepts. We got many new expressions from Reagan; Clinton had a few, Kennedy, Nixon . . . FDR was probably the champ. One way to judge a president is to measure the volume of enduring vocabulary he leaves behind. Obama gave us “shovel-ready,” which swung into the spotlight right after he took office. It has always been a word beloved of politicians and bureaucrats. The first usage in LexisNexis (1999) came from the fevered brain of a New Jersey state official. Governor Pataki of New York was an early adopter; indeed, the phrase seems to have had a definite Northeast origin. Most of the early uses I found (before 2005) came from New York, New Jersey, or New England. Obama certainly did not invent the term, as one writer speculated. At any rate, we all have to know what it means now, even though most of don’t use it much in everyday conversation. (Say, is that plot of land where the new bank’s gonna go shovel-ready yet?)

What it means: free of obstacles to construction or repair. The only thing left to do is start building that bank, a road, a senior center, a power plant. All regulations — zoning, environmental, etc. — have been satisfied, reports issued, utilities hooked up; all we need is some money and off we go. As Obama and many others have pointed out, it’s rarely that simple, and the scenario of money today, digging tomorrow doesn’t happen very often in real life. But it’s also true that some things are more nearly shovel-ready than others, and being able to tell them apart is very helpful when you want to put people to work in a hurry.

The word has not changed meaning in its short life, but it has seen a shift in emphasis. In the beginning, “shovel-ready” almost always referred to land. One pictured a piece of property just waiting for the right builder to come along. That’s still common, but now you’re more likely to hear about a “shovel-ready project,” and the first word that pops into your head is “infrastructure.” (It’s almost Pavlovian.) I think this shift is due to Obama, even if he didn’t create it personally. Roads, bridges, sewers, rail lines, etc. don’t go with specific parcels of land, and Obama tried to focus on them as a target of economic stimulus, not an illogical plan given the state of U.S. infrastructure and the number of people looking for jobs early in 2009. More recently, Republicans have seized on the term to champion the Keystone pipeline.

It is pointed out ad nauseam in the press that businesses looking to invest want to have everything laid out for them. Our governments’ preference for catering to commercial interests has not wavered over the centuries, and “shovel-ready” is but its latest manifestation. Let’s make it as easy as possible for companies who want to open up a plant or store here. Why all the solicitude? Why, businesses create jobs, of course! They do, but often not as many as trumpeted, and the jobs may or may not hang around. They are only part of the story, of course. Tax breaks come into being ex nihilo whenever a large company drops coquettish hints about moving to the area, and all kinds of other rules get bent as well. As a result, the company never has a stake in the community. Its only responsibility is accumulating as much profit as possible without any obligation to the locals beyond employing some of them, and even that part won’t get checked too closely. No respect for local rules or customs required, or even expected. You’d think the role of supplicant would be distasteful to our towns and counties, but hardly anyone seems to mind. It’s one more version of the race to the bottom. The local government that imposes the fewest conditions and shows the least regard for the public good wins.

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glass ceiling

(1990’s | journalese | “sex discrimination,” “no room at the top”)

An unusual expression in that it seems to have been invented, or at least brought to the world’s attention, at a specific, detectable moment. Or perhaps that is an illusion based on the superstition that LexisNexis is infallible. Every on-line source that ventures an opinion gives credit to a magazine editor named Gay Bryant, quoted in Adweek, March 1984. The phrase took off — according to LexisNexis — in the second half of 1986, with a sharp increase in incidences, including uses by Betty Friedan and Katharine Graham. A book titled “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” was published in 1987. By the early nineties the phrase was well settled. The speed with which it took its place in our vocabulary suggests a certain pent-up demand.

“Glass ceiling” has not changed much since then, other than to seek out groups other than women, like African-Americans. My sense is that it is still used far more often of women than of any other group. A glass ceiling is an unacknowledged barrier to advancement to the top levels of an organization. More specifically, it is the name for the attitudes and actions of male executives, who find ways to prevent women from advancing into the highest circles of management (I almost typed “hell” — but according to Dante, the worst circles of hell were the lowest). The image suggests women who are close enough to real power to see it, but unable to reach the goal. It’s transparent (i.e., unacknowledged), like glass, yet impenetrable, like a ceiling. You can see it, but you can’t get through it. In an earlier age, we might have referred to such women as “(left) out in the cold.”

Every so often when you study an expression, you find alternative meanings that saw print once or twice and quickly disappeared. Usually they are as plausible as the winning meaning — often more — and it is not always clear why they didn’t make it. I can’t resist noting two that I came across. The first, from American Banker, November 22, 1985: “The response from the regulators and the Congress was a greater degree of voyeurism, and you and I found ourselves with offices that had glass walls and a glass ceiling. . . . The Comptroller’s office went on a witch-hunt, and the next thing we knew, our office had a glass floor and they were looking up our pants legs.” The emphasis falls on transparency, not impassability. Working beneath a glass ceiling means there’s no place to hide and you can’t get away with anything. Less than a year later, once again in American Banker, the president of the National Association of Bank Women said, “We’re not seeing women move into the very executive levels any more [any more?! — ed.]. There seems to be a glass ceiling that’s there. I call it a glass ceiling because I think it’s a fragile one and that it is going to be shattered.” Another familiar kind of glass — the kind that breaks easily. In retrospect, her optimism seems unwarranted, but the way she uses the expression seems at least as satisfying as the one we accept today.

In the military, you may hear about the “brass ceiling” that keeps women out of the top ranks. In England, the “class ceiling” hinders the upwardly mobile who went to state schools. Maybe there are other imitators out there as well. When a woman does reach the inner sanctum, she may be said to “crack,” “break,” or “shatter” the glass ceiling. The problem is more pervasive, however. If one or two extraordinary women here and there get through, that doesn’t mean a path is cleared for everyone else. There will be a glass ceiling until it’s as normal and commonplace for women to take the levers of power as for men. As long as qualified and deserving women aren’t promoted at the same rate as men — and that ain’t changed — the glass ceiling remains as thick as ever.

Ever-flowing gratitude to my gorgeous girlfriend, who not only nominated the phrase but pointed out that another pre-1980’s equivalent was “gentlemen’s agreement.” Extremely apt, as always.

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