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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: negotiation

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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(1980’s | businese? | “mutually advantageous,” “everybody gets a piece of the pie,” “everybody’s happy,” “best of both worlds”)

“Win-win,” now commonly used as a noun but originally an adjective, rose up within the art and science of negotiation, whether in discussions of pre-divorce mediation, collective bargaining, sales, or politics. Everyone gets something; no one goes away mad. At first it pertained only to adversarial situations; originally the term was conventionally opposed to “win-lose,” where one party bests (or even humiliates) the other. Rare in 1980, by 1990 it was used frequently in almost any situation where all concerned are at least vaguely satisfied, whether as a result of negotiation or not. “Win-win” could be spelled with a comma or a virgule, but to me it looks most normal with a hyphen. Although the meaning has remained pretty stable over thirty years, I found an interesting variant from the early days in an article on the cable industry. Communications Daily in 1984: “Many remain confident that [the cable] industry is . . . in a ‘win, win’ situation” regardless of whether a piece of legislation passed or not. Not “everyone wins,” but “I win either way.” That seems just as plausible, and just as sensible, as the accepted sense.

A book called “Getting to Yes” was published in 1981. Written by a couple of Harvard eggheads, it proved a very popular and durable guide to negotiation — the third edition was published less than five years ago. I haven’t determined if “win-win” actually appeared anywhere in the first edition, but the spirit of the thing breathed from every page. The authors emphasized resolving conflicts to mutual advantage whenever possible. Keep your cool, think about how the issues look from your adversary’s point of view, and look for answers that offer something to both sides. By 1984, the nation’s first master’s program in conflict intervention was established at George Mason University. This had to do with settling violent international disputes, rather than the smaller-scale conflicts that “win-win” usually covers — not that it couldn’t refer to the resolution of a war or comparable conflict. But regardless of the magnitude of the stage, this kind of negotiation embraces the principle that the purpose of bargaining is not that one combatant grind the other into the dirt.

This expression lends itself to a particular unsavory use due to its optimistic, reassuring character. It is often used by spokespersons for powerful corporations or the government to describe a policy change, regulatory effort, or private-public partnership. They trot out “win-win” in order to convince us that we all benefit as much as the massive impersonal institution benefits. Most of the time, that means we get a bone thrown to us that doesn’t cost the institution anything, while the institution gets just about everything it wants in return, no matter how harmful or costly the results. Just another straightforwardly Orwellian (and highly effective) misuse of the language. Not all wins are created equal, and you have to look very closely when a powerful organization invites you to accept its version of the new state of affairs.

A further note on origins: The first director of the conflict resolution program at George Mason (now known as S-CAR), a psychiatrist named Dr. Bryant Wedge, was also the first person recorded using “win-win” in LexisNexis, five years earlier. Perhaps the unheralded Dr. Wedge, an important advocate for peaceful resolution of disputes, deserves some credit for the popularity of this expression.

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grand bargain

(1990’s | governese (diplomacy))

The grand bargain is the safety net that will keep us from driving over the fiscal cliff. Got that? The latest outcropping of this phrase forms a sizable ledge extending from the dreaded cliff, as Obama persistently expresses optimism that a grand bargain will be struck and the Defense Department will be spared the indignity of spending cuts.

This phrase sounds like it ought to go back a century or more, like “great game,” but I believe it arose in the mid-80’s, in the narrow context of arms-reduction talks with the Soviet Union. (The first usage I found on LexisNexis occurred in James Reston’s column in the New York Times, April 8, 1984, albeit in a different context.) The grand bargain had to do with the Russians reducing missile stockpiles, so that the U.S., in exchange, would curtail SDI (the “Star Wars” missile defense system). Such brinkmanship led to the near-abolition of the nuclear arms race in 1986, according to one version of the story, before cooler heads prevailed. The phrase reared its head again in 1991, around the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the “grand bargain” had more to do with the U.S. getting its hooks into some USSR raw materials and other assets, plus a healthy share of the banking system. After that, the expression began to spread in earnest and soon became well-established.

It seems to mean one of two things. A “grand bargain” can be either a wide-ranging agreement that covers all or nearly all the important matters under discussion between (or among) the parties, or it can mean an agreement that gives each party something important that it wants. The more parties involved, the grander the bargain. Or a grand bargain can form between two parties, but it has to be momentous. Any successful agreement has to address all concerned, of course, so in a way it’s apodictic to use it to mean merely “something for everyone,” but in this very early example from 1978 the sense is unambiguous: “In other words the ground was cleared for a grand bargain in which everyone might obtain some desired object” (Martin Pugh, “Electoral reform in war and peace, 1906-18” (Routledge, 1978), p. 77). Wherever the term originates, it doesn’t go back much farther than that. But I can’t ignore a much earlier instance in Life magazine (January 4, 1954): “There is one other reason why the U.S. tariff belongs at the center of the grand bargain we hope to strike [with Europe]. Apart from money, it is the only major weapon we have left.” Doesn’t talk of tariffs sound quaint?

In the olden days, the phrase popped up occasionally as a way to say “getting a lot for one’s money” or “great deal,” and it probably still does. But when we hear it now we think of diplomacy or politics before anything else.

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deal breaker

(1990’s | legalese?, businese? | “unacceptable proposition,” “land mine,” “matter of principle,” “line in the sand”)

A term that came into use among lawyers and businessmen in the 1970’s and was firmly established in the vocabulary of negotiation by 1990. In early usage, it was generally confined to the fields of business, politics, or diplomacy — where negotiation is the only way things get done. In its most general sense, “deal breaker” means “that which causes negotiations to break off.” When writers felt a need to gloss the term in the early days, they usually paired it with an adjective, “non-negotiable.” The main question was whether it was a matter of honest principle or an impossible demand designed to undermine negotiations.

Nowadays the expression has fanned out much more widely, appearing in many fields that have little or nothing to do with negotiation. With respect to relationships, we use it to describe the qualities that make another person unfit to be a lover or spouse. In another vein, here’s a nice recent example from “. . . I’m wary of certain ingredients. While not deal breakers, items containing high fructose corn syrup, chemical dyes, and trans fats are not things I want [in] my pantry.” There’s no question of negotiation; “deal breaker” is used simply to mean “that which is unacceptable.” (True, if you don’t make the purchase, the deal is canceled, so the phrase retains a literal plausibility.) Of course, it’s still very common in commercial contexts; the blog covers the “personalities and culture that shape the financial industry.” It remains a staple of political discourse, but even there, the newer, more general meaning creeps in, as in this example from the blog The Moderate Voice (June 15, 2012): “Both Reagan and Bush and for that matter even Barry Goldwater would be accused of violating a number of litmus tests currently considered deal-breakers by conservatives.” Here again, the “deal breaker” is simply what makes the candidate unacceptable.

This is one of those expressions, like “no-brainer,” where some arguably more plausible meanings have been passed over. Here are two candidates: “one who goes back on his word” and “one who breaks up a deal (as a regulator, judge, etc.).” One finds in Google Books examples of both senses, but “sporadic” is too kind a word for frequency of such uses. If you want to get intuitive about it, it makes as much sense to call a person a deal breaker as a principle or negotiating point, probably more. Yet there was never even a minor groundswell for either meaning; certainly no one would hear the phrase to mean either of those things now.

game changer

(2000’s | athletese | “watershed,” “step up,” “leap forward”)

Before 1995, if you saw this phrase at all, it was probably in sports journalism. Noted sportswriter Thomas Boswell used it in 1982 to refer to a decisive two-run triple struck by Ken Singleton of the Baltimore Orioles, which was by far the earliest instance I found on LexisNexis. After 1995, business people and marketers began using the term, presumably drawn direct from athletese. Now the term is used comfortably nearly anywhere, in politics and even in arts journalism. (The New Republic cited it as a favorite expression of George W. Bush in 2004.) It’s used about products a lot, especially among marketers of computers and handheld devices, but humble Clorox used it about a new toilet cleaner in a 2004 ad campaign. We once used verb phrases to get the point across: “takes to another level” or “kicks into a higher gear” or “adds a new dimension.”

Among athletes and sportswriters, a “game changer” could be a play or referee’s call or other event, but could just as well be a player. It was not unusual for a scout to refer to a young player as a “game changer”: somebody who can turn a game around single-handed. Also called an “impact player.” You still hear that in sports talk, but businese discarded the idea of a person being a game changer. A decision, a product line, a strategy, an innovation — always an object or event. Maybe that’s just because in the corporate world, there’s never just one person responsible for the next big thing.

A “game changer” can change the game itself — the rules, how the score is kept, etc. — but it can also change the conditions under which the game is played — not just the rules but the playing field. When Apple announces a new product and it’s called a game changer, that’s closer to what it means. A successful new product forces competitors to adopt the new features and promise even better results on the landscape created by the new product. The iPad isn’t just a more portable or versatile device that makes it easier to do the same old things; it changes the meaning of the internet. Or so Apple would have you believe.

For the moment, both “deal breaker” and “game changer” remain commonly spelled as two words and are less often hyphenated or given as a single word. If they make the usual, but not invariable, metamorphosis to single words, they will join the ranks of nouns without corresponding verbs, like “whistleblower.” One minor oddity: “game-changing” has entered the language as an adjective, but not “deal-breaking.”

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(late 1980’s | academese? | “mediator,” “coordinator,” “therapist,” “promoter,” “go-between,” “accomplice,” “coach,” “trainer”)

This rather awful word has burgeoned in the last thirty years; not content with holding its own, it has engorged many other words, harvesting an impressive crop of synonyms. Somehow such a lumpy, slow-moving word became all things to all people, turning up more and more often in more and more places. There’s nothing new about it; the first citation in the OED dates from 1824 (“facilitate” starts cropping up much earlier, in the seventeenth century). The three nineteenth-century citations all use the word to refer to a thing, not a person — a usage that has all but disappeared.

By 1980 or so, the word was already in wide circulation, used in scientific, educational, psychological, industrial, and legal contexts. In normal usage, a facilitator had the following characteristics:

1. figures out how to make a process or discussion go smoothly

2. comes from the outside; not generally part of the group

3. neutral; fair and respectful to all parties

4. especially in business and education: not there to run or manage the group, but to make suggestions and help those who hired you meet a goal or reach a decision (therefore sensitive, flexible).

Synonyms were things like moderator, instructor, guide, catalyst. (The last both literal and figurative: scientists used the word to mean an agent that helps speed up a chemical reaction, but educators and industrial analysts discussed facilitators in the same way: people you hire to help you work together and find the right answer.) In political science, the word was paired with “resister”; I confess I’m a little vague on the precise parameters of this opposition, which for all I know is still current. It’s hard to tell where the term first arose in its modern senses. If Google Books is anything to go by — in this case, I’m not sure it is — by the end of the 1970’s the word was probably most common in the education/psychotherapy ghetto, but it may come ultimately from science or industry.

The word seems far more apt to spring to our lips in 2010 than it was in 1980, not that it was all that rare back then. It has become an easy replacement for “mediator” in news stories about contract negotiations. (A propos, the word is sometimes used to mean “go-between.”) In legalese, it means “henchman” (already charmingly archaic) or “accomplice” (getting there), sometimes specifically in the context of sting operations, where a government agent aiding and abetting a would-be criminal might be called a “facilitator.” Or you can use it in a nice way to refer to someone who encourages or promotes good behavior, as in “Teachers should view themselves as friendship facilitators” (Early Childhood Report, November 1, 2011). In therapy, it sounds a lot like “trainer” or “coach” — sure, you’ve heard of life coaches, but are you ready for “life facilitators”? From this month’s headlines, Occupy Wall Street has adopted the term to emphasize its leaderless character. This particular nuance was already around in the 1960’s (see no. 4 above).

Follett’s Modern Usage is very good, in a dismissive sort of way, on this word. I do not deny that it qualifies as jargon — it’s damp as only therapese and academese can be — and deserves that smoldering stare and curled lip from guardians of plain English, but “facilitate” is quite an old word and facilitator is hardly an unlikely excrescence. Why so popular now? Maybe it’s because Latinate, technical-sounding words borrowed from the sciences, hard or soft, sound less loaded and seem safer to use in any sort of mixed company. We’ve had to work harder in the last fifty years to find words that don’t raise hackles or hurt feelings, as we have come to admit more comfortably and more often that civil society is damaged when some groups are allowed to call other groups names and dismiss them out of hand.

Amid the avalanche of new synonyms for “facilitator,” a small voice reminds us that at bottom, the word hasn’t changed much. For two hundred years it has meant something that makes things easier. Now it denotes a person, not a thing, but otherwise the sense is the same. A secondary sense has emerged: an unselfish person who stays in the background but makes others more successful. This use is common in sportswriting, particularly in descriptions of point guards. But the primary sense of making something easier has not only thrived, but spread and spread and spread into fresh fields and jargons new.

Months ago, my old bud Prydwyn fed me this word, and he has probably gotten tired of waiting by now. Sorry it took so long. Shine on, you crazy diamond!

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