January 14, 2007

Fisk on downsizing

Robert Fisk is extremely well known as a foreign correspondent for The Independent who has lent his name to the English language as a verb. I don't know if he likes that neologism, but he apparently hates a lot of others. His column "This jargon disease is choking language" is a tired piece of same-old-same-old conservative rant about modern expressions. The words and phrases he hates seem to be from all over the map: psychotherapy and psychology ("bonding", "closure", "conflicted", "dysfunctional", "healing", "move on", "quality time", "stressed"), business management ("downsize", "excellence", "feedback", "input", "outside the box", "outsource"), military affairs ("spike", "surge"), feminism ("author" for "authoress", "actor" for "actress"), perceived political correctness ("Happy Holiday", "Estuary English"), or just general contemporary colloquial speech ("no-brainer", "cope"). It is hard to know what to say about this poor man who seems to hate a large number of the words and phrases that must surround him every day of his life. But let me make one small observation — just a speculation, really — about one of them: the verb downsize.

Fisk is careless about the crucial point: first he says that he finds it "repulsive" that people nowadays "downsize" the number of their employees; but then he says that "Downsizing" employees means firing them. But what is it that one downsizes: numbers, or people? Notice that he slides from one sense to the other.

Here's what I suspect may be the case: the verb downsize was originally created by management people as a one-word way of making reference to the complex matter of making a company smaller without (of course) intending to make its profits smaller. Downsizing involves cutting the number of sites to be maintained, vehicles to be run, divisions to be operated, departments to be staffed, salaries to be paid, and thousands of other things. A word like "shrinking" would not really capture it: you can shrink a company in many ways. A worker who goes berserk and shoots half a dozen workmates on the factory floor is not downsizing the operation. Downsizing is a controlled operation undertaken for benefit of a business, and capricious firing of people you don't like, neglect of the company so that it withers, or committing multiple murder of workmates does not count. The verb in this original sense definitely does not mean "fire" (British "sack"), because that does not even make sense when applied to a company or a set of numbers.

Downsize with a noun phrase denoting a human being as its logical object, as in I used to work for IBM but they downsized me or I was downsized, may well be a colloquial extension of the term created by employees rather than managers. I'm not at all sure that managers would ever talk about downsizing an idle secretary, or that top executives would discuss downsizing the chief financial officer.

The claim here is basically an empirical one: as I've said, I am offering a speculation, not the result of an inquiry. But I think that in his hasty condemnation of the verb downsize, Fisk slid from the original use to a popular extension of it, without realizing that it made what he said false: I suspect that in the "repulsive" usage of the managerial classes who talk about downsizing companies, downsize does not mean "fire". I suspect it is precisely the people who fell victim to the process by being laid off during a downsizing who coined the second meaning of the verb. Fisk has carelessly wandered from one lexicographical topic (managerial euphemisms) to another (semi-jocular popular appropriations of technical vocabulary).

Fisk exhibits a characteristic behavior of people who rant about language but are not really genuinely interested in it. Those of us who write for Language Log typically are interested, so we pay attention to the details. Yes, I've written rants aplenty myself; but my rants (here's a random example) usually involve fairly close attention to the details of the language I'm talking about, unless I'm just engaging in self-parodic frothing for humorous effect, which admittedly does sometimes happen. I don't think Fisk intends humorous self-parodic frothing. I think he regards his grumbles as serious. But I'm fairly sure that he will not be very interested in the distinction between word senses that I just drew. (For one thing, he has stated: "I don't use the Internet. I've never seen a blog in my life. I don't even use email"; so he has never really seen any serious fisking, and he will never even know that I wrote this.)

Update: Joseph Ruby tells me I am definitely wrong about business people's usage. He says: "Employers and managerial consultants do use the verb downsize as a euphemism for the verb fire — more accurately, for "lay off," as "fire" strictly speaking implies ending an employment relationship for cause." And he cites as an example this source for the following:

  • Downsizing or doing layoffs is a toxic solution. Used sparingly and with planning downsizing can be an organizational lifesaver, but when layoffs are used repeatedly without a thoughtful strategy, downsizing can destroy an organization's effectiveness. How you treat people really matters - to the people who leave and the people who remain.
  • One outcome of downsizing must be to preserve the organization's intellectual capital.
  • How downsized employees are treated directly affects the morale and retention of valued, high-performing employees who are not downsized.

I certainly agree, that does look like a clear managerial use of the new sense. However, see the further discussion, which tends to support what I said, by Mark Liberman in this post.

[Thanks to my dad for pointing out the Fisk column.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 14, 2007 06:21 PM