Monday, August 27, 2007

August 27: New Words From the Workplace Day

On this date in 1984, a new word appeared in an article entitled "The New Baby Boom" published in the Washington Post. The word was flexplace, meaning a company policy that enables employees to work either at the office or from home (1).

Flexplace is just one example of the many neologisms, new words, that emerged and continue to emerge from the constantly evolving workplace. Flexplace is the offspring of an earlier neologism flextime (also flexitime) which appeared in print in 1972 to describe working conditions in which employees could vary their starting and finishing times as long as they worked the contracted number of hours in a week. As early as 1974 Economist magazine forcasted the technological explosion that would allow office staff to work from home. The word used here was telecommute: "As there is no logical reason why the cost of telecommunications should vary with distance, quite a lot of people by the late 1980s will telecommute daily to their London offices while living on a Pacific island if they want" (2).

The radical changes in the workplace over the last thirty years have spawned all manner of neologisms. A prime source for tracking these changes is the book and website called Word Spy. Founded by Paul McFedries, Word Spy searches out new words and phrases that have appeared in published sources multiple times. These neologisms are candidates for the dictionary. They won't all make it; nevertheless, these linguistic new kids on the block have their moment in the sun, used by people trying to communicate with each other in clear and concise ways about emerging ideas and new trends. In the book Word Spy, McFedries uses an excellent analogy to describe the volatile nature of the English language:

I view language not a solid mountain to be admired from afar, but rather an active volcano to be studied up close. This volcano is constantly spewing out new words and phrases; some of them are mere ash and smoke that are blown away by the winds; others are linguistic lava that slides down the volcano and eventually hardens as a permanent part of the language. But although volcanoes have periods of intense activity followed by periods of inactivity, word creation never stops (3).

Today's Challenge: Words at Work

The 8 words below are workplace neologisms being watched by Word Spy. See if you can match up the term with its definition.

modem cowboy/cowgirl

hot desk

corporate concierge


touchdown center

virtual manager

to office


1. noun. An employee whose job entails performing the personal tasks—such as making dinner reservations and taking in dry cleaning—of other employees who have no time to do these things themselves.

2. verb. To perform office-related tasks, such as photocopying and faxing.

3. present participle. An office setup in which mobile workers do not have permanent desks or cubicles and so must reserve a workspace when they come into the office.

4. noun. A person who lives and works out of a home located in the country.

5. noun. A desk that is not assigned to a particular employee, but rather is available for use and can be reserved in advance by a mobile worker whenever they are required to be in the office.

6. noun. A facility where business travelers can make calls, plug in their notebook computers, and connect to the Internet.

7. present participle. Designing a building or area to make it more attractive to and compatible with the people who use it.

8. noun A manager who directs employees from a remote location such as home or a central office.

Quote of the Day: The rapidity with which new verbs are made in the United States is really quite amazing. Two days after the first regulations of the Food Administration were announced, "to hooverize" appeared spontaneously in scores of newspapers, and a week later it was employed without any visible sense of its novelty in the debates of Congress. —H. L. Mencken

Answers: 1. corporate concierge 2. to office 3. hotelling 4. modem cowboy/cowgirl 5. hot desk 6. touchdown center 7. placemaking 8. virtual manager


2. Ayto, John. Twentieth Century Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press,1999.

3. Paul McFedries. Word Spy: The Word Lover's Guide to Modern Culture. New York: Broadway Books, 2004.

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