Keywords for the Age of Austerity 7: The Silo

In the Harvard Business Review—the online resource for businesspeople who like their platitudes burnished with a little crimson—one can read a blog post by Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at Dartmouth’s business school that begins fairly incomprehensibly, at least for me:

When we ask executives, What is the number one innovation killer at your company?, one of the first words we always hear, always, is “silos!” Recently, one executive even muttered, “fortresses.” … Innovation is the Trojan Horse that can be sent in to break down silos.

Elsewhere innovation is described as “the wheels on the Trojan Horse,” so clearly they don’t spend much time on metaphor at Dartmouth College’s School of Business. (Why a Trojan Horse anyway? Why all the stealth, Innovation?)

Unlike most of the other words in this series, the “silo” is a buzzword, a new coinage, often used to impress, that hasn’t widely penetrated the language of non-specialist media. According to the BYU Corpus of American English, the word still refers mostly to grain storage facilities and ballistic missile launchers.


A patch worn by the Air Force crews that manage remote nuclear misslle launch sites in the West. Silos are lonely and cold, hence the slippers. (via

In Govindarajan’s post, the “silo” is used in its business sense, as the implacable enemy the armies of “innovation” are raised against. The term describes the vertical organization of a particular department in a firm: the sales and technical support offices, for example, are “silos” if they fail to integrate with each other and communicate effectively. As we can already see from Govindarajan’s invocation of the organizing myth of “innovation,” in which “silo” takes its meaning, the term also takes on a broader ideological cast. That is, the idea of the “silo” describes not just a means of better organizing a bureaucracy but a logic that justifies and defends it, through the heroic, democratic, silo-busting figure of “the innovator.” 

And in business prose, you will find, silos are always “busted.” Thus Govindarajan’s Trojan War military metaphor, though confusing, wasn’t entirely misplaced. The combination of “silo” and “busting” is borrowed from the military: a “silo-buster” is “a missile which can destroy an enemy missile in its silo,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

As an author in the Arizona Republic’s business section explains:

A silo mentality can occur when a team or department shares common tasks but derives their power and status from their group. They are less likely to share resources or ideas with other groups or welcome suggestions as to how they might improve.

Silos, in other words, derive from employee groups that are insufficiently collaborative and overly autonomous. The author goes on, describing the role of the “silo-busting” manager:

If there are many rules, then she will manage employees very formally, ensuring those rules are followed and the culture is very orderly. If there are fewer rules, employees enjoy a flexible culture. The formal culture with strict rules is more likely to have the cultural problem of silos.

Here we have a contradiction inherent in the innovation/entrepreneur myth, which celebrates heroic individualism and fetishizes “team-building” and collaboration. On the one hand, those with a “silo mentality” are too isolated, and on the other hand they are insufficiently invidualistic. The silo-buster is a canny military officer; she is also a flexible “teammate.” Silos are disciplined; innovative workplaces are “nimble.”


The Silo Killer (2002): It’s Harvest Time

The silo is a metaphor that connotes secrecy and confinement, which makes missile silos popular settings for secret supervillain lairs in movies and video games. The silo’s isolation also summons the urbanite’s contempt for the untutored country bumpkin. Reflecting an impression of agriculture likely gleaned from the Interstate, the “silo” is outmoded and not “smart.” It’s a good example of what Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism,” the framing of social problems as technical or managerial ones, that can be fixed with new technologies or a more innovative “leader.” A popular use of “silo” in the political realm, for example, attributes the failures of the U.S. healthcare system not to patient access or the private insurance industry, but to the bureaucratic “silos” inside hospitals. In academia—where most of these corporate-driven keywords either originated or have since have found a happy home—“silos” are departments that are deemed too labor-intensive or that resist (or are seen to resist) “interdisciplinarity” or  “flexibility.” Russian departments: you are probably silos. Centers for Innovation and Entrepreneurship: you are probably not silos. 

Like “stakeholder,” the silo promotes an ideal of firms as horizontal, self-regulating organizations, organized by cooperation and voluntarism. As this clip from the UK version of The Office makes so painfully and hilariously clear, this bargain is a fantasy. One can’t to make a “flexible” culture in a hierarchical enterprise without, at some level, coercively ordering it, just as there is no “team” without a coach who writes the game plans, sets the roster, and mugs for the camera in the post-game interview. Here, the self-involved boss played by Ricky Gervais, who imagines himself a beloved silo-buster, commandeers an office “team-building” exercise to force his  artistic genius on his employees and a bewildered consultant.

Despite its incongruously agricultural reference, the silo reflects business rhetoric’s celebration of the military and the artist, its veneration of authoritarianism (Machiavelli is a popular “silo-busting” role model on business blogs) and a modernist ideal of artistic vision. Remember: those who fail to innovate shall be confined to the silo.




My “Austerity Economics is Like a Kick in the Groin: Robocop’s Lessons for Our Time,” in Guernica

My essay on Robocop and today’s Detroit is out in the new Guernica, with this amazing illustration by Tom of Finland.

My essay on Robocop and today’s Detroit is out in the new Guernica, with this amazing illustration by Tom of Finland.

Austerity Economics Is Like a Kick in the Groin by John Patrick Leary – Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics

Keywords for the Age of Austerity 6: The Conversation


Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, recently refused to address Haverford College’s 2014 graduation after students there criticized his leadership during Occupy protests in 2011, when UC police violently suppressed student demonstrators. His withdrawal from Haverford’s commencement—which he did on his own, without any pressure by the College—led some to accuse the students of violating academic values of free speech and open discourse.

There are, as Joel Whitney points out, few academic rituals more rigidly scripted and less “open” than the platitudinous commencement monologue. The fact that such a relatively mild protest should be beyond the pale for conservative and even liberal commentators says much about the intolerance of unsanctioned activism on campuses today. It says even more about the piety of those who would prefer to denounce the form, rather than have to address the content, of any oppositional political discourse.

The criticisms lobbed at the students have ranged from the sternly paternalistic to the ingratiatingly pious to the patently ridiculous. They all share an aversion to conflict and an enthusiasm for “dialogue,” “discourse,” and “conversation,” ideals they can never quite explain but which they are sure they hold dearer than any other—like, say, dissent, or freedom, or not being assaulted by campus police for protesting without permission. What austerity keywords have in common is a moral as well as economic meaning. That is, they all frame self-interested economic activities like consumption and accumulation as ethical virtues of cooperation and self-improvement. The responses to Haverford’s activists are evidence of just such an austerity virtue, one with deep roots in liberal discourse that has thrived in the era of Internet media and virtual (in every sense) politics: the Conversation.


Blogs, news sites, and other media employ the euphemism of “conversation” to refer to any managed interaction with viewers, readers, or listeners. What was once confined to the letters to the editor page is now channeled through social media and online comment-threads that simulate a casual exchange between peers—what most people would call a “conversation.” This usage cultivates the impression of either a carnivalesque free-for-all—as in Fox News personality Greta von Susteren’s GretaWire—or a sober, sophisticated chat about Important Issues, as when NPR implores listeners to “join the conversation” by sending Diane Rehm a tweet.

A Google image search of the phrase “join the conversation” yields pages of similar results that reminded me of two things: The Hairpin’s “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” and Art F City’s “Squiggles, Trees, Ribbons and Spirals: My Collection of Women’s Health, Beauty and Support Group Logos as the Stages of Life in Semi-Particular Order.” Like those two posts, which mocked marketers’ lazy condescension to female consumers, “Join the Conversation” calls up a familiar array of affirmative, brightly-colored images, unimaginative and forgettable by themselves. When viewed in a monotonous sequence, however, they provoke a mocking laughter of recognition tinged with an undercurrent of slowly increasing despair. Multiple speech bubbles bouncing happily into one another, jaunty quotation marks stacked in dynamic formations, and Twitter’s trademark light-blue bird seem cheerful enough.


Public male restroom-icon stick figures bound in a speech bubble seem harmless too, until you start imagining them all stuck there, forever, in an awkward chat by a crowded urinal.


You may then start to wonder why the conversers never have faces.



By this point “Join the conversation!” starts to sound bossily paternal, as if delivered to a sullen child through clenched teeth at an uncomfortable family function. The pictures reading “JOIN” and “HI” finally seem creepily invasive.




Treated metaphorically, as a model for consensus politics, the “conversation” sometimes summons an ideal of dispassionate scholarship. For example, see this handbook for graduate students that advises them to “join the conversation” at their scholarly association’s convention, where they will certainly get probing feedback and support. A literal “conversation”—as when you talk to another human—is at the least collegial, often friendly, and always direct, unmediated by social rank, power structures, or politics. It takes place between peers, at arm’s reach, just as the silhouettes figures do above. (A real-life conversation may, of course, be hostile or confrontational, but as an austerity virtue all conversations are happy ones.) Taken literally, therefore, a conversation has almost nothing in common with any individual’s actual relationship to any bureaucratic institution, much less the modern mass media and advertising industries. 

For this very reason, of course, the metaphorical “conversation” is particularly well suited to private and public mass media—television, radio, and their online equivalents—that must negotiate their audience’s fragmentation as well as their disaffection from the media itself. As a marketing term, “the conversation” seeks explicitly to counter people’s alienation from advertising by pretending it isn’t advertising: see, for example, Joseph Jaffe’s 2012 book, Join the Conversation: How to Engage Marketing-Weary Consumers With the Power of Community, Dialogue, and Partnership. “The conversation” here is a synonym for “marketing,” but a particular variety of marketing in which 1) the customer is doing much of the work for free and is 2) therefore doing it more profoundly. 

In the political sphere, the model of the “conversation” is the preferred rhetorical means by which race and racial injustice are loudly avoided. In the United States, “National conversations about race” have been proclaimed, demanded, and denounced at least since Bill Clinton’s use of the phrase in his 1997 “Initiative on Race.” The phrase came into heavy circulation with Barack Obama’s election, and Michael P. Jeffries dates this renewed popularity to Obama’s famous 2008 “More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia, when the future president spoke personally and introspectively (thus conversationally) about race and religion. Since a “national conversation” about anything is a logical impossibility, many, if not most, invocations of the phrase are actually about how the conversation never took place, or never will, or shouldn’t ever (or, alternatively, that it may be taking place at this very moment, but we don’t know for sure yet). This “conversation” is an ever-receding horizon, invoked as a way to signal one’s seriousness on racial questions without having to say “racism.” Indeed, the fact that such a deep social and political cleavage is treated as the subject of a “conversation” at all is evidence of how unseriously it is taken. The National League Central or last night’s Jeopardy are good subjects for a conversation; for racism, we’re going to need a bigger boat.



Keywords for the Age of Austerity 5: The Curator

Curate, v., curator, n.

Judas Priest doesn’t just release a greatest-hits album, Metallica and Slipknot “curated” that album; a high-end sneaker store doesn’t sell shoes, it “curates” them. A high-end bartender doesn’t mix cocktails, he “curates an experience.” Web-based media are “content curators.” An event planner or music booker is an “experience curator.” And really, how in today’s fast-paced world can you find the time to interact with luxury brands without a curator? You probably didn’t even think to dignify throwing out your moth-eaten sweaters and Ragu-stained shirts as curatorial work. And you almost certainly didn’t even know what a terrible job you were doing. As this maniacal closet-cleaner writes,

[W]ith the death of average in mind, we must cull from our wardrobe removing from it all that looks average. We must become our own curators. Becoming a curator, however, not only takes effort it takes practice. If you’re anything like so many of my friends then your wardrobe is overflowing with goods. For them, cutting it back, curating it to include only the exceptional, is not only a daunting task, it’s a paralysing one.  


The New York Times is already on this trend, describing the proliferation of “curators” as a form of pretension by which relatively humble pursuits, like shoe-selling or party DJing, attain the lofty heights of the trained connoisseur. In this way, something we might have once called “selecting” or “editing” is treated as a form of expertise equivalent to the work of a museum scholar. And there’s plenty of truth to this, but a merely eye-rolling response overlooks a deeper economic logic at work, one inflected by the rise of a low-wage, precarious service economy and its gendered division of labor.

Curating’s migration from the academy to the boutique is about claiming for the latter the prestige of the former, certainly, but it’s also about substituting prestige for more tangible forms of compensation. It also brings the caring function of the curator/curate into the service sector. This is significant, since “curate” belongs to sectors like fashion retail, associated with female labor. It has also proliferated in library and archival work (“data curation,” for example, is a term of the digital library world). It seems at least tangentially relevant that the rallying cry of university unions, “We Can’t Eat Prestige,” was coined by the female white-collar support staff at Harvard in the mid-70s.

This connection to care-work comes from the word’s etymology. Before the word became predominantly associated with the work of museum academics, “curate” had a mostly religious meaning. In the Catholic and Anglican Churches, the curate is a priest at the local level entrusted with the care (Latin cura) of souls. The verb is a back-formation of the noun, derived from the Latin curare, “to care for,” and curator—a “guardian” or, tellingly, “overseer.” There is something of both in the contemporary consumer-capitalist curator. On the one hand, selling me sneakers becomes a work of aesthetic expertise and spiritual comfort. On the other, my experience is no longer my own—it is curated for me, as Forbes Magazine reveals with its credo for online entrepreneurs: “Curate and Control.”

The word’s combination of moral purpose and creativity aligns it closely with the “innovator” and the “entrepreneur.” In the most enthusiastic celebrations of each, marketing ingenuity and aesthetic imagination are scarcely distinguishable from one another.

The rise of the retail/experience “curator” perfectly captures this commodification of creativity by combining in a rhetorical flourish the function of the manager and that of the artist/caretaker. Curators have always been both “bureaucrat and priest,” as the art critic David Levi Strauss writes. The contemporary use, therefore, is novel only in its expansion of the “priestly” side of this equation to the care, not of souls, but of wardrobes and palates. Yet most “curators” at sneaker stores, of course, just work there, for wages supplemented by whatever prestige they can find.

Like the “entrepreneur” and the “innovator,” “curating” as a business practice presents profit-seeking activities as the pursuit of virtue. It also captures some myths about Big Data and the democratic spirit of the Internet. “Data curators” manage the vastness of digital information; the older “archivist” is concerned with its scarcity. Shopping curators exist to cull the variety of goods online. Online publishing democratizes information access and authorship itself, as in this article in The Guardian’s business section, for example, which gushes about “new breed of media businesses that see themselves more as curators of content rather than owners.” Snarky anti-business bloggers can only be grateful for business journalists who guilelessly presume that the way media moguls “see themselves” is in fact the way they are: all priest, no bureaucrat.


Keywords for the Age of Austerity 4: The Entrepreneur

“Have entrepreneurs lost the will to innovate?”

—Sir Richard Branson

“Entrepreneur” is the austerity keyword par excellence. It combines the pixie dust of innovation, the social conscience of stakeholderism, the versatile vagueness of nimble, and, with its French derivation, a touch of the glamour that “businessman,” “capitalist,” or “manager” can never quite approach. It exemplifies the elevation of “leaders” as opposed to labor, of individualism over solidarity. It is no surprise that in an age of austerity, when most people’s sense of control over their lives is contracting—due to indebtedness, precarious employment, or lack of employment altogether—that there should emerge a hero who stands for agency, material success, and moral determination all at once.

Derived from the French verb entreprendre, “to undertake,” the “entrepreneur” is the masculine noun form of the verb—literally “one who undertakes something.” It’s critical that the word is a third-person verb derivation, since an individualized action is always implied, even as “entrepreneurial activities” has come to include the workings of ever-more complex bureaucracies.

This points to an important distinction in how the word has been defined since the 1930s. (Not that it has ever really been defined too clearly, which is a recurring theme in my cursory reading of management scholarship and business journalism.) The most famous theorist of “entrepreneurship” was the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, who emphasized the difference between the “capitalist” and the “entrepreneur.” His definition of the latter, often quoted in management textbooks, comes from his 1934 The Theory of Economic Development:

The carrying out of new combinations we call ‘enterprise’; the individuals whose function it is to carry them out we call ‘entrepreneurs.’

By “combinations,” Schumpeter means production processes. Transforming these is what he defined in the same text as “innovation,” which, in turn, he described in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy as “the entrepreneurial function.” Entrepreneurs are thus the agents of innovation. But because entrepreneurship is a function and not a social class or a profession,Schumpeter emphasized that an “entrepreneur” is not the same as the “capitalist” or the “manager.” The journalist Walter Lippman described the entrepreneur as the “man on the make,” the aspirant capitalist. Marxists seem to have had little to say about entrepreneurs as such (although E.P. Thompson, in The Making of The English Working Class, uses the word synonymously with “middlemen”), which is unsurprising, given the virtuous patina the word gives to capitalist enterprise.

The Harvard psychological theorist David McClelland celebrated entrepreneurs in his 1967 book The Achieving Society, which argued that “developed” societies are distinguished by a heightened “need for achievement,” which entrepreneurs of course have in spades. Others have defined the entrepreneur as the “risk-taker,” but this is pure mystification, and an obviously flattering one, given the romance attached to the bold, the fearless, the gambling man.

Schumpeter himself opposed defining the entrepreneur this way—the ultimate risk, he wrote, obviously belongs to the owner of the means of production, who may not be an “entrepreneur” at all. So the entrepreneur, in these different accounts, expresses 1) a kind of attitude, a psychology, or a social function. There is also 2) a distinction between the energetic, hustling, creative “entrepreneur” and the passive rentier capitalist.

While “entrepreneur” is often used promiscuously for anyone who owns a business, something of this functional and moral distinction between the capitalist/manager and the entrepreneur persists in the term’s popular usage. A Wall Street banker is rarely an entrepreneur; a tech mogul always is. Clearly, part of this has to do with “entrepreneur’s” association with commerce—an entrepreneur sells a product or a service. Yet one can certainly argue that bankers sell services, and one can hardly accuse Wall Street of failing to innovate sophisticated processes of doing whatever it is they do.

More important than the commercial meaning of “entrepreneur” is the moral one. The entrepreneur pursues a calling, while the capitalist merely makes money. This is the difference, as well, between “entrepreneurship” and “business.” As you can see from the Google ngram figures below, “entrereneurship” has skyrocketed in the last decade but only began to appear in earnest around mid-century, making it a much newer concept than “entrepreneur.” “Entrepreneurship” is more than business— it is a way of life.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Max Weber famously described the fabrication of an “ethical orientation towards profit” that gave that formerly suspect impulse the virtue of a “calling.” But has that calling ever been embodied in such a a single figure as “the entrepreneur” of today? Earlier eras lionized “self-made men” and captains of industry, but the cult of the entrepreneur seems new. Henry Ford may have been a capitalist role model, but whatever social good he was said to have done came from the particular product he built, not from his impulse to build anything. Moreover, meeting some higher social goal (eg, preserving old barns or advancing the cause of fascism) was an eccentric side project, rather than the main goal of his enterprise.

Its moralism sometimes makes “entrepreneurship” sound almost monastic, as we can see in The Complete Small Business Guidebook, a how-to guide produced by the Wall Street Journal. It advises novices entering the faith that

It’s unwise to start down the path of entrepreneurship unless you’ve got a zeal that will get you through rough patches and keep you interested long after the initial enthusiasm has faded.

Read this story of a man who set off unprepared upon the lonely path of righteousness, who was tested, and then finally (sort of) redeemed:

Working seven days a week, losing touch with friends, abandoning old hobbies and interests and not making time for loved ones can quickly lead to burnout in the midst of starting up— and ultimately to business failure. That’s what happened to James Zimbardi, an entrepreneur in Orlando, Florida, who…started his first company in 1997 and worked as hard as possible, for as long as possible, until his creativity, enthusiasm and energy were sapped. By 2002, he was a broken man— the business took a downturn, and so did his personal life. Now Zimbardi is at work on his second company, Allgen Financial Services, and sticking to better habits to maintain work/life balance, such as not working on Sundays, making time for hobbies such as sailing and salsa dancing, and building close ties with other business owners through a faith-based support network.

Note, here, that even the Wall Street Journal doesn’t hold out material rewards for the new, no-longer broken James Zimbardi. He didn’t go into business for Cadillacs or a college fund. He did it for the zeal.

The CBS Evening news reports that there is a man building a submarine for “Virgin Airlines entrepreneur Richard Branson.” Branson might be most accurately described as “investor,” but “entrepreneur” is more than a mere professional function—it is Branson’s personal brand. Everything he does, from direct music sales to founding an airline, is an expression of his “values” and desire to “disrupt” and “innovate,” seemingly for the inherent satisfaction these desires provide.

Entrepreneurship’s moral content lends itself to “social entrepreneurship,” which the Charles Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship defines in part as the drive to “pursue poverty alleviation…with entrepreneurial zeal” (that word again). Have a look at the Schwab Foundation’s website. Note the final bullet point.


Richard Branson is the British founder of Virgin, of course. Look at Virgin’s executive roster, and after a long series of middle-aged white men in open-collared shirts tucked into blue jeans—this is a super-hip company, remember—you will find the firm’s only female executive, Jean Oelwang, who runs the company’s non-profit arm, “Virgin Unite.” Virgin Unite is the company’s “entrepreneurial foundation,” entrepreneurial filling in where “charitable” might once have sufficed. It’s not entirely clear what this means. There’s talk of developing “new approaches to social and environmental issues,” approaches which include…the “Branson Centres of Entrepreneurship.” So Virgin’s entrepreneurship yields its foundation for entrepreneurship, which addresses environmental crisis, through its own brand of entrepreneurship. And thus the circle is complete.

Oelwang’s bio lists among her qualifications her work as a “VISTA volunteer where she worked with—and learned from—homeless teens in Chicago.” No telling what she learned from them, but the turn to youth here signals one of the cult of entrepreneurship’s key growth areas, education. “Entrepreneurship camps” promise to teach business success to children as young as 5. While some offer practical lessons on things like writing a business plan, their real emphasis is cultivating the elusive “entrepreneurial spirit,” as this recent Wall Street Journal article put it. “Children are born imaginative, energetic, and willing to take risks,” the reporter noted, “but lose this entrepreneurial spirit.” Children’s innate imagination and creativity, as it turns out, are merely unrefined pre-professional skills.

One nation-wide program, called “SuperCamp,” includes as part of its entrepreneurship curriculum special lessons on “stress management,” which should not be necessary at summer camp. These kids’ll need it, though, since the camp ends with a reality-show style competition with other campers for seed capital. The losers presumably go back to skipping rocks and using their imaginations for little to no profit.

Entrepreneurship education is not just for the comfortable children of the suburban middle class. From suburban Pittsburgh to inner-city Cleveland, where the Entrepreneurship Preparatory School opened in 2006, entire charter schools are built around the concept. Forget the notion that some children might not want to grow up to run a business, that some might rather be teachers, or astronomers, or mechanics, or even nothing in particular; forget that imagination and creativity might be something other than a source of profit.

The cult of entrepreneurship’s commodification of imagination, its celebration of self-sacrifice, and its bootstraps individualism makes it a perfect ethic for social disinvestment masquerading as reform and profiteering disguised as charity. Entrepreneurship means that now you’re on your own, kid.

Keywords for the Age of Austerity 3: Nimble

The crisis at the University of Southern Maine, where large-scale faculty layoffs have begun, has thrown up several new candidates for Keywords of the Age of Austerity. From the New Apps blog:

Words like “metropolitan,” “innovative,” and “nimble” passed from the president of the university and the chancellor of the system to the members of the board of trustees, all from banking, corporate law, and the business sector, constituting a dismal display of the current corporate common sense…The recasting of the university as corporation that must “adapt or die” was coupled with disparaging remarks about shared governance, union contracts, and public debates over the fate of a public university.

Constructing mass layoffs as “nimble” and “innovative” reflects one important aspect of our austere moment: as John Summers pointed out in his Baffler essay on the cult of “innovation” in Cambridge, Mass., it is not enough for the private sector to embrace its market-worshipping mantras. Instead, he writes, “the whole community must conform,” in the form of tax breaks for tech companies, the demise of rent control, and so on. The debacle at Southern Maine is one example: a university, which is explicitly not a corporation, must artificially assume for itself the mission and risks of a corporation—“or die.”

The layoffs of faculty, especially in the humanities, will mark a more “nimble” university, say the trustees and administrators mentioned in New Apps. What does this strange word mean? Like so many of the keywords of the age of austerity, on the one hand, the answer is simple: “nothing.” On the other…


Google ngram reveals that “nimble” has remained steadily popular for the last two centuries, unlike once-obscure, re-purposed words like “stakeholder” or”innovation.” A quick search shows that in the 19th century, it was especially popular in children’s books and songs, most famously in the Mother Goose rhyme “Jack Be Nimble.” This reflects the word’s literal meanings, which are applicable to instructive and vigorous play, as well as little brains and hands: “Quick at grasping, comprehending, or learning” and “Quick and light in movement or action; agile; active.” The word, then, refers to intellectual quickness or physical dexterity in an individual person, although its literal usage seems to tend towards the latter, as in Jack’s leap over the candlestick.  

Even in the 1980s, it appeared in the New York Times most often in the sports section or, less often, to refer to a politician’s skillful deflection of scandal. An early, rare business usage appeared in a 1981 headline, “Nimble Commodities Broker,” above an article about the merger of two Wall Street commodities trading firms. The author of that article: a young reporter named Thomas L. Friedman.


Although one occasionally still sees it applied to agile athletes, nimble is used most commonly now in a business context, as a metaphorical synonym for “efficient.” We can’t definitively blame Friedman for it, though, since his usage is rather dated. It is more often downsizing, rather than expanding, that commands the honor of being called nimble.” (But since these words often mean so little by themselves, no one said they needed to be consistent.) See, for example, its popularity in media coverage of the General Motors and Chrysler bankruptcies of 2009. The layoffs of tens of thousands of white-collar and especially factory employees were reforms necessary to make more nimble” companies. Here, the word was plainly euphemistic, depicting the firm as a overweight body that needed to slim down and get in shape, rarely stating the human consequences of “nimbleness” outright. GM was “bloated” and a “behemoth,” economic analysts were quoted as saying, causing it, wrote a Times reporter, to “lose a step to more nimble competitors,” especially Japanese automakers.

The literal meanings of “nimble” endure in some of its metaphorical economic uses, however. Take, for example, this NPR report on layoffs in the downsizing journalism industry, in which “nimble” refers to the willingness of an employee to assume the additional labor and learn the additional skills once provided by another paid staffer. A TV correspondent who doesn’t do their own editing and writing will not last in the industry, says a reporter. “They’re going to have to be more nimble both journalistically and technically in terms of the production of their pieces,” doing the additional work of filming, writing, and editing in the field. Describing the new director of the cash-strapped Colorado Symphony Orchestra, a Denver Post reporter wrote, “It’s Sobczak’s job to sell the CSO’s new image as a nimble set of talented musicians who can play anything well, and anywhere, including schools, office events, rock venues, rehab centers.”

In the Detroit Free Press, the founder of ePrize—“the largest interactive promotion agency in the world,” in case you were wondering—confesses that he once imposed too many quality controls at his firm. “Quality increased, but speed and nimbleness took a nosedive,” a rare appearance of the somewhat clumsy-sounding noun form. The C.E.O.’s usage has the effect of treating this metaphorical value concept—the physical dexterity of a bureaucracy—as if it is a measurable, meaningful metric.

The adjective “nimble” has long been quite popular in mainstream cultural criticism as well, where it regularly pops up as a generic term of praise for a writer’s prose style or a filmmaker’s storytelling chops. “Bondurant is a nimble writer,” writes Louisa Thomas in the New York Times of novelist Matt Bondurant, praising what she later calls his prose’s “liveliness,” “especially when it comes to depicting gore and guts.”

The reference to gore and guts is appropriate, since like its corporate close cousins, “lean” and “agile,” “nimble” is a bodily metaphor (as is “corporation,” derived from the Latin corporare, “to embody”). A lean or nimble business (or orchestra, or university) maximizes productivity while minimizing labor costs. While “lean” calls to mind emaciation or, worse, prime cuts of meat, “nimble” is more affirmative. It is athletic, vigorous, youthful, and gymnastic, like the boy who jumps clean over the candlestick. When your firm is described as “nimble,” your overworked, underpaid, and increasingly exploited charges sound more like Kerri Strug or Plastic Man.

Like “innovation,” it constructs any success, but also any failure, as personal, rather than systemic. “Nimble” also frames the self-interest of the corporate manager as a self-evident obligation, like eating right or watching your cholesterol. Why are you being laid off? Sorry, the firm just wasn’t nimble enough with you around. No matter that “nimbleness” is so often a vaporous concept. Much of the current language of austerity imagines corporate businesses as bodies in virtually every way except as a group of overworked or underpaid ones.