From the sanctum of his New York City office, Oxford English Dictionary editor Jesse Sheidlower scans magazines, newspapers, TV, and radio in search of new words and phrases he might add to the OED, the 73-year-old dictionary published in England that includes 20,000 pages and 500,000 definitions. In Springfield, Mass., meanwhile, Merriam-Webster editor Jim Lowe is doing the same for the 10th edition of his company's Collegiate Dictionary -- keeping files on new terms that enter the language literally every month.
For the past couple of years, Sheidlower and Lowe have been mining many of their gems from one source: the New Economy. It has spawned a mother lode of words and phrases that CEOs, financial analysts, and journalists alike have come to rely on to describe most things new in the business world. The esteemed dictionary editors -- those arbiters of English -- have been digesting it all.
Their conclusion? Get ready for even more inventions of language in the first decade of the New Millennium. Of the thousands of words added to the language over the past century, the New Economy has added its fair share already -- from bitmap to cyberspace to dot-com to edutainment. The current decade may set a record for jargon and acronym overload. It isn't merely that throngs of new biotech, telecom, and Internet terms will enter the English lexicon. Abstract business-speak can also take on several meanings -- or new ones overnight.
"A BIG FILE."
Take the term New Economy itself. Not long ago, it described the idea that the economy might be able to grow at higher rates and with lower inflation than previously thought. The New Economy's fuel was the tech-spending bonfire that roared along as the Net world pushed ahead full blast with faster connections and more powerful tools.
This year's downturn has tarnished that idea, but the New Economy remains on everyone's tongue -- as an object of disappointment and even derision. This year, it's a catchall reminder that the Internet, telecom, and networking revolutions will be slower to emerge than their cheerleaders first thought.
The New Economy's two meanings might explain why Sheidlower and Lowe haven't yet glommed onto the phrase. "It's definitely one we're considering," says Sheidlower. Adds Lowe: "We've got a big file on it, but it's not one we're ready to add just yet."
NOW HEAR THIS.
So of all the terms the New Economy has spawned, what are the keepers so far? Here are 17 that Merriam-Webster's 10th edition dictionary recently added -- in two illustrative paragraphs:
"I used the Netscape browser on my laptop to find cybersex clip art during my lunch hour as a day trader for Electronica Funds Inc. I saved the art on my hard drive, then e-mailed it to friends, other members of the digerati, New York fashionistas, grunge rockers, and my girlfriend, who is developing a new line of nutraceuticals for a local juice-bottling company."
Or how about this:
"I recently bought a DVD player. Much like the VHS machine it replaces, this player is giving me trouble. I'm stuck with a blue screen on my TV monitor. Perhaps the manufacturer should have beta-tested it more thoroughly before selling it. (Perhaps I should have bought inline skates instead.) The player doesn't fit in my home-entertainment center anyway. What was I thinking? Where was my feng shui?"
A subset of this New Economy babble is Silicon Valley's high-tech jargon. Walking into a software trade show can be like visiting a roomful of the faithful speaking in tongues.
Software stalwarts Siebel Systems and IBM have Web sites loaded with New Economy terms that carry several meanings -- or no clear meaning. While the term "B2B" seems to have gone out of style with the dot-com meltdown, "e-business" is still going strong on these sites, where -- in the time-tested tradition of high-tech marketing -- you'll find obscure references to networks and platforms and suites, all having something to do with e-business. The same is true of "e-learning," which to Oracle may be a software package and to Duke University means conducting business school courses over the Internet.
It isn't just programmers who've adopted New Economy terms. Two of the new favorites in every industry are "pro forma" earnings and "market visibility" -- or lack thereof. Pro forma earnings are part of the spin that companies put on the rigorously structured earnings reports they publish under Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) guidelines. Basically, pro forma numbers allow companies to highlight the good news and downplay the not so good in their earnings press releases.
Not coincidentally, the New Economy word "visibility" has also started to show up in those -- as in, the CEO has no "visibility" on when profits will turn up. "Although our short term visibility is improving, our long term visibility is still challenging," said Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers in his Aug. 7 conference call announcing fourth-quarter results. Dozens, if not hundreds, of execs now use the term.
Even the abbreviations Net surfers (another New Economy term) use when instant-messaging (one more) each other and that Europeans and Asians use for wireless text messaging (that's another) are officially making it into the language. One edition of the OED now includes text message codes -- which tend to look something like this: Txt msg codes r now in the dictionary. They're listed under a special appendix that includes doozies like GR8 ("great") and ttyl ("talk to you later"). The OED also includes emoticons, the representations of facial expressions formed by combining keyboard symbols -- so :) represents a smile.
If such august experts as dictionary editors aren't fazed by all of this New Economy-speak, then it's safe to say it can't be stopped. Better get used to hearing about everything from the burn rate (at which cash is being spent) of biotech companies to the MP3 file-transfer technology used by patrons of Napster and its successor peer-to-peer networks. They're here to stay -- 24/7. Whether you like it or not. TTYL.
By David Shook in New York