Tag Archives: Oxford English Dictionary

Neither Here Nor There

I set out for Lake Superior on Saturday, with the intention of spending the better part of this week meeting and interviewing people for a documentary project I’m developing. The day got off to a rocky start: at 4:30AM, United Airlines called and emailed to tell me that my 8AM flight to Chicago would be delayed. I would miss my connection to Hancock unless I hustled and got myself to Chicago on an earlier flight – the 7AM — which I did. I arrived with plenty of time to spare, and was at Gate F1A and ready to board the Hancock flight when my phone buzzed. Flights to Hancock were cancelled, due to a blizzard in the Keweenaw — lake effect snow.

The woman at the customer service counter had clearly had a rough morning. Her allergies were making her miserable: all the dust from the heater, she said; she had just turned it on for the first time this winter. She did her best, but when all was said and done my options were limited to waiting out the storm in Chicago (which probably meant the dreary and overpriced airport hotel) or making a dash to Detroit, switching from United to Delta (I never found out exactly how this was to be accomplished, or what it would cost), and trying to catch the evening flight to Marquette. Both sounded expensive, exhausting and damaging to the soul. I told myself that I could probably accomplish everything I’d set out to do on this trip the next time around. So I decided to call it a day, turn around and head back to New York.

The woman behind the counter seemed relieved, and marked my ticket “Carrie Over Carrie Back” [sic]. I moved to a new gate to wait for the next New York flight, and ate an airport sandwich that registered on the receipt as “CEB Tur Goud.” That’s about how it tasted. carrieovercarrie

Now I am here when I expected to be there, here in New York with a strange sense of being absent from the UP. This confusion of presence and absence, here and not there, is not quite the same as missing a place; it’s not like nostalgia and doesn’t involve longing to be elsewhere. It’s more like misplacing myself – a sense of dislocation. I can’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t be here: none of my planning included that possibility. Plans commit us to a time and place. They tell us where we belong, and when. They are ways of making ourselves belong. I simply don’t belong here, at least not until Thursday, when I’d planned to come back. Until then, I am neither here nor there.

I hit on that familiar expression yesterday. It’s a colloquial way of talking about irrelevance, things that are of no account, and though I have plenty to keep me busy until Thursday, I am also seriously exploring this feeling that I am of no account, and will be for a couple days to come.

The expression neither here nor there is, I now understand, a good place to start reflecting on our plans and purposes and how they give us a sense of belonging in the world. It goes way back, and was popular and well-worn even before Shakespeare used it in Othello. That much is clear from the earliest instance cited by the OED: Arthur Golding’s 1583 translation of The Sermons of J. Calvin on Deuteronomie.

This is Golding’s translation of Calvin’s 92nd sermon, on “the law of the tithe” as it’s presented in Deuteronomy 14.24-29 — a passage which is itself already about being displaced and absent, about being “far” from the place where “God shall choose to set his name” (as the King James version has it). Tithes of money are offerings “if the way be too long for thee…or if the place be too far from thee.” Seeing that God has dealt so generously with us, Calvin writes,

what an unthankfulnesse is it for me to despise him that sheweth himself so liberall towardes me? True it is that our so dooing is neither here nor there (as they say,) in respect of God: the seruice that we do him doth neither amend him nor appaire him: but he giueth vs the poor among vs, to bee succored at our handes, to the ende that none of vs should so glutte himself by cramming his owne bellie, as to despise others that are in necessitie, but that we shoulde bee well advised to make an offering vnto God of the thinges that he hath put into our handes, and that the same might become holy by that meanes. Not that wee should paye it as a ransoume to God; but that the acknowledgement which we make vnto him in having compassion upon our poore needy brethren, is as though our Lord should allow of our eating and drinking, saying thus: Now is all lawful for you, I lyke well of it, I giue it vnto you; and that is because ye honor me in dooing almesdeedes to such as are in pouertie.

It’s a wonderful and complicated passage about making things “holy” and honoring the bounty and plenty of the world by sharing it and making an offering of it – the sort of thing we’d expect to find Lewis Hyde writing about in The Gift. Louis CK, a very different kind of Louis, makes roughly the same point Calvin makes here in a profanity-laced routine called “If God Came Back.” It all starts with the question why Christians don’t seem to believe they have to look after the creation:

This morning, sitting here in New York, and feeling as if I belong elsewhere, it seems downright uncanny that I was thinking about precisely this routine just minutes before my flight to Hancock was cancelled on Saturday. An exhibit called “Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers” – currently running at Chicago O’Hare in Terminal 2 – brought it to mind. Huge photographs of glaciers by James Balog had been hung on the wall and a sign instructed travelers to “teach your children about landscapes their children will never know.” That sentence alone left me aghast — I had plenty of time to contemplate it, sitting there at the gate — and it made me wonder what purpose could justify the things we do every day, all the running back and forth, the going here and there. We hardly ever give it a second thought.

A Second Note on The First CEO: the CEO As Agent of Historical Change

Susy Jackson, an editor at Harvard Business Review, emailed me last week to tell me that she and her colleagues had discovered an illustration of the acronym “CEO” that predates the early instances discussed in my previous post on this subject.  Time to update that post and, while we’re at it, the entry on CEO in the Oxford English Dictionary. (I’ve emailed them to let them know).

A search through the HBR archives (one of Jackson’s colleagues described it as “not really very scientific, but fun”) turned up an article in the May June-1970 issue of HBR by Joseph O Eastlack, Jr. and and Phillip R. McDonald entitled “The Role of the CEO in Corporate Growth.” As we might expect, the article takes care to spell out and abbreviate the term in its first use: “chief executive officer (CEO)”; the speculation is that this was “standard treatment for a term that was thought to be known to HBR readers, but not so familiar that they could dispense with spelling it out altogether.” In 1970, after all, the CEO had just arrived on the scene.

A few thoughts about that entrance.

In my previous post I speculated that the term CEO may have come into wider use at HBR under the editorial direction of Ralph Lewis, who was appointed editor in chief in 1971, and oversaw several changes in editorial direction. This 1970 illustration of CEO predates that appointment; Edward Bursk was the editor in chief of HBR in 1970. Still, there’s no doubt HBR under Lewis’ direction helped define and disseminate the term.

Whether this more frequent recourse to the acronym in the pages of HBR was the result of Lewis’ policy or just a sign of the currency the acronym was gaining in management and governance discourse is hard to say. But it’s pretty clear that the wide acceptance of the acronym in the 1970s marks a shift – not just in editorial convention, but also in ideas about governance, leadership and power, within and without the corporation. By the mid to late 1970s, CEO is well on its way to becoming not just a convenient tag but an important construct of corporate power, social status and (by the 1980s) cultural celebrity.

The temptation to start painting on a broader canvas is almost irresistible. After all, big things are happening in the early 1970s, in business, in American society, around the world. When the figure of the CEO emerges in the 1970s, the heyday of the man in the gray flannel suit has reached its nadir. In America and throughout the industrialized West, the postwar boom – which witnessed the rise of the managerial class – has yielded to a grim post-industrial reality.

Indeed, the CEO will be one of the defining figures of the period that runs from roughly 1970 to 2010, the post-industrial period. In response to falling profit rates in manufacturing, we see during this period “a shift from productive enterprise to financial manipulation” (as Chomsky, summarizing economic historian Robert Bremmer, recently put it); I think it’s no coincidence that with the arrival of the CEO on the scene, the “financialization” of the economy has begun. (I understand the word is controversial; but let it stand for now: these are just broad strokes.)

The CEO emerges from this shift. He is its creature and creator – an agent entrusted with its execution – and the period of the CEO’s glory extends from the triumph of neo-liberalism during the Reagan-Thatcher era all the way to the financial crisis of 2008 and the institutional failures and social collapse it precipitates.

The First CEO

For some time now, I have been wondering when and how the acronym “CEO” came into general use. This isn’t just a matter of idle etymological interest. CEO is one of those rare acronyms – like scuba, radar, and snafu – that have become words. And in the course of becoming a word, CEO has redefined our world.

I was intrigued by the entry in Webster’s Dictionary that seemed to pinpoint the date: 1975. Only Webster’s didn’t provide a citation or attestation. So I wrote to the publisher at the beginning of March to ask where this first CEO might be found. A mere two weeks later, a reply came from Joanne M. Despres, Etymology Editor at Merriam-Webster. She informed me that Webster’s researchers had found that first illustration of CEO in a British publication, Neville Osmond’s Handbook for Managers, volume 2 (London, 1975).

But it turns out they had not dug deep enough: “In reviewing the standard sources we use to research dates,” Despres wrote, “I noticed that the Oxford English Dictionary now reports pre-1975 evidence of the word’s existence.” The 2011 online edition of the OED reaches back across the Atlantic, to America, and a little further back in time, a few years earlier, to the March-April 1972 issue of the Harvard Business Review: there we discover “a technician in his early forties who joined the company three years ago as president but not CEO.” (In light of this new evidence, Despres has requested that Webster’s “date for CEO be revised at the first opportunity.”)

I hoped to find but I didn’t find an even earlier illustration yesterday, when I went to the New York Public Library to track down Despres’ OED reference and review past editions of the Harvard Business Review on microfilm. I still have a number of leads to follow. But in the course of my reading it became tolerably clear that someone at the Harvard Business Review made an editorial decision in late 1971 or early 1972 to start using – or allowing the use of — the acronym CEO. This was right around the time Ralph F. Lewis was named editor of the Review (in 1971). Lewis instituted a number of important changes at the Review; this fateful concession to shorthand may have been one of the more minor changes he made, but it had immediate consequences.

Once the term is allowed into the Review, it begins to populate the pages of the journal. There is no turning back. Along with the instance cited by the OED editors, there are a number of early illustrations of CEO in the Review of 1972. This one appears in Myles L. Mace’s article on “The President and the Board of Directors”: “I use the title ‘president’ to mean the chief executive officer, recognizing that in some corporations the CEO may have the title ‘chairman of the board.’” (Mace’s earlier articles for the Review, in 1965 and 1966, use “chief operating executive,” “chief executive,” and “president,” but not CEO. His Directors: Myth and Reality, published in 1971, adheres to the same long form usage.) We find the newfangled acronym, again, in “Conflict at the Summit: A Deadly Game” by Alonzo McDonald. Here, McDonald takes some care in introducing it:

Leaders are still consumed with the problem of how to organize the summit. Inevitably, it is the first topic that a newly appointed chief executive officer (CEO) wants to discuss with his most trusted counselors and confidants.

And then he can use it freely:

Many CEOs who sincerely see themselves in the role of moral leaders are perceived by others as confirmed and passionate addicts of power.

The point is not that the Harvard Business Review foisted the term CEO on us. It had most likely been in use, in the MBA classroom and in the corporate boardroom, for some time. The Review certainly helped disseminate the acronym; and it’s worth remembering that readers, subscribers and contributors were then, as now, influential, powerful and connected to other influential and powerful people. McDonald, for instance, would be named Managing Director at McKinsey in 1973. Lewis came to the Review from accounting firm Arthur Young and was “director of several prominent corporations”; at the time of his death in 1979, he sat on the boards of Houghton Mifflin, Twentieth- Century Film Corporation, and Paine, Webber, among others. Mace was one of the leading lights of Harvard Business School and served, as well, on a number of boards.

Mace’s work on the role of directors (in Myth and Reality) was especially influential and timely. There was then, as now, an urgent need for new bearings – a new orientation; and the sense that it is time to dispense with institutionalized illusions and find new direction goes well beyond issues of corporate governance. New, big, disturbing questions about the role of business in society, the counter-culture and the emerging global economic order are coming to a head. It’s not without significance that it’s at this moment – at the dawn of late twentieth-century neoliberalism — that CEO makes its first appearance.

It is only a matter of a decade or so before the word is regularly in the newspapers, on the TV, and on everyone’s lips, and the CEO has become what he is today: a cultural icon, celebrated and hated, creator and destroyer, a symbol of American success or the villain behind America’s current woes.

UPDATE: For a slightly earlier (1970) illustration of the acronym and some further discussion, see this post.