Firing Blanks

Is everyone who loses a job “fired”?

The day Brenda Starr has been dreading has arrived. Her new boss, Mr. Bottomline, says she has become too expensive. “You … you .. you’re firing me?” she says incredulously. “I’d never do that, Starr,” the cigar-chomping boss replies. “But I can’t afford to pay you anymore. So I’m putting you on furlough.”

Our heroine, however, will have, none of it, and dashes out of the newsroom, her boss calling after her that he wasn’t finished. “I didn’t say ‘fired,’ Starr,” he says. “I said ‘furloughed.’” “Furloughed today, fired tomorrow,” she replies. “So I’ve chosen another word—Free.”

Tune in to the comics tomorrow to see what Brenda Starr does. But for thousands of journalists—and others—who have lost or left their jobs, the terminology of whether they were “fired,” “furloughed,” “laid off” or “bought out” is important today.

“Fired” emerged only in the late nineteenth century to mean someone was dismissed from a job, with the implication that it was for doing something wrong, like stealing from the company or doing a job badly. It was considered colloquial—so colloquial, for example, that The New York Times barred its usage until 1999, preferring “dismissed” or “terminated.” While dictionaries, which now consider “fired” at worst “informal” or an “Americanism,” don’t specify that “firing” an employee is for cause, the word has maintained that connotation.

But lately, “fired” has been frequently used to describe any loss of job, regardless of the performance of the employee. Most of the time, though, the “fired” employees were dismissed en masse, as part of a “layoff.”

“Layoff” also emerged in the late nineteenth century to mean the loss of a job because of economic conditions, in what became known later as “downsizing.” (In British English, a “layoff” is called “redundancy.”) Someone who is “laid off” probably did nothing wrong.

A relatively new term is “furlough,” used when an employee is told to take unpaid time off. A “furlough” is temporary while a “layoff” is open-ended, though usually permanent. (In a unionized workplace, employees who are “laid off” can be recalled as jobs reopen.)

And someone who takes a “buyout” has been, effectively, paid to give up a job. Although a “layoff” or even a “firing” may include a severance package as well, a “buyout” is, in theory, voluntary.

It’s worthwhile to maintain the distinctions, for self-esteem reasons if nothing else:

• “Fired”: Dismissed for cause.

• “Laid off”: Involuntary, but not your fault.

• “Bought out”: Usually voluntary with enhanced severance.

• “Furloughed”: Unpaid time off, but the job is still there. For now.

Let’s hope Brenda Starr realizes the difference, unless she’s got another comic strip lined up.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.