Sizing It Up

‘Downsize’ upgrades itself

In a letter to CJR, Jeffrey Kaye, a freelance journalist and author, objected to some usages in recent articles about laid-off journalists.

“I suggest you reconsider your occasional use of PR-speak,” he wrote. “I respect the need for synonyms, but ‘downsized reporters’? Really? Only if they had gone on diets or had body parts amputated. You can downsize an organization or a company, but shrinking humans is a serious alteration that requires more than a change of job status.”

“Downsize” has had many careers. It originated during the mid-70s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in reference to what automakers were doing to cars —reducing their size. In the recession of the early ’80s, it began to apply to companies’ efforts to make themselves smaller. In the ’90s, the word became adapted as an adverb, noun, or adjective—The New York Times even ran a series on the “Downsizing of America” in the mid-90s. The use of “downsize” to apply to the people affected started appearing in the late ’90s, but only as a verb or adverb: People were being “downsized,” but they were not been referred to as “downsized employees.”

But it’s a very short distance from applying a word to the subject to applying it to the object, and in this Great Recession “downsized” is being applied equally to companies shedding people and the people being shed. Though careful usage would say that the people aren’t being made smaller, it’s an idiom in the same way that “near miss” means a close call, not a collision nearly avoided.

“Downsize” has made it into most dictionaries, though rarely as an adjective. Nonetheless, it still is a euphemism for “cut,” “reduced,” laid off,” etc., ubiquitous though it may be.

Mr. Kaye wasn’t done, though. His letter continued: “And: ‘he was let go’? How merciful! Was he trying to escape, or did his captors have a change of heart and unleash him? ‘Let go’ might describe the happy release of a kidnapping victim, but probably shouldn’t refer to an employee who was perfectly happy with his employment and had no intention of leaving.”

As discussed here last year, there are many ways to say “You no longer have a job.” Most of them have specific uses, and, as the recent movie Up in the Air shows, sometimes it’s all in the presentation. “Let go,” as Mr. Kaye observes, has a much gentler connotation than being told you’re unemployed. In walk-the-line journalism, it has a frisson of protectiveness, the way saying “passed on” sound so less harsh than “died,” and should probably be avoided.

“Outplace corporate euphemisms!” Mr. Kaye concludes. No argument there.

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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.