Ponder the ‘pivot’

Nobody seems to turn anymore. They can’t just change direction, face a new way, do something new, figuratively speaking.

Instead, they have to “pivot.”

 

When President Trump said he might sign a new executive order on immigration rather than waiting for the courts, The New York Times said “The president’s pivot represented a short-term tactical retreat.”

Trump is not the only one fast on his feet. The Boston Globe said the president “promised to undo Obama’s pivot to Asia and conciliatory approach to China.” But CNN noted that “President Donald Trump now has his own Asia pivot.”

Months before the election, New York magazine was complaining about “pivots”: “Pivot is also a clichéd campaign metaphor to describe the standard campaign tactic of switching from one theme to the next.”

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Politicians are not the only ones to spin the “pivot.” A blog music review noted a chorale movement’s “dramatic mid-song pivot from mournful to triumphant.” A news report said that if Toshiba pulled out of a plant in England, “it would be up to the new investor to decide if the project should use Westinghouse technology or pivot to another vendor.” A sports report speculated that the legacy of Mike Rizzo of the Washington Nationals baseball team “could well pivot around the deal” to trade away two promising players.

If “pivot” was originally a gimmick to come up with a more original word than “turn,” it has more than jumped the shark. It has worn out its welcome, beaten the horse dead, left the building, died and been buried.

If only that last were true. Those citations were just in the past few days. In 2017, “pivot” already appears so many times in Nexis that only the highlights are returned in a general search.

“Pivot” is not a new cliché: The Times called it the “Macarena of 2012.” Unlike the Macarena, however, “pivot” has not faded. Indeed, it seems to have turned things up more than a notch: The Times itself has used it at least two dozen times so far this year, only once to mean a physical movement. This even though the Times’s standards editor said in 2015 that writers should be “on guard” against “pivot” and other political clichés.

 

“Pivot” gained popularity in Silicon Valley, where a startup that discovered its business model was not working would switch to a new one rather than admit defeat and fail. Even there, it’s become a cliché. In 2012, Forbes called it an “overused buzzword” for startups. A Forbes contributor elaborated, quoting the entrepreneur who started SlimWare Utilities, Chris Cope. “This word can sometimes be synonymous with ‘desperate’ or ‘not working,’” Cope said. “While it’s quite common to try new ideas or test new monetization models, the word ‘pivot’ evokes emotions of desperation.” Remember that.

The noun use of “pivot” traces to the late 14th century, a word for the shaft around which machinery revolves. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first figurative use to the mid-18th century. The first use of “pivot” as a verb, in the mid-19th century, had a figurative use as well, “to depend on, to hinge on,” the OED says. The current (over)use is different, meaning a sharp turn of direction.

In sports, of course, a “pivot” is a literal spin, when a player abruptly changes direction, usually turning on one foot. “Pivots” are when many injuries occur. Writers can do their audiences a good turn by “pivoting” to a different word, even occasionally. It might prevent some metaphorical pain.

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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.