Office Cliché Etymology: "Brainstorm"

When we're at the office, we basically speak our own language.

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When we’re at the office, we basically speak our own language.

A mix of clichéd metaphors and hyperbolic buzzwords such as “mission critical” and “scaleability,” the ubiquitousness of which will make you feel like you’re taking crazy pills. Because if you work in an office long enough you know this seemingly innocuous office jargon is actually loaded in hilarious subtext.

But where did all this officespeak come from? How did it make its way so thoroughly into our e-mails, meetings and Powerpoint presentations?

Like some sort of ersatz OED, we’re going to take an etymological look at the origins and uses, both real and intended, for these commonly used clichés—starting this week with “brainstorm.”

The cliché: Brainstorm

What it means: A free-thinking group meeting that encourages spontaneous, creative ideas.

What it really means: A free-for-all group meeting where ideas are generated and then summarized in a lengthy memo that’s never seen again. This exercise is often prefaced with sub-clichés such as “there are no bad ideas in a brainstorm.” Or: “Put on your green hat.” Neither of which is true. Used by managers to surface new ideas that they take as their own. Used by co-workers for a free lunch.

Used in a sentence: “We really need to schedule another brainstorm to discuss ways to decipher Meghan’s notes from the previous brainstorm.”

Origin: The concept was invented in 1938 by Alex Osborne, an advertising executive who was disappointed by the inability of individual staff members to come up with creative ideas for ad campaigns. Osborne initially called the process “organized ideation,” and popularized it in his 1948 book, Your Creative Power. In previous decades, a “brainstorm” most commonly meant “a cerebral disturbance,” “a mental catastrophe” or “temporary insanity.” So, basically nothing has changed.

Related words: Brainjam, whiteboard session, “I’ve got coffee-and-bagels!”, spitballing, a mise-en-place for nothing.

Bonus fact: “The Brainstorm” cocktail is made with 1 part Rye Whiskey, 2 dashes of Benedictine and 2 dashes of Dry Vermouth. Recommended for your next office meeting.