The bottom line on trickle-down

Posted by on May 09, 2011

We kick off Business English month on Macmillan Dictionary blog with a guest post by Janet Gough, a freelance lexicographer and editor, based in Kirkintilloch in Scotland. Janet’s post is in fact a bridge between metaphorical and business English months as it looks at metaphor in business.

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Picture the archetypal hard-nosed businessperson, to whom facts and figures, statistics and sales figures, and profit and loss are the be-all and end-all. Surely businesspeople are not concerned with the niceties and vagaries of imagery and metaphor? Surely all they are concerned with is the bottom line?

In fact, that bottom line is something of a metaphor in itself, referring as it does to the final line of a table of figures – a financial statement – showing net profit or loss. Metaphor and imagery are as prevalent in the business world as in any other field.

In the 1990s managers often referred to the ‘trickle-down’ of information, from senior managers, to managers, to team members. This was derived from the trickle-down theory of economics (in turn derived from the image of the movement, or trickle, of a liquid to new places), which argues that wealth or advantages earned by those at the top of any hierarchy will eventually benefit those at the lower echelons. In business, the metaphor was appropriated to describe the dissemination of information from those in the know, at the top of the hierarchy, to those on the lower rungs of the ladder. In itself trickle-down could be perceived as a positive image, in the sense that even those at the very bottom will reap some reward. However, a trickle in its initial sense is a small amount of something, flowing slowly; so the metaphor is something of a double-edged sword, in its connotation that those at the bottom will receive little more than the crumbs from the table.

In the biz-speak of the 21st century, the preferred replacement for the paltry trickle-down of information is the ‘cascade’ of information; furthermore, grammatically speaking, information does not just cascade in the mealy-mouthed intransitive way that water does, with no stated agent to propel it, it is actively and transitively cascaded, implying a much more proactive and munificent hand, in the same way that until fairly late in the 20th century, businesses grew, but we did not talk of ‘growing the business’.

Of course given the current economic climate, metaphor in business is not necessarily a one-way street towards bigging up. Those who were exhorted almost ad nauseum to ‘think outside the box’ during the boom years are now being encouraged to ‘think inside the box’ – to limit one’s thinking to what is practically, rather than idealistically, possible. And whilst ‘blue-sky thinking’ still gets around 300k Google hits, its more sombre and pessimistic cousin ‘grey-sky thinking’ gathers pace.

Sometimes too, the negative can be hijacked for the positive. Whilst the term credit crunch has spawned a multitude of like terms such as housing crunch and energy crunch, where crunch has the sense of a reduction in something desired (credit, energy or housing), the more recently coined term price crunch turns the sense of crunch, as diminution of the first element (price), into something desirable.

The borrowing of general language metaphors to subject-specific usages, such as trickle-down, is not a one-way street either. From the use of bottom line in business comes a wider metaphorical use of the term: in general language, the bottom line has come to refer to any vital (or ‘crunch’) point in a discussion.

Indeed, the bottom line is that metaphor is as much alive and kicking in business as in any other field.

Comments (2)
  • Teaching business metaphors works particularly well with illustrations because these words and phrases are so picturesque.

    Posted by Andy Martin on 9th May, 2011
  • My favorite business metaphor coined in the 21st-Century is “scalable.” Its meaning is apparent immediately: don’t reach for the top of a mountain you can’t climb.

    Posted by Ben Trawick-Smith on 10th May, 2011
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