I would like to record how I learned to detest the word “paradigm” as it was used in the business community in the mid-1990’s in North America; that is, as a cudgel. Has anyone had a similar experience with the basic meaning of a word being misconstrued? The powerful misapplication of the concept need not be a part of your own story.Speakeasy wrote: … We simply could not function without the assistance of, and immediate access to, the thousands of paradigms that we have committed to memory ...
Although I had learned the definition of “paradigm” in my late teens or early twenties, I must admit that I have rarely encountered it. So then, I was genuinely surprised when the senior managers of the company for which I was working in the mid-1990’s began accusing their subordinates of “having paradigms” should the latter fail to display the requisite enthusiasm for the latest corporate transformation that was about to occur and should, instead, greet these managerial marvels with weary groans of “we saw that particular innovation about 12 years ago, and it didn’t work then, either.” At the height of this corporate hysteria, an employee accused of “having paradigms” was, for all practical purposes, on notice for disloyalty and, as anyone who has worked in business knows, such an accusation could easily lead to immediate dismissal. This misuse of the word irked me as, quite obviously, the senior managers had absorbed “paradigm” into their lexicon without ever understanding its meaning; they believed that it meant “obstinate, disloyal resistance to legitimate change.”
Now then, one day, whilst discussing a proposed departmental change with my boss, as usual -- it is part of my DNA -- I proceeded to evoke the undesirable consequences which I believed the proposed plan bore in its very bosom. I was not opposed to the general direction of the proposed plan or to its ultimate goals; rather, I merely wanted to avoid the collateral damage which I perceived would result from a poorly-conceived plan and a botched execution of it. My boss, who was actually a very amiable fellow, in a fit of uncharacteristic frustration and pique, pointed his finger at me a growled “you’ve got paradigms!” as if to say that I had contracted leprosy of biblical proportions. Okay, I’m not the most serene person that you’ll ever meet and certainly not so when I feel that I have been unjustly accused of having done some wrong. So then, in my own little pique, I growled back “Hank, you wouldn’t be able to find your xxxx in the dark if you didn’t have a paradigm for it!” And then, with as much composure as I could muster, I explained the basic definition of the word “paradigm” and suggested that, regrettably, owing to having been subjected to a poorly-prepared presentation by an outside consultant, our corporate senior managers had, through no fault of their own, misconstrued the meaning of this word which was actually quite uncommon. Hank narrowed his eyes suspiciously while he reached for and thumbed through his dictionary. “Okay” he said, and asked me to elaborate my concerns about the proposed departmental change. Hank was truly a great guy and, typical for him, he waited for “just the right opportunity” to catch one of his fellow managers misusing the word “paradigm” and, being the gentlemen that he was, took them aside and privately explained their error to them, all the while savouring his small victory. Despite my own small victory, I never lost my distaste for this otherwise very useful word.
Has anyone had a similar experience with the basic meaning of a word being misconstrued? The powerful misapplication of the concept need not be a part of your own story.