Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The outage outrage

Nick Kristof, call your editor. The two of you committed a language gaffe -- by Times standards, at least -- in your Nov. 22 column. But I doubt that any ordinary New York Times readers saw the problem in your third paragraph:
A month ago, I would have written more snarkily about residential generators. But then we lost power for 12 days after Sandy -- and that was our third extended power outage in four years. Now I’m feeling less snarky than jealous!
I wouldn't have noticed it either, had I not learned of the issue two days earlier in the Times’s weekly After Deadline blog. Commenting on a reference to “storm damage and power outages,” Philip Corbett, the paper's standards editor, said, “The utilities prefer this euphemism, but we should call them what they are: blackouts or power failures.”

Outage is a euphemism? In decades of editing and peeve-watching, I've never seen that nit picked. But Corbett is just enforcing the Times style guide, which (in the book version, published 1999) calls outage “jargon and a euphemism for failure, shutdown or cutoff.”

I couldn’t find much support for this notion in the usage archives, but one source went into it deeply enough that I suspect it of starting the anti-outage movement. That source is the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, by William and Mary Morris. In the second edition, published in 1977, the authors go into the outage question in detail:
One winter our town was hit by a particularly damaging sleet storm, with the result that we were without light and heat for five days. Partly out of understandable vexation at the hardships resulting, we expressed our displeasure at the term used by the electric light company to cover the situation. It was, they said, a ‘power outage.’ We thought ‘power failure’ would be more expressive – and said so.
The authors don’t say where they expressed their displeasure -- perhaps in the first edition of their Dictionary, 10 years earlier -- but in response, they say, “a knowledgeable reader wrote,” and they print his comment:
An outage is not a synonym for “power failure.” In the electrical generating industry, the term covers any situation in which equipment is not functioning; it means simply “The equipment is out.” It might be out for maintenance, improvement or replacement, as well as for breakdowns in service due to malfunction, accidents or acts of nature …
Knowledgeable Reader has a very plausible analysis of the situation:
I’m of the opinion that this bit of industrial jargon has moved from power plant usage to application throughout the industry and only recently into the vocabulary of the information media. Of course, the mass media’s uses would be during times when the public was inconvenienced and doubtless irritated by unplanned, accidental outages. Perhaps that more restrictive application has resulted in the unfavorable connotation and impression, as you seem to have implied, that outage is a euphemism.
KR points out that this use of outage was newish in general usage and associated with a special lexicon, both traits that can arouse word rage. Indeed, in 1977, not long after the Morrises encountered their outage, the Times heard from a reader not enchanted with the novel usage:
Re: “Outage” -- a new word.  In the “age” of lawlessness there should be no shortage of courage in dealing with an “outage” spawning “lootage” by “loutage.” The system demands “stoppage” or there may be no system to salvage. 
And the Morrises, as I read them, accept the Knowlegeable Reader's point of view. They don't press their case against outage; they give KR the last word. And they don't mention outage at all in the second edition of their Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (1985).

But it's harder to kill a peeve than to invent it. Some editor apparently took the Morrises' initial rant to heart, and kept the animus alive long enough to infect a contributor to the Times style manual -- and now it's online, trolling for new fans. Here's hoping it fails; this misbegotten peeve has earned its current obscurity.

15 comments:

Jonathon Owen said...

I share your reaction. To me, outage seems like the ordinary word. Power failure sounds odd to me—I'm not sure I've ever heard it, and if I did, I would probably think that it was the euphemism or jargon.

Kay L. Davies said...

I remember "power failure" and I am also familiar with "power outage" and you are right, this particular nit need not be picked. The two expressions have become synonymous in popular usage.
K

Jimbo said...

Power failure had long been the term of art for the power industry and the media until the techno-jargon folks took over the techno discourse. Now euphemisms like "outage" abound. Terms like outage are designed to be more anodyne than the more dramatic "failure" but also disipate the richness of public communication as a result.

empty said...

@Jimbo: You're saying that "power failure" had long been the standard jargon until some people you don't like introduced "outage" as the new term of art?

Gregory Lee said...

I think every power failure is an outage, but not every outage is a failure. A couple of weeks ago, I got a letter from my local electric company telling me they would be doing maintenance in my neighborhood which would require an outage the next week on Monday from 8am to 1pm (or something similar). If I substitute "failure" for "outage" in that notification, it no longer makes sense. You can have a planned outage, but not a planned failure.

Marc Leavitt said...

Subjects for quibble-ability are endless in English; -age is a long-standing suffix. I reserve my spells of peevage for more important matters.

empty said...

Some newish "-age" words irritate me, for example "breakage" as in "to avoid breakage ..." in the care instructions for a coffee carafe. But "outage" does not.

Bryan M. White said...

Knowledgeable Reader make a good point that "outage" is a much more neutral term than "failure", not just in the way it sounds, but in it's meaning as well. And as Gregory Lee also points out, it's a word that the utility companies may have legitimate occasion to use other than, you know, just covering their asses.

Bryan M. White said...

!!?

Ian Loveless said...

"Outage" implies that the interruption may be temporary. "Failure" has a more permanent or serious connotation. "Outage" means it probably won't be too long until we return to "inage", onage", or "backage".

Bryan M. White said...

That anonymous comment, is that what spam looks like when you see the Matrix in its original code?

John Burgess said...

To my mind, a power failure is what the electric company has at its facility. An outage takes place somewhere along the delivery route.

If the power plant goes under water, that's a failure. If the lines are taken down by falling branches, that's an outage. It's also an outage if my fuse/circuit box blows up or my UPS doesn't hold its charge.

Bryan M. White said...

"Panicking will not likely assist you to in almost any way."

I can't help but agree with that.

Adrian Morgan said...

Here in Australia, "power failure" is the usual term in everyday conversation. I would be surprised to hear someone refer to an "outage" when relaying the day's events.

"Power outage" belongs to a more formal register, and is what I would expect to hear from representatives of electricity suppliers and probably newspapers.

Without a doubt, electricity providers prefer "outage" because its formal, matter-of-fact tone places less emphasis on the inconvenience caused by such events. But, contrary to the peevers, there's nothing wrong with that. The fact that language gives us synonyms we can use to place a different emphasis on a situation is one of its strengths.

"Power outage" is no euphemism, but a straightforward description: the power really does go "out". But perhaps we can understand the peevers better if we recognise that for them, "euphemism" is itself a euphemism (for "word I don't like"). Hmmm ... metaeuphemism. There's a thought.

raYb said...

Perhaps it comes from the "power is out," thinking, but, at bottom, the power has failed to reach the customer. A former editor of mine had this so-called "peeve," and it makes perfectly good sense. Power companies prefer "outage" because the power just goes out through no fault of the company, so the company has not failed.