Outsource, and the urge to insource

Published : Apr 09, 2004 00:00 IST

"OUTSOURCING has become a national dirty word,'' reports National Journal's Congress Daily.

And it started out so brisk and efficient. Back in 1979, The Journal of Royal Society Arts reported an American auto executive's saying, "We are so short of professional engineers in the motor industry that we are having to outsource design work to Germany." But the business practice of contracting with outside suppliers - especially those outside the United States - soon brought frowns from labour unions. Business Week noted in 1981 that the "decline in auto industry jobs ... will make outsourcing a key issue."

When a new verb makes it to a gerund so quickly, it's a sign that the word fills a linguistic need. (Outsourcing is the present participle of a verb - ending in ing - that is used as a noun, which makes it a gerund, and there'll be a question about that in your exam.) For a generation, as globalisation generated twice as many jobs in the United States as it shipped abroad, the issue was relatively quiescent. But since 2000, when the creation of new jobs began to dip and then further decreased during recession, outsourcing became a favoured political target of populists.

N. Gregory Mankiw, the Harvard economist and political innocent heading the Council of Economic Advisers, placed himself squarely in the bull's-eye. In his annual report - 417 dreary pages issued in the President's name that nobody on the White House staff had the good sense to vet - he noted that "one facet of increased services trade is the increased use of offshore outsourcing, in which a company relocates labour-intensive service-industry functions to another country.'' He then observed, "When a good or service is produced more cheaply abroad, it makes more sense to import it than to make or provide it domestically."

Though few economists would take issue with this idea first propounded by David Ricardo in 1817, the language seemed deliciously insensitive in a campaign year. Mankiw was forced to apologise: "My lack of clarity left the wrong impression that I praised the loss of U.S. jobs."

Writing on the Web site of the leftist magazine The Nation, the iconoclastic Matt Bivens blurted out the truth: "The dirty little secret in all of this is that both parties support free trade - which works roughly as Mankiw describes it. He just wasn't supposed to be so coolly honest about it. It's disconcerting." Even more disconcerting to anti-protectionists was another attack gerund, emphasising the shipment of jobs not just to outside suppliers but also to those in foreign lands: offshoring.

Business interests immediately considered a euphemistic counterattack. A few years ago, in 2001, when legislation was introduced to enable the President to negotiate trade deals without subsequent congressional modifications, free-traders changed the name of fast track authority, which seemed hasty, to trade promotion authority, a lexical coating that helped the necessary medicine go down.

The earliest thought along these lines appeared in 1998 in Fleet Owner magazine, noted by the alert Paul McFedries in his Web site, wordspy.com: "While the traditional model of outsourcing defines the customer and the service provider as two separate systems, the intersourcing model integrates two systems." However, the freshly coined intersource, while a perfectly logical extension of the outsource concept, could lend itself to sexual innuendo on late-night television and was hurriedly abandoned.

This month, a group calling itself the Coalition for Economic Growth and American Jobs (who could be against that?) decided to oust out from outsourcing, proposing instead worldwide sourcing.

Within CEGAJ, as the coalition has not yet become widely known, worldwide was chosen over global because the adjective global had become too warm - that is, the noun formed from the adjective's verb, globalisation, had acquired a pejorative connotation, in turn casting a pall over the root global itself. The use of world as an attributive noun, however, is still OK; that use as a modifier has been long established in World Series, World Cup, World Bank, World Economic Forum, world class, etc. This is despite the fact that the word, as a regular noun, is now eschewed by concerned liberals, who much prefer planet.

Forget international. This soporific modifier has been rejected by naming committees not on ideological grounds but because it is too long a word to fit in a one-column headline. It remains in old and revered institutions, like the International Monetary Fund and the International House of Pancakes, but is not being used in the newest nomenclature.

The astute reader (apparently the only kind I have, judging by sustained and gleeful e-mail howling from the Gotcha! Gang) will note the use of source in its journalistic sense, as "provider of information."

In the inexorable trend toward the verbification of nouns, the question asked a generation ago by editors - "Do you really have a source for this?" - was changed to "How has this been sourced?" As if on cue, in galumphed the gerund - "You have to be careful about sourcing" - and sourcemanship became as good as scholarship. Our use of the gerund (which, you may recall, is a verb ending in ing used as a noun and possesses mysterious syntactical qualities) surely influenced the adoption of outsourcing.

In journalese, sourcing means "getting some living person or historical citation to justify an assertion." Viewed from inside an organisation, a source can be a despised leaker, traditionally described as "a disgruntled ex-employee"; viewed from outside, he or she is a courageous whistle-blower. Closing down an overseas bureau and hiring independent "stringers" to do the reporting can be considered a specialised form of outsourcing. Basing an article on information gleaned from a journalistic colleague is sometimes called sourcing once removed, but maybe we should take another look at intersource.

New York Times Service
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