I started earning calls. A text tally shows that the word for “supply chain” is starting to hit new highs in 2020 and swelled to a 10-year high this quarter — S&P 500 companies hit a record 342 mentions (pdf) between September 15 and November 15 – Shipments were also heading toward Black Friday and Christmas. In recent months, the phrase has appeared in Onion’s headline, a cartoon from the New Yorker, and in a flurry of tweets and TikToks from people unrelated to logistics.
If a good supply chain is one you never talk about, as the industry says, in 2021 we find that a supply chain in crisis is being shortened. Chaos in the global supply chain has developed in tandem with the pandemic, and it now echoes in daily life, causing shipping delays and shortages of wine bottles to Thanksgiving pies. As the White House said on November 3, in the first blog post promising it would be a bimonthly update to the topic, “supply chains,” a term that used to be reserved for business logistics teams, is now a household phrase. “
Emily Brewster, a lexicographer for dictionary company Merriam-Webster, explained that terms like “supply chain” remain in the jargon when their usefulness is limited to a small group of people, in this case, logistics professionals.
“It stops being the jargon, when it has a utility beyond that. That’s what we see in the ‘supply chain,’” Brewster said. “We all need to talk about where our cat food is, or why we can’t buy bookshelves or why things cost so much. Thus it is no longer an idiomatic term and moves into the realm of everyday language.”
For actual supply chain people, the experience of getting involved in pop culture is a new one, to say the least.
Zachary Rogers, associate professor of supply chain management at Colorado State University, was amused by the new laypeople’s enthusiasm for his field of study. “When I used to tell people what I’m doing, half the time I could say they weren’t quite sure about the supply chain,” Rogers said. As a shortcut, he was calling Amazon. Now, even his 92-year-old grandmother hits him up to chat about supply chain issues.
Epidemiological obstacles to life
As supply chain awareness has become a part of everyday life, discourse has moved from using the term to talking about issues directly attributed to it, such as out-of-stock toys and late Halloween costumes, to express a deeper frustration among people who have found that, like the supply chain, Also strained by the persistent and exhausting demands of a global pandemic, it is not as productive as it once was.
On Twitter, supply chain was blamed for: Nothing has been doneAnd Children disappointedAnd Surplus of camouflage pajama pantsAnd hungry dogsAnd Insomnia, And everything. There are frantic reports of TikTok and Reddit from naked grocery store shelves. One TikTokker has dedicated a 7-part series to explaining the supply chain crisis, located in a feed of makeup tutorials, cat voiceovers, and dating advice. In other signs of the new phrase’s centrality to everyday life, NPR’s comedy quiz show, Wait wait don’t tell me He rotated three and a half minutes on the supply chain and the New York Times assigned a reporter to a previously unmanned logistics strike.
In another measure of how the inability of the supply chain to carry out the essential functions of its existence is related, a supply chain joke by Vanity Fair writer Delia Kay reached more than 70,000 likes and 9,000 retweets, then more comments were added on Instagram.
Variations on the topic include blaming delays on things “on a ship somewhere”.
Meanwhile, a headline in The Onion pondered the potential consequences of the crisis: “White House warns that supply chain shortages may prompt Americans to discover the true meaning of Christmas.” In the New Yorker, Cookie Monster is walking around with a friend in a recent cartoon, asking: “What I want to know is: What are the implications of the supply chain crisis for cookies?”
Dictionary definition of “supply chain”
Last year, the word covid-19 entered the dictionary at record speed — 34 days since the World Health Organization announced the name, Merriam-Webster’s Brewster said. A large number of other words related to the epidemic have been followed in its wake, such as “personal protective equipment” and “patient zero”. As the phase of the pandemic shifts from medical concerns to economic impacts, so have new words in the dictionary, which included terms related to things like remote work in its latest edition on November 3. Consider “supply chain” for the next edition of the dictionary, in about six months’ time.
“Definition is in business,” Brewster said. “As a general rule, we don’t promise that any particular term will make it into the dictionary, but I can tell you that its chances are very good.”
To evaluate the feature of a new entry in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, lexicographers are looking at how the term is used in the language, combing through sources such as newspapers, academic journals and tweets. While the dictionary has been observing the term “supply chain” since the late 1980s, Brewster said “since it wasn’t really a very common word in the language, we considered it explanatory.” If the reader knows the words “chain” and “supply”, he can pretty much tell what “supply chain” means, and for a relatively vague term, it fits by dictionary standards.
The severe dysfunction of 2021 has changed that. When wide readership publications began using the term “supply chain” on the assumption that the public would understand it, it prompted Merriam-Webster to see “supply chain” in a new light. Riddled with clutter and attention, the ‘supply chain’ is poised to have its dictionary moment and is erased, as Brewster described it, as ‘an founding member of the language’.
Most importantly, attention can lead to structural improvements that the system desperately needs.
“Having more people thinking about any problem almost always leads to better solutions,” said Rogers, a professor of supply chain. “Ultimately, I believe that increased interest in how we relate to the rest of the world will help us make these systems more effective in a way that can benefit people around the world.”