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In grim times, hoping for 'reset'

It's the latest buzzword making the rounds for politicians and business leaders needing to sound an optimistic tone.

By Lawrence Delevingne, reporter
Last Updated: January 28, 2009: 10:30 AM ET

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Doom and gloom were everywhere in 2008. It's not surprising, then, that people are longing for a return to normal, or at least to something a little less painful.

Accordingly, a new buzzword is making the rounds among business and political leaders -- reset, as in that wonderful button on video-games that lets frustrated players start from scratch.

The idea of a do-over has been popping up in speeches and headlines ever since:

"Our model is not for a quick rebound. Our model is things go down, as I said, and they reset." -- Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, on Jan. 22, 2009 analyst call announcing 5,000 job cuts.

"The economic crisis that were are going in right now doesn't represent a cycle, it represents a reset." -- GE's Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt, at the Business for Social Responsibility conference, Nov. 6, 2008.

"There's no doubt that we have not been able yet to reset the confidence in the financial markets and in the consumer markets and among businesses that allow the economy to move forward in a strong way." -- President Barack Obama, Nov. 16, 2008, on CBS's 60 Minutes.

Fortune asked three distinguished linguists to explain the new jargon:

Why do terms like 'reset' enter the lexicon so suddenly?

Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at University of California at Berkeley: "It isn't surprising that the word has caught on so quickly. Everybody loves to use a new word, with the implication that it's bringing a new concept along with it, particularly when it has a technical ring to it. Although usually, the word itself is all that's new."

Susan Tamasi, a linguist at Emory University: "If everyone uses the same term, it provides consistency in the message. The message, repeated over and over again, sticks in the minds of the public. Think of any other political catch-phrase of late -- death tax, maverick, etc. -- and you'll see an underlying political point."

Dennis Baron, a linguist at University of Illinois: "These folks like slogans or symbolic words. Somehow, "reset" in an economic sense is both more neutral than bailout or even stimulus, and it also suggests in a reassuring way that technical expertise is being brought to the problem (when it often is not)."

What does 'reset' mean?

Nunberg: "For [President] Obama it seems to mean, 'restore to its earlier -- and presumably, normal -- state,' like the reset button on a computer or video game that clears the memory and reboots the device. The implication being, I think, that we want to put all this uncertainty behind us and get back to where we were."

Tamasi: "The concept that we have to start over or start from scratch is pretty transparent in the word, and this is probably why it was chosen. It's a very useful descriptor in that it conveys several different connotations. It doesn't highlight that this is a cycle, but that this is something that will happen again and again. It shows that it's going to be a major change, but that we're stopping, taking a deep breath, and starting again, and that this time it will be better."

Baron: "If you look too closely at reset, the meaning is vague. Does it mean 'set back to zero'? Does it mean a minor adjustment, as when we reset our clocks for daylight savings time? Does it mean 'get something back on track,' as when we reset the course of the Starship Enterprise? Perhaps that vagueness is useful too. What you don't hear are medical terms like 'get the paddles'." To top of page

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