Memetic dynamics of low-hanging fruit

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Commenting on a post about Dilbert's take on "the vacuous way managers speak", Garrett Wollman wrote:

I remember, or at least think I do, when "low-hanging fruit" was not yet vacant managerese. Is there any epidemiological data to suggest when this transition occurred?

I'm not convinced that "low-hanging fruit" is accurately described as "vacant managerese" even now. But let's leave that point aside while we consider the epidemiological data on the rise of this cliche among all classes of users, which suggests an index case in the late 1980s, with the main contagion starting in the mid 1990s:

This graph is based on data from the New York Times archive, and is derived from the counts in the following table, which tracks occurrences of "low-hanging fruit" and four other cliches, namely "easy pickings", "shooting fish in a barrel", "easy as pie", and "a piece of cake":

TIME LHF EPick SFB EPie PCake
1981-1985 0 23 4 11 72
1986-1990 2 17 11 6 90
1991-1995 4 33 15 5 67
1996-2000 34 34 21 12 84
2001-2005 74 32 16 7 78
2006-2009 78 14 17 5 41

In order to correct for possible changes in number of words indexed per time-period, I've added up the counts for the four other cliches, and graphed the ratio of "low-hanging fruit" to that sum. Obviously, in this case, a graph of the raw LHF counts would show a similar pattern.

Garrett added:

I also remembered when other geeks recommended Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point to me, which now seems to be exclusively marketed to management types who understand it not.

The "marketing types" here at Penn are Wharton students, whose level of technical understanding is second to few, I think.  (Though I certainly recall from my years in industry that developers viewed "marketing types" as being an especially clueless subspecies of "suits", less actively evil than finance types, but stupider.  I'm sure that the feelings were reciprocated, mutatis mutandis.)

But in any case, since Gladwell's book was published in 2000, well into the spread of the LHF epidemic, I don't think that he deserves either any blame or any credit for the process.  Another clue to his innocence is the fact that the string "low-hanging fruit" (with or without the hyphen) doesn't occur anywhere in the book. (Nor, for  that matter, does "at the end of the day"…)

[Note -- the OED's earliest citation is

1990 N.Y. Times 16 Aug. D1/3 We've picked all the *low-hanging fruit when it comes to fuel efficiency.

That's indeed the earliest citation in the NYT's archive. It's not hard to back that up by a bit, e.g. Brenton Schlender, "Some U.S. Makers of Semiconductors Are More Optimistic", WSJ 2/17/1987:

I expect that (figurative) examples can be found from several years earlier -- the phrase in its literal meaning, of course, goes back hundreds of years. The earliest literal use I've found is from Adam Bede, 1859:

He could see there was a large basket at the end of the row: Hetty would not be far off, and Adam already felt as if she were looking at him. Yet when he turned the corner she was standing with her back towards him, and stooping to gather the low-hanging fruit. Strange that she had not heard him coming! perhaps it was because she was making the leaves rustle. She started when she became conscious that some one was near---started so violently that she dropped the basin with the currants in it, and then, when she saw it was Adam, she turned from pale to deep red. That blush made his heart beat with a new happiness. Hetty had never blushed at seeing him before.

But I think it would be surprising if there weren't earlier examples as well.]

[Update -- Jesse Sheidlower sent in an earlier use as an explicit simile:

1968 P. J. Kavanaugh in _Guardian_ 12 July 6/3 His work is so appealing to me that I feel almost bashful praising it... He is gentle and stoic and simple, his rare images are picked aptly, easily, like low-hanging fruit, and though he appears to move short distances slowly he really moves far and fast.

Jesse's find suggests looking for even earlier active similes and metaphors, perhaps with slightly different wording, and indeed there are many. Thus Wilfred Scawen Blunt, Griselda (1914):

57   For we, in truth, were no wise company,
58   Men strong and joyous, keen of hand and eye,
59   And shrewd for pleasure, but whose subtlest wit
60   Was still to jest at life while using it,
61   And jest at love, as at a fruit low hung
62   To all men's lips, no matter whence it sprung.

Or George MacDonald, To Any Friend (1893):

9   At home, no rich fruit, hanging low,
10      Have I for Love to pull;
11   Only unripe things that must grow
12      Till Autumn's maund be full!

Or Dora Sigerson, My Darling (1893):

5   Oh, Life came over the meadows,
6      And the song of her coming was sweet;
7   The streams leaped joy-mad down the mountains,
8      Flowers bloomed 'neath her dawning feet.
9   The trees bent their branches fruit-laden,
10      So low as her soft hands' hold;
11   And the harvest rose up like an army
12      Of kings in their harness of gold.

Or Edmund Gosse, VIllanelle I (1879):

1   Wouldst thou not be content to die
2      When low-hung fruit is hardly clinging,
3   And golden Autumn passes by?

Or Herman Melville, Clarel (1876):

3919   Estranged, estranged: can friend prove so?
3920   Aloft, aloof, a frigid sign:
3921   How far removed, thou Tree divine,
3922   Whose tender fruit did reach so low---
3923   Love apples of New-Paradise!

OrAaron Hill (died 1750), Sareph and Hamar:

42      Refresh'd by sleep, he rose serene and gay,
43      And walk'd abroad to see the breaking day,
44   With dawning lustre, thro' the boughs, in trembling sallies play.
45      Where-e'er he pass'd, the golden fruit hung low
46      And dancing, wanton, bow'd to court his hand,
47      Proud of the native charms they had to show;

Or  Charles Goodall, To Mr. R. Smith of King 's Colledge in Cambridge (1689):

33   The barren Tree can in the Desarts spread,
34   And threaten Heaven with its luxurious head:
35   Whilst others low, and laden with their Fruit,
36   With bended Branches touch their very root.

Or Henry Reynolds' 1628 translation of Torquato Tasso's Aminta:

Being but a Lad, so young as yet scarse able
To reach the fruit from the low-hanging boughes
Of new growne trees; Inward I grew to bee
With a young mayde, fullest of loue and sweetnesse,
That ere display'd pure gold tresse to the winde;

In fact, you could say that LHF was a poetic cliche long before it came to be a cliche associated with any other group. And I wouldn't be surprised to find the metaphor in Homer, or the Bible.]

[Update #2 -- Allan Jenkins at Desirable Roasted Coffee, who is definitely towards the censorious end of things linguistic, tells a cute story about this phrase:

At a conference in New York, an ad guy once asked me, "The Monkey Bar would be a stretch target for me if we have to meet at 8; isn't there some low-hanging fruit closer?" He's probably still wiping himself of spittle.

If I'd been there, the ad guy wouldn't have been in any danger of spittle-spatter, but he might have been puzzled or even offended as I  muttered something like "Wow; hold on a minute while I write that down."]</font>

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34 Comments »

  1. peter said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 8:08 am

    In defence of "marketing types", the ideas of Gladwell's book were known, published and acted-upon by marketers from the 1960s onwards. Strange, isn't it, how a journalist describing his personal victory over his own ignorance should be considered to be writing something novel.

    [(myl) Stranger still is Google Book's description of The Tipping Point, which I can't resist reproducing for your viewing pleasure:

    "Life-changing choices" indeed.]

  2. Richard Hershberger said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 9:51 am

    I find interesting the claim that "low-hanging fruit" is "vacant managerese". It may or may not be characteristic of the language used by managers, but it has a perfectly clear, substantive meaning. In what sense is it "vacant"? Undoubtedly it can be misused in a vacant way, but this hardly sets it apart from any other word or phrase.

    I wonder if the real objection is not merely that it is a cliche. This would be a valid objection in some contexts, but it seems a heavy burden (on both speaker and listener) to require vibrant and fresh metaphors in every casual conversation.

    [(myl) Exactly.

    But I think the charge of "vacuousness" is generally raised not against cliches in general, but rather against cliches that have recently increased in popularity, especially if their figurative or metaphorical use "bleaches" them of literal reference (as is almost always the case). Thus it's not really an evaluation of intended (or transmitted) information content, but an expression of discomfort in the face of change. This irritation often associates itself some group that's perceived as generally irritating: liberals, conservatives, managers, unions, yuppies, politicians, athletes, broadcast commentators, whatever. The associated group may indeed be at least partly responsible for the increased use, but often it seems to be an innocent bystander, as in the case of "at the end of the day".]

  3. JimG said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 9:59 am

    Did Aesop use this in his Fox and Grapes?

  4. Thomas Westgard said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    I understand it's easy to use the NYT database, but I'm not sure that's the correct source for this test. The complaint relates to a specific discourse community, namely the Dilberts of our society and managers who talk to Dilberts. I think the NYT contains a lot of unrelated data that might skew the results.

    Surely there must be some appropriate periodical where vacuous managers congregate, just as Psychology Today forms a target for a certain segment of those interested in psychology.

  5. WW said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 10:19 am

    "Second to few" is fascinating, I think.

  6. Acilius said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 10:19 am

    There seem to be at least three questions that people can use the words "Is this expression jargon?" to ask.

    1. Is this expression unique to a particular population? People who mean to ask that question need to see the results of a corpus analysis.

    2. Do members of a particular group use this expression to signal their membership in that group and to claim privileges that come with that membership? People who mean to ask that question need to see the results of a field survey that analyzes the reactions people show when they hear various speakers produce the expression. So, take a sample of office workers and see how they react when their boss tells them that they are "going after low-hanging fruit." How do those reactions compare to the reactions the same participants exhibit when they hear non-managers use the same expression?

    3. Is the expression an awkward way of saying something that could be expressed more clearly in more familiar words? People asking this question aren't likely to be satisfied with the results either of a quantitative study like a corpus search or a qualitative study like a field survey. Certainly the corpus search results could help them to decide whether an expression is likely to be as familiar to others in the speaker's audience as it is to them, and the field study could help them to explain why the speaker has chosen an awkward rather than a plain mode of speech. But the question itself can only really be answered in the act of revising the utterance and recasting the thought.

  7. Anonymous said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 10:21 am

    Hate to be the one to point this out, but the subgroup picked out by Garrett (in referring to The Tipping Point) was "management types", not "marketing types". (I don't think that really changes anything — just thought the mis-quote should be pointed out.)

    [(myl) True enough -- that's what happens when my breakfast blogging interval gets cut short by other duties...

    Similar remarks apply to "management types", though -- the local variety are pretty sharp, though maybe not quite as tech-savvy as the quants.]

  8. WW said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 10:30 am

    "especially if their figurative or metaphorical use "bleaches" them of literal reference"
    - Yeah. But the recency element you identify is particularly relevant to this. That is, the figurative sense is only perceived to bleach the literal sense when the figurative sense is relatively new, and coexists with the still available literal sense. It seems in the case of many established clichés that the figurative sense takes over the literal sense completely, and the literal sense becomes a kind of quasi etymology, which may be why people are endlessly fascinated by books that explain the origins of common phrases (eg. relating "a pig in a poke" to "let the cat out of the bag" or whatever). Which I think is why I find "second to few" fascinating, since it looks like an example of the same: the stock phrase "second to none" has been modified in a figuratively intelligible though literally nonsensical way (unless all the few are tied for first, I suppose).

  9. will said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 10:51 am

    From a search on Google News "low hanging fruit" is indeed used in a number of business-related stories. "At the end of the day" is more common in sports. Both phrases are common in politics. Not that stereotypes depend on empirical evidence like this. (This is admittedly unscientific; I just looked at the first couple pages of results).

    It's not that these phrases are inherently "vacant" that annoys people; I think that it's more a matter of literalism. Geoffery Pullum in a old post noted that someone could plausibly say "at the end of the day, you've got to get up in the morning".

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 11:07 am

    While I like the use of a somewhat-conceptually-related group of cliches as a baseline, the members of that baseline group tend for me to highlight that "low-hanging fruit" actually conveys a distinctive meaning, namely the inherent contrast with non-low-hanging fruit. Both subgroups of fruit are equally desirable once picked, but one subgroup requires less incremental effort to pick than the other (indeed, the incremental effort required to obtain the non-low-hanging fruit may not be cost-effective). By contrast "easy as pie" doesn't inherently contrast with something else that is more difficult, and I doubt anyone really thinks even metaphorically "sure, first you would shoot the fish that are conveniently located in the barrel and only if you still need more fish after that would you get out the rod and reel and go down to the creek." I can't immediately think of another cliche in wide circulation that captures the same contrastive concept. If my perception is accurate, this suggests the growth in use might be in part because the cliche usefully filled a thitherto vacant semantic niche, as opposed to simply reflecting changing fashion in the relative popularity of essentially synonymous cliches.

  11. I make another attempt to engage in controversy « Panther Red said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    [...] fruit," which is said to be part of the jargon of corporate managers in the USA.  I posted the following comment: There seem to be at least three questions that people can use the words "Is this expression [...]

  12. Vance Maverick said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 11:38 am

    Agreed with the various commenters who find useful meaning in this cliché. And compare "cherry-picking", which uses nearly the same figure for a different sense (choosing fruit carefully for sweetness — unfairly because unrepresentatively).

  13. MattF said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 11:45 am

    Can't help wondering what the error bars on the graph should look like– particularly with that 'piece of cake' anomaly during the last interval.

  14. peter said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    Vance Maverick said (September 30, 2009 @ 11:38 am)

    "And compare "cherry-picking", which uses nearly the same figure for a different sense (choosing fruit carefully for sweetness — unfairly because unrepresentatively)."

    Surely "cherry-picking" derives from choosing the cherry from the top of cakes, and leaving the remainder of the cake, rather than choosing cherries over other fruits or choosing sweet fruit over non-sweet fruit.

    [(myl) "Cherry-picking" has been used since the mid-19th century to refer to the process of harvesting cherries. My own guess (unsupported by other evidence) is that the figurative use referred initially to the care needed to select ripe fruit to pick.]

  15. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 11:59 am

    Would one (or more) of the able contributing linguists here describe what makes the difference between a culturally acceptable figure of speech, such as "let the cat out of the bag," which raises no hackles (!) when dropped into conversation, and "low-hanging fruit," which seems to annoy so many? Certainly it's not frequency of usage, nor absence of content; neither would it be the job description of the speaker. Could it be novelty, triteness, familiarity, fatigue? Help, please.

    [(myl) I don't believe that there's been any systematic study, but my working hypothesis would be that a recent increase in frequency is especially likely to raise hackles. I've offered some evidence that this is true in the case of "at the end of the day", as well as "low hanging fruit".

    But there may also be a random component, as in the mysterious process by which elementary-school children pick a "goat" to shun and make fun of (in schools that allow or even expect this to happen). The chosen child is typically different in some way, but there are typically many kids who are somewhat different.]

  16. Bill Walderman said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

    J.W. Brewer is correct about "easy as pie, "piece of cake" and "shooting fish in a barrel": they don't convey the same idea as "low-hanging fruit" because they don't imply a comparison with more difficult objectives, and maybe they shouldn't be included in the sum. But "easy pickings" is pretty much the same concept as "low-hanging fruit," and it's interesting that the statistics for these two cliches seem to be inversely correlated over time: as "low-hanging fruit" has ripened, "easy pickings" seems to have withered (although the sample probably isn't big enough to draw any firm conclusions).

  17. Vance Maverick said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

    Peter, I have to admit that's also a plausible account. Wikipedia and I disagree, but we don't have evidence. Do you?

  18. Nathan Myers said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    I think those defending "low-hanging fruit" are missing what makes its use annoying. It isn't the clichédness, or any imagined vacuousness of the expression itself. It's that when used by lazy and shortsighted people, it is meant to imply that anything that's not "low-hanging" isn't worth gathering at all. Imagine canceling all construction projects that aren't "shovel-ready".

    (Thank you, JW, for using "thitherto" in serious discourse.)

  19. Faith said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that what is irritating in this phrase, when coming from a manager, is not primarily its linguistic properties. My own experience with this phrase suggests that there are two related problems: one is that the manager in question is unwilling to change anything substantive that might actually fix the problem in hand, thus the quest for low-hanging fruit; and the second is that, once given a list of low-hanging fruit for potential action, managers often fail to act on it anyway. Presumably if they were the kinds of managers who liked fixing problems, they wouldn't have set out specifically to fix the easy ones.

  20. Simon Cauchi said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

    Thank you for the quotation from Adam Bede:

    "He could see there was a large basket at the end of the row: Hetty would not be far off, and Adam already felt as if she were looking at him. Yet when he turned the corner she was standing with her back towards him, and stooping to gather the low-hanging fruit."

    So here Hetty has to stoop to gather the low-hanging fruit. The l.h.f. is harder to reach than fruit hanging a little higher, within arm's reach without stooping.

  21. Adam said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

    I've only heard or used the expression "low-hanging fruit" to contrast with efforts that are more worthwhile, not less, e.g., "I didn't make that pun because it seemed like low-hanging fruit." The implication is that only the pursuit of higher fruit is dignified. The sense discussed above, in which low-hanging fruit is the most desirable, is actually new to me, but I've never worked in a corporate setting. (I got the same feeling of pleasure from hearing the "cliched" meaning that WW got from "second to few.")

  22. dr pepper said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    2. Do members of a particular group use this expression to signal their membership in that group and to claim privileges that come with that membership?

    Hmm. I never thought of "is there no help for the Widow's Son" as jargon. But of course it is.

  23. Roger Lustig said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

    @Faith:
    Exactly. It's not that LHF is managerese per se. But when a manager uses it in a context such as the one in the comic, it may express an underlying laziness–intellectual and otherwise.

    I had to put up with a far worse version: "Let's shoot the slow rabbits first." Then the issue was marketing, not solving internal problems; and there always loomed an unspoken assumption that there *were* sufficient slow rabbits, easy pickins, etc. to justify what we were proposing. Nobody did any research along those lines. And I bet that Dilbert's manager hadn't actually identified any accessible fruit either. In fact, he probably had people to assume such things for him.

    After a few pitch meetings I began to wish I were one of the rabbits.

    Roger

    ("managerese" looks like a refugee from the periodic table.)

  24. Morten Jonsson said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

    I would suggest that what is irritating about some groups is, in fact, their vacuousness. Perhaps that isn't so; perhaps pointing at this or that group is only a way of demonstrating my own set of prejudices. And I know that singling out the phrases they use isn't going to prove anything one way or the other. But vacuous people, if not groups, do exist, and they do use cliches. And what makes an expression a cliche is not how often it's been used, or its lack of any specific, useful meaning. It's how it's used by the individual speaker, and I don't know how you can quantify that. If it's a substitute for careful thought, if it's filling space that would equally well be filled by any number of other phrases, then it's a cliche. Assessing it as such is very similar to the problem of how to say what's a good poem and what isn't, by the way. Statistical models, for example, have been used in recent years to prove that some obscure Elizabethan poems were Shakespeare's work–they employ the same distinctive vocabulary in the same distinctive patterns. The fact that they're thoroughly lousy poems is apparently not relevant.

  25. MB said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

    The thing I find the most unfortunate about the emergence of clichés is that by making us all utterly sick of the phrases, it thoroughly obscures the creativity originally required to come up with them.

    @WW:I agree!

  26. Garrett Wollman said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

    Just by way of clarification, I did not mean to suggest any connection between "low-hanging fruit" and The Tipping Point; it was merely free-association from my use of the infectious-disease metaphor invoking the best-known book about the subject, reinforced by the observation that it had itself become subject to the process it attempts to describe, and among the same group of people, even.

  27. Mark F. said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 9:45 pm

    LHF comes up in academia in conversations about research problems to tackle. The only synonym I can think of is "easy ones", which doesn't also convey the notion of "just as valuable as the hard ones." It always seemed pretty unobjectionable to me.

  28. Rubrick said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 10:05 pm

    That Google Books blurb needs to be cross-posted to fail blog.

  29. nbm said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

    Perhaps it is superfluous to note that the poetic fruit is not merely convenient, but heavy-ripe and generously offering itself to the passerby, as in Marvell's "The Garden": "The luscious clusters of the vine / Upon my mouth do crush their wine; / The nectarine and curious peach / Into my hands themselves do reach." I think there may be an echo in at least some of these uses of a legend that said that as the Holy Family rested on the flight into Egypt, at Christ's command a palm tree bowed down and offered its fruit to Mary.

  30. mollymooly said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 1:04 am

    The comments so far suggest that people disagree about what the original, proper, correct, core meaning of the LHF metaphor is. In such a situation, it is inevitable that people will use the metaphor in a way others consider incorrect or misconstrued. Even if we agree on the kind of action denoted by LHF, we may disagree over whether it has positive, negative, or neutral connotations. And so a potentially vivid metaphor is rendered worthless.

  31. peter said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 3:13 am

    mollymooly said October 1, 2009 @ 1:04 am

    "it is inevitable that people will use the metaphor in a way others consider incorrect or misconstrued. Even if we agree on the kind of action denoted by LHF, we may disagree over whether it has positive, negative, or neutral connotations."

    Isn't this true of all human speech? Why say anything to anyone, ever?

  32. Graeme said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 7:51 am

    'Low-hanging fruit' has content – indeed multiple connotations.
    'At the end of the day' is poly-filler. Or worse, it detracts from any intended emphasis that 'ultimately' could achieve.

  33. yonray said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 8:09 am

    I'm a manager in a US multinational, and I've come across LHF – oh yes! I'd say it sort of replaced "quick win", which was coming to the end of its oneupmanship-seeking half-life. It's an excellent figure of speech – very compact – but incredibly annoyingly used in corporate life, I find. Reason being, use of LHF comes with the implication that the target audience either hasn't noticed that there's low-hanging fruit to be had at all, or that it does see the LHF but lacks focus and is wasting resources on barely accessible fruit instead.

    What I also found interesting, while thinking about this, is that "quick win" – which for me has an identical meaning – doesn't work this way any more, although it did ten or fifteen years ago. It's become a sort of second-generation cliché, which no longer gains its user the desired advantage, works against him in fact. This implies that there is a sort of post-managerese linguistic dustbin where these sort of phrases end up!

    And I second the congratulations to JWB on "thitherto".

  34. Tim Worstall said,

    October 3, 2009 @ 6:19 am

    If I might just add in something?

    I've been trading as "The Low Hanging Fruit Company" since the early 90s. Can't remember the exact incorporation date but the UK limited company was pre-1991.

    The mentions in the NYT are of course nothing to do with us: we're a small company and have no presence in the US. You can find our website easily enough if anyone is interested in what we do (probably not).

    But the reason why we chose the name was simply that we'd heard a story that we liked. One guy that we worked with said he knew an IBM sales manager (possibly a US import into the UK industry) who liked to gin up the sales force by saying that "we're going to pluck the low hanging fruit and piss all over the competition". Such was our youth at the time that we thought "the low hanging fruit company" would get a giggle out of the engineering types that we were (and do) selling to. For we'd also heard that the phrase was common(ish) in process engineering. Get a process up and running, then see where it was going wrong. Getting those kinks out of the production process was "plucking the low hanging fruit".

    As I say, we're nothing to do with the increasing popularity of the term in the NYT. Rather, just a (true) story to show that the phrase was at least being used (even if only to remark at what a cute phrase it was) in the UK computer industry of the late 1980s, with a presumed US source at its root.

    No idea whether the stories we heard were true either, only that we did indeed hear them.

    As a mild amusement I was alerted to this article by the Comment Central blog at the (London) Times….a newspaper I occasionally write for. Coincidences do indeed happen.

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