The field of automotive engineering and manufacturing has furnished us with some of the oldest and most enduringly trendy buzz-words and phrases in American English. This no doubt traces to a time in the early 20th century when Detroit’s cachet was somewhat higher than it is today.
Those years turned loose the now-ubiquitous clichés assembly line, spinning your wheels, cog in the wheel, shift gears, where the rubber meets the road, and the many uses of hit the brakes, among lots of other perennial favorites. Still, decades after Motown lost its glamour, the hot new expressions keep rolling off the conveyor belt. The newest seems to be WINDTUNNELING, which was largely unknown in civic parlance until the first few years of the 21st century and is still considered exotic even as this is written.
But before we get to that late arrival, due respect must be paid to two ever-popular expressions whose uses have spread much farther for much longer: ROLL OUT and RAMP UP.
The idea of a ROLL OUT obviously traces to the magic moment when a shiny new model first rolls off the end of its assembly line, to the choreographed cheers of its builders. The moment has always been more important in image than in substance. The truly significant natal moment for a new model of car is when people buy it, not when it’s built. But no matter; the drama of the factory roll out has so captivated people in every other line of work that for years it has been almost impossible to find any new thing whose inventors, authors, or investors would be content with a mere “start date.” No matter how intangible the product, and no matter how un-commercial its purpose, it now enters this world on wheels and rolls out of whatever factory, literal or figurative, has riveted its parts into place.
Still, complaining about ROLL OUT as an intrusive or dense bit of jargon seems petty. The phrase is overused and a bit self-important, but its meaning is limited to starting dates for new activity, a meaning that’s perfectly easy for people without an automotive background to figure out. More puzzling is RAMP UP, whose meaning seems to have passed through several phases of enlargement and distortion, until it now applies to almost anything that moves onward or upward in any sense at all.
I have found several conflicting sources for the modern meaning of RAMP UP, though the phrase dates back at least to the 16th century, when it simply meant to climb anything. The current sense of a sudden or swift escalation seems to have started when the phrase was used to describe an automobile’s ability to ascend a slope, or ramp. In time it came to mean the process of reaching a desired velocity, even on a flat surface. When used as an adjective (ramp-up time, ramp-up speed) it usually modifies nouns of pace or duration. Even when the phrase spread into management and the social sciences, it apparently started out with that essential meaning intact. People wrote about the challenges of “ramping up” a project or program to a new level of effort, or to new heights of speed or efficiency (no doubt aided, like cars, by new computers). But then the nearly inevitable happened: The phrase became “cool.”
It has now proliferated so far that it describes any advancement of any kind. A friend recently described getting out of bed in the morning as “ramping up” his day. Yet even that usage, however frivolous, at least describes an act of motion, involving some opposition to gravity and inertia. Almost anywhere in management or social science writing, you will read that some organization is “ramping up” an activity merely by expanding it. The desired effect, evidently, is to make the process seem both complex, like some arcane feat of engineering, and arduous, a Herculean struggle against the laws of Newton.
There are, of course, organizational challenges that feel like a struggle against gravity and inertia. For some of those circumstances, a vigorous burst-of-energy metaphor may be apt. Unfortunately, as with most jargon, the phrase has been irredeemably cheapened by overuse. Some securities sharks even speak of “ramping up” a stock when describing a purely artificial inflation of its price. By now, whenever an organization (or an engineer, for that matter) uses the phrase RAMP UP, the reader’s natural skepticism should automatically be aroused: Has anything really important happened here, or is this just a normal bit of progress (or even chicanery), disguised as a NASCAR triumph? Whether such skepticism is warranted or not, it surely is no help to writers, for whom the mere use of RAMP UP now poses an instant risk of losing their credibility — or at a minimum, ramping it steeply downward.
Finally comes WINDTUNNEL, which started turning up among foundations and nonprofits around the latest turn of the century. It originally meant “test something’s ability to withstand resistance” — as when engineers subject a newly designed sports car to the effects of a wind tunnel to see how much air drag it suffers. But in recent years, it has grown to refer to any test at all. By 2004, people were starting to hear the word used as a synonym for “try something out to see if it works.” The descent into jargon seems to have taken the wind right out of WINDTUNNEL. What once was a technician’s term-of-art in aerodynamic engineering can now describe practically anything from kicking the tires to taking a spin around the block.