Variations on the theme include blaming delays on stuff “being on a ship somewhere.”

Meanwhile, a headline in The Onion pondered a potential consequence of the crisis: “White House Warns Supply Chain Shortages Could Lead Americans To Discover True Meaning Of Christmas.” Over in the New Yorker, a concerned Cookie Monster strolls with a friend in a recent cartoon, asking: “What me want to know is: What are the implications of supply-chain crisis for cookie?” 

The dictionary definition of “supply chain”

Last year, the word covid-19 made it into the dictionary at record speed—34 days since the name was announced by the World Health Organization, said Brewster of Merriam-Webster. A slew of other words related to the pandemic followed in its wake, like “PPE” and “patient zero.” As the phase of the pandemic shifted from medical concerns to economic impacts, so did the new words in the dictionary, which included terms related to things like remote work in its most recent release on Nov. 3. Brewster said that Merriam-Webster is now considering “supply chain” for the dictionary’s next release, in about six months.

“The definition is in the works,” Brewster said. “As a rule we do not promise that any particular term is going to get in to the dictionary, but I can tell you that its chances are very good.”

To assess the merit of a new entry into the Merriam-Webster dictionary, its lexicographers look at how a term is being used in the language, combing through sources like newspapers, academic journals and Tweets. While the dictionary has been watching  the term “supply chain” since the late 1980s, Brewster said that “because it has not really been a terribly popular word in the language, we’ve considered it self explanatory.” If a reader knew the words “chain” and “supply,” they could pretty much work out what “supply chain” meant, and for a relatively obscure term, that was adequate by the dictionary’s standards.

The extreme dysfunction of 2021 has changed that. As publications with wide readerships began using the term “supply chain” under the assumption that the audience would understand it, it spurred Merriam-Webster to see “supply chain” in a new light. Burnished by chaos and awash in attention, “supply chain” is poised to get its moment in the dictionary, and be anointed, as Brewster put it, as “an established member of the language.”

More importantly, the attention could lead to the structural improvements the system badly needs.

“Having more people thinking about any problem almost always leads to better solutions,” Rogers, the supply chain professor said. “In the end, I believe that the increased attention on how we’re connected to the rest of the globe will help us to make these systems more effective in a way that can benefit people all over the world.”

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