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2021 is the year “supply chain” went from jargon to meme

A cargo vessel stacked with containers on the water
Reuters/Brendan McDermid
The ships are not okay.

It started with earning calls. A tally of transcripts showed that utterances of “supply chain” began hitting new highs in 2020 and swelled to a 10-year peak this quarter—S&P 500 firms logged a record 342 mentions (pdf) between Sept. 15 and Nov. 15—as shipments limped toward Black Friday and Christmas. In recent months, the phrase has figured in an Onion headline, a New Yorker cartoon, and in flurries of Tweets and TikToks from people who have nothing to do with logistics.

If a good supply chain is one you never talk about, as the industry saying goes, in 2021, we’re finding out that a supply chain in crisis gets memed. Chaos in the global supply chain has developed alongside the pandemic and is now reverberating across everyday life, causing shipping delays and shortages from wine bottles to Thanksgiving pies. As the White House put it on Nov. 3, in the first blog post it promises will be a twice a month update on the topic, “’Supply chains,’ a term once reserved for business logistics teams, has now become a household phrase.”

Terms like “supply chain” remain in the realm of jargon when their utility is limited to a small group of people, in this case, logistics professionals, explained Emily Brewster a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, the dictionary company.

“It stops being jargon, when it has utility beyond that. That’s what we’re seeing with ‘supply chain,'” said Brewster. “We all need to talk about where our cat food is, or why we can’t buy bookshelves or why things are costing so much. And so it ceases to be jargon and moves into the territory of everyday language.”

For actual supply chain people, the experience of becoming embedded in pop culture is novel, to say the least.

Zachary Rogers, an assistant professor of supply chain management at Colorado State University, has been amused by laypeople’s new enthusiasm for his area of study. “When I used to tell people what I do, half the time I could tell they weren’t quite sure what supply chain was,” Rogers said. As a shorthand, he’d invoke Amazon. Now, even his 92-year-old grandmother is hitting him up to chat about supply chain issues.

The bottlenecks of pandemic life

As supply chain awareness became part of everyday life, the discourse has moved from using the term to talk about issues directly attributable to it, like out-of-stock toys and delayed Halloween costumes, to express a deeper vein of frustration among people who have found that, like the supply chain, they too are strained from the relentless, wearying demands of a global pandemic, and not as productive as they used to be.

On Twitter, the supply chain has been blamed for: getting nothing done, disappointed children, an excess of camouflage pajama pants, hungry dogs, insomnia, and everything. There are frantic reports on TikTok and Reddit of bare grocery store shelves. One TikTokker devoted a 7-part series to explaining the supply chain crisis, nestled in a feed made up of makeup tutorials, cat voiceovers and dating advice. In other signs of the phrase’s new centrality in daily life, NPR’s comedy quiz show, Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me spun a three-and-a-half minute bit on the supply chain and The New York Times assigned a reporter to a previously unmanned logistics beat.

In another measure of how relatable the supply chain’s inability to execute the basic tasks of its existence has become, Vanity Fair writer Delia Cai’s supply chain joke hit more than 70,000 likes and 9,000 retweets, then was further memed on Instagram.

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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