"I do think the concept of a tipping point is correct," US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said on April 7, when asked about his frequent use of that phrase about public opinion in Iraq. "And at some point, the aggregation of all those individual tipping points having been reached, it will be, in effect, the country will have tipped." \nWith the unforgettable live television coverage of a symbolic event in Firdos Square in Baghdad, the two words were on many media lips in the following weeks. "Like the giant statue of Saddam Hussein that slowly tumbled to the ground in central Baghdad yesterday," wrote Paul Ignatius in The Washington Post, "the war in Iraq has been determined by a series of tipping points that mean the collapse of the regime." \nThen came the deluge of usages of that phrase in other contexts. "School System at `Tipping Point'" headlined The Financial Times. "America has hit a tipping point in which fair-minded people now support equality," said a Freedom to Marry advocate after the Supreme Court decision striking down sodomy laws. \nIn a New York Times Magazine article about offbeat names being given to today's babies, Peggy Orenstein wrote, "The tipping point came when Christie Brinkley, who is very visible, named her daughter Sailor because she and her husband liked to sail." (Coming soon for girls: Jade, Chloe, Destiny. For boys: Caleb, Liam, Tristan. Unfortunately for that last little fellow, girls are not predicted to be named Isolde. Now back to today's subject.) \nThe phrase that has become the overpowering cliche of the year was first popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in an influential 1996 article in The New Yorker, and in a subsequent best-selling book with that title and with the subtitle How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Gladwell deals with the way some ideas slowly spread and then suddenly take off. The New Yorker staff writer took the trope from epidemiology, the study of epidemics: "The tipping point is that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass, the moment on the graph when the line starts to shoot straight upwards." \n"AIDS tipped in 1982," Gladwell told his Web site, "when it went from a rare disease affecting a few gay men to a worldwide epidemic. Crime in New York City tipped in the mid 1990s, when the murder rate suddenly plummeted. When I heard that phrase for the first time, I remember thinking: Wow. What if everything has a tipping point? Wouldn't it be cool to try and look for tipping points in business, in social policy or in advertising or in any number of nonmedical areas?" (The writer's subtitle for his 1996 article was bottomed on the medical figure of speech: "Why is the city suddenly so much safer -- could it be that crime really is an epidemic?") This led sales-chartists to the related term viral marketing. \nLike a low-level flu, the phrase had been kicking around for years. In an endnote, Gladwell referenced a 1978 book by a University of Maryland professor of public affairs, Thomas Schelling, Micro Motives and Macro Behavior. Schelling tells me that "the first thing I published on tipping" was in a chapter of a 1972 book on neighborhood racial segregation, and he directed me to an October 1957 article on that subject in Scientific American, by Morton Grodzins, a University of Chicago political-science professor. \n"White residents, who will tolerate a few Negroes as neighbors, either willingly or unwillingly," Grodzins wrote nearly a half-century ago, "begin to move out when the proportion of Negroes in the neighborhood or apartment building passes a certain critical point. This `tip point' varies from city to city. Once it is exceeded, they will no longer stay among Negro neighbors." \nHomer Bigart, the legendary New York Herald Tribune war correspondent and later New York Times reporter, picked up the phrase in that context in a 1959 article on racial tension in Virginia. Bigart quoted the educator Robert Williams: "Exactly when the tipping point of white acceptance will be reached will depend upon the attitude of the individual white parent and upon the general white community attitude." \nSays Schelling: "The phenomenon was originally discussed in relation to residential patterns. I generalized it to many kinds of behavior in that 1978 book." Gladwell then popularized and further generalized the concept, and the warrior Rumsfeld applied it to public opinion in Iraq, thereby carrying it into every home and hearth. \nBut it is now a tired, worn-out cliche, to be avoided by fresh thinkers like the plague. (Though avoided like the plague is also a bromide, its connection to epidemiology makes it apt in this case.) \nThe predecessor phrase, critical mass, though dated, is still usable. Nuclear physicists, who took the term, coined in 1940 by Margaret Gowing of Oxford University, to mean "the minimum mass of fissile material required to sustain a chain reaction," still pout when lay writers extend its meaning to "anything large enough to achieve the desired result." The metaphor is dramatic -- there's a mushroom cloud somewhere in the background -- but it has been in active use too long. \nPointillists will look at boiling point, but that does not suggest radical change. Focal point is about convergence, not transformation. Turning point? Not a lot of bezazz, and it does not express the idea of the straw that breaks the camel's back or the little extra quantity that causes systemic shift, but it makes the point of the moment of new direction and is probably the father of tipping point. \nThe difficulty in finding a forceful, colorful synonym demonstrates how the Grodzins coinage met a semantic need. But disdainers of cliche must ask ourselves: What is it that the overuse of tipping point has reached?
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