Sun, Jul 27, 2003 - Page 9 News List

The `tipping' point is the point where things change

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

"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."

With 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."

Then 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.

In 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.)

The 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."

"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.

Like 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.

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