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Q From Joe Whalen: I don’t find shovel-ready on your site. I’ve heard it quoted as a buzzword of our new president for a property that’s ready for construction and development. I’ve known the word for years and was surprised that so many didn’t. It also doesn’t appear in any dictionaries that I’ve consulted.

A It has caused much comment among the lexicographical classes — it was voted Word Most Likely to Succeed in the annual contest of the American Dialect Society in early January 2009 and became the Word of the Year 2009 for the Australian Macquarie Dictionary in February 2010.

It’s easy to make the case that even in early 2009 it already had succeeded. It was to be found all over the press. It was noted as Washington’s newest buzzword in a journal piece in early December 2009. Its popularity, as you say, is largely due to the transition team of the president-elect from November 2008 on. One major aim was to build a stimulus package to create new jobs, but it had to be for projects that were primed to go — ready for the first shovel to be wielded on site. (We British might prefer to speak of spades at such moments, since we always prefer to call a spade a spade, except when it’s paired with a pick; but perhaps the mental link is with powered earth-moving equipment rather than the humble handled tool.)

Though the Obama team made shovel-ready their own, as you say, they certainly didn’t invent it. It was already becoming widely used in the preceding months, as state governments battled against the recession by authorising stimulus packages involving public works. Some of these aimed to get sites ready for development, including obtaining planning permissions, cleaning up contamination and laying roads and services. But the term goes back much further. Benjamin Zimmer, of Visual Thesaurus, found this:

Brewer noted that projects seeking approval from the state Board of Education have to be “shovel ready.”

Worcester Telegram & Gazette, 22 Feb. 1995.

It becomes steadily more widely recorded during the remainder of the decade and on into the first years of the current century, picking up in popularity even more from about 2003.

Where it comes from is, as so often, far from clear. A piece in the Washington Post on 8 January 2009 tried to trace it to its roots. The writer found, a Web site maintained by an electrical utility, National Grid. Art Hamlin, its upstate New York economic development director, said that his company started using the term — by implication inventing it — in the late 1990s; they registered the domain in 1998.

It would be nice to be able to say that that’s where it came from, but the writer of the article acknowledged that somebody else may have got to it first and — as Ben Zimmer has shown — the term is at least three years older. Its unsung inventor probably doesn’t even realise he created a term that has become closely associated with the new US administration.

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Page created 31 Jan 2009; Last updated 06 Feb 2010