You have to read the dead-tree edition of today’s (3/10/12) Seattle Times to see it but the headline and following article pointed up a word usage curiosity. The headline was Power failure hits 28,000 customers. Opening paragraph:
A wide swath of South Seattle was affected by a power outage Friday afternoon. About 28,000 customers were without electricity.
So, was it a failure or an outage? I grew up calling them power failures. It was sometime in the 1970’s that I noticed they were becoming outages. Power outage, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, is a “period or condition in which electrical power is disconnected,” 1903, Amer.Eng.; formed on model of shortage (see short). So it’s not a word concocted in a P.R. firm’s focus group, though it seems built to order. Outage is a much more passive construction than Failure. If there is a failure, something or someone failed. If there is an outage, does that mean something or someone outed? We expect blame to be attached to failure, but what attaches to outage? When Odysseus and his crew were captured by the giant cyclops Polyphemus, Odysseus tells him that his name is Nobody. When he blinds the giant, Polyphemus calls for aid. His friends ask who has done this to him, and Polyphemus replies “Nobody.” His friends think he’s either drunk and fooling them or that the gods must have done it. As they abandoned him, I wonder if one cyclops turned to another and said, “It must have been an outage.” Update: A friend sent me a link to a John D’Anna column in the Mesa Republic last summer:
I had an old editor who was a stickler about that phrase. I learned that the first time I blithely used the phrase “power outage” in a story. He invoked everyone from H.L. Mencken to Lou Grant in lecturing me about how “outage” was a made-up word that the power companies get gullible reporters to use to obfuscate the fact that they screwed up and left us all sweating in the dark. Needless to say, I learned my lesson, and “failure” became an integral part of my storm-coverage vocabulary, not to mention my career path. Read more: https://tinyurl.com/y7e8claj