Q: I’ve been thinking lately about the often meaningless use of “going forward” in the corporate world. Do you know if there’s anyone who has looked into it—academically or etymologically or otherwise? The phrase keeps nagging at me for some reason and I feel as if there might be something interesting there.
A: We’ve written briefly about “going forward” on our blog, but your question gives us a chance to expand on that earlier posting.
Let’s back up a bit, though, before getting to the biz-speak sense of the phrase you’re asking about.
Within its entry for adverbial uses of “forward,” the Oxford English Dictionary says the word is used figuratively to mean “onward, so as to progress or advance.”
This sense of the word, the OED says, is used chiefly in the phrase “to go forward,” which means “to be in progress or ‘on foot,’ to be going on.”
The infinitive phrase is “to go forward,” and the participial form is “going forward.”
The usage isn’t as new as you might think. The OED’s earliest example is from the works of Thomas More, written sometime before he was executed in 1535:
“There must it nedes bee long ere anye good conclusion goe forwarde.”
Here are the other relevant citations:
1535: “To se that the worke of the house of the Lorde wente forwarde.” (From Miles Coverdale’s translation of the Bible.)
1766: “Mr. Burchell … was always fond of seeing some innocent amusement going forward.” (From Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield.)
1832: “Dinner was going forward.” (From Life in the Wilds, a parable by the political economist Harriet Martineau.)
We ourselves found many examples of this usage from newspapers published in the early- to mid-20th century.
A headline referring to the marriage of Woodrow Wilson’s daughter in 1913, from the Pittsburgh Gazette Times, reads: “Preparations Going Forward Rapidly for White House Wedding Tuesday.”
A headline about a 1936 strike in Illinois, from the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph, reads: “Business Is Going Forward in Strike Town.”
And a picture caption in a 1960 issue of the Southeast Missourian reads: “Buildings Had Been Razed Today and Site Preparations Were Going Forward.”
In all of these citations, the phrase means, generally, “continuing” or “progressing.”
But none of them convey the often empty, throat-clearing sense that’s heard in boardrooms, on the hustings, and so on today—“looking ahead,” “in the future,” “from now on,” and so forth.
This seems to be an extension of that earlier usage, though it’s hard to pin down when the new sense showed up, since many examples from the last few decades can be read two ways, in the old sense and in the new one.
What could be the earliest example may be seen in a November 1980 issue of the New York Times, reporting on a press conference by President-elect Ronald Reagan.
In response to a question, Reagan said: “I not only have confidence in Howard Baker, but I have been informed by members of the Senate that there is no friction and there is no move going forward to change in any way that his position is solid. He will be the majority leader of the Senate.”
In that quotation, however, Reagan could have meant “going forward” in the earlier sense of “progressing,” rather than “looking ahead.”
By the 1990s, clear examples of the new usage were appearing in the news media. Here’s one from the Oct. 8, 1997, issue of the Syracuse Herald Journal:
“ ‘Going forward, a nuclear plant that’s run well is a valuable source of energy,’ Sylvia said.”
We’ll finish this with a recent example of biz speak by Joe Kinahan, chief derivatives strategist at the brokerage firm TD Ameritrade:
“The past quarter was great, but going forward many companies may have problems. People are confused about what to think.”
Update: A reader, commenting on July 26, noted that ”going forward” is also used in biz speak as “a conversational spacer, like ‘moving right along.’ Example: ‘We’ve heard from Tim. Thank you, Tim. Going forward, let’s hear from Ron.’ ”
Check out our books about the English language