I read this in John Avlon's May 12th column in The Daily Beast: “A more accurate means of measuring listeners showed that conservative talkers’ ratings had either declined or flatlined in the heat of the 2010 election. . . .”

To me, the verb "flatline" means "die" and is derived from the straight line displayed on an emergency-room monitor attached to a patient who has expired. Avlon was using it in the sense "hold steady."

So I checked with Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that both meanings are valid. Avlon's sense is derived from the line on a graph which neither rises nor falls, but remains steady. The meaning I was thinking of refers to a sudden drop to nothingness.

Unfortunately, these two incompatible meanings emerged at roughly the same time. According to the OED the first published use of the “hold steady” meaning occurred in 1976, and the first use of the second meaning in 1980, where William Safire commented on it in his “On Language” column in the New York Times.

So now we have a common term which can be very confusing if the context doesn't make clear which meaning is meant. That’s something for writers to keep in mind.


Anonymous said...

The power of the word comes from to succumb to go to "zero" not to "remain unchanged" which can be greater or less than zero. Flatline is a slang term that may relate to the concept plateau but with a negative inference. I would be interested in the lexicography that Oxford applied to "create" their definition.

Paul Brians said...

Here are the relevant sections from the OED. The "hold steady" meaning is older than the "drop to zero" meaning.

2. trans. To maintain at a constant level; to freeze or cap (a budget, spending, etc.). Also intr.: to remain static, fail to grow. Cf. flatline n. 1b.

1976 Big World, Small Format v. 206 O.E.C.A.'s production budget, which has been ‘flat-lined’ for a five-year period, at the $5 million level.

1994 Extel Examiner (Nexis) 23 Feb., Stock prices flatlined in thin trading as investors came up empty handed in their search for incentives to buy or sell.

2001 Guardian 1 May 18/4 Their share of the vote has flatlined at about 33-34% leaving Tony Blair heading straight for another 100-plus Commons majority.

2009 Herald-Times (Bloomington, Indiana) 3 June a6/3 Council member Julie Thomas called for flatlining the 2010 budget.

3. intr. orig. Med. slang. Of a person: to register a flatline on an electrocardiogram or electroencephalogram; to suffer cardiac arrest or brain death; to die. Also in extended use: to fail, cease to be viable. Cf. flatline n. 1b.

1980 W. Safire in N.Y. Times Mag. 9 Nov. 16/2 ‘To flatline’ is to expire, a verb taken from the lack of activity on the scope measuring vital signs.

1984 W. Gibson Neuromancer iii. 50 [He] flatlined on his EEG.‥ ‘Boy, I was daid.’

1991 Atlanta Jrnl. & Constit. (Nexis) 9 Aug. s1 The engine, choked with grime, flatlined years ago.

2007 Reykjavik Grapevine 15 June 5/2 Icelandic nature, literature and even the language itself seem to be flat-lining.

2009 N.Y. Mag. 15 June 90/1 Then his monitor went off—he flatlined.

Arrne said...

The way I see it, the problem only arose when medical jargon entered the public domain; probably through entertainment media.
Although I have to admit I was only aware of the ECG meaning until now. This meant that stocks flatlining was far more serious to me than to Wall Street!