Just in time for the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, linguist Neal Whitman has been thinking about a phrase that seems to guarantee victory: win-win situation. What does this "no-lose" proposition really mean?

As the 21st Winter Olympic Games begin, we can expect to be awed by the performances of athletes from the United States and around the world. For them to have made it to the Olympics at all is a tremendous achievement. So it has been a source of annoyance for me over the years that some of the commentators and interviewers seem to radiate the attitude that anything less than a gold medal is a loss. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, they convey that merely podiuming is not enough; that second place is really just first loser; that the Olympic events are zero-sum games.

Thoughts like these got me to thinking about the term zero-sum game and its near-opposite, win-win situation.  Zero-sum game, referring to a game in which a win for one participant is necessarily a loss for the others, comes to us from John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern in their 1944 book Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, which launched game theory into mainstream economics. The actual term for the opposite of a zero-sum game is non-zero-sum game, a game in which a win for one participant does not necessarily mean a loss for the others. However, this term has not caught on so readily in the popular language. On the other hand, the name for one possible outcome of a non-zero-sum game, namely win-win situation, has been taken up enthusiastically enough to have become a cliché.

Surprisingly, win-win situation does not appear in von Neumann and Morgenstern's book. The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest attestation for it comes in 1962, and for two decades afterward, it seems to have been in limited use.The term gained popularity in the 1980s, helped along by books on management and negotiation such as Stephen R. Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and by the mid-1990s had outlasted its welcome in the ears of some speakers. In 1993, it made the gimmicky annual list of banned words put out by Lake Superior State University. In December 1999, linguist Geoff Nunberg called out win-win in a versified commentary for the NPR show "Fresh Air," bidding farewell to the clichés of the 20th century: "Let's lose 'win-win,' that favorite phrase / Of all the Harvard MBAs...." As recently as November of last year, the Plain English Campaign included win-win situation in its list of annoying pieces of corporate jargon.

Being a cliché has long been grounds for disapproval from language watchers. However, creation of ambiguity has also been a frequent basis for complaints (case in point: the rampant confusion arising from the use of sentence-initial however). So I am surprised that of all the complaints about win-win that I've read, none focuses on an ambiguity-generating new meaning that has been impinging on the clichéd meaning's semantic territory for almost as long as win-win has been around. In addition to what I'll call the "everybody wins" meaning, the OED also notes what I'll call the "I can't lose" meaning: a situation in which "all possible outcomes are favourable."

This is ambiguity of the worst kind, given that an "I can't lose" situation may well be a "you can't win" situation — not just a zero-sum game, but a rigged zero-sum game, about as far from the original meaning of win-win as you can get. (Granted, if the other meaning of win-win were "a rare kind of butterfly whose wings taste like chocolate," that would be even farther from the original meaning, but you get my point.) Consider this statement from the Centre for Applied NonViolent Action & Strategies: "A dilemma action is a situation in which any response from the opponent will result in a negative outcome. Nonviolent strategists think of how to create a 'lose-lose' framework for the opponent and 'win-win' framework for the movement." When CANVAS says "win-win," they mean "we can't lose," and woe to the opponent who thinks it's good news that CANVAS is seeking a win-win.

Or how about this one, from a blog celebrating Ohio State University athletics? The writer says of OSU's rival the University of Michigan: "[R]ooting for an awful Michigan team is a win-win in the end. If they win, they do the conference good and if they lose, hey, it's still a Wolverine loss."

These examples are from 2008 and 2009, but the "can't lose" meaning seems to have developed only a decade or so after win-win's original meaning. From the March 11, 1977 Lyon County (Texas) Reporter: "Goodman feels that he is in a win-win situation. If he doesn't win the election, he will at least have gained a new experience."

Furthermore, there's even a third meaning that has developed more recently for win-win situation: a situation in which one participant in one outcome wins, but wins in a way that carries a double benefit — you may be more familiar with this as "killing two birds with one stone." From December 2008: "This, I suspect, will lead to a better class of 'public servant' as well as more competent legal talent. A 'win-win,' as they say." And from back in 1990, an example from the Corpus of Contemporary American English: "Don says his proposal is a 'win win' proposition for hotels. ... He feels he can attract disabled travelers and convince those who have had bad experiences to try again."

From a linguistic point of view, all three meanings are reasonable. If you didn't already know the meaning of win-win, you could easily come up with any of the three as a guess. It just so happened that it was assigned the "everybody wins" meaning first. Perhaps it was inevitable that such other meanings would develop, but I have a couple of guesses about possible influencing factors.

One possibility is semantic spillover from the term no-win situation. Although it does have a "nobody wins" meaning (parallel to "everybody wins" for win-win), the more common meaning seems to be one of "can't win" (parallel to "can't lose" for win-win). Or to use a more idiomatic phrasing, it's the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" meaning.

As for the other possible influence, suppose you have the "everybody wins" meaning for win-win, and you say something is "a win-win situation for you and me." That might sound redundant, given that win-win in this sense has to apply to the two of us together — it can't apply to just you or just me. (A linguist would say that win-win is a "collective predicate.") It's not necessarily redundant, though, since you may have needed to distinguish us from all the other possible individuals who could have been in the situation. But now suppose a hearer who doesn't know the meaning of win-win hears this statement. That hearer could easily arrive at a distributive reading instead of a collective one: win-win for you, and win-win for me. Then the question is figuring out the meaning. The "everybody wins" meaning is collective, so it's out. The "can't lose" meaning occurs to the hearer; it works with a distributive reading; it clicks as a new meaning for win-win.

Still and all, linguistic unremarkableness offers little protection from a grammar pundit's disapproval. I guess when it comes to win-win, it's one complaint at a time, and the current complaint is that it's overused. Well, good news: I think the Olympics are one topic of discussion where this won't be a problem.