Buzzword of the Week: Tent Pole

In the testosterone-laden enclaves of America's business class, buzzwords tend to be a bit manly. Often drawing from military or frontier jargon, they suggest a sharp-edged world where technology, violence and earthy humor combine to ensure that only the strong survive. In this context, it's hardly surprising that the occasional sexual reference seeps in, often disguised as something far less controversial.

Perhaps the best example is "tent pole," a term that refers to a company's most promising or prominent product. Generally, a tent pole generates most of an organization's income, making it possible for workers to make products that may be less profitable.

The term's origins are murky: Some scholars have linked it to the military or to circuses, and one of its permutations -- "long pole in the tent" -- makes particular sense when connected to the big top. However, the term has particular resonance for anyone who is familiar with male anatomy and the often involuntary response to -- ahem -- arousing stimuli.

Tent Poles at the Movies

As for the pioneer who coined its usage, Hollywood stalwart Variety claims responsibility, listing the word in its Slanguage dictionary. However, while the trade magazine may claim parentage, tent pole entered into mainstream usage in the mid-1980s, when Gina Mallet of Toronto's Globe and Mail wrote about a company in Stratford, Canada, noting that it was "the tent pole of Stratford's economy." The following year, Aljean Harmetz of The New York Times quoted Paramount Pictures CEO Frank Mancuso, who used the term to describe movies that "because of content, star value or story line have immediate want-to-see and are strong enough to support your entire schedule."

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Even so, tent poles didn't really penetrate popular culture until 1992, when the phrase was featured in the film Wayne's World. While discussing Claudia Schiffer, Michael Myers' character, Wayne Campbell, proclaims, "Tent pole! She's a babe!" inspiring his faithful companion Garth (played by Dana Carvey) to moonily respond, "She's magically babelicious!"

In the years since Harmetz's article was published, tent pole has entered mainstream usage, although it's especially used to describe cinematic blockbusters. Last month, Variety classified the entire summer movie season as a "tentpole tumult," a view shared by Cineblog, which offered a handy list of 2011's expected"Tentpole Genre Releases."

This isn't to say, however, that Hollywood is the only place where tent poles support businesses. Recently, for example, The New York Times quoted MSNBC executive Phil Griffin, who described Keith Olbermann as "the tent pole at the center" of the network. Meanwhile, info-tech analysts, GPS specialists and even the U.S. Army's chief information officer are all quick to identify the long pole in the tent. In this latter context, however, the implication is not always quite so attractive: Long poles sometimes indicate an organization's biggest problem or most prominent feature.

Still, whether one is relying on tent poles to ensure a profit or searching for long poles that need to be overcome, one thing is clear: It's all but impossible to ignore a tent pole.
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