Do Brainstorms Cause Thunder and Enlightening?

By Rob Kyff

July 29, 2020 3 min read

We've all been there. You and your colleagues are brainstorming during a Zoom session, shouting out any idea that comes into your heads, no matter how absurd it might be. And then, after this exhilarating session of free-range thinking, you collectively decide to rename your company "Covid."

That's brainstorming for you. When it works, we have the wheel, antibiotics and the iPhone. When it fails, we have the Edsel and Betamax.

The history of the word "brainstorm" is, appropriately enough, zany. When "brainstorm" first appeared during the 1890s, it referred to something decidedly negative: a violent, temporary mental derangement or a serious error of judgment, "a storm in the brain."

The term first grabbed widespread public attention in 1907 during the sensational trial of millionaire Harry Thaw for the murder of famed architect Stanford White. Thaw's attorneys claimed their client had suffered a "brainstorm."

But during the 1920s, "brainstorm," perhaps influenced by the early 1900s term "brain wave" ("a flash of inspiration") acquired a more positive meaning: "a creative idea." The first use of brainstorm with this sense, "He had a brainstorm," appeared in the magazine College Humor in 1925, and we still use the noun "brainstorm" this way today, e.g., "Executives at HGTV had a brainstorm" (The New York Times, Sept. 3, 2019).

The use of the verb "brainstorm" and the gerund "brainstorming" to describe the process of creative group thinking emerged during the 1930s. One of its first appearances in print came in the Times Recorder of Zanesville, Ohio, on Sept. 5, 1940, which referred to "eager volunteer brainstorming by ambitious army enthusiasts."

The term gained popularity when advertising wizard Alex Faickney Osborn, a founder of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn, touted the brainstorming process in his 1942 book "How To Think Up."

The expression "brainstorming" has not been without controversy. In 2005, a group of civil servants in Britain, presumably recalling the original "mental derangement" meaning of "brainstorm," deemed "brainstorming" politically incorrect because it might offend people with brain disorders.

In recent years, management gurus and group facilitators, judging the term "brainstorming" too violent and tempestuous, have brainstormed to devise softer terms for idea-generating sessions. These range from "suggest fests," "brain surfing" and "excogitation" to "thought spitting," "mind showers" and "thought showers."

When it brains, it pours.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: stux at Pixabay

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