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shameless pleading

Cutting Edge / Leading Edge

Oooh it’s shiny and white and it has rounded corners and who cares what it does?

Dear Word Detective: I was just reading about yet another “suite of products supported by cutting-edge technologies that insure….” A few years back I was studying electronics in college, and in those days we called them “leading-edge” technologies. The analogy was to a square-wave voltage signal in which each pulse has a leading edge and a trailing edge. Of course, the leading edge always gets there first. To me, “cutting-edge” doesn’t mean much except to the knife-sharpener manufacturers of the world. So my hypothesis is that somewhere along the line, the “leading-edge” morphed into “cutting-edge,” which probably sounds better to people who do not think about square waves a lot. Is there any evidence that “leading-edge” came before “cutting-edge”? — William Blum.

Oh goody, an electronics engineering question, sort of. I was fascinated by electronics as a child, and wanted an oscilloscope for my birthday when I was twelve. I got a Hallicrafters shortwave radio instead, which was very cool, but I never got to hook up the cats to the scope like I had planned. I’m pretty sure I could have discovered things they didn’t want me to know. But instead I whiled away my nights with Radio Moscow and learned that cats are hopelessly bourgeois and therefore unreliable allies of the proletariat. Duh!

“Cutting-edge” and “leading-edge” are both adjectives used (especially in product promotional materials and corporate “mission statements”) to mean “At the forefront or most advanced stage of development; highly innovative or pioneering.” Both are also used as nouns (without the hyphens) to mean that highly-advanced state of awesomeness (“Professors, commonly assumed to be on the leading edge of thought…” Fortune, 1983). “Cutting-edge” and “leading-edge” are most often used in the context of technology (computers, cell phones, flying cars, etc.), and only rarely do we read of “cutting edge quilts” or “leading-edge pot roast recipes.”

“Cutting edge” actually preceded “leading edge,” first appearing in a literal sense (the sharp edge of a knife or other cutting implement) in the early 19th century. The modern figurative use appeared in the mid-1800s, and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “A dynamic, invigorating, or incisive factor or quality, especially one that delivers a decisive advantage. Hence: the latest or most advanced stage in the development of something; the forefront, especially of a movement.” The general sense is of a sharp edge cutting through and beyond established norms, conventional expectations and traditional barriers to progress.

“Leading edge” also appeared in the 19th century, and while the phrase is used, as you say, to mean the “upswing” of an electrical pulse, that meaning didn’t appear until around 1945. The initial meaning of “leading edge” was in reference to the forward edge of the blade of a screw propeller (such as on a ship) that cuts through the water. Later use applied the term to the wing surfaces of an aircraft and even the forward edge of a moving plate in the surface of the earth. Use of “leading edge” to mean “The forefront or vanguard, especially of technological development” (OED) didn’t appear until 1977.

Perhaps because we have developed a more justifiably skeptical attitude towards technological progress in the past few decades, “leading edge” (which implies linear advancement) seems to be less popular today than the old (and less grandiose) “cutting edge.” Or maybe “leading edge” just reminds too many people of corporate hucksters making techno-utopian promises that either didn’t pan out or turned out to be bad ideas. A more recent term that takes that uncertainty into account is “bleeding edge,” which appeared in the early 1980s. “Bleeding edge” technology is highly advanced but still experimental, unpolished, and still at least somewhat risky. The “bleeding” is clearly a play on both “leading edge” and “cutting edge,” but has also been explained as referring to the high development costs of such technology and the consequent risk of financial loss (“bleeding”) involved in “bleeding edge” projects.

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