I was listening to NPR the other day, and heard the proposed merger between Jeep and Peugeot referred to as a “tie-up.” I can’t actually find the show but there are quite a few other uses of the term, for example in an NPR story last August: “In their latest gasp for fresh ideas, Macy’s and J.C. Penney made the same choice: A tie-up with ThredUp, the largest online store for second-hand clothes.” And the New York Times in July referred to “talks of a tie-up between Fiat Chrysler and Renault.” (I guess Peugeot won out over Renault.)

I suspected a NOOB, a, because I had never encountered this meaning of “tie-up” and, b, because Americans have such a familiar and very different use of the noun. The OED defines this as: “A stoppage of work or business, esp. on account of a lock-out or strike; a stoppage of transport, a traffic hold-up.”

The dictionary’s information on merger/”tie-up” interesting. It started as a U.S. phrasal verb meaning ‘To associate or unite oneself or one’s interests with (or to).” From the New York Evening Post in 1903: “It becomes his first interest to make business for that yard. He can best do this by tying up with the other navy yard representatives on the committee.” The verb had migrated across the Atlantic by 1928, when The Daily Express wrote, ” Registered readers..have..‘tied up’ with the newspaper which..offers the best..insurance benefits,” the quotation marks indicating a relatively new usage. (I suspect also that by this time it was fading away in the U.S.)

The OED defines the noun rather generally, as “a connection or association,” and the first citation is from 1927, also from The Daily Express: “There is a tie-up, too, over this firm with the gramophone records. Every record of the ‘Happiness Boys’ is an advertisement for Happiness Chocolates.” (We might refer to that as a “tie-in.”) The citations run through 1974. All, with the exception of an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, are British, and none refer specifically to a financial merger, leading me to think that this is a rather recent usage.

I asked Michael Regan, senior markets editor at Bloomberg, the worldwide business news enterprise, and he agreed with my hypotheses. “My sense,” he wrote me, “is that ‘tie-up’ is a Britishism that has crept into the language of the American financial press over, say, the past decade.”

Better yet, he gave me some data. He was able to chart the use of both “merger” and “tie-up” in the myriad business-news sources that are published on the Bloomberg terminal. (They’re international but dominated by U.S. sources, Mike told me). He came up with two nifty graphs. This one shows the relative frequency of “merger” over the past ten years:Screen Shot 2019-12-20 at 10.33.20 AM

And here’s “tie-up”:

Screen Shot 2019-12-20 at 10.35.42 AM

It’s almost too neat: over the past five years (not ten, as Mike guessed), “merger” has fallen and “tie-up” has risen.

Mike also had a theory about “tie-up”‘s popularity:

I’ve been in financial journalism so long that I’m not sure how big of a deal they are to regular-news editors, but editors here and at other financial pubs are big sticklers for avoiding word echoes. It sort of makes sense in this corner of the journalism world, since you’re more prone to word echoes when writing about, say, a merger. And tie-up is a good synonym for merger because its short character count makes it good for headlines.

Word echoes, also known as word repetition, are what writers and editors are trying to avoid when they use what H.W. Fowler, in The King’s English (1908), called “elegant variation.” It’s the sort of thing sportswriters do when they refer to a second baseman not by name, but as “the fleet-footed second-sacker.” Fowler was not a fan, observing that “Many writers of the present day abound in types of variation that are not justified by expediency, and have consequently the air of cheap ornament.” Fowler listed many examples, including an article from the Westminster Gazette that, in the space of twenty lines, described paintings that “made, fetched, changed hands for, went for, produced, elicited, drew, fell at, accounted for, realized, and were knocked down for, various sums.”

One can only imagine what he would have made of “tie-up.”




9 thoughts on ““Tie-up”

    1. I was thinking exactly the same thing as I read this post.

      Mind you, the journalistic examples Gorman gave on his show were equally excessive. The black stuff for Marmite, and the boot-shaped country for Italy.

      1. I notice that British tennis announcers are especially fond of nationalistic second mentions. Thus Rafa is always “the Spaniard” and Monfils “the Frenchman,” etc.

  1. I hadn’t noticed “tie-up” in the “merger” sense (although now I’ll probably start hearing it all the time), but I wanted to point out that the deal between thredUP, JCPenney, and Macy’s is not a merger: it’s a partnership in which the department stores are selling used clothing provided by the reseller. It’s all part of the trend toward greater acceptance of secondhand fashion and even “trashion” (the subject of a NYTimes story today). So maybe “tie-up” is gaining ground because of its flexibility: It can signify a true merger but also other types of business, um, synergy.

    1. In the UK I would say that a relationship between two entities is more likely to be described as a tie-up than is a merger.
      Many of the Britishisms Ben has collected on this site depend on context and cultural familiarity to discern their true meaning. This is why American usage can sound somewhat jarring to British ears. The reverse is obviously true and, of course, language is constantly changing.

      1. I’ve always thought of tie-up as journalese. I’ve not heard it in everyday speech. It’s usually been merger or takeover. Tie-up sounds more general such as a licensing agreement as well as a merger.

      2. Steve, I did wonder about that. I don’t tend to follow the financial pages and I don’t think I can recall ever coming across the term in the UK.

  2. I agree with Paul that tie-up does not ring much of a bell with me, and is certainly not in my idiolect. As has been noted, perhaps its vagueness as opposed to merger is in its favour. Perhaps bizarrely, in the corpus I consulted it occurs with vastly higher than expected frequency in Indian English.

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