OnWords: 'Inflection Point'

Mar 19, 2019

“Inflection point” is a term originating in mathematics that describes the point on a curve at which the direction of the curve changes.

Business seems to have picked up on “inflection point,” broadening the term to refer to any moment of significant change. This makes sense in a realm like business, plotting out the curves that describe an ever-shifting bottom line.

But the term “inflection point” has made a turn into the larger world, now being applied to points of change in social, political, and cultural trends.

Recently, I heard our overall ideas about race as being at an “inflection point,” perhaps harkening back to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s contention that “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” An inflection point could go either way, though, so perhaps describing racial issues this way is as much a warning as an aspiration.

For someone interested in language, though, it’s hard to pass this term by without focusing in on the “inflection” part, with its denotation of the shifting pitch of the spoken word.

Syllables are defined by what’s aspirated or voiced, what’s ploded or stopped, and even if you speak a language like English in which meanings of words are not changed by inflection, you know instinctively that inflection determines words’ emotional content.

“Inflection point,” then, notes significant change, change we can measure numerically, intellectually, emotionally.

Expect to hear it more as the culture continues to boil.