Word Watch 2013: Lean In

ski, lean in

As flashy and fun as the terms selfie and binge-watch are, it’s important to keep in mind another, more business-casual buzzword of 2013: lean in. This term existed before Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg started using lean in to encourage women to embrace challenge and risk in the workplace.

Traditionally lean in has been used in the context of sports to mean “to shift one’s body weight forward or toward someone or something.” In water and snow sports, you can lean into a wave, the wind, a slope, or a turn. You can lean in to a pitch, or throw, or catch as well. But this kind of leaning does not capture Sandberg’s metaphorical extension of lean in. Ben Zimmer points out perhaps the earliest example of leaning in a business environment from a 1941 issue of Princeton Alumni Weekly: “Kent Cooper is leaning into it at Columbia Business.” This more figurative type of leaning echoes earlier extended usages. In his 1906 Poetry and the Individual, Hartley Burr Alexander uses the phrase “leaning into the future.” Similarly Frances C. Sparhawk’s 1892 Onoqua contains the sentence “Her soul flashed back from the dark valley over which she had been leaning into the full sunlight of life,” in a description of a woman daydreaming inside a room.

As Motoko Rich pointed out in her New York Times piece “Making a Word Meme,” the phrase lean in has taken on a life of its own since Sandberg’s much-anticipated book release in March 2013. Rich writes, “the phrase can be almost anything,” and its “fungibility” is a big reason why it has caught on. Katie J.M. Baker of Jezebel compiled a list of headlines in which Sandberg’s sense of lean in has been “co-opt[ed]…for the purposes of (at worst) shaming women and (at most ridiculous) making inane non sequiturs about ladythings.”

While Sandberg uses lean back in opposition to lean in in her book, the Internet has offered up other terms to describe the same concepts. One article in Wired talks of “lean-in and opt-out feminists,” while various articles in Forbes use “leaning back,” “leaning out,” and “leaping in” in meditations on Sandberg’s philosophy. In addition to these verbal spin-offs of lean in that have surfaced in 2013, conceptual offshoots have also appeared: “Lean In Circles” have started popping up in companies, and participation is not always exclusive to women. According to the New York Times, “‘Lean In” has also spoken to men in minority groups who say they have wanted more empowerment in company cultures dominated by whites.”

2013 has seen the term lean in explode not just in reference to gender equality in the workplace, but also far beyond the context Sandberg specifically discusses in her book. Do you think this earns this adaptive phrase the lofty title of Word of the Year? Let us know what you think.

In our next installment of Word Watch 2013: a multitasking suffix that helped to form one of the American Dialect Society’s “most creative” words of 2012. Do you know what it is?


  1. Barbara Scott -  April 15, 2016 - 6:58 am

    Brené Brown uses “lean in” at least a dozen times in her book “The Gifts of Imperfection”: “I’m learning that recognizing and leaning into the discomfort of vulnerability teaches us how to live with joy, gratitude and grace.” The book’s copyright is 2010, three years before Sandberg’s. Brown’s book may not have turned lean in into a meme, but Sandberg probably read Brown’s NY Times bestseller and paid her the ultimate compliment.

  2. Mike -  March 28, 2014 - 7:41 pm

    How about “going forward” which became a meme seemingly overnight? Perhaps it will next be compounded into “leaning in and going forward.”

  3. JJ -  February 11, 2014 - 2:53 pm

    Isn’t “lean in” two words? “Tilt up” is architectural jargon, but you don’t hear even the haughty archetypes claim they’ve invented a new word. Leave word creation to one more capable of it, Dr. Seuss.

  4. wolf tamer and coal miner -  February 3, 2014 - 4:05 am

    I have not heard “lean in” in these contexts.

  5. yolo -  January 15, 2014 - 5:15 pm

    when I clicked on this I though it was spongebob >.>

  6. syed -  December 16, 2013 - 7:25 am

    no meaning no value just a hype, if the word doesn’t exist then it has no value otherwise new born and growing babies bring such words evrday.

  7. jenny r -  December 13, 2013 - 3:13 pm

    Right on, Suzieque. Your comment about the from-to construction was on the mark.
    I could never see this as Word of the Year, considering I haven’t heard the phrase used in any of the contexts described as current. It doesn’t make sense that a word/phrase that is used only in one tiny niche could be considered the “Word of the Year”.

  8. Suzieque -  December 13, 2013 - 8:06 am

    This was (partially) an interesting post, but it bothers me greatly when people who presume to comment on language usage can’t read. “Her soul flashed back from the dark valley over which she had been leaning into the full sunlight of life,” is not an instance of leaning in!

    Her soul flashed back __from__ (the dark valley over which she had been leaning) in__to__ the full sunlight of life.

    This is a from-to construction. I have a hard time taking you seriously when you miss things like this.

  9. Mao Marx -  December 13, 2013 - 6:14 am

    Hi Jane, it’s looking like you unfortunately have some pathological issues to deal with, as some of your topics seem regretfully ANDROPHOBIC, ignorant and bigoted. That’s really sad.

    I hope you get help soon and live a happier life.

  10. Common Sense -  December 12, 2013 - 3:19 pm

    What? Never heard it. What kind of tool thinks this is a “thing”?


  11. jjOli -  December 12, 2013 - 10:10 am

    Lean in isn’t well known or even well used according to the ‘modern’ definition. It should not be the Word of the Year for so many reasons. There has to be a better word out there, like ‘a’.

  12. wolf tamer and tree puncher -  December 11, 2013 - 2:35 am

    Thanks. I agree with kfer as well. Selfie should not be in the dictionary. Here’s my idea: We make a special slang dictionary for words like “twerk” and “selfie.” Then, people will be able to look those kinds of words up, without them being in the official dictionary.

  13. Melanie -  December 10, 2013 - 2:16 pm

    No, definitely not the Word of the Year! Who uses it other than unimaginative people co-opting Sandberg’s verbiage? Come on, there has to be a better choice for word of the year.

  14. Jarod -  December 10, 2013 - 10:47 am

    Twerk should be the word, Its funny.

  15. Kayleigh -  December 9, 2013 - 8:00 pm

    I do not think that this should be word of the year. Sheryl Sandberg’s philosophy has many flaws that will unfortunately impact women in a negative way.

  16. Johnny -  December 9, 2013 - 7:56 pm

    No, definitely not “Word of the Year,” unless you also struggle to distinguish plural from singular, and intend to include all those derivatives too. Could you possibly brown nose Sandberg more? The popularity of 60 million flies doesn’t make it, or her, important. Women are in fact not a minority, they just vote like it. Why celebrate that?

  17. sarah -  December 9, 2013 - 2:55 pm

    a euphoria surrounding art, music, etc.

  18. DarkWingedAngel -  December 9, 2013 - 9:16 am

    I agree with you too, Wolf tamer and tree puncher.

  19. DarkWingedAngel -  December 9, 2013 - 9:15 am

    I agree with you, Kfer. And you, Ravyn.

  20. wolf tamer and tree puncher -  December 8, 2013 - 6:50 am

    I like this phrase for its flexibility.

    We have Google for that. And Dictionary.com Blog articles.

  21. linda Gunther -  December 6, 2013 - 11:20 pm

    ‘lean in’ [for me] is the pivotal balance or stance I always tried to obtatin when walking. Opposed to a backwards lean which invariablly caused me to fall. Pays to kmow one’s center of balance when one is physically disabled, as well.

  22. Ravyn -  December 6, 2013 - 7:52 am

    Twerk should be in the dictionary. For the people that have heard the word but needed to look it up to learn what it meant.

  23. kfer -  December 6, 2013 - 7:36 am

    i mean come on its used alot you hear it almost every day and people post selfies every day its amazing that this world was already made word of the year . I mean damn what the hell selfie was just some type of slang it souldnt be in the dictionary its just stupid

  24. kfer -  December 6, 2013 - 7:29 am

    its weird thats its the most used word ever pretty much


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