Friday 9 December 2011


If you potter about the business world for even five minutes you're liable to come across the word streamline, often as a verb. This may seem curious, given that streams tend to meander in curvy and inefficient fashion, simply taking the route of least resistance, and heading permanently downhill - all things that businesses try to avoid.

Properly speaking, though, the streamline is a very precise scientific idea. It is a situation where the direction of any given particle moving past a surface is equal to the tangent of the curve of the surface at that point.

A tangent is, of course, a straight line that touches (tangibly) a curve (as in the picture at the top right). So if an object is of just the right shape and put in a stream in just the right place it will have a minimal deflection of the flow.

The word streamline was invented in 1868 and spent the next 65 years as a proper scientific term, appearing only in stern academic papers on inviscid fluid, until it was taken out one night by the poet Stephen Spender, who got the word drunk, took her honour from her, and included her in a bit of a poem about sunset. Now, shamed and denuded of her original sense, she is, I'm afraid, in business.

The Inky Fool has a new car


  1. going to look out for your book in the shops tomorrow. By the way, your strapline under your name says 'the' twice. I'm trying to think why this might be deliberate, but have decided it can't be.

  2. route or path of least resistance?

  3. I can't see the poem after your link; Google books tells me "You have reached a page that is unavailable for viewing." Alas! I wanted to read the first nonscientific usage.

  4. Fran, I shall try and do something about the strapline, it seems to be a typographic stutter.
    Ingrid, I've no idea whether it has to be route or path, I just go with the flow.
    At last, further than Edinburgh or Rome
    Beyond the crest of the world, she [a train] reaches night
    Where only a low streamline brightness
    Of phosphorous on the tossing hill is white.

    So the last bit of brightness behind the hills in the West resembles the steam and streamline of the express train.

  5. Whatever flow you go with, 'root' is just silly in this context.