Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans -- John Lennon

When you think about it, the word slippage is really quite remarkable. If you spend any time at all looking up the word in various reference books -– online or otherwise -– you are quickly confronted with a jumble of potential definitions. For example, the online dictionary defines slippage this way

  • failing to hold or slipping out of place; e.g., “The knots allowed no slippage”

  • a decrease of transmitted power in a mechanical system caused by slipping of one or more components in that system
  • a decline from a standard level of performance or achievement
  • If you look it up on the American Heritage® Online Dictionary of the English Language, you will find variations on the three Wordreference definitions listed above, but you will also find the following

    • the act or an instance of slipping, especially movement away from an original or secure place

    If you look long enough, you can also find numerous additional, context-specific, definitions of slippage. There's one that applies to broker's commissions for futures contracts. There's one that applies to returned rebate checks in the retail industry. There's one that applies to psychiatric disorders ("cognitive slippage"), one that applies to the scheduling of software releases, one that applies to genetic replication, and one that applies to plate tectonics. I've seen the term used in (bad) restaurant reviews, and there's even a definition that applies to sex and condoms (where slippage should be avoided at all costs).

    So what does this tell us? Is the word slippage just a linguistic chameleon? Does it simply change its meaning at will, depending on the circumstances of its usage? Or is there something deeper going on here?

    Is there an underlying concept expressed by the word slippage that is so fundamental that it can find universal application in a wide range of seemingly unrelated topics?

    Well, yes . . . and here it is.

    It’s from a website called, if you can believe it. This site is an exhibition of from various artists, curated by Nanette Wylde, and running from July 15, 2006 to August 31, 2006. According to the site’s homepage

    Slippage exists in the grey areas of language and social interaction. It is the realm of the in-between, the place of divergence, expectations, covert meanderings, and the processes and residue of questioning minds.

    Slippage is an exhibition of which explores and exposes relationships between intention, perception, control, experience, behavior, memory, knowing, and the unexpected.

    The second paragraph is really the only one I’m going to focus on. I put the first one in mostly because I love the phrase “processes and residue of questioning minds.” It just rolls over so deliciously in my head . . .

    But I digress. The real point is that slippage is about changes in the relationship between things. Changes in the way your perception relates to reality. Changes in the way your experience and memory relate to the present or the future. Changes in the way your intention relates to your behavior.

    In a word, it’s about change. In a fancier word, it’s about divergence, just like the website says. Divergence between what is expected (based on some past experience, memory or intention) and the reality that actually occurs.

    Financial Transaction Slippage

    So in the realm of financial transactions, most notably futures contracts, slippage refers to the difference between the estimated costs associated with the anticipated transaction and the amount actually paid once the transaction has been completed. This difference can result from any number of causes. The broker could be inexperienced, or simply be having a bad day. Poor liquidity or high frictional costs resulting from, say, an extremely light market could also have an impact. But whatever the underlying reason, the net result is a divergence between the anticipated and actual transaction costs.

    Replication Slippage

    In genetics, slippage refers to an error that occurs during replication when the new DNA strand mispairs with the template strand. I’m not a geneticist, but from what I can tell, the process looks very much like a tangle in a zipper, when the individual tangs in the zippers get misaligned, creating all kinds of havoc in your pants.

    With replication slippage, though, the problem –- mutation is the scientific term, I believe –- goes way beyond a messed up pair of pants. If the mutation occurs in a coding region, it could produce abnormal proteins, leading to diseases such as Huntington’s Disease.

    Marketing Slippage

    In the world of marketing, slippage refers simply to un-cashed rebate checks. According to the webzine “Promotional Marketing Insights,” however, marketing slippage has apparently become a very hot topic recently because of its interaction with escheatment, or the reversion of unclaimed property to the states in the absence of legal heirs or claimants.

    You see, when a company sends a rebate check to a customer, and that check never gets cashed, it’s kind of an open question as to who the abandoned money belongs to. Is it the customer (who owned the check, but never cashed it), or is it the company (who never relinquished possession of the money, even after writing the check)? With rebate checks approaching, and even exceeding, $100 in many retail sectors these days, it’s not such a trivial question.

    Unlike the slippage that occurs during a single financial transaction or gene replication, however, marketing slippage can be aggregated over a large number of rebate checks. So a marketer may actually be able to predict the amount of “slippage” involved, making it not really slippage at all. More like Señor Ferrari’s proverbial “carrying charges” from Casablanca.

    Software Slippage

    It’s even worse in the software industry, where the use of the word slippage to describe what can only be described as “anticipated delays” in the announced implementation date for software became notorious. From what I understand, this situation arises when a company announces a particularly ambitious launch date -– presumably in the hopes of keeping customers from buying a rival product in the meantime -– only to move that date back weeks, month, or even years as development proceeds more slowly than announced. In this situation, what you’re really talking about is “planned” or “expected” slippage. And if that’s not an oxymoron, then it must be 1984.

    Cognitive Slippage

    This is a formal thought disorder, typically manifesting itself in speech and thought patterns, in which a patient will find herself unable to maintain a coherent string of thoughts or words as her perception of the relationship between those becomes overly broad. An example might be

    ”List some countries in Europe.”

    Germany, England, France, French Toast, waffles, bacon, and Spain.”

    The extraneous items arise from cognitive slippage – the breakdown in the patient’s thought process that kept the sequence of words pinned down to the initial question. While the extraneous items bore some logical relationship to each other, the slippage in the patient’s thought process led to a divergence between the expected and actual responses. A more extreme version of this disorder is called word salad, after the German, which occurs when a patient cannot maintain any logical sequence in words at all. That would be complete slippage.

    Condom Slippage

    This particularly unwelcome version of slippage arises when a young man is unable to make his exit from protected sex in either a sufficiently orderly or a sufficiently timely fashion to prevent the condom from slipping off while still inside his partner. This can arise for a number of different reasons. For example, the young man might fail to hold on to the condom while making his exit. He might stay inside too long, thus losing his erection, causing the condom to remain while he departs. He might put the condom on improperly. Or maybe the condom is being used for non-vaginal intercourse.

    Needless to say, condom slippage is almost universally unplanned, and the divergence it can cause between what you expect and what actually happens can be life-changing. For whatever reason, though, condom slippage, which, according to a Family Health International study, occurs at a rate of up to 12 percent, can be avoided with a few simple precautions

    • don’t reuse condoms

  • don’t use a single condom for an excessive period of time (you’ll know when that is by how loose it feels)
  • hold the rim of the condom during withdrawal
  • Life is Slippage

    So much of what happens to us in life is really just slippage. We hope for the best -- count on it, really -- then we have to deal with the fallout when things don't happen exactly as we want them to. And it's not just about success. Even the most successful people have had their dreams blow up in their faces.

    It's about failed expectations. As we go through life, we have to expect, and hope for, more than we're likely to attain. As Robert Browning said, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, else what's a heaven for?"

    The problem comes when we have fallen short of our expectations. It's going to happen. And whether you believe it or not, it's going to happen to you. You'll get older, and your body will fail. Slippage. You'll get more cynical, or more tired, and your personal relationships may suffer. Slippage. Maybe you'll live long enough to lose your mental faculties, and your entire relationship with reality will wither. Slippage.

    Well, when your perceptions fail to meet your reality, and your expectations fail to meet your results, you have only two options. You can change the results and reality, or you can change your perception and expectations.

    I'm not talking here about settling for less. If you have the opportunity to change your reality -- to make it meet your expectations -- then take it. But if not, then you have to adjust. Adjust to the slippage. If you don't, you'll just spend the rest of your life grieving your losses.

    And that's no way to live.

    Slip"page (?), n.

    The act of slipping; also, the amount of slipping.


    © Webster 1913.

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