Photo illustration of manager with pink slip and ax.
Photo illustration of manager with pink slip and ax. - 
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Kai Ryssdal: Another 650,000 people started collecting unemployment checks last week. Fewer than expected but still near record highs. One might say, "Wow, that's a lot of pink slips." But why would you say that? Where'd that particular phrase come from? We've called somebody who's in a position to know. Jesse Sheidlower is an editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary. Good to have you with us.

Jesse Sheidlower: Good to be here. Thank you.

Ryssdal: So can you help us out with pink slip, and where it came from?

SHEIDLOWER: Not entirely. Because I'm afraid that nobody really knows exactly where it comes from. What most people will say is that people used to get fired from jobs by getting a notice on pink paper. That sounds, obviously, completely sensible. The problem is no one has found evidence for this actually happening. Historians have spent a great deal of effort looking into all sorts of records for a literal example of a pink slip being used to fire someone and has never found them.

Ryssdal: Wait a minute. So someone made it up, and it just stuck?

SHEIDLOWER: Well, what happens is that we have evidence from around the turn of the last century in a number of different contexts where a pink slip is something critical in various ways. The very earliest example we have is where a pink slip is a note sent to a typographer indicating that he's made a mistake. And if you got enough of them then you would be fired. Yet another intermediate one in 1905 where a pink slip is specifically a rejection letter from a magazine. So a writer would submit a story, and it would get a pink slip back, meaning that the story was rejected. So clearly there is something going on at around this time where pink slip is being used to refer to various kinds of rejection.

Ryssdal: Is it an Americanism? Or do they have the same thing in say the UK, or in Russia, or in India?

SHEIDLOWER: No, it is an Americanism. But one of the interesting things about it is that in other countries they have different colors to refer to dismissal from a job. So in Germany the expression is to get the blue letter. In the French military, you would be dismissed with a yellow paper, carte jaune.

Ryssdal: So it's been a 100 or so years since this phrase started. And yet here we find ourselves in an age where people are dismissed by text message and voice mail. Why do you think it stuck around so long?

SHEIDLOWER: Well, once the expression sticks there's no reason for it to go away. We still talk about dialing a phone, even though phones don't have dials anymore. So once an expression is established, the ultimate meaning, even if we don't know what it is, doesn't necessarily have any relevance. And people keep using it even if the original meaning has changed, or we've forgotten what it is, or if we never knew.

Ryssdal: Jesse Sheidlower. He's an editor-at-large at the Oxford English Dictionary. Mr. Sheidlower, thanks a lot for your time.

SHEIDLOWER: Thanks for having me.