Is a Lot of ‘Learnings’ a Dangerous Thing?

The other day I got an email from a colleague, Richard Gordon, which opened up:

I officially surrender on this one: “trainings” and “learnings” and other plural gerunds. …

Even academic papers now include the plural of gerunds:

“Expanding the Pipeline: Key Learnings on Retaining Underrepresented Minorities and Students with Disabilities in Computer Science  from CRA Bulletin”

Coincidentally, just a few days earlier, the same thing had come up on a Facebook thread about new words and phrases. A friend commented “the absolute worst is ‘Learnings.’ My brain needs a reboot every time I hear it, as in, ‘What were the learnings from the meeting?’”

I had to confess, learnings was a new one on me, but I quickly learned it’s definitely not a new one. While learning is traditionally a noncount or mass noun meaning the act of acquiring new knowledge, the Oxford English Dictionary has a definition of it as a count noun meaning “a lesson, instruction,” with citations dating back to Piers Plowman in 1362 and including this line from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline:  “The king … Puts to him all the Learnings that his time Could make him the receiuer of.” That is the final citation, and the definition has a dagger next to it, indicating obsolete status.

But the obsolete status is obsolete. Commenting on the Facebook thread, Mike Pope noted that that very day, the OED had responded to a question on the subject on Twitter:

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In fact, the revival of learnings seems to have started before that. This Google Ngram Viewer chart indicates a spike in use from about 1920 to 1960.

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Most of the uses in that period came from the field of education. A 1930 edition of a physical-education journal gave this report of a conference address:

He then made the following points: Learnings in character are subject to the same laws and principles as learnings in the ordinary intellectual fields. … Direct learning, however, will probably be the smallest part of the processes. Therefore concomitant learnings must be as carefully planned. …

Learnings seems to have made its move to the corporate world around the turn of the 21st century and shows no signs of letting up. In a November 14 New York Times Dealbook conference, Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, said,  “One of the key learnings that I project out to folks — because we all at some point in time could be affected by this — is that you have more time to respond than you think.

The first complaint about learnings I’ve found came in 2003. In 2004 someone wrote this complete blog post: “Attention, Masters of Business Administration of Corporate America: Quit using the word ‘learnings.’ It makes you sound really stupid. The word you really want is ‘lessons.’” More peeving came in 2009.

Currently, the use of the word in academe is robust, to say the least. A Google Scholar search for learnings in 2017 alone yields 5,620 hits. The first four:

  • “Building the capacity of early childhood educators to promote children’s mental health: Learnings from three new programs” –chapter in Health and Well Being in Childhood.
  • “The digital journey: Reflected learnings and emerging challenges” –International Journal of Management.
  • Review of LCA datasets in three emerging economies: a summary of learnings” –International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.
  • “Review of LCA datasets in three emerging economies: a summary of learnings” –presentation, International Association for Energy Economics.

Was the 2004 blogger right? Does learnings make you sound stupidIt probably depends on the setting. No in a meeting on Madison Avenue, yes in the English department. It’s certainly not an affront against the English language, what with the Shakespeare pedigree and such parallel constructions as teachings, findings, leavings, and readings. Should you, as the blogger said, use lessons instead? I do discern a slight difference in connotation: lessons emphasize the data, person, or persons imparting the information, learnings the person or persons receiving it. Lessons also has a slight punitive feel, as in “learn your lesson.” (Another option is a a slightly less buzzy buzzword, takeaway.)

As for me, I would never use learnings. But that doesn’t mean a hill of beans in this world, as I learned long ago.