In linguistics, a paradigm is a set of systematically alternating items. For instance, the conjugation of a verb, or the declension of a noun, or the set of flags to the ls command. A paradigm is complementary to a syntagm, which is a set of items used in systematic combination.

Also used in philosophy to refer to a frame of mind or a frame of reference.

This word was made famous by Thomas Kuhn, when he argued that science works by establishing scientific paradigms, carrying out research in line with the paradigm, and finally, overthrowing the paradigm in favour of a newer one when too much evidence is assembled that doesn't fit.

I work for the US Government, so perhaps my view is skewed toward cynicism, but in my experience, this buzzword can be used as an accurate barometer of a meeting's relevance to the real world--the proportions are, not surprisingly, inverse.

Here's how it works. If, in a meeting, you hear the word "paradigm"
  • once, someone is dodging a tough question--you can stay in the meeting with no fear.
  • twice, something might be up. Take two dimes out of your pocket and place them on the table in front of you. Look around for others who are in on the conspiracy. Try not to laugh.
  • thrice, someone is full of shit--ignore them.
  • four times, the meeting is not really informational: someone is trying to sell something--accept as truth the opposite of what they say, and take copious notes.
  • five times, not only is the speaker full of shit, but the managers in the audience don't know any better--if you have the power to do so, end the meeting then and there. If not, do your best to leave. If this is impossible, work carefully to decipher their hidden agenda, and be ready to brief your office on it so they can dodge the sketchy proposal.
  • six times, you're living in a Dilbert cartoon or a US Gov't. contracting meeting. Consider suicide or a prolonged bathroom break.
  • seven or more times, there's only one way out. Retreat to your cubicle, make 100 copies of your resume, steal some company letterhead to forge recommendations on, and evacuate.

If you hear the phrase "paradigm shift" or "a new paradigm", it counts double. Act accordingly. Remember: many brave engineers died to bring us this information. Don't say I didn't warn you.

The paradigm concept is the idea that in any field at any given time there is a set of assumptions shared by most of those working in the field. The paradigm defines the field and shapes the rules of the game. It determines what gets studied, the methods, and how the findings are interpreted. It defines the needs addressed, who is served, and how the services.

A paradigm is entrenched and self-sustaining, and provides continuity and stability. Its tenets are defended and change is resisted. A paradigm becomes more complex and encompassing, but does not evolve.

Paradigms change through radical and sudden shifts. These occur when new discoveries, knowledge, or concepts arise which cannot be rejected or assimilated.

Par"a*digm (?), n. [F. paradigme, L. paradigma, fr. Gr. , fr. to show by the side of, to set up as an example; beside + to show. See Para-, and Diction.]


An example; a model; a pattern.

[R.] "The paradigms and patterns of all things."


2. Gram.

An example of a conjugation or declension, showing a word in all its different forms of inflection.

3. Rhet.

An illustration, as by a parable or fable.


© Webster 1913.

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