03 April 2013

"make it pencil"

Yesterday I was reading an article about fracking in North Dakota in the March issue of Harper's magazine, when I encountered this curious sentence:
Veeder was born and raised nearby, on his father’s 3,000-acre ranch, which he now owns along with the knowledge that no one can run a ranch that small in western North Dakota and make it pencil.
The connotation is quite clear: "make it pencil" = "make it profitable."  But I had never heard that phrase before.  Never.

To Google, which yielded instances of the usage, but no explanation until I added "etymology" and managed to locate definitive information in an old favorite site - Language Log, which cites the OED referring to the use of "pencil" as a verb as early as the 17th century.  But the examples given are generally those of "pencil out," with a concluding sentence that the phrase must arise as a result of "the (not) well-known phenomenon of out-ellipsis..."

The discussion thread there also focuses on "pencil in" and "pencil out" - with a bonus of a link to a Wiktioinary list of "phrasal verbs with particle (out)" (who would have guessed there are so many?).

I'm still left a bit puzzled by the use of "to make it pencil" in that initial sentence.  Is it a regional phenomenon?  I've lived in the Midwest, Boston, Texas, Kentucky, and Missouri without ever hearing anyone speak the phrase.  Nor have I seen it in literature.  Perhaps it falls under the category of professional slang in the business community.  Any thoughts?

Addendum:  It didn't take long.  An anonymous reader offered the following:
I use this phrase quite often, and was surprised by your unfamiliarity. When I use it, it is in the context of evaluating a prospective (in my case investment real estate) transaction. To determine whether an investment can justify its purchase price, a number of variables must be considered and manipulated to forecast future performance. In my case, these are things such as changing interest rates, occupancy rates, etc. Rather than perform these calculations in the more permanent pen, and pencil is used so that one could erase & plug in different number for those variables - each of which affect the rate of return on the a potential investment. Thus, to decide if a project makes sense, it must first "pencil" - meaning that the most obvious variables have been taken into account, and the potential income still justifies the purchase price. Of course, most of us use spreadsheets and computers instead of actual pencils nowadays, but the principle remains the same.

8 comments:

  1. I can't help you out, I'm afraid. I can only say that my reaction to this was whether 3,000 acres was too big or too small an operation!

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    1. Way too small, apparently, even though it's already an amalgamation of even smaller ones that went under:

      "His ranch is typical in having been cobbled together bit by bit from smaller farms of homesteaders busted in the Dust Bowl."

      Delete
  2. Could it be a typo in the article? I hope it's not, it's quite an evocative phrase.

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    Replies
    1. My first thought was a typo or a spellchecker glitch, but after looking stuff up, that's not the case.

      Delete
  3. I use this phrase quite often, and was surprised by your unfamiliarity. When I use it, it is in the context of evaluating a prospective (in my case investment real estate) transaction. To determine whether an investment can justify its purchase price, a number of variables must be considered and manipulated to forecast future performance. In my case, these are things such as changing interest rates, occupancy rates, etc. Rather than perform these calculations in the more permanent pen, and pencil is used so that one could erase & plug in different number for those variables - each of which affect the rate of return on the a potential investment. Thus, to decide if a project makes sense, it must first "pencil" - meaning that the most obvious variables have been taken into account, and the potential income still justifies the purchase price. Of course, most of us use spreadsheets and computers instead of actual pencils nowadays, but the principle remains the same.

    (BTW I rarely comment, but since here I am, I might as well use the opportunity to thank you, Stan, for your interesting & insightful blog. Cheers!)

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    Replies
    1. Well, thank you, anonymous person. That's pretty much a definitive answer. I'll boost it up to the body of the post.

      Thank you for adding to the content of TYWKIWDBI.

      Delete
  4. I would also add that I've heard this phrase quite a bit as well -- so I was very familiar with it. Usually it's in the context of "Let's see if it will pencil out...", which means "to pencil" or "it pencils" are less common, but not unusual usage.

    However, I am curious about geographic or different economic sectors use of this phrase? I'm on the West Coast, and I've heard it in both a technical content (as in -- run the numbers, see if the engineering analysis shows it will work), and from a business/financial sense (as in -- run the financial numbers and see if the bottom line justifies the investment..) I also sometimes hear the phrase "to sharpen your pencil" meaning to go back and relook at the analysis to see what is needed to make the analysis work.

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  5. "pencil it out" was a common phrase my dad would use to explain/help me understand the decisions he made when money was tight... or basically any major project or transaction.

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