David C wrote this week to ask:

I know the English use 'redundant' where we USns would say 'laid off' but the question came up whether they would use 'redundant' where we would say 'obsolete' in reference to, say, a 5-year old computer.

Let's back up a bit and discuss what David's taken for granted. In AmE a company can lay off its employees but in BrE a company (or a university!) makes its employees redundant. What's a little confusing is that you can be laid off in the UK too, but it means something different. According to this site (among others) a lay-off is expected to be temporary, as opposed to a redundancy in which you really, really lose your job. But this is not the understanding in AmE, where being laid off is the equivalent of BrE redundancy.

In answer to David's question, objects can also be made redundant in BrE--if they've been made worthless, particularly because they've been superseded by something else. Both Better Half and I feel like this is not quite the same thing as obsolete, but we're a bit hard-pressed to explain exactly why. Do others have this intuition?


  1. My intuition (as opposed to looking the words up in a dictionary) is that I would use "obsolete" when a newer, better version of something is available, and "redundant" when something is not necessary. So something might be redundant because you have obtained a newer, better one (in which case it is ALSO obsolete), but might also be because you have two things exactly the same, and you only need one of them. So the second one is redundant (but not obsolete).

    So for me, one word carries connotations of "old" and the other carries connotations of "unnecessary". There is overlap, but they are not identical.

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  3. What Harriet says.

    Plus, I think there's something about 'obsolete' that's abstract, whereas 'redundant' is more personal. Obsolescence is a quality an object might have independently of any person or situation, whereas redundancy is about its superfluousness for a specific person or specific situation.

    So, what's redundant for me might not be redundant for you, but what's obsolete is more likely to be obsolete for everyone.

    There's also the sense of redundancy as a fallback, like in a safety system. It's not that it's not needed or useful; it's just not useful *right now*.

  4. My impression is that being made redundant is a British legalism. It's being dismissed because there is no longer a need for your job, and it's covered by very specific rules and processes. Perhaps the USA doesn't have quite as stringent employment laws?

  5. Laid off is used in British English to mean exactly what it means in American - the same as redundant. Redundant is a more formal term.

    As for obsolete, my computer is obsolete - it's many years old, and a lot of new software doesn't support it. But it's not redundant because I still find it useful. Redundant definitely means something isn't necessary any more.

    And that's what it means in the laying-people-off sense, as well. You're only supposed to get rid of people that way (which is easier than firing them) if you no longer need someone to do that job, which is enforced by laws against employing someone else to do the same job for a certain amount of time after making someone redundant.

  6. How insensitive of David C to ask about redundancies, considering, y'know.

    On a related note: I got the impression from the film "In Good Company" that an American who is "laid off" can also be described as "sacked"; whereas I would say one can only be "sacked" for incompetence and the like, i.e. when it's your own fault.

  7. My impression is that the AmE sense has changed within my lifetime. "Laid off" used to have the sense of a temporary shortage of work: union workers would be "laid off" during the slow season, then "recalled" when business picked up again. Someone who was permanently disemployed was simply "fired" (which could be either "for cause" or "not for cause"). This practice pretty much ceased in the late 1980s with the development of better methods for what is now called "supply-chain management", which evened out the seasonal changes in industrial employment. (There was actually an interesting speech, if you like that sort of thing, by Ben Bernanke a few weeks ago, in which he discussed precisely this change and the difference it has made in how economists look at unemployment.)

    Now, of course, the HR people talk about employees being "terminated", and a large-scale elimination of staff is called a "reduction in force"; "riffed" is a slangy word for "laid off".

  8. Maybe it was "fired", not "sacked", in "In Good Company". Same difference for me.

  9. Mollymooly,
    Fired, implies cause for termination (poor job performance).
    A layoff does not.
    - random American

  10. I don't know what employer-employee agreements are like in the UK, but every job I've ever had (in the US) has had me sign papers to the effect that I can be terminated at any time for any reason or no reason, and that I can similarly leave the position without giving a reason. This no-fault termination culture may perhaps be one reason people in the US use the word "fired" more indiscriminately than BrE speakers apparently do. Whether it's because of performance issues, cost-cutting measures, or even simple animus, the effect is the same: you're out of a job and not by choice, ergo you were "fired."

    As an AmE speaker (and class/regional differences may also come into play here), I have to say that "being made redundant" sounds a lot like "being downsized" or similar euphemisms, and my instinctive reaction is to grumble internally at the weaselly avoidance of plain language. You know, "just say 'fired' or (less emotionally) 'terminated.'" Does the phrase have those connotations in the UK, or am I projecting?

  11. I suppose I'm disagreeing with Anonymous just above me, there. Different industries and different pay scales have differnt cultures, and tend to use these words in slightly different ways. Still, I don't know anyone who would correct someone who was terminated without cause for saying they were fired. (And I know a lot of habitual correcters!)

  12. To me (Southern England English speaker), when talking about objects, processes etc. redundant means something like not needed because there is a better alternative and it applies to a particular situation. For example, my PC is redundant because I find my laptop more convenient. Obsolete is more general in its reference, something has been superseded society-wide. So, cassette players are obsolete.

  13. Anonymous, I think that used to be true: it's strongly true for my wife (65), weakly true for me (50), but younger folk tend to use fired (not sacked; I've never heard an American English speaker say that) and laid off interchangeably.

    Part of this has to do, I believe, with the rise of no-excuses culture: it used to be very important why, for example, you didn't come to work on a particular day (still true for schools, which lag behind in many respects); nowadays, nobody cares about your reasons -- if you do it to often, you are let go, that's all.

  14. To me something becoming redundant definitely has the "no longer necessary" link. Unless it's related to someone's job, in which case being made redundant means that you have lost your job and that you are also entitled to redundancy benefits (which you might not be in all circumstances).

    "Sacked" and "fired" both have negative links that you lost your job for doing something wrong - "fired" is probably stronger. "Let go" would be a neutral term.

    Lay-offs sound like a technical HR thing, whereas dismissal sounds like a technical legal thing. We're hearing about "short-time working" here at the moment too.

    "Downsized" sounds like you probably got made redundant because of "rationalisation", but they're all a bit linked with the last slump rather than the current one.

  15. Jonathan Bogart, UK employment law is _very_ different from the US. Emplyment rights are laid down under national and EU legislation. To ask someone to sign away their rights in the way you describe would be illegal (and the UK by no means has the strictest laws in Europe).

  16. Lay-off has a specific meaning in UK employment law. As others have commented, it refers to a contractual right to suspend the employment contract, eg if the employer is short of orders. It does not refer to termination of the contract. I have only ever seen a lay-off clause in "blue collar" employment contracts, eg a factory worker; I wouldn't expect to see it in a senior executive's contract.

    Being "made redundant" refers to dismissal by reason of redundancy, which under UK employment legislation may entitle the employee to financial compensation. A separate strand of UK employment law may entitle the employee to compensation if the dismissal is "unfair". Somehow it sounds better to say "I was made redundant" rather than "I was dismissed/sacked/fired". We still have the notion that being fired is something to keep quiet about, as if life-time employment is the norm, which it isn't any more.

    This is all very different from the US approach of "employment at will", where either party can terminate the employment without compensation.

  17. I grew up in the US, and when I first saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail when I was about 15 (so around 1984), I enjoyed the silliness in the opening credits and the interruptions to give apologies and say that the people responsible had been sacked.

    However, what I imagined happening when someone was sacked was other people coming up behind them, putting a huge sack over their heads, and dragging them away, a bit like the hook dragging someone offstage in vaudeville. Which is in its own way funny but is not at all what the Pythons meant.

    This is a longwinded way of saying that I've never heard "sacked" for losing a job in an American context (except for Americans who are influenced by Monty Python, but it's clearly foreign there).

  18. (this is all in an American context) The first time I lost a job rather than leaving by my own decision, I remember telling friends, "They wanted to fire me for cause, but I was meeting management objectives, so it was much easier for them just to make my position go away and lay me off."

    That was in 1993, and even then I had to include "for cause" with "fire me" to make it perfectly clear that the firing would have been for something I had done. Since then, I've heard more and more examples of "fire" and "lay off" having the same meaning though with a slightly softer tone for the latter.

    Also, yes, it is normal when starting a job in the US to have to sign documents saying that employment is at will, no contract can be implied, and either party can end the employer/employee relationship at any time. However, this is not signing away rights as it would be in an EU context, because there are no such rights. The reason for spelling out the situation is to prevent an employee from suing later with the claim that the employer had offered (and then broken) an employment contract. These papers are explicitly spelling out that no contract exists.

  19. Being made redundant in the UK gives you rights to compensation - 1 weeks' pay for every year worked, up to a maximum of 20 years, and a capped salary of £350 a week, which these days isn't an enormously high wage.

    Many employers will pay more than the legal minimum - about 8 years ago I was made redundant after 22 years for the same employer (the former British Rail before it got split up and privatised), and collected nearly 18 months' salary by the time all my outstanding holiday pay had been included - I think the Industrial Tribunal case my union brought against them taught the new privatised owners not to make people redundant in January when they have a whole years' leave entitlement to have to buy out; I heard they were getting rid of some more people last December, which would be cheaper for them!). My contract was worded, and I was sufficiently high up the pay scale, that I get to keep my free travel pass on the railways for the rest of my life.

  20. Everything that's been said about redundant and obsolete for referring to objects is consistent with what I originally wrote (and responded with by email to David C), but then Better Half made me doubt myself and I re-edited! Thanks for affirming in me my sense of semantics!

  21. The US worker (in most states) is not "signing away his [employment] rights" at all -- he's just acknowledging the "at will" nature of the employment. The purpose of the form is to prevent the employee from claiming that the employer promised to terminate only for cause.

  22. "Built-in obsolescence" - the product is designed to fail after a certain time, so that you buy a new one.

    "That version of Word is now obsolete" = out of date and Microsoft probably no longer provide maintenance services.

    "That computer key is redundant" = it doesn't serve any useful function.

  23. To those who say "redundant" has the sense of "not necessary" or "no longer necessary": Are you referring to its use in terminating employment, or its more general meaning? For the latter, I (AmE) am influenced by what I remember as my first exposure to the word: redundant systems for failsafe applications. I certainly don't think of redundant flight instruments in aircraft or redundant cooling systems in nuclear power stations as unnecessary! To me, the more central meaning of "redundant" is superfluity by virtue of duplicated potential or capability.

    I think something can be obsolete even if no better replacement is available. Obsolete to me simply means "no longer fulfills the need for which it was originally used", which can be either because the need no longer exists or because the need has grown beyond its capabilities. I remember an outdated payroll system that was being supplemented with manual recordkeeping. (Can you tell I have a systems engineering slant?)

  24. To those who say "redundant" has the sense of "not necessary" or "no longer necessary": Are you referring to its use in terminating employment, or its more general meaning? For the latter, I (AmE) am influenced by what I remember as my first exposure to the word: redundant systems for failsafe applications. I certainly don't think of redundant flight instruments in aircraft or redundant cooling systems in nuclear power stations as unnecessary! To me, the more central meaning of "redundant" is superfluity by virtue of duplicated potential or capability.

    I think something can be obsolete even if no better replacement is available. Obsolete to me simply means "no longer fulfills the need for which it was originally used", which can be either because the need no longer exists or because the need has grown beyond its capabilities. I remember an outdated payroll system that was being supplemented with manual recordkeeping. (Can you tell I have a systems engineering slant?)

  25. Oops! Sorry for the duplication!

  26. RickS said...
    "Oops! Sorry for the duplication!"

    You mean the redundant posting?

  27. My understanding of the word "redundant", from working in the Citizens' Advice Bureau in Scotland some years ago, is that the person loses their job because it'sthe post that becomes redundant, not the person who filled that post, so technically we're still talking about a thing being redundant. I hope this muddies the waters sufficiently.


  28. I certainly don't think of redundant flight instruments in aircraft or redundant cooling systems in nuclear power stations as unnecessary!

    I think this is one of those cases of semantic extension where a word ends up meaning the opposite of what it originally meant. I'm not sure why the systems engineers felt the need to use "redundant" rather than "backup" to describe such systems.

    1. The reason systems engineers 'felt the need to use "redundant" rather than "backup"' is because the original 1594 usage of the word meant "exceeding what is necessary or normal (e.g., superfluous)."

      Under normal circumstances, engineers don't add redundant systems. For instance, there is only a single radiator in your automobile. In critical systems, however, safety is so important that engineers add redundant systems, i.e. systems that 'exceed what is normal' so as to add an extra layer of protection.

  29. I think that a person can be laid off/fired/sacked/canned/let go/dismissed, while a job/position can be deemed obsolete/redundant, and a company/work force is downsized. To refer to a human being as obsolete or redundant is cruel, or at best weaselly, as another commenter put it.

    I just sat through a whole on-line class about (US) Labor Laws. There is no special terminology used for people who are let go and need to collect unemployment. It just depends on how long they were employed for and whether they caused their own dismissal. I also know that unemployment benefits can be collected by seasonal workers during the off season (ie, ski resort workers during summer months).

    As to what term indicates "for cause", I wouldn't expect some one to use "laid off" or "let go" unless they were trying to downplay what they had done. However, I wouldn't necessarily assume that some who was "fired/sacked/canned" had caused the "canning". I think those terms also convey very negative emotions about being let go, as in "I was fired 'cause they sent my job overseas".
    (US-English speaker)

  30. Please remember that there are fifty states in the United States and each state makes it's own labour laws, unless they affect interstate commerce

  31. 'Redundant' is often used for safety measures and it is a good thing. If you have a belt and braces one is redundant but in a nuclear power station you want redundant safeguards.

    It is also a common term in linguistics.

  32. There's an excellent Dilbert cartoon which I am now going to wreck, like your drunk uncle telling jokes at a party, by trying to recount. Sorry. Sadly I can't currently find it but it goes something like this:

    Dilbert has been made CEO of a company just as the bubble bursts and all he can do is shut it down. He explains to the staff (who are young, naive - perhaps even children, I'm not sure) that they are all laid off. One of them, not knowing what it means but assuming it's some kind of hip compliment, replies something like "yeah, you're pretty laid-off yourself". Or words to that effect.

    Oh well, it made me laugh anyway. Sorry. I'll get me coat.

  33. Just wanted to add that the idea of temporarily being out of a job these days (in the U.S.) is "furloughed" - I just heard that term this week on NPR, with respect to the auto industry (I think). Workers are being furloughed. Also a relative is in a union where he is being furloughed to spread the work around so that everyone has enough work this year to continue qualifying for pension benefits.

    I am also with Rick S. on the redundant issue, although I am also from a technical background. My (native US English speaker) idiomatic use of redundant means that it is unnecessary because it is duplicated elsewhere, like saying "ATM machine" is really "Automatic Teller Machine Machine". Saying "machine" after "ATM" is redundant.

    And mollymooly, sometimes a system is designed to be redundant - that is, safe even in case of failure - but it is not clear which is the "backup" and which is the .. uh... frontup? In the case of redundant circuits, there are two points which have to fail to make the circuit fail, but both operate equivalently until one fails. Redundant systems assume that the probability of multiple failures is small, but that a single failure should not cause the system to fail. Backup systems is one way to accomplish it, but it implies that one is primary and the second (redundant one) is secondary, possibly not even operating until it is needed (and then we worry about whether it will in fact come up). Redundancy doesn't really say whether it is a primary with a backup or two equivalent ones, although my feeling is that it slightly implies two equivalent ones.

  34. I would instinctively use redundant when two or more things are doing the same job, even of they are both/all top of the line. so for exapmle the emphasis on redundant systems in space-craft design. So this may be used perjoratively, when one of the things is a waste of space/resources or simply technically as in the shuttle example.
    Obsolete would be outdated to me.

  35. I haven't read all the other comments yet and am probably just duplicating them, but maybe it will be statistically useful to do so. My intuition is that something is redundant when it is not needed, which might simply be because you have something else that does the same job, but something is only obsolete when it is out-of-date and a newer, better version is available.

  36. "Furloughed" is even more temporary than "laid off" in my experience, typically referring to a few days or weeks. It's been used for government jobs for quite a while.

    I have also, by the way, heard the term "excessed." That usually means somebody has a fixed time period to find another position within the company before being laid off.

    It's pretty much impossible to generalize about U.S. labor law, which varies from state to state. For corporations which have multiple locations, policies are often determined by labor law in the state where their headquarters are. For example, I work in Virginia, but my company's severance pay policies are more generous than Virginia demands because our HQ is in California.

  37. I remember reading the difference between 'sacked' and 'fired' once and its etymology.

    Sacked refers to the dismissal of a tradesman (in the context discussed it was masons in the middle ages) when he was no longer needed (i.e. redundant to the project). Sacked was used because his tools were returned to him in a sack so he could travel and find more work.

    Fired referred to when a worker was dismissed due to his behaviour. In this case his tools were burnt or 'fired'.

    It's probably a load of rubbish though.

  38. I'm being furloughed along with everyone else at my company for a week at the end of this year. Except in my UK based job they're calling it "unpaid leave".

  39. Sorry, this does not concern the difference in the meaning of "redundant" and "obsolete", but @ nineveh-uk - I don't think it to be justified to call the UK employment law (or is it "labour" law?) the by no means strictest in Europe. Did you complete comparative research considering the law of every single EU member states?
    By the way, may, for example, scientific theories also be "obsolete" if there is newer research that proofed them to be not true?

  40. I am English, working in the UK, for an American company.

    A few years ago many hundreds of workers lost their jobs including UK workers. Our US CEO wrote to us that the company was aiming to eliminate redundancies. Meaning I suppose that they were 'chopping out dead wood'. Of course, to UK workers they were creating redundancies.

    A prett awful faux pas.

  41. Regarding at-will employment with termination from either side at any time... this is a state-by-state thing, some states have at-will employment, and some do not, and contracts will vary depending where you are in the USA. It isn't one-size-fits-all :)

  42. Anonymous on 6th April, to make that claim, nineveh_uk doesn't need to be familiar with the employment law in every EU state, just in one other country which happens to be stricter than the UK.

  43. Redunduncy in automation is a good thing. In redundant systems 2 or more systems, controllers or sensors are working at the same time. Usually each is being checked for proper operation and consistency. In very critical operations, such as the space shuttle, or financial back offices, 3 systems may be operating simultaneously. An additional controller checks that the results are the same, and if there is disagreement, goes with the majority and takes the wayward unit off line for repair.
    The space shuttle has redundant redundancy. If the 3 main computers disagree and even the majority result seems wrong, a back-up computer is available to take the data stream and process it independently of the main computers if it is felt they cannot be trusted.
    Redunduncy is a good (but expensive) technology.
    So redunduncy can be good or bad, depending on the situation. Unfortunately for me, my employer is about to conclude I am redundant, and not in a good way.

  44. From a UK legal perspective, redundancy in employment has a very specific meaning, namely that the post which the holder is filling is no longer required, either because the company itself is ceasing to trade, or because of a change in workload (restructuring for example). That post, once the present incumbent has been made redundant (and compensated in the manner others have described), cannot then be filled by a new recruit, or the original employee would have grounds to sue for unfair dismissal.
    On another issue, hopefully it is of interest to note that in UK military terminology, a complete generation of a particular equipment which is nearing the end of its useful life will first be declared obselescent which means it will be maintained with consumables, and for as long as spare parts exist in the inventory, and once these spares run out, it will be declared obsolete. Neither of these stages necessarily require the original item to be replaced by a newer version, or indeed that a working but obsolete equipment will necessarily be taken out of service before it fails. To that extent there is no correlation between being obsolete and being redundant.

  45. "Laid off" in the US (or where I live anyway - New York State), has many meanings. If you work in a factory, it usually means that there isn't enough work and they lay people off and they come back when it picks up again. However, if work doesn't pick up again, or if they hire people who will work for less pay, you don't go back. Seasonal jobs also use this term. Where I live there are many leather tanning facilities and window factories, and when work slows down in the winter there is always a lay-off, and certain employees are sometimes offered the option to participate in the lay off or keep working. Many won't have a choice. If they choose to participate, they always get to go back. In the meantime they collect unemployment. Sometimes they let these people choose to be temporarily laid off before work slows down too much so that their unemployment payments will be higher (if they leave when work starts to slow and they have less hours in per week, their payments will be lower while they are "unemployed")

    A lay-off is also when a company/factory/whatever fires a large number of workers without the possibility of them returning. They use this term because it doesn't sound as bad as being fired and also because being laid off won't hurt you on job applications like having been fired would.

    There's a bit of an anomaly sometimes - in retail for example, workers can be fired for any number of reasons. Sometimes it is to cut costs - but they will actually fire you, rather than lay you off, and they will do it after only a few months, so that they don't have to contribute to your unemployment payments. They fire people when having laid them off would have been more appropriate.

    Most employers in this area won't do a lay off because jobs become "obsolete" or "redundant". They simply can't afford to over-hire in the first place, making this kind of situation pretty much non-existent.

  46. I know I'm late in commenting on this, but this year, when I was laid off (here in the US), I was officially told that "my position has been eliminated", which I suppose made me redundant quite literally. I suppose it's supposed to make me feel better that they won't hire someone to replace me (though there is no guarantee of that, of course).

    As for my usage, I'm an immigrant originally from Russia, but all of my English was learned in the US, have been in the workforce only since 2004. I definitely make the distinction between being laid off and fired, though my former Indian coworkers used fired as an all-purpose term (but laid off only for redundancy). I don't find "sacked" to be foreign, but am not entirely sure whether it is a synonym for my "fired" or my ex-coworkers' "fired".

  47. The histories of layoff and redundancy as reported in the OED show something of a convergence in meaning from very different starting points.

    Originally a layoff was

    • not permanent
    • probably a desirable thing
    • not necessarily associated with a job

    The earliest quote (1889) speaks of taking a lay-off and the next (1904) is even more positive

    The men who have been on for a year get a vacation of ten days. Those who have been working less than a year have to get along with only a five-day layoff.

    The equation with 'vacation' is echoed in 1919 in an apparent reference to seasonal work in the timber industry.

    At the lay-off,..he had given each man enough money on account to make their vacation..a very wet spell indeed.

    Between this dates (in 1914) O'Henry used the word to refer to a break in self-employment :

    Me and my partner..tried to take a layoff from our professional and business duties; but..our work followed us wherever we went.

    From 1923 comes a quote about sportsmen (footballers, I'd guess) who had a seasonal break

    As a consequence of the ‘lay-off’ during the summer months it often happens that the muscles of the young player are not sufficiently supple for him to face the rigours of the game. [note the single quotes]

    From 1926

    I decided to take a lay-off [from burgling].

    Only as recently as 1969 do they quote a use denoting a mass dismissal

    Workers protested at proposed factory lay-offs.

    This quote from the Telegraph is followed by the Guardian in 1972

    Jaguar is one of the British Leyland groups where extensive lay-offs occurred.

    and the Times in 1973

    Lay offs threaten 28,000 workers at Vauxhall as car unrest grows.

    There are earlier quotes for the verb lay off as mass dismissal. And I've found a use in this 1929 recording.

    If you listen very carefully, you may be able to make out

    Ninety men were laid off : at the railroad shop
    And the strike in Chicago : Lordy Lord it just won't stop

    [The strike in question had started in 1911 and gone on for three years, affecting the whole of the IC line from Chicago to New Orleans. The 'railroad shop' Patton sang about was the repair shop in McComb, Mississippi.]

    So layoffs eventually became a euphemism — a word with nice associations applied to a nasty process of many people involuntarily ceasing to work (though dismissal).

    Redundancy and the adjective redundant originally referred to how things were rather than any deliberately creating a situation .

    Thus in 1908 the Times asked

    Instead of dismissing men of lower grades in the service, why not dismiss redundant officials?

    Fifty years later the Spectator reported

    Over five thousand other men were rendered redundant.

    Eleven years on, HE Bates objected to this change in use

    Nowadays, would no doubt be said that I became redundant. I prefer the old way: I was unexpectedly sacked.:
    Redundancy shifted from an UNCOUNTABLE noun denoting the state of being redundant to a COUNTABLE noun usually in the plural and referring to large numbers of employees being made redundant. Both senses are labelled Chiefly British . There's no corresponding labelling of layoff as American — but it's notable that the British quotes using lay(-)offs in the modern sense are all from newspapers, and may represent a specialist register only.

    The history of redundancy is not so much a process of euphemism as downright obfuscation not to say a damned lie.

    So layoffs and redundancies have converged as ways to avoid saying 'sackings' — which nowadays is practically limited to 'dismissals that can be justified on ground of misbehaviour'.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)