The express line: How less became more

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"Express" is a word on the move lately. Marketers have given it a whole new lease on life - have you noticed?

The basic idea behind "express" and its many forms is that of "pushing out." "Ex" is Latin for "out," as in "external" or "export." As a stand-alone word, "press" has a life as both a noun and a verb. It's also an element in such longer words as impress, compress, depress, repress, and suppress. All of them are tied up with different concepts, physical or metaphorical, of "pushing" - in, together, down, back, or under.

"Express" and its variations turn up in some richly emotive and evocative parts of our lives - the adventure of travel, for instance. We "express" feelings and ideas; when people-watching in a café, we make note of a particularly expressive face across the room. We "express" our identities in clothing that is fashionable - or not. And quite a number of clothing stores have "express" in their names, perhaps to suggest both speed and fashion.

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We "express" critical documents by courier, for example. Many newspapers, full of important or at least engagingly scandalous information, have "express" in their names. (Can't you hear the "thunk" of bundled papers tossed off a train and landing on the platform?)

Ah, yes, the adventure of travel. The very sound of the word suggests the hiss of a steam engine (never mind that steam trains live on mostly as tourist attractions), and all the glamorous trains one ever dreamed of taking: the Orient Express and its perhaps less glamorous kin.

Connoisseurs of the fine points of campaign-finance law distinguish between "express advocacy," which specifically urges people to "vote for" or "vote against" someone, and "issue advocacy," on the other hand.

In all these, the concept of "pushing out," as a kind of "transmitting," is clear. It's even easy to imagine that the express train - or bus or subway - is the one that pushes off at high speed, takes off like a rocket, you might say.

But in a transportation context, the metaphor behind "express" seems to be that of explicit intention: The express train is the one you take when you really mean to get where you're going.

In practical terms, though, an express train is one with limited stops. And this notion of "limited" has led to an interesting adaptation of meaning. "Express" now shows up in product and corporate names to mean "stripped down" or "light." One of the best examples is Microsoft Outlook, the well-known e-mail and personal information management program, and Outlook Express, its much simpler little brother.

There are "express" versions of certain retailers, for instance, where customers presumably trade away breadth of selection for greater convenience of location. If you're just looking for paper clips or a box of file folders, maybe you don't really need an office-supply store the size of an aircraft hangar, the logic goes. And if the store can be somewhat smaller, maybe it can be located someplace more convenient than the Megamall of Greater Exurbia.

Another field in which the "express" concept is familiar is the airlines. One would think that the aviation equivalent of an express train is a long-haul flight. But paradoxically, the airlines with "express" in their names - such as US Airways Express - fly puddle-jumps.

You have to admire the marketing finesse involving in getting "express" to morph from "having limited stops," which on a train is a good thing, to "having limited features," which would seem in general not to be a good thing. But sometimes less is more. Not every college sophomore writing a term paper needs the same level of project management software as the Pentagon. It may be that "express" is the new "lite."

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