A memorandum, or memo, is the name for a particularly annoying type of communication, largely used in business to tell recipients, “I told you so.” The term has a storied history in business communication, from the mundane (listing types of items that may be purchased from petty cash) to the catastrophic (the Morton Thiokol memo, issued just before the space shuttle Challenger exploded).
The term first described a remembrance or recollection. Dictionary.com and Oxford English Dictionary mention that the term originated as High Middle English in the fifteenth century. The earliest usage of the term in the Americas undoubtedly lay in the private journals and diaries of colonists. Paul Revere, for example, records his memory of the events of April 18, 1775 in a memorandum: “[O]n the evening of the 18th of April, about 10 oClock; when he desired me ‘to go to Lexington, and inform Mr Samual Adams, and the Honle John Hancock Esqr that there was a number of Soldiers, composed of Light troops, & Grenadiers, marching to the bottom of the Common, where was a number of Boats to receive them…’”
Revere’s exciting, if ungrammatical, rendition of the day’s events bears much more similarity to a remembrance or recollection than to a modern business memo.
The modern business memo evolved from a specific type of form documented by the Smithsonian Institution, mostly to highlight its own importance in the development of this weapon of mass dissemination. According to a display at the Smithsonian, the earliest saved memorandum that we would recognize as such today was a “Coast Survey Memorandum to the Honorable Senate and House of Representatives of the United States,” dated February 15, 1849 (slide 5). In 1852, another memorandum appears (slide 9) that documents the new species of reptiles and amphibians found by the Marcy exploration party at the mouth of the Red River.
The memo must have become routine after the Civil War, because by 1888, the Smithsonian’s own memos assumed a fixed form. By the end of World War I, the formula of TO:, FR:, and SUBJECT: had become standard. Additionally, more well-defined documents came to be called memoranda (the plural of memorandum) in following years:
- Memorandum of Understanding: Along the lines of a treaty, this type of memo commits two or more parties to work cooperatively to achieve some common goal;
- Presidential Memorandum: Addresses a specific policy ruling from the White House;
- Bench Memo: A short summary of a legal case, usually written by a law clerk to the presiding judge;
- Memorandum of Agreement: Similar to a Memorandum of Understanding, this type of memo may or may not be associated with monetary commitments.
The memo and the bureau seem to have been made for each other. The bureau (Fr: “desk”) sprouted drawers by the beginning of the 20th century to hold the numerous products of the “knowledge worker.” Such workers seemed to develop the uncanny ability to create memos in gigantic quantities.
In general, the memorandum has served to document to the boss that the “knowledge worker,” or “bureaucrat,” knows something and is doing something. Dean Acheson, Secretary of State from 1949-1953, dismissed the overreliance on the memorandum with the following quip: “A memorandum is not written to inform the reader but to protect the writer.”
The memo, in both its creation and its deployment, attests to the industry of the creator. It richly deserves the numerous collections of wit and sarcasm to which it has been subjected.
May 21 is National Memo Day! Do you use memos at work? Let us know in the comments.