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Context: Talking about a product or a project. During a meeting someone used the expression "Death by a thousand paper cuts".

I understand the concept of the original version Death by a thousand cuts that in this case would translate to something that suffered so many micro or mini criticism that it eventually got canceled or finished.

My first take on the paper cut version is that it has the same meaning with a more "light/comic" version to remove the dark+torture effect from the expression.

Does it make sense? Or does it mean something entirely different?

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    It sounds like the derailment of the project due to many minor problems. Whether it is a light-hearted comment depends on the intent of the speaker.
    – Lawrence
    Commented May 19, 2016 at 14:20
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    I think you've got it right. Unfortunately, any answer to your question will be speculative, unless someone can trace its first use. Commented May 19, 2016 at 14:25
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    Sounds like either an accidental verbal substitution; or deliberate editorializing about bureaucracy, paperwork, documentation, requests for information, or similar paper artifacts as the problem with the project.
    – user662852
    Commented May 19, 2016 at 14:46
  • @prof-yaffle got it right! There were an outrageous amount of documents that needed to be created + another uncountable amount of approvals... it took a lifetime to get it all and in the end the project was doomed because the requester was not interested in it anymore.
    – vianna77
    Commented May 19, 2016 at 16:36

4 Answers 4

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The literal death by a thousand cuts was an execution method in which the victim was slowly dismembered (Wikipedia), and has come more popularly to mean anything that is a slow process in which a multitude of small, bad things happen which ultimately culminate in the demise of whatever was suffering the changes (UE).

The paper cuts form is a bureaucratic pun, therefore. It's used in the sense of minor administrative or legal actions which ultimately aggregate to weigh down or destroy a system. Since the actions are paper-based, they can be termed paper cuts.

Examples include:

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It means the same thing.

A paper cut can be extremely painful, even though it's very small.

In the context of a project, it means failure due to many small problems instead of one large problem. This is exactly what it would mean without the "paper" part.

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I heard this expression during the next web conference. The guy on stage used it in the context of a product with a good vision, but eventually fails or dies off due to the thousand cuts (compromises) that are being made during a project, usually by non product people, like project managers or financial decisions…

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    Yes; it's possible that 'cuts' which obviously means 'small changes, drastic when added together' could be the usual 'cut' metaphor (an axing of a part of the project). Internal structure of a metaphor. Commented Jun 27 at 22:19
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It means working in an office job (think of Dilbert) and slowly letting your employer suck the life out of you, until you are nothing but a hollow shell of the person you used to be, usually near suicidal or completely numb.

Can be associated with any meaningless (in the sense of what gives your life meaning) office job such as accountant, lawyer, engineer, clerk, programmer, etc.

This would be in contrast to any job that may actually give job satisfaction by letting you create something, such as any construction job, doctor, artist, etc. Typically any job where you do not live in a cubical for 9 hours a day.

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  • Can't speak for accountants, lawyers and clerks, but as a software engineer, my job is meaningful and fulfilling. You create something out of nothing, by pure thought, and you create valuable products that are used by many other people (if you are lucky enough, by millions of them). Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 6:33

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