System D

Down and Out in Paris and London

System D is a manner of responding to challenges that require one to have the ability to think quickly, to adapt, and to improvise when getting a job done. The term gained wider popularity after appearing in the 2006 publication of Anthony Bourdain’s ‘The Nasty Bits.’ Bourdain references finding the term in Nicolas Freeling’s memoir, ‘The Kitchen,’ about Freeling’s years as a Grand Hotel cook in France.

The term is a direct translation of French Système D. The letter D refers to any one of the French nouns ‘débrouille,’ ‘débrouillardise,’ or ‘démerde’ (French slang). The verbs se débrouiller and se démerder mean ‘to make do,’ ‘to manage, ‘especially in an adverse situation. Basically, it refers to one’s ability and need to be resourceful.

In ‘Down and Out in Paris and London,’ George Orwell described the term ‘débrouillard’ as something the lowest-level kitchen workers, the plongeurs, wanted to be called, indicating that they were people who would get the job done, no matter what.

In recent literature on the informal economy, System D is the growing share of the world’s economy which makes up the underground economy, which as of 2011 has a projected GDP of $10 trillion. The informal economy is usually considered as one part of a dual economy where the economy is divided into two parts – the formal and the informal. Due to lack of documentation, such as proof of citizenship, tax ID number, proof of identity or proof of address, people working in the informal sector are usually left with no way to seek support from their governments. This means that they are unable to access formal institutions which require documentation, and forces them to be self-reliant.

There are a range of terms in other languages describing similar circumstances. Examples for those are ‘Trick 17’ in German, which means to pull off a creative and improble solution on the first try, and the similar ‘Trick 77’ in Swiss German and ‘kikka kolmonen’ (‘Trick 3’) in Finnish; ”n boer maak ‘n plan’ (literally ‘a farmer makes a plan’) in Afrikaans; ‘to hack it’ in English; ‘desenrascanço’ (‘removal of complications’) in European Portuguese; ‘se virar’ (‘to get by on one’s own’) in Brazilian Portuguese; ‘Jugaad’ (unconventional, frugal innovations) in Urdu, Hindi, and Punjabi; ‘jua kali’ (lit. ‘fierce sun’ means ‘get it done’) in Swahili, ‘diskarte’ (crafty hustle) in Tagalog; and ‘article 15’ (an imaginary article in the DRC Constitution that says ‘Make do to survive!’) in Congolese French.

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