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Is it time to trade in 'trade-off'?

Buzzwords reflect the moods that buzz, rumble, and do other things during the time they are popular. ''Going for it'' was a buzz-phrase of the '70s. Its buzz-counterpart today seems to be ''trade-off.'' Some change!

''Trade-off'' is one of those first-the-good-news-then-the-bad-news terms, expressing our frustrating decade with a distinctly falling cadence when one comes to the ''off.''

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Ah, the sound of that second shoe dropping!

''Trade-off'' people decidedly do not ''go for it.''

A friend has defined trade-off as what happens when a passenger on the elevator wants to get off on the fifth floor, and another wants to get off on the seventh floor, so both disembark on the sixth.

The weary wisdom of trade-off goes something like this:

1. You get nothing for nothing in life.

2. But you don't get everything for everything either.

3. Trade-off is the only way to win - if that is the word - the half-loaf that is better than none.

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It all sounds like Polonius on a hard day, trying to wipe that smile off some young person's face.

Trade-off works fine on the level of diet and bubble-gum cards: three Bucky Dents for one Tom Seaver; four slices of burnt toast for half a portion of cheese cake. The trouble is, trade-off turns into a mental habit one applies to everything.

College education becomes a kind of game of let's-make-a-deal, with the student trading off subjects he or she loves in favor of subjects that will make him or her rich - he or she hopes!

Marriage is approached as a contract, with both partners trading off X-amounts of freedom in order to escape Y-amounts of loneliness.

Even the decision to have a baby is reduced to this sort of quid pro quo. Potential parents are warned of the risk to their careers of ''parenting'' - not to mention the brute cost in dollars and cents. How many trips to Europe and how many pairs of theater tickets must one trade off to have a child? There are actually books, detailing these questions.

Such questions are as cruel as they are silly, but they serve to remind us that the concept of trade-off seldom appears to smile upon the human beings in any of the equations.

One accepts the trade-off of unemployment to control inflation.

One trades off social programs to sustain the defense budget.

Then one trades off the salaries of military personnel in favor of applying this defense money to weapons systems.

And finally, if there should be World War III, certain strategists are amenable to a trade-off of 10 million lives or so in order to win a nuclear victory that would be, at best, a trade-off.

This is, of course, a simplification. Still, something negative lurks in the very idea of trade-off.

More and more sentences can be heard to begin: ''You don't have to trade off. . . .''

The problem is, the promise that follows is so often dubious. To take a trivial example, has anybody found a sugarless soda that doesn't trade off flavor?

Horses are for swapping. A lot of other things aren't. Love doesn't trade off; truth can't.

To make our motto, ''Half-win some, half-lose some'' not only impoverishes life emotionally but misrepresents the facts. The facts are that if few people, except saints and geniuses, can get through daily existence without a trade-off now and then, few people can survive if the trade-off proves to be all there is.

To be born is an all-or-nothing act, and after that beginning, who can be satisfied to make a destiny out of splitting the difference?

If somebody can come up with another buzz-phrase for the '80s, we're ready to trade off.

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