Speak No Evil: The Decade's Worst New Business Terms

Perhaps we were doomed from the start. In a decade that we never knew how to name -- the aughts? the naughts? the zeros? -- tortured words and phrases in business communication blossomed. The list of jargon is long and lackluster: jump the shark, it is what it is,meta, there's no there there, [blank] is the new [blank], no worries, verticals, the new normal.Now, it's been a long decade, and we couldn't possibly include all the words and phrases that have run rampant through the lexicon. But to examine why business speech has become so maddening, let's take a look at the worst offenders.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% The worst words are those meaningless catchphrases that crop up during meetings and conversation, says David Rogers, executive director of Columbia University's Center on Global Brand Leadership. At the top of Rogers's list: no-brainer, think outside the box, and win-win -- terms that Rogers dismisses as "muscle spasms."

Synergy 2.0

A second category is buzzwords that have come to reflect really bad ideas. One is leverage, which Rogers defines as the classic idea behind the unfolding mortgage debacle that brought the world's financial system to its knees. Another is synergy, a word describing the mutual benefit of a 2000 merger between...uh, AOL (AOL) and Time Warner (TWX).

Rogers's list also includes words whose once-distinct definitions have been lost through overuse, such as brand, now a catchall term referring everything from products to personas, and 2.0, a suffix for anything that's going any type of marketing evolution -- as in, "I wonder what Tiger Woods '2.0' will look like."

Learnings and Takeaway

Another business-language critic is Robert McCann, a professor at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business. McCann calls the largest category of offending terms "MBA specials": jargon used zealously by graduate students in written assignments and classroom conversation. He detests core competencies, value add, best practices, facetime,and takeaway -- as in, what was learned (or "taken away") from a lesson or experience.

Other abominations on McCann's list: learnings, as in, "Tell me the learnings of this exercise"; dialogue as a synonym for the verb "talk," as in, "Let's dialogue"; and any number of fillers designed to make the speaker sound eloquent, such as to be honest or at the end of the day.

Terrible Tech Words

Buzzwords and phrases once typically came from larger society, such as "drink the Kool-Aid," meaning "believe in something on faith alone," which originated from the mass suicides of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre. But recent additions to the business lexicon come from the information-technology sector, McCann says, which explains their robotic syntax.

Given our culture's fascination with tech, it seems impossible to stop the invasion of tech jargon into larger society. One example, McCann says, is bandwidth. The word has moved beyond its original, technical meaning -- a network's capacity to transfer data -- to one that describes human feeling: "I don't have the bandwidth to deal with this situation."

Another IT-derived word that riles McCann is ping -- as in "ping me," shorthand for "send me an instant message." But brevity is hardly the soul of business language. "Wordiness is a very odd aspect of business jargon," McCann says. He cites the hated "think outside of the box" as unnecessary longhand for "improvise."

The End of Social Media

Rogers warns that a couple of emerging words and phrases are on the verge of annoying the business world. Social media, he says, is "painfully overused" and fast on its way to losing its initial meaning. "Social media implies that the creator and the audience both have a platform for discourse," he says. It doesn't describe the simple uploading of a video to YouTube.

While we don't know what the next decade has in store for business communication, there's little reason to expect the vocabulary to improve. Especially when you consider the nagging question of what to call the next decade: the twenty-tens? the twenty-teens? Our takeaway: At the end of the day, it's a no-brainer that we'll be sick of the new decade's new name.

Audio Extra: The comedy-rock band They Might Be Giants recently composed a song of meaningless phrases that inhibit communication. On Public Radio International's Studio 360 last summer, the bandleaders highlighted their favorites.

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