Buzzword of the Week: Wheelhouse

business buzzwordBuzzwords have a life cycle, gathering momentum until they grow common, then overused, then old. For "wheelhouse," a term currently cresting the popularity wave, this path has taken a long and curvy route, through boats and baseball, boardrooms and pop culture superstars.

Along the way, wheelhouse has been employed by no less an eminence than Darius Rucker and made an appearance on television favoriteGlee, where the popular character Kurt Hummel told another singer that a particular song was "in his wheelhouse." And even as its gained popular acceptance, the term has remained a favorite in corporate suites across the country.

As wheelhouse's use has expanded, so has its potential for misuse. One of the more interesting recent invocations of the term came from Sandy Block, beverage vice president at the popular Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain, who announced that the company would begin carrying Grenache wine, as the tipplewas "right in our wheelhouse" because it was "underappreciated, undervalued and waiting to be discovered." A month earlier, former Hootie and the Blowfish lead singer Darius Rucker also borrowed the term when he stated that having a #1 solo hit "was not even in our wheelhouse of possibilities." And in August, marketing guru Carl Johnson hit buzzword nirvana when he claimed that his company's involvement with the New York Cosmos soccer team was "a global play with significant external funding where we are central to the outcome and it's in our wheelhouse of what we know."

With references across the business and culture spectrum, wheelhouse seems to be entering its flabby middle age, the period when a buzzword is most popular -- and most likely to become distorted. So what does wheelhouse really mean and where does it come from?

The word originally derives from nautical terminology: the wheelhouse or "pilot house" is the place on a boat where the steering wheel is kept, as is demonstrated by a young Mickey Mouse in this classic 1928 video:

It's easy to see why the word has captured the popular imagination: wheelhouses are small spaces with excellent visibility, where the skipper is in control of the boat and prepared to face any dangers that it might encounter. In a wheelhouse, as young Mickey shows, a boat's pilot can practice his "core competencies" in an area with lots of "blue ocean" and the opportunity for plenty of "blue-sky thinking."

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Even so, connecting the steering wheel of a ship to the word's current meaning is a bit of a stretch. The middle step was probably provided by baseball, which borrowed the term to describe the heart of a hitter's strike zone. Basically the sweet spot where the batter can hit the ball with the greatest control and power, it's not hard to see how the word links Steamboat Willie and A-Rod. After all, both are most clearly in control when working in their wheelhouse.

Unfortunately, most people using the term today seem to be out of the wheelhouse -- and perhaps even walking the plank. For example, it's worth asking if Legal Sea Foods, a company whose big selling point is clam chowder, has room in its already-crowded wheelhouse for wine mastery. No matter how much "red fruit aroma," "pronounced peppery accents" and "gravitas" Grenache may bring to the table, it seems unlikely that the wine will topple seafood as the restaurant's signature strength. For that matter, the company's motto, "If it's not fresh, it's not legal!," while appropriate for fish, is not the best rule of thumb when it comes to wine.

And what about Rucker's "wheelhouse of possibilities"? The musical star's statement managed to mangle the term in two ways. First, wheelhouse refers to a key strength, not a plethora of potentialities. Beyond that, it seems that Rucker is unsure of the actual content of his wheelhouse: given that his band's Cracked Rear View album sold sixteen million copies, it seems like an ability to create crowd-pleasing hit songs is his key strength. With that in mind, it's actually not too surprising that the solo album he was discussing produced three number one hits.

Of the three examples, Johnson offered the most impressive use of wheelhouse when he explained why his company, Anomaly, is involved with the New York Cosmos soccer team. One of the hottest advertising firms in the country, Anomaly's "wheelhouse of what we know" likely includes the ability to sell soccer to Americans.

But Johnson was not content to merely use the word correctly. Going the extra nine yards, he demonstrated his own mastery of buzzwords by creating a virtual monument to business-speak. Cramming an astounding five pieces of jargon into a single sentence, Johnson showed that the ability to craft intricate compositions of corporate cliche is definitely in his wheelhouse.
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