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A Value-Added, Outside-the-Box Sea Change

If you've heard them once, you've heard them a thousand times: "Back to the drawing board." "Get our ducks in a row." "Do the heavy lifting." "Think outside the box." We're talking clichés, the banal staples of business meetings, conference calls, speeches, and web content. You're tired of them; I'm tired of them. Yet when push comes to shove, when our feet are to the fire, and--especially--at the end of the day, we keep coming back. Like moths to that bright, hot, flickering thing. It's a losing battle, the fight against clichés. But I'm tanned, rested, and ready; I have my game face on; I came to play; I'm good to go! Clichés, prepare to meet your unmaker.

A few words of clarification before we begin formal banishment procedures. Clichés are different from buzzwords or jargon. Buzzwords are coinages created to impress laypersons or define new phenomena. (One of my new favorites, from Buzzwhack, is landspam, meaning "junk mail.") Jargon is language specific to a group or profession; it's often distinguished by acronyms and initialisms ("EOD" for "end of day") and scientific-sounding, polysyllabic words: deliverable, actionable, metrics, synergy, core competencies.

"Cliché" is itself a bit of old jargon: derived from the verb clicher (to click), it's a French printing term for "stereotype," which in the late 1700s referred to a type of printing from a plate (which evidently made a clicking sound as it hit molten metal). By the early nineteenth century, "stereotype" meant "an image perpetuated without change," and by 1922 we had the modern meaning: "a preconceived and oversimplified notion." That's what clichés are: trite, overused expressions that have worn deep ruts in our brains. They're what George Orwell, whose essential "Politics and the English Language" (read it here) was published sixty years ago, called "worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves."

Does anyone remember which box "outside the box" refers to? (Here's the most plausible answer I could find.) Are there any "solutions" that don't have "value" "added" to them, and if there are, why would I want them? When you exhort your staff to "work smarter, not harder," are you implying they've been stupid until now or telling them they can come in at 11 and leave at 3? (Sounds smart to me.)

But the Top Ten clichés I want to put to rest belong to a special class: not just overused but misused. Some of them made sense when they were coined and lost meaning when they migrated to a new context. Others were dimwitted from the start. In every case, they've been repeated so often that few of us (except for professional nags and word nerds like me) stop to think about them. That's the purpose of today's exercise: Stop. Think. And then think of something clear and fresh to say.

Top Ten Wrongheaded Clichés

Best of breed. Fine if you've got a collie entered at Westminster. If you're talking about computer parts, this dog won't hunt.

Built from the ground up. I'm trying hard to think of something that's built from the sky down. Nope, can't do it. If you mean "assembled here in our plant" or "built from original parts," why not say it?

N short/long days/weeks/months/years. On my calendar, "three short months" equal three years of Februaries. "Six long days" have 144 hours, just like "six short days." When you're speaking or writing about the perception of time, don't pair a comparative modifier like "short" with an absolute numerical reference. "Only five years" is fine; "the three hours seemed to drag" is OK, too. (I grant an exception to the clever business name Nine Short Months, a doula, or childbirth-assistant, service.)

Drink the Kool-Aid. In 1978 (yes, nearly 30 short years ago), 914 people committed mass suicide at Jonestown when they consumed a fatal concoction made from Kool-Aid. It was a horrible tragedy with overtones of The Heart of Darkness. Today, "drinking the Kool-Aid" has come to mean "accepting the company's story" -- death entirely optional. A repellent and trivializing expression.

Level playing field. Oh, we do love our sports metaphors. "Level playing field" is supposed to conjure up perfect fairness and equity. But think about it: there's no more level a playing field than an ice rink, but that doesn't guarantee one hockey team won't outplay another. Besides, as Charles Memminger observed several years ago in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, "Who wants a level playing field? I want the playing field to be set at a 45-degree angle and I want to be running downhill with a wind at my back, by god." Economic libertarians in particular find "level playing field" annoying. In business, writes a correspondent to the New York Sun's blog, "each competitor has distinct advantages and disadvantages. Sam Walton wasn't competing on a level playing field when Wal-Mart first went up against discount king K-Mart. Tiny Microwave Communications, Inc. (MCI) wasn't in a fair fight in 1969 when it began to offer long distance telephone service between Chicago and St. Louis, putting it in competition with mighty AT&T."

Steep learning curve. When it's used to mean "very challenging and arduous," it ignores the statistical concept on which it's based: the steeper the curve, the faster the learning . A long, gradual slope indicates a slow, difficult process.

800-pound gorilla (in the room). Two concepts are mashed up here. In business, an "800-pound gorilla" is the dominant force in an industry -- a Microsoft, a Starbucks, a Procter & Gamble. The metaphor comes from the children's joke: "Where does an 800-pound gorilla sleep? Anywhere it wants." (In the days of elephant jokes, a pachyderm played the role of Bossy Sleeper.) But once the big ape moves indoors, it becomes "the problem nobody wants to acknowledge." I'm guessing this usage is related to the famous "Gorillas in Our Midst" inattentional-blindness study performed by two Harvard professors. They asked participants to watch a group of students passing a basketball and count the passes made either by the black-shirted players or the white-shirted players; a surprisingly large number of people were so absorbed in the counting task they never noticed a person in a gorilla suit strolling through the game. The study won a 2004 Ig Nobel award; you can watch the basketball video here. My point? Keep your simians straight or risk making a monkey of yourself.

Lion's share. More animal crackers. Invariably used to signify "the majority" or "the biggest part" -- and invariably wrong. "The lion's share" is the punch line of a joke that goes back to Aesop. The lion, the fox, the wolf, and the jackal agreed to go hunting and share equally in the spoils. The wolf killed a stag and brought it back to his companions to divide it up. Not so fast, said Mr. Lion: "I get the first part because I am king, the second part because I'm the bravest, and the third part because I'm strongest." The lion's share, in other words, is the whole thing. (Read the whole fable here, along with all the others, beautifully illustrated by Milo Winter.)

Low-hanging fruit. When businesspeople speak of "low-hanging fruit," they mean "easy pickings," "the most readily achievable goal." That's because businesspeople spend all their time in cubicles and conference rooms and rarely look at actual fruit trees. I'm looking at my own lemon tree this very minute, and behold: the ripest fruit is at the top of the tree, where it's been exposed to the sun. Yes, it's easier to pick low-hanging fruit, but it's not a very good idea. (Here's where we need an expression like "Work harder and smarter.") Don't take my word for it; Fast Company's Consultant Debunking Unit interviewed farmers and farm advisers to get to the, um, root of the matter; here's what they had to say.

Sea change. This lovely phrase originated in Shakespeare's The Tempest, in which Ariel the sprite sings: Full fathom five thy father lies;/Of his bones are coral made;/Those are pearls that were his eyes:/Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea-change/Into something rich and strange. Shakespeare's "sea-change" was a profound transformation. Today, however, the expression (minus its hyphen) is used to signify any shift at all, even, as Michael Quinlon observes in World Wide Words, by "pundits and commentators who think it has something to do with the ebb and flow of the tide." ("I wish a figurative full fathom five to such people," he adds.) When small and medium-size businesses start outsourcing their information technology departments, it's not a sea change, it's a tactical decision. Now, global warming: that's a sea change.

That's my list. What's yours? Are there any clichés you can't live without? Any I've overlooked that set your teeth on edge? Leave a comment and tell the world.

Nancy Friedman is chief wordworker at Wordworking, an Oakland, California-based verbal-branding consultancy. She has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 20th 2006, 9:48 AM
Comment by: Stefanie V.
Great article! The bosses at my company like to use "soup to nuts" for all the things we do around here, and they use "bigger bang for your buck" at every opportunity. These two are true about our firm, but when I see them written in our marketing materials I cringe.
Stef
Monday November 20th 2006, 12:06 PM
Comment by: Ricky G.
Love the article! Please add 'back in the day' to your group of tired, fatigued phrases. And you can also add 'over time.'
R
Tuesday November 21st 2006, 11:41 AM
Comment by: Nancy W.
The buzzwords currrently driving me to throw myself under the bus in my long underwear...
tangled up in our long underwear,
thrown under the bus,
robust,
curb to curb,
bandwidth,
robust,
traction,
low hanging fruit,
high, hard ones,
bulletize,
deep dive,
granular,
ladder up,
share of wallet,
sticky features,
tee up,
think outside the box,
circle back,
at the end of the day,
elevator story,
takeaway
Wednesday November 22nd 2006, 10:36 AM
Comment by: Ronald M.
In defense of Clichés
I can think of two uses of Clichés:

1. If you want to INFORM and time is limited, then the three words, "best of breed" brings an audience to the same place - leaving time for the major theme.

2. If you want to PERSUADE and time is limited, then a play on a Clichés arouses an audience to hear more: we develop the "best of breed" but the "Breed of Best".

Finally, I have read Nancy Friedman before and find her to be a "best of breed".
Friday November 24th 2006, 10:28 AM
Comment by: Henry B. (East Lansing, MI)
i'm a graphic designer... if you had to choose one visual cliche to represent san francisco or say paris, what would you use?

see what i mean?
Tuesday December 5th 2006, 1:18 PM
Comment by: Paul H. W.
My Father disliked "fancy" words such as "inevitable", so he coined the term "bamdamuality" to mean REALLY inevitable such as the results of my misbehavior. Impresive when spoken.
Friday December 15th 2006, 9:53 PM
Comment by: LT.COL. DON V.
great article because it makes us pause and reflect !!!
Wednesday December 20th 2006, 10:15 PM
Comment by: Kathleen G.
Hate to quibble, but the lion does NOT get the whole thing. He divides it into four parts and takes the first three! I know this by following the link you so kindly provided.

Monday January 22nd 2007, 2:55 PM
Comment by: Sherry M.
If a cliche can get your audience to the point, quickly, then what's the harm? I'd rather hear that a colleague was "thrown under the bus" than hear all the gory details of the office episode.

Even "think outside the box" is a quick way to give staff permission to come up with ideas that, well, perhaps we may have rejected at a prior meeting. Sure, we could say "I want you to think of things you've never considered before in solving this problem" but to me the cliche not only tells them to do that, but gives them permission to present something whacky. After all, you told them to ....

So what if the fruit from the bottom of the tree isn't fully ripe? I'd rather have my salesforce go after the easy pickings than take the time and energy to climb to the top of the tree. By the time they got there, the fruit would have dropped anyway. Perhaps we someone needs to develop a cliche for the "fully ripened fruit that has fallen below the tree" -- that's what sales managers really want their staff to pick up.
Wednesday January 24th 2007, 9:05 PM
Comment by: Wesley N.
I am currently hating, "I just can't wrap my brain around that." Sigh. It was fun the first 100 times but now it's just as fun as listening to my boss saying, "Plan your work and work you plan."
Wednesday April 18th 2007, 10:23 AM
Comment by: Gabrielle B.
Here is some more quibbling. The expression "a steep learning curve" is valid. The problem is in assuming what defines the axes on which the curve is plotted.

There is nothing in the expression that stipulates that the X axis is time taken to learn a task or that Y is the innate difficulty of a task. Let's assume instead that X is time available to learn a task, or perhaps resources available to learn a task. The Y axis will be defined as a task that is of "average" difficulty, for an individual of average intelligence. A task generally increases in difficulty in direct proportion to the amount of time available to learn the task since very few things are learned both quickly and easily. Many people in novel business situations don't have the luxury of time to "get up to speed" so their "learning curve" is indeed steep.
Saturday March 1st 2008, 2:13 PM
Comment by: Richard P.
The article is spot on in many respects (I prefer British cliches, they have a certain freshness when brought to the States). However, I find myself agreeing with some of the quibblers above. People in business, especially the very successful) tend to specialize and focus on their work to the exclusion of intellectual breadth and, often, literacy. Therefore the business cliche is a way to 'click' into a concept in a way that their audience understands quickly, without wasting a lot of words of putting a strain on their own verbal capabilities.

Still, I hate sports metaphors (moving the ball down the field...), and car metaphors (changing the tires while driving 80 mph...). My pet peeve, at the end of the day, is "going forward" - as Dilbert said, "At least we've ruled out time machines."

(For a wonderful experience of inattentional blindness, check out this You-tube clip - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QsEDUL_MLiM - try watching the pedestrians carefully)
Friday May 16th 2008, 3:26 AM
Comment by: steve C.

'on the same page'
'get with the program'
and oh yes, 'moving forward'!

btw the 'box' we have to think outside of is the famous nine dots you have to join in one continuous line - you can't do it without the lateral jump of thinking, then drawing, outside of the assumed 'box'. A great metaphor, even if over-used.

Cliches are ok for speech - less ok for writing. We don't have to be creative all the time. Let's face it, words themselves are cliches! If we change them too much we become like Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty who says a word means whatever I want it to mean.
Thursday May 14th 2009, 5:19 PM
Comment by: Michael M.
Only partially related to the content of the article, but is a "cliche" in itself - where does the use of one to five "stars" as a rating cliche originally come from? Any idea? Like so many others, as more & more to almost every-thing becomes five-star rated, it has lost much of its original impact.

Thanks for your writings that encourage original thinking & new ways of putting things.
Tuesday December 8th 2009, 6:37 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
For Sherry M.,
I'm not sure it's a cliche yet, but there is a word for fully ripe fruit that's fallen off the tree. They're called 'windfalls.' One does need to look out, though, that they haven't already started to rot from sitting on the ground.
Tuesday October 4th 2011, 10:48 PM
Comment by: Fiona W. (Portland, OR)
My teacher was always telling us to "get honest with ourselves."

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