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True (Business) Believers

No U.S. politician who professes to be an agnostic can hope for much of a career: a majority of Americans require their elected representatives to take the deity very seriously and insert "God bless America" into every speech. But in the world of business, and especially in high technology, agnostic isn't just accepted, it's practically — well, revered.

And agnostic isn't the only theological term that's crossed over into the vocabulary of commerce. For example, it's a rare company that doesn't proudly post its mission statement on its website; the original and primary meaning of mission is "a ministry for the propagation of religious faith." And like saints and other holy folk, businesses commonly have visions that guide their worldly activities.

Dig a little deeper, and you'll find quite a few religious terms that have achieved an afterlife in the cubicles and executive suites of American business. Here's a sampling:

Agnostic: In religious parlance, agnostic — literally "without knowledge" — refers to a person who has doubts about a deity or religious tenets. (The term was coined in 1869 by the English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley.) In business, and especially in technology, agnostic is a suffix attached to words such as platform, marketing, and media. In those contexts it simply means "neutral" — a platform-agnostic program can run on PCs, Macs, and Linux machines; a media-agnostic publication is created for multiple channels (print, online, broadcast, etc.).

Come-to-Jesus meeting: This phrase (or a variation, "come-to-Jesus moment") is often used to connote a showdown or a moment of truth. The original "come-to-Jesus meetings" arose out of the Holiness Movement in 1920s America; according to The Mavens' Word of the Day, a Random House blog, these gatherings "were camp meetings where you met your Redeemer face to face — with no priest to cushion the blow of the realization that your sins were making Him go on suffering, no saints to intercede on your behalf." Corporate America has appropriated the phrase, stripped it of its religious significance, and superimposed one of several new meanings. "Come-to-Jesus" may mean "called on the carpet," as in, "The CEO brought all the senior vice presidents into his office for a come-to-Jesus meeting about falling sales." It can mean "a public admission of guilt," as in this passage about the International Energy Association from the Energy & Capital blog: "On Monday this week, they had what I would consider a 'come-to-Jesus moment,' walking before the whole world to the front of the tent, admitting their unworthiness and publicly confessing their sins." Note: A "come-to-Jesus moment" is "a sudden revelation" that usually has nothing to do with the central figure of the New Testament.

Evangelist: This word comes from the same Greek root as angel, and in a religious context refers to a Christian who proselytizes. The first company to appropriate it for business purposes may have been Apple, which created the title for an employee who promoted the Macintosh computer. Used humorously at first, the term caught on and was elevated to a formal job title. For example, Anil Dash, a founder of the blogging service Six Apart, is that company's "Chief Technology Evangelist," and in 2006, "evangelists" from several large technology firms formed the Global Network of Technology Evangelists. But you don't have to work in technology to call yourself an evangelist: just look at lexicographer Erin McKean, whose website is Dictionary Evangelist.

Religious wars: How zealously do technology advocates defend their positions? Very. The "religious wars" between PC and Mac users began long before the popular "I'm Mac/I'm PC" TV commercials took to the airwaves in 2006. A 1995 article by Cary Lu in the Seattle Times referred to the platform divide as a "holy war" and maintained that "much of the rhetoric is driven more by ignorance than knowledge." Today, "crusaders" in religious wars tend to be software developers with a fierce devotion to a specific coding protocol.

Zen: It's not just a meditative Buddhist sect — in business, zen is often a synonym for ordinary nothingness. Zen can be combined with mail to describe "an incoming e-mail message with no message or attachments." Zen spin is a verb meaning "to tell a story without saying anything at all." And to zen a computing problem means to figure it out in an intuitive flash — perhaps while you're plugged into the earphones of your ZEN MP3 player, now available from Creative with a 16Gb capacity.


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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 10th 2008, 10:10 AM
Comment by: Paul D.
In evangelical Christianity, the term, agnostic, has evolved to have a meaning or at least a hefty implication of "not desiring to know" in addition to its literal meaning,"without knowledge". Scripture asserts another plausible definition,"unable to know". Jesus said in John 6:44, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day."

Scripture issues a timeless warning on the secular use of "coming to Jesus". Just before Nebuchadnezzar leveled Jerusalem and killed or deported the Jews, God gave reasons for their punishment, not the least of which was, "they made no distinction between the holy and the profane, and they have not taught the difference between the unclean and the clean" (Ezekiel 22:26).

Thanks for the heads up on these terms.
Monday November 10th 2008, 4:42 PM
Comment by: Kate V.
I found it interesting to see the article beginning with "No U.S. politician who professes to be an agnostic can hope for much of a career..." on the very day my local paper (the Vancouver Sun in BC, Canada) had a front page article on the same subject, but that hypothesizes that more Americans are thinking for themselves, read: disregarding the subtle or direct influence of religious leaders to vote or not vote for a party or candidate. I applaud thinking for oneself - always on all subject matter.

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