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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.