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Weird Words from the Corporatese Lexicon

English is my native tongue, language is my beat, and corporate America is where I earn my daily crust. Nevertheless, every so often I encounter an English word—in a corporate memo, speech, or email—that mystifies me. I've seen the word before; I've just never seen it used that way. I've always assumed the word meant one thing; here it obviously means something very different.

I'm not talking about the clichés and buzzwords that everyone loves to mock but no one misinterprets: "low-hanging fruit," "think outside the box," "level playing field," and so on. (For more examples, see my VT column "A Value-Added, Outside-the-Box Sea Change.") Rather, these words belong to a distinct subspecies of the corporate lexicon: the baffling dog-whistle code intelligible only to insiders and expert practitioners.

Here, as a public service, are the double-meaning words most likely to cause confusion among civilians, with their common and corporatese definitions.

Actionable

Confusing real-world example: "Our team produced a lot of actionable ideas during the offsite."

Legal definition: Meeting the legal requirements to file a lawsuit. (A bad thing.) For example, West's Encyclopedia of American Law tells us that an assault is an actionable tort. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this legal definition entered the English lexicon in the late 16th century. Even BusinessDictionary.com gives this definition—and this definition only—for the word.

Corporatese definition: Capable of being put into practice in the near future; useful, practical. (A good thing.) This usage no doubt owes its currency to business schools; the Oxford English Dictionary provides a 1966 citation in Management Science ("A plan is a set of actionable decisions which has been selected from among a number of alternative sets") as well as later citations from business and medical sources. But I was surprised to discover that the earliest nonlegal usage of "actionable" dates back to a 1913 book called The New Housekeeping: Efficiency Studies in Home Management, written by a Mrs. Christine Frederick, who's identified on the title page as a "household efficiency engineer and kitchen architect." Mrs. Frederick also had a busy career in advertising, which may explain her penchant for creative wordsmithing. "Refuse to let the mind wallow and dawdle around a problem," Mrs. F. advised her readers, "without arriving at definite, actionable conclusions." Who would have guessed that 21st-century MBAs would be taking language lessons from an early-20th-century housewife? Bonus definition: In my real-world example, "offsite" (noun) means "a meeting held away from the office."

Agile

Confusing real-world example: "As a software engineer, you will be a scrum team member in a fast-paced, collaborative agile development environment."

Common definition: Nimble, active, graceful.

Corporatese definition: A descriptor for a method of software development based on collaborative teamwork and iteration rather than sequential processes. The technological definition of "agile" was coined in 2001 by the authors of the Agile Manifesto, who championed "individuals and interactions over processes and tools" and "working software over comprehensive documentation." The new definition eventually crept over to non-software contexts; "agile management" means "we'll get it to quickly, but in stages." Warning: Sometimes "agile" is part of a company name (Agile Software, Agile Mobile), and sometimes it just means "lively" ("The candidate should be able to build rapport with internal teams while working in an agile, constantly changing environment"). Bonus definition: in the confusing real-world example above, taken from a job listing, "scrum" refers to Scrum, "an agile framework for completing complex projects."

Cadence

Confusing real-world example: "Discussions were on wide-ranging topics, including software release cadence, best practices, usability, social networking for user input, quality, and training."

Common definitions: Balanced, rhythmic flow (said of poetry or oratory); a falling inflection of the voice (phonetics); the measure of a beat or movement (in dancing or marching). From Latin cadentia, "a falling."

Corporatese definition: Schedule; frequency. This usage may have originated at IBM; an article about the company in the February 3, 2003, issue of Sales and Marketing Management referred to "the cadence of meetings" within quotation marks—an indication that the phrase was still relatively unfamiliar—and qualified the term as "IBM language." (Tip of the hat to Ben Zimmer for that citation.) The article went on to explain what that "cadence" was: "Frontline salespeople are required to attend only one meeting per week with their managers, for 30 minutes each Monday, when they receive coaching and commit to goals. Business unit executives meet with their regional leaders for an hour on Tuesdays, and so on up the hierarchy each day until Friday, when the highest-level sales leaders and executives meet for two hours with [CEO Sam] Palmisano." Warning: Don't confuse "cadence" with Cadence Design Systems, a publicly traded company in San Jose, California. Also, "Cadence" was the name of female characters in two movies from the early 2000s, American Wedding and Shallow Hal, and consequently enjoyed a brief (one hopes) surge in popularity as a baby name in the United States.

Conquesting

Confusing real-world example: "Marketers Try 'Conquesting'—to Get on Rivals' Nerves." (Wall Street Journal headline.)

Common definition: An archaic term for "acquiring by force." The OED gives a 1555 citation: "He euen then ... sente furth shyppes for the conquestynge of the Indies." By 1823 the word meant "acquiring by means other than inheritance": "The property is my own conquesting." The term seems to have slipped into oblivion until its late-20th-century Corporatese revival.

Corporatese definition: Marketers originally used "conquesting" to mean "deliberately placing advertisements or other brand messages adjacent to editorial stories about competitors' products or services." The usage arose in print media, especially among car dealers, grocery stores, and real-estate brokerages. With the rising influence of online search engines, however, "conquesting" has taken on a new meaning: bidding on the search terms of competitors so that your company's ad shows up in, say, a Google search for your competitor. "Conquesting campaigns are seen as a way of increasing brand recognition and building awareness," writes Sarah Tillitt in SearchFuel. "By aligning your ad with competitor brand terms, you're providing consumers with an alternative to your competition. . . . You may even sway a potential customer to your brand rather than the competition."

Memorialize

Confusing real-world example: "[P]rosecutors should confirm with agents that substantive interviews should be memorialized." (Memorandum from the U.S. Deputy Attorney General.)

Common definition: To commemorate; to preserve the memory of a deceased person.

Corporatese definition: To include in a memorandum. This usage of "memorialize" tends to be favored by government functionaries convinced that five syllables always trump one syllable. Here's another real-world example, from a letter written by the general superintendent of the Detroit schools to the vice president of the board of education: "This serves to memorialize and inform you and the other members of the Detroit Board of Education of those certain events that took place during my weekly meeting with Board President Matthis." ("Those certain events" reflect poorly on Mr. Matthis, who, if his "memorializer" is to be believed, behaved in a most ungentlemanly manner.) Tip: Do not use "memorialize" in this sense if you work for a mortuary. Much too confusing.

Socialize

Confusing real-world example:  "I have taken the time to transparently explain and socialize the idea through meetings, calls, webcasts, governance processes, and Town Hall updates . . ." (The CEO of Deloitte, LLP, in the Washington Post.)

Common definition: To take part in social activities; to train (e.g., a child) for a social environment.

Corporatese definition: To discuss with colleagues; to familiarize (an idea). In his On Language column for the New York Times Sunday Magazine earlier this year, Ben Zimmer traced this usage of "socialize" back to 1998, when "Let's socialize the idea" was already being used in games of "buzzword bingo." A commenter on Mike Pope's Evolving English blog said he'd heard "socialize it around" as far back as 1986. Interestingly, even conservative business types who rail against "socialized medicine" seem to have no qualms about "socializing" their own ideas. (For more on "socialize," see Ben Zimmer's Word Routes column.)

Have you seen other examples of Weird Corporatese that I've overlooked? Please memorialize them in the comments.


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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:

Tuesday August 3rd 2010, 3:26 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
Definitely describe these as ungainly, misleading usages - oh dear! Some people need to show their powerful command of language in very odd ways - & sadly it catches on.
Tuesday August 3rd 2010, 4:41 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
This sort of language just makes the user sound pretentious, though I suppose it's meant to be snazzy and with-it. Given the choice between dealing with a company that expresses itself in plain English or this sort of thing, I'd go with the former every time.
Tuesday August 3rd 2010, 9:18 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
The problem...... if you are being paid by the (creative) users.
"When in Rome............."
Tuesday August 3rd 2010, 9:35 AM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
My wife knows all about "agile", and from her I've learned that it's more or less a proper noun for that kind of project management. You have to be certified to say you do agile project management. The other kind of PM is called "waterfall," though I don't know if that's the term used by its practitioners, or if only agile PM proponents use it.
Tuesday August 3rd 2010, 9:53 AM
Comment by: Connie G. (Charlotte, NC)
Agile software engineers have a penchant for developing platform-agnostic software. Personally I prefer to keep theology and methodology separate. In this usage agnostic refers to ability of the software to play nicely on multiple operating systms (windows, MacOS, Linux, etc.).
Tuesday August 3rd 2010, 10:48 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Connie: Ah yes, those agnostic engineers. I wrote about the faith-based language of business ("religious wars," "evangelists," etc.) back in 2008: http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/candlepwr/1601/
Tuesday August 3rd 2010, 1:20 PM
Comment by: Nic W.
Please allow me to add my personal favorite to the heap: "Ask"

Confusing real-world example: "So I was schmoozing ol' Mrs. Jenkins to give more money to the orphanage, but when I got to the ask, she only gave me a check for fifty bucks." Ref: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/archive/index.php/t-430948.html

Common definition: –verb (used with object) 1. to put a question to; inquire of: "I asked him but he didn't answer."

Corporatese definition: - noun 1. A request, assignment, appeal, supplication as in: "His proposed project plan is a huge ask of the development team."

Arggg....
Tuesday August 3rd 2010, 1:26 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Nic W: Language Log has covered the nominalization of "ask": http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=340

Nominal "ask" is frequently seen in fundraising circles. ("We have a major donor lined up--who's going to do the ask?")

You (and many others) may find this usage irritating, but I doubt you'd say it's ambiguous or confusing the way, say, "memorialize" is.
Tuesday August 3rd 2010, 2:33 PM
Comment by: David M.
It seems sometimes all these various words are created as short form words that will fit on a Blackberry screen by the creators of the software who make these devices! I'd rather go outdoors for a hike than memorialize anything.
Tuesday August 3rd 2010, 3:34 PM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Fun article, Nancy! I used to encounter corporate actionable in a previous life. It might not be pretty, but as you say it's unlikely to be misinterpreted. Don Watson, in his 'Dictionary of Weasel Words', cites the following example of its use:

'A 360 "jamming" session (kind of like brainstorming but with a mechanism that delivers actionable outcomes rather than useless "crazytivity") provided the breakthrough.'

Apparently it's from 'Effective Clutter Busters', but I can't tell whether or not that's a hypothetical entity.
Tuesday August 3rd 2010, 9:54 PM
Comment by: Laura Kinoshita (Kamuela, HI)
The worst I've come across: "Productionalization" and its sister, "Productionalize" (ugh!) and "Locus" (to convey a center, as in meeting place.)
Wednesday August 4th 2010, 10:54 AM
Comment by: Michele H. (Long Island City, NY)
A recent, jargon-laden editing assignment included copious use of "cascading" to mean ensuring that processes created at an executive level become the operational gospel at lower levels. Unfortunately for the poor folks in operations, the so-called executive processes were no more than superficial theories, and by calling the translation of theory into practice "cascading," the bosses were making a very difficult job seem like a snap.
Saturday August 7th 2010, 8:25 AM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
So what's the big deal here? Language evolves as symbols, signs, sounds, and gestures are configured in myriad combinations in order to express old ideas in new ways, old ideas in old ways, new ideas in new ways, and new ideas in old ways. You people must get beyond your pedantic and pedagogic paradigms and embrace creativity in language.
Saturday August 7th 2010, 11:03 AM
Comment by: Paula B. (Blaine, MN, MN)
Well said! Let's just refudiate all this pedantic nonsense, shall we?
Wednesday May 11th 2011, 5:14 PM
Comment by: ===Dan (Jersey City, NJ)
I've heard "optics" used to refer to "appearances."
Wednesday May 11th 2011, 5:27 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Dan: If you're interested in "optics," check out the On Language column I wrote last year.
Tuesday October 4th 2011, 10:35 AM
Comment by: Ann F.
Here's my pet peeve "corporatese": Depthful. As in, "That analysis was really depthful." People say it in meetings with straight faces.
Wednesday May 2nd 2012, 10:02 PM
Comment by: william Sebastien (cincinnati, OH)
i've tried to see what's the difference between command and amend but i don't see that there is a big difference if you know the difference why don't you share what you know/or/ what you think

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