While Jill and I were guestcasting* on the Grounded Content podcast, Jill said:
“You can take one piece of content and repurpose it in a hundred million different ways, and each of those repurposements …”
Yes, my business partner is fond of both hyperbole (A hundred million ways? Really?) and making sh*t up. She knows how much business gobbledygook gets under my skin, and sometimes she spews the stuff just for sport.
So, as soon “repurposements” left her lips, Jill paused for my reaction.
“Did you just make that up?” I asked.
And then, as they say, hilarity ensued. Watch:
I am all for creative vocabulary.
One of my favorite things to read is Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky—a nonsense poem where the writer tells a vivid story by inventing words that don’t mean anything, yet somehow say a lot. Here’s one stanza:
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
Galumphing! You can just see it, hear it, feel it! That’s the power of onomatopoeia. Even though it’s nonsense, this word makes perfect sense.
Even in business, every now and then we come across an invented term that really works. Props to the brains behind “freemium,” “emoticon,” and “mansplaining.” All of these are blended words, an inventive mash-up where two familiar terms become one surprisingly practical one. Nice.
*Guestcasting is a blended word, and we think Jill may have invented it herself just this week. “We don’t have our own podcast,” she says, “but we’re having fun guestcasting. We should do more of this!” It’s a good word and a great idea. If you have a podcast and want to talk about storytelling, creativity, business communication, or made-up words, sign us up!
Sadly, the invented vocabulary of the business world is not usually so creative, clear, or useful. Instead, business lingo often prompts confusion, eye-rolls, or the urge to run away.
Incentivize. Multifunctionality. Disambiguate.
Of course you want to run away from the words in that headline. But please, stay with me.
We shouldn’t be surprised that the world of business gives us this C.R.A.P. (Corporate Rhetoric And Pomposity™). Corporate cultures manage to suck the life and meaning out of real words like align, ask, and ecosystem (just a sampling of my 22 C.R.A.P. words to obliterate in 2022). Why would we expect workplaces to generate new words that are strong and useful?
Even the U.S. government knows that made-up words are risky. The website plainlanguage.gov cautions writers:
“If a word doesn’t exist in a dictionary, how can other people understand its meaning? … Coined words are the sign of a poor writer trying to impress the reader.”
But not all made-up words are an attempt to impress. Some arise from the relentless drive to abbreviate. That’s how acronyms become words.
Workplaces give rise to some weird blended and mutated words, too.
Years ago, I was honored by an invitation to join a corporate mentoring program. An HR leader told me I would serve as coach and sounding board to a young woman they wanted to groom for management.
At least that’s what the HR person meant. What she actually said was: “Your mentee is a hi-po.” (Not hippo, mind you. That last word rhymes with “typo.”)
A split second of mental processing told me that “mentee” is the complement to “mentor.” I suppose it sounds less pretentious than “protégé.” Still, it struck me as a weirdly manufactured term.
But “hi-po”? I had no clue.
“Oh, that’s short for high potential,” said the HR leader.
Nothing like reducing someone’s promising career to a four-letter word.
Still other terms are invented to whitewash something negative.
Early in my career, I was at a bar after hours with friends, many of whom were software developers. Noticing that one table was having a decidedly un-happy hour, I asked what was up.
“They’re sunsetting our product,” one guy told me.
I blinked. Context told me exactly what he meant: the end of the product, the end of their work together. But “sunsetting”?
“Sunset” is a noun, not a verb. Adding -ing makes it seam like an action word. But it’s not.
Besides, who does that to a beautiful sky? Gross.
Work with me, friends.
When you encounter a bogus business word (maybe even in your own vocabulary), take a moment to translate. The best way to do this? Ask this question …
What does that mean?
… not just once, but over and over again. Ask and restate the answer as many times as it takes to get a clear, concrete translation or paraphrase.
Care to share a counterpoint?
I would love to write a follow-up article about made-up business words that help rather than hinder communication. You tell me what they are and why you like them, and we’ll keep this conversation going.