Penultimate

PENULTIMATE: “last but one in a series of things; second to last” — New Oxford American Dictionary

We haven’t yet spotted this gem of a word used wrong, but it’s only a matter of time. A colleague of mine confessed she always thought it was a superlative form of ultimate. I made sure to spare her no grief — by definition, ultimate is the final superlative; nothing can be more ultimate than the ultimate.

Except, of course, in today’s post-armageddon world where the twisted bodies of nuanced and perfect English words lie in tangled heaps, trampled by the marching hordes of business writers, ad wags and lazy journalists. Ultimate today simply means “really great” — like an “ultimate brownie” (an example proffered to me by a class of middle schoolers). Its original meaning of being the last or final in a series is retained primarily in the word ultimatum, although how many times has someone threatened to give “one more ultimatum?”

I blame advertisers for this one. If every huckster of whirlpool baths claims to offer the “ultimate in luxury,” what’s a seventh-grader to think?

Nevertheless, penultimate remains safe until some cretin on “American Idol” uses it, right or wrong. Already, my wife has had a major discussion with her boss on whether to use the word in a document for fear of misunderstanding. Since her boss is a federal judge and the document in question was a court opinion, they wisely decided to use “second to last,” but I urged (or “ranted at,” in her estimation) her to hold the line on penultimate and let some idiot lawyer down the road pay the price. At which point she gave me a penultimatum. It sounded really serious, so I shut up.

— Otto E. Mezzo

Leverage

LEVERAGE (as a verb): “To use borrowed capital for an investment, expecting the profits made to be greater than the interest payable.” — New Oxford American Dictionary

As everyone who lived through the 1980s (decade of the LBOs, or leveraged buy-outs) knows, to leverage is to incur risk. What it does not mean is simply “to use” or “to exploit,” a definition creeping into vogue among obfuscating business writers today.

This new, timid meaning no doubt owes its birth to a secondary meaning of leverage, which is “to exert power or influence on” (Random House Dictionary). For example, a majority political party can leverage cooperation from the minority. What’s always implied, though, is something to leverage with. If you can’t fill in the leveraging capital (in the example above, it would be: “a majority political party can use its majority status to leverage cooperation from the minority.”), you’re probably using it wrong.

And because leverage is a transitive verb, it’s always necessary to remember what you’re leveraging. You can use power, influence, capital or surreptitiously obtained videos of unspeakable acts involving emus to leverage a result. You cannot leverage a technology or a new business practice. (Utilize, exploit or for Pete’s sake, use the damn thing!) Besides, if you claim to leverage a new technology, what are leveraging it with? Sorry, but your ignorance is not a sufficient fulcrum.

Already, The American Heritage Dictionary, always at the vanguard of rushing to include new (usually wrong) definitions, has added “to improve or enhance” as a secondary meaning for leverage. But even the quotation they cite seems detached from this definition: “It makes more sense to be able to leverage what we [public radio stations] do in a more effective way to our listeners” (Delano Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle, December 20, 1997).

Huh? I don’t have the context, but one doesn’t improve in a more effective way. I guess even public radio, manna of the literati, sometimes leverages its own highbrow pretentiousness against itself. Where’s Daniel Schorr when you need him?

— Otto E. Mezzo

Update | January 13, 2008

yes, let’s agree not to use the verb “leverage” when discussing business, marketing, and software. Leverage the word “use.”

Thank you, Gina! (http://twitter.com/ginatrapani/statuses/941183035)

Update | March 4, 2010

I have received mail asking why the “update” is stamped January 13, 2008 — more than a year earlier than the original entry. Sorry — that was the date of the tweet. I stumbled across it by accident, and it shows leverage has been enduring abuse longer than I expected. And speaking of which:

Sighting: yet another webinar

Leverage the strength of collective buying

We leverage best practices…

Leverage strategic partnerships with major vendors

I stopped counting after the third slide. The presenter really leveraged my attention away to a YouTube video of a lip-synching hamster. The twee rodent used not one word wrong and he used verbs.

Update | September 11, 2019

A ten-year anniversary retrospective!

— Otto

Verbiage

VERBIAGE: “Speech or writing that uses too many words or excessively technical expressions.” (from 18th c. French verbier “to chatter”) — New Oxford American Dictionary

My days as a copywriter began in the early 1990s, and the word verbiage was already being carelessly thrown around like puppies at an Ozzy concert. I’m not sure who started the slow lexicide of the word, but it obviously began well before I was born:

“…use concise military verbiage…” — George S. Patton

As destructive with language as he was with the Germans, I would say. By the historic definition of verbiage, Patton’s patter constitutes a grotesque oxymoron; verbiage means over-wordy language, and by definition is not concise.

Why, then, do managers, politicians and other educated folk insist on verbiage when wording, word choice, or copy will do? Like with most other misuses, it probably began with a misunderstanding. We can imagine a thick-headed fellow somewhere (maybe it was Patton) being told to “shorten the verbiage” and taking it as a neutral statement rather than running to the dictionary, which is obviously where he needed to go. Pretentiousness also plays a hand in the lexicide of verbiage, as does that requirement of all business writing — the need to obfuscate.

So now, while the NOAD and Webster’s Revised Unabridged contain only the original (and in our estimation, true) meaning of verbiage, most other dictionaries include the new definition, for which there is a perfectly good and unmistakable synonym: wording. However, verbiage as a word expressing disgust with overly flowery language was already dead by the 1990s when I started writing for a living. I’ll let Washington Irving provide a fitting epitaph for this useful meaning:

“Verbiage may indicate observation, but not thinking.”

— Otto E. Mezzo