Delta

DELTA: “1. the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet (Δ, δ); 2. the consonant sound represented by this letter; 3. the fourth in a series of items; 4. anything triangular, like the Greek capital delta (Δ); (Mathematics) an incremental change in a variable, as Δ or δ; (Geographic) a nearly flat plain of alluvial deposit between diverging branches of the mouth of a river, often, though not necessarily, triangular: the Nile delta; (Financial) The ratio comparing the change in the price of the underlying asset to the corresponding change in the price of a derivative” —entries from Dictionary.com

I spend a lot of time on my computer, and here’s why: I’m a fraud. I have no business being a strategic marketing consultant for Fortune 500 corporations. I don’t have an MBA or even a BBA. As a matter of fact, I have a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts). I can explain chiaroscuro and color theory in detail, but when everyone else at the table starts bantering about ERPs, “drill-downs” and “straw-man propositions,” I’m an idiot. Fortunately, there’s wireless internet and Wikipedia. I look like I’m busily typing memos, but in reality I’m frantically translating jargon just to keep up.

I’m not the only fraud in the room. Amidst all the buzzwords and needless acronyms being flung about like monkey poo, there are also lexicides — words used wrongly! I’ve started chronicling these as they happen, and today, I heard — for the second time — delta carelessly slaughtered.

About two weeks ago, my team conferenced with a client who embraced verbiage. Within his barrage of DVTs, PPORs and USPs (don’t look them up — they are all acronyms specific to his company, and he did not stop to explain them to us or use commonly understood terms), came delta: “We have 660 employees in this program, plus 200 in the other, which is a really big delta.” I paused, gears whirring. I knew delta referred to an amount of change, but my client did not refer to change. I dove onto the ‘net and came up snake eyes. I found no source using delta as a synonym for “number” or “sum.” I must have misheard.

Then today, the same client did it again: “The program rolls out to 350 managers, which is a smaller delta point than originally anticipated.” Delta point? After 30 seconds of furious Googling, here’s what I got:

In biometrics and fingerprint scanning, the delta point is a pattern of a fingerprint that resembles the Greek letter delta.

I kept at it. Finally, I realized the awful truth — my client was full of it. He really did use delta and the even haughtier delta point as pretentious stand-ins for “number.”

Because my wife so vigorously defended the abomination of lexicide in the past, I recounted this new development to her. “But delta means something very specific!” the former CPA protested. “Hey,” I replied, “you said it. If someone wants to misuse a word, he can and we should call it ice cream.” “But this is not what I meant!” It was satisfying to see her indignation. I shrugged and served myself some mashed potatoes, which were getting cold. “What can we do? Now may I please have a larger delta of gravy?”

Otto E. Mezzo

References: Delta point according to Webopedia (http://www.webopedia.com/TERM/D/delta_point.html)

It’s actually ironic

That Copy Kat requested I address the misuse of ironic, which we both agree reached its pinnacle with the song by Alanis Morisette. But the Lord (and VH1) works in mysterious ways! The song “Ironic” focused a flurry of attention on how un-ironic the song’s narratives were. So my work here is done.

Until I saw this video. My work here was only half-done. Now it’s all done, thanks to collegehumor.com. You oughta know.

Otto E. Mezzo

UPDATES: It’s actually ironic, episode II (March, 2010). It’s like word advice that you just can’t spell.

It’s actually ironic, episode III (November, 2015) Alanis revisits the song twenty years later. She must have read my article, Who would have thought?

Where have all the verbs gone?

When I was in college (late 1980s), my roommate had book on his desk — it may have been The Rise and Decline of Nations. The cover always stuck with me. It showed a short, three-step platform similar to the Olympic medal stand, except it read as a staircase with one ascending step, one descending step and one apex. John Bull, the Union Jack hoisted forlornly over one shoulder, was stepping down from the apex. Uncle Sam, Stars and Stripes aloft, occupied the top. A Japanese salaryman, Rising Sun gripped in one hand, was poised on the ascending step. The image stuck with me for two reasons — first, because it’s what everyone assumed would happen in 1988; second, because it didn’t happen. So much for our prognosticative powers.

Today, the American business community still fears its fall from dominance. Millennial executives in casual shirtsleeves wring their hands over whom to watch. Will it be the Chinese? The Koreans? The Brazilians? In my estimation, it doesn’t matter. We are already on the path to inconsequence.

By “we,” I mean American corporations. The evidence of this is American corporate writing.

If words are a window into the soul, then our soul is dead — devoid of life and vigor — devoid of the simple sentence component that signals action, the verb. Have you noticed the straining effort corporate writers exert to avoid verbs? Why write “I uploaded the files using the FTP link you sent me” when you can proffer “File upload complete via FTP link per your instructions”? Even communication with customers has taken on a creepy, computery feel. I just finished a website for a global company who insisted “Please select an item by clicking on link” instead read “All item selections are via description link.” Does that sound clear to you? Does that even sound like you need to do anything? (And what’s with the abuse of the word via?)

2009 was a strange year. Some primal switch flipped in my psyche. It made me yearn for a tough, hardscrabble life where I would wrestle deer to the ground and haul the carcasses back to the cabin. It has made my wife desire a large tract of land to coax unwilling cereal grains and legumes from. We are white-collar urbanites who have never hunted or farmed or even dreamed of it. And we are not alone. More people I talk to at work and elsewhere — computer jockeys, artsy types, account managers — report the same stirring urges. Some zeitgeist is demanding action. Is it our sedentary work and lifestyle? Is it that we as a society are becoming soft, our every desire being serviced as we lounge in comfort? Is it because our institutions — our corporations, banks and governments — are failing us?

Yes to all. America was founded on risk and action. Why do we eliminate the verbs from our writing? Because of fear — fear of offending someone and fear of demanding action. Deleting our verbs means obliterating our essence. “I think, therefore I am,” but also “I am, therefore I act.” So 2010 brings a new manifesto to Lexicide: Resist! Act! Write! In doing so, we can fulfill E. M. Forster’s plea to “Connect! Only Connect!”

Im n ur diktionary, killing ur w0rdz!

Lexicide, as a rule, does not address mishearings, misreadings or mis-repeatings. Every language suffers its games of “telephone.” Without it, I would be eating a numble pie while wearing a napron rather than a humble pie while sporting an apron. (Numbles, by the way, are pieces of offal. Yeah, I’d rather eat humility, too.) But while these migrations of yore probably resulted from illiteracy or unfamiliarity, today’s shifts seem to result purely from carelessness.

I will grant that words like verbiage, leverage and differential are misused because folks guess at their meanings and guess wrongly. But is there an Anglophone out there who doesn’t know what FYI means? (In case you are one, it stands for for your information.) Yet more and more, I hear people use it to mean “just in case,” as in “let’s make a backup, just for FYI.” (I won’t even touch the extra for in that sentence.)

Here’s another one: LOL, which netizens recognize as “laugh out loud”—originally a response to a particularly funny epigram. The web has obviously gained more than a modicum of irony, since Facebook users now use LOL to mean anything from “nervous chuckle” to “yeah, right” to “not at all funny”— in other words, almost anything but “laugh out loud.”

My new favorite of the month has to be under guise of, as in “Launch of the website will be under guise of marketing.” Despite this thoughtless, ubiquitous and wrong usage, guise is not the same word as guidance. It’s not even etymologically related. “Oh well, it sounds the same, so you’ll have to excuse me,” you say. “Fat chance,” say I, because guise also sounds like disguise, which is practically the same word. Under guise of means “disguised as” or “under pretense of” and implies subterfuge and duplicity: “I’m taking Trixie to Cancun under guise of client relations.” If you want to say “under the guidance of,” then the phrase you want is under the guidance of. Even better, try active voice: “Marketing will guide the website launch.” (I know—too much to ask, right?)

Communications behaviors change quickly in the web 2.0 world, but I often wonder why it’s mistakes that circulate the quickest. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, since more people forward emails claiming that Obama is a Muslim or Bush has the lowest presidential IQ than ones correcting egregious misuses of words. LOL.

Incent or Incentivize?

This is going to make you mad, but I will not be taking potshots at these awkward back-formations today. Sure, they roll off the tongue like cement doorstops, but as is often the case with corporate-speak, these words are here to stay.

INCENT: “To provide with an incentive” — Merriam Webster Online

INCENTIVIZE: “To provide with an incentive” — Merriam Webster Online

Well, duh.

This is going to make you mad, but I will not be taking potshots at these awkward back-formations today. Sure, they roll off the tongue like cement doorstops, but as is often the case with corporate-speak, these words are here to stay. Like their sisters in sin impact and enthuse, verbified nouns are the sweethearts of managers, marketers and motivators — you know, folks with good people skills and atrocious writing skills. (note from ed.: Otto currently holds the title of Marketing Manager at his company, where he writes motivational literature. Thanks, Otto. Carry on.)

Making verbs out of nouns is an act that has a storied history in English. The word escalate was preceded by escalator (itself derived from the French escalier, meaning staircase). While escalate originally meant “making use of an escalator,” where would we be today without wars, threats and other nasty things that escalate? Go back even further to the 1700s and you find the word donation, but not the verb donate. Again, charities would be the poorer if they could only ask people to give, offer, contribute or bestow.

Which brings us back to the two words in the dock today. Incentivize seems to have come first (appearing sometime in the 1970s), followed by incent in the 1980s. Both words are clunky and sound like you’re adding a splash of Mongolian to a conference call in English. But there is a slight difference in nuance between incentivize/incent and encourage and motivate. One encourages and motivates with goodwill and enthusiasm; one incentivizes or incents with a prize or giveaway, especially when the target audience would be unmoved without the incentive. In other words, the first set of words sound positive and optimistic, while the newcomers sound cynical.

And yet, businesspeople insist on incenting. Maybe it’s a sign of our materialistic age that goodwill and leadership just don’t cut it anymore with the troops. Whatever the reason, we at Lexicide grudgingly welcome these neophyte words and encourage corporate wordsmiths to consider three things:

1) Encourage, motivate, drive, urge, lead and spur are still more universal, positive and readable.

2) The first time I heard incent, I mistook it for incense and wondered why we wanted to enrage our customers. This could happen to you.

3) To incent or incentivize, you must offer an incentive. If you don’t have one, use another damn word. If your “incentive” is the spectre of firing or other penalty, you should try the word threaten or browbeat.

— Otto E. Mezzo

References: The Boston Globe’s “Dissent on Incent”
Grammar Girl’s take on “verbification”
The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

What was E-Prime?

After college, I was working at a Richmond, Virginia, firm developing educational and training software. Although I was an art major, I soon found myself writing instructional copy. Before long, I was an official copywriter. The year was 1992, and “E-Prime” was the talk of business writing journals and articles everywhere. “E-Prime” advocated using active voice and eschewing the verb “to be” in most instances, including the preceding four sentences, which would instead read:

After college, I took a job at a Richmond, Virginia, firm developing educational and training software. Although I majored in art, I volunteered to write instructional copy. Before long, I added “copywriter” to my job description. In 1992, articles about business writing touted something called “E-Prime…”

Linguist D. David Bourland, Jr., proposed E-Prime as a way to eliminate passive voice and other lazy writing habits. As I mentioned, E-Prime forbids using the verb “to be” in all but the existential sense, and thus makes it impossible to use passive voice. 

Alas, E-Prime was only a fad in the annals of business writing. Now it is mostly an academic exercise (which is why I’m using the “to be” verb again). But its brief appearance on the scene called attention to a problem: writers don’t think when they write. More than anyone, I understand the demands of deadline. I also understand sometimes one must use passive voice when defining the doer is difficult or impossible. (“Too many buildings in our neighborhood are neglected.”) But thinking is neither difficult nor time-consuming. In fact, if you write for business, it’s what someone pays you for.

You’ve seen the bumper sticker that claims “well-behaved women rarely make history.” If Lexicide sold bumper stickers, one might read “well-behaved writers rarely make sense.” It’s time to misbehave and not accept trendy words. What’s more, it’s time to put some thought back into memos, white papers and proposals. Having E-Prime in mind when you write forces you to think about nouns and verbs. I don’t advocate it as a way of life, but you might find it takes your brain off auto-pilot, and makes writing not only mischievous, but fun again.

— Otto E. Mezzo

Confuse, obscure, evade

(This essay appeared in the Blue Ridge Business Journal, March 23, 2009)

What’s wrong with the following sentences?

It is advisable to limit breaks to fifteen minutes.
Technologies can be leveraged to effect the necessary changes.
We are very excited for this one-of-a-kind opportunity.

(This essay appeared in the Blue Ridge Business Journal, March 23, 2009)

What’s wrong with the following sentences?

It is advisable to limit breaks to fifteen minutes.
Technologies can be leveraged to effect the necessary changes.
We are very excited for this one-of-a-kind opportunity.

Nothing, right? Now try these:

Please limit breaks to fifteen minutes.
We can use available technologies to make the changes your company needs.
The opportunity to work together fills us with excitement.

When you read the two sets of sentences above, there is no question the second set represents clearer, more forceful writing. Why, then, are we far more likely to see sentences from the first set?

When I started writing copy for an instructional software company in 1992, business writing seminars and journals were working to stem the tide of “corporate-ese.” Experts begged us to avoid jargon, obfuscating phrases and passive voice. They touted “e-prime,” a linguistic style that eschewed most forms of the verb “to be,” forcing writers to use active voice and evocative verbs. Even the SEC got into the act. Then-chairman Arthur Levitt demanded corporate and mutual fund prospectuses use “plain English.” What has happened since then? Why does one “engage in issues-based solutions” instead of “solve problems?”

David Silverman, a business writing professor and contributor to harvardbusiness.org, blames “an education system that rewards length over clarity.” Since teachers look for certain key points in essays and papers, students carpet-bomb them with verbiage, hoping they hit the magic words by sheer volume. This habit carries over into the working world, where, according to Silverman, it’s “better to make every possible point, use three words where one will do, and even be redundant, than leave out something that might win the boss over.”

Still others blame the rise of electronic communication. Tom Clark, a business professor at Xavier University, sees a new generation of professionals fixated on speed instead of quality. “Young people are wrapped up in the speed with which they communicate rather than seeing writing as a reflection of their best selves,” he said in a December 5, 2006, Associated Press story. In the same story, another business writing expert shares a different thought on the cause of poor business writing: laziness.

As a writing professional entering his thirteenth year of reading (and occasionally penning) appalling prose, I have my own thoughts on why people, including myself, resort to inelegant, roundabout or redundant phrases, or use words incorrectly. Before I lay them out for everyone to read, though, here’s a disclaimer:

Any reference, implied or explicit, to any client, associate or employer, past or present, living or dead, is unintentional. All examples are for entertainment purposes only. Tumble dry on lowest setting. Cool iron if needed.

• The writer is terrified of offending someone.

“Please limit breaks to fifteen minutes” commands. It implies a hierarchy, where the writer is superior to the audience. In our age of “teamwork” and “buy-in,” this cannot be permitted (or rather, “it is not advisable”). How, then, does one say what’s needed without sounding too imperious, admonishing or skeptical? Simple — make it sound like someone else — some mysterious otherness — is doing the writing. The Associated Press article quotes a touchstone of achievement in this department:

“It is my job to ensure proper process deployment activities take place to support process institutionalization and sustainment. Business process management is the core deliverable of my role, which requires that I identify process competency gaps and fill those gaps.”

Translation: “Hi. I’m the training manager, and I’m here to whip you incompetents into shape.” You almost feel sorry for this person, being forced into this job and all it requires. He craftily avoids all verbs in favor of nouns — he doesn’t sustain, he ensures sustainment. And best of all, he litters this short missive with meaningless buzzwords.

• The writer is terrified because he doesn’t know what he is saying.

I’ve written for the tech industry and I’ll be damned if I can tell you what “best practices” means. I’m fairly certain it means different things to different people. What I have learned is that if you pepper your writing with these catchphrases, you can disguise the fact that you have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s like saying “d’accord” every five minutes in Paris. It doesn’t mean you know French, but you sure sound like a Parisian. Likewise, calling attention to “management solutions” instead of plain old “management” seems to indicate you’ve read your Fast Company.

But here’s the thing — corporate catchphrases are like the emperor’s new clothes. I’m convinced no one really knows what they mean, and those that do are too afraid to speak up. How many times has a manager asked for a post-mortem after a project kick-off, or requested a quick perusal of a document, or (my favorite) concise verbiage? Each of these phrases contains a gross contradiction. Not only do we not question these usages, we propagate them, maybe because re-using them might, as Silverman surmised, “win the boss over.”

• The writer is terrified of being understood.

Another benefit of using buzzwords is the ability to disown them. If you “meet expense management goals,” a manager can’t accuse you of cutting her budget. If you “optimize resource allocation,” you’re really not taking away the department copier. Not only do you avoid offending people, you avoid communicating. And that seems to be the new goal of business writing.

In his inaugural address, President Obama called for “a new era of responsibility.” Perhaps it’s time for managers and writers to take this to heart. Stand up and be understood. Be direct and be effusive. Use active voice. Let everyone know you’re doing your job with gusto, and let your fair and pleasant demeanor inoculate you from your audience taking offense.

Or not. But at least keep a dictionary at your desk.

— Otto E. Mezzo

What’s the Big Deal?

Words change. Counterfeit once designated a legitimate copy. Zeal, now signifying positive enthusiasm, used to imply an unhealthy single-mindedness (as preserved in zealot). My favorite: manufacture, which every first-year Latin student can tell you means “make by hand.” And so it was, until the meaning drifted into the industrial age.

And that’s the beauty of English — it’s arguably the most flexible language on Earth. We make nouns into verbs and verbs into adjectives at a moment’s notice. At Lexicide, we’re in no mood to kvetch about impact as a verb or other useful (if inelegant) constructions. What we object to is the purposeful “re-purposing” of words because of ignorance and pretense. We hate to see the nuances of the English language watered down or eliminated. Where once words like verbiage, peruse, unique and leverage carried special meanings, now they only duplicate existing words. To express their original nuances, one must resort to clumsy multi-word phrases. This did not happen organically. This happened in the course of years or months, often driven by the propensity in business to obfuscate. The Lexicide authors are professional writers, and if anyone can explain to us why it is so necessary to be unclear and passive in business writing, we would welcome the education.

So why do we fuss so much about dying definitions? Why do we insist on holding the line when everyone else happily jumps on the board the Lexicide Express, mowing down handy, one-of-a-kind (See? We can’t even use the word unique here!) words in favor of a kind of vulgar Newspeak? I guess it depends on who you ask. If you ask us, it’s because we love language. We protect and draw attention to endangered animals. Why not endangered meanings? We do it because we care about effective and artful expression and preserving the tools to make it happen.

If you ask our wives, it’s because we’re pretentious snobs who like to lord it over others. (Sigh) So misunderstood…

Note: All the examples of shifting word meanings come from The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson, a favorite authority on words and language.

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

Welcome to Lexicide.

Welcome to Lexicide. We’re fighting back against the misuse and corruption of perfectly good words in the English language.

Take a look at this.

“It’s fortuitous that we have time to revise the verbiage of the contract – but that begs the question, ‘Who is up to the sheer enormity of that task?'”

What’s wrong with that sentence? If your answer is “nothing,” then please move on along.  Nothing to see here.

However, if that sentence was like fingernails on the blackboard of your brain, then welcome to Lexicide. We’re fighting back against the misuse and corruption of perfectly good words in English language.

Of course, all languages change over time, and we’re fine with that. The trouble arises when people start using the language in ways that make it less powerful, less expressive, and less elegant. Take fortuitous, for example. Lots of people use it to mean “lucky,” probably equating it with fortunate, but that’s not what it means. Fortuitous just means “occurring by chance,” for better or for worse.  Or rather, it did, before people started using it as a slightly pretentious stand-in for “fortunate.”  And just like that, a word dies, the English language loses a little bit of nuance, all so some assistant manager somewhere can try to sound smart by adding another syllable to a memo.

Lexicide, then, is a shot across the bow of all those who would debase and defile the lexicon.  Let them know – the question-beggars, the initializers, the fortuitious, the beholders of enormity – that the pen shall once again be mightier than the sword.