STAGNANT: “(of a body of water or the atmosphere of a confined space) having no current or flow and often having an unpleasant smell as a consequence: a stagnant ditch; (figurative) showing no activity; dull and sluggish: a stagnant economy— New Oxford American Dictionary

Stagnant welfare caseloads create puzzle — headline from Tulsa World

Accentuate the positive; eliminate the negative. That’s not only Tin Pan Alley’s rule, but Madison Avenue’s as well. And yet, when it comes to word choice, so many folks make the neutral (or the positive) negative. They call for postmortems on live projects and proudly hail their verbiage. So welcome stagnant to the lexicon of perfectly acceptable business descriptors that in reality describe the nasty and undesirable.

Stagnant water is a plague. It breeds mosquitoes, algae and all manner of funk that turns oases of life-giving water into cesspools of slime and disease. Carrying the analogy over into other ebbing, flowing things like the economy and sales is natural. But not everything flat or inactive is stagnant. For example, in the Tulsa World headline, a better word would be flat or stable. Yes, the rate of welfare filings can decrease to nil, but is that a bad thing? Stagnant=BAD, just so you know. And sometimes, people just use the word wrong. HTML websites are not stagnant; they are static.

The shift in stagnant‘s meaning has an obvious source. Stagnant, stable and static all share a triad of leading letters, so it’s either carelessness or pretentiousness that drives people to sub one word for another. (Is stagnant really a better SAT word than static?) But you know what? If politicians cheerfully tout the enormity of their legislations, then why can’t companies shrug off their stagnant position in the market? I, for one, can’t wait to attend a shareholder meeting in a waist-deep pool of oily, brackish water.

Otto E. Mezzo