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 (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.