The Real World: Verbicide, Do You Remember When Paradigm Used to be
a Very Cool Word?
W. Warner Burke Associates, Inc.
Verbicide noun 1: deliberate distortion of the sense of a word
(as in punning), 2: one who distorts the sense of a word.
Adams on Business Jargon
During a recent interview with the Harvard Communications Update,
Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) was asked if "business jargon is now the
greatest threat to the English Language." He responded as follows:
People don't bring that language home too much. You know, you come home
and you're not really facilitating the diapers. For some reason people can turn it on and
off...I think it's a surrogate for actually being confident. It probably took me 10 years
of working in the corporate world before I realized that it wasn't just because I was
inexperienced that I was confused, but it was because everybody's full of [it]. Soon I
realized that I was bluffing, too. Everybody's bluffing. If you can say, `Well, we are
going to do a paradigm here. We're looking at different models. We'll run a few
simulations and put this together to see if we can get a consensus.' That sounds much
better than, `I don't know'.
Of course, I beg to differ.
My Old School
This is a true story. When I was an undergraduate psychology major at
SUNY Stony Brook I had my first exposure to the word paradigm. It was in my Psychology 101
textbook. In this case the term paradigm was being used to differentiate different
families of theories in psychology (e.g., psychodynamic, developmental, cognitive,
experimental, social and behavioral). At the time I thought it was a very cool and
sufficiently psychological-sounding word. It made me feel good about the first semester's
tuition that my parents had just shelled out. It also made me feel good about psychology
as a field. Hey, I was only 16 years old and obviously easily impressed. Yes, for a kid
from the middle class suburbs of good old Long Island the word paradigm just oozed
erudition and had instant credibility. Little did I know that one day the very word I so
adored as an excited and impressionable young freshman would make me entertain thoughts of
committing acts of physical violence against its purveyor as an adult. Yes, too much of a
good thing really can be harmful.
At this point, you may be asking yourself, what happened here? How can
one go from loving a word to hating it? The answer my friends is verbicide, pure and
simple. The overuse and flagrant misuse of the word paradigm by every would-be consultant,
armchair psychologist, self-help guru, and a host of others has bastardized it and killed
You can call me a purist or an anachronistic stick-in-the-mud, but I
have finally had my fill of trendy buzzwords and jargon. Specifically, I really detest the
"Newspeak" that has crept into our language and in particular our profession
with such elan. For example, can anyone tell me why we had to invent the term
"value-added" when good old "contribution" has been around since the
14th century? Personally, I just find terms like "thought leadership"
and "buy-in" repulsive. ThereI said it. I refuse to beat around the bush
on this topic. I really don't care who gets annoyed. If someone out there wants to defend
the excessive use of non-words in our field, be my guest. I will do battle to the death!
I'm Just a Bill
Whew, I feel much better now that I have gotten that off my chest! But
seriously, recent political events (i.e., Bill Clinton's impeachment by the Congress) have
brought the issue of verbicide to the fore. In this case, the president was accused of
parsing words and concepts to such an extent that it was unclear if one could agree on
what is "is." In my opinion, parsing is just one way to commit verbicide. The
excessive use of a word when applied out of context or in an inappropriate context as
jargon or as a buzzword is another.
Perhaps it is because my mother was a high school English teacher who
incessantly corrected my grammar and syntax (not that it did any good). Or perhaps it's
because I just get easily irked. In any event, I really have a problem with buzzwords and
jargon. I feel that our language is sufficiently complex to express what most mortals
intend. Anyway, if it was good enough for Shakespeare it's good enough for me. However, I
know that I am as guilty as (if not more so than) most people when it comes to using
jargon. I have probably used more trendy catch phrases and coined more insipid acronyms in
my short professional career as a consultant than most normal people ever even hear in a
lifetime. But it doesn't mean I have to like it.
Given my admittedly dubious past in this area, you might be wondering
why of all things I have decided to focus on jargon in this column. Well, recently I was
working with a client at an off-site meeting who told me that she liked the training
program we were conducting but there was "too much jargon" in it, which made the
speakers and presentations difficult to follow at times. This gave me pause because I
thought I was jargon-free. I guess I was under the impression that using jargon and
psychobabble were bad habits that other people had, not me. Wrong. Despite all my
moralizing and soapbox preaching to others about the evils of jargoning, I was doing the
same thing. I was a hypocritical, sanctimonious, and holier-than-thou jargonnaut. Woe is
me. Well, no more my friendsfrom this point forward I do solemnly swear to strike
jargon and anything remotely resembling it from my vocabulary, so help me! However, before
I do, I feel I must purge myself of these sinful and hateful words once and for all.
Therefore this column represents my farewell to faux phrases and goodbye to business
Brother, Can You Paradigm?
So, aside from my client's complaint about my overuse of jargon, why
should professionals in this field care about this topic? What is the problem? As I see
it, if the overuse of jargon and buzzwords eventually serves to erode and undermine the
credibility of those who use it (and I believe it will), then we are in trouble. While
occasionally peppering your sentences with a new phrase or two can demonstrate that your
are in touch with the current theories, tools and techniques being used in your field,
excessive jargon slinging produces the opposite effect. You sound ridiculous. Words like
psychobabble, corpspeak, and managementese come to mind.
Further, I know I am not alone in thinking this. Books such as The
Witch Doctors, Fad Surfing in the Board Room, Business Babble, and anything written by
Scott Adams, all demonstrate that using jargon to excess has a deleterious effect on the
credibility of consultants and psychologists alike. This brings me full circle to my
paradigm parable: A little bit of jargon goes a long way. So, while paradigm used in its
proper context (e.g., my Psychology 101 textbook) can enhance one's understanding of a
concept and add subtleties of comprehension to a particular idea, its improper application
in every conceivable context can produce the opposite effect.
For example, these days it's almost impossible to talk about innovation
or creativity without someone using the term "paradigm shift" or even worse
"thinking outside of the box." In fact, the word paradigm is so over applied
that there have been several Dilbert cartoons dedicated solely to slamming it.
Similarly, have you ever heard something like the following uttered by
one of your colleagues and wondered if they were serious?
In today's hyper competitive business environment, the ability to mine
and leverage knowledge effectively will become a major source of competitive advantage in
This roughly translates to thinking is good for business. So, for all
of these reasons, I am concerned. However, before I get to the usual e-mail Q&A, I
want to present you with the following thoughts about the perils of jargon.
1984 Revisited: From Thought Police to Thought Leaders
By 2050earlier, probablyall real knowledge of Oldspeak will
have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer,
Shakespeare, Milton, Byronthey'll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely
changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of
what they used to be. The climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no
thought, as we understand it now (Orwell, 1984, p. 47).
Was Orwell talking about Cliff's Notes? I think not.
Like most people, I first came across 1984 when I was in high
school and to this day it still remains one of my favorites. Among other things the
concept of Newspeak really fascinated me. The idea that one day soon we would be monitored
by Big Brother and the Thought Police, who would watch our every move and dictate what we
thought and how we expressed ourselves, intrigued and horrified me. I was horrified for
the most part because I thought the book was already somewhat close to reality or at least
had the potential to be. Call me a paranoid freak but the book rang true for me and
obviously for many others.
In the ramifications of Party doctrine she had not the faintest
interest. Whenever he began to talk of the principles of Ingsoc, double think, the
mutability of the past and the denial of objective reality, and to use Newspeak words, she
became bored and confused and said that she never paid any attention to that kind of
thing. One knew that it was all rubbish, so why let oneself be worried by it? (Orwel, 1984,
So, while many may dismiss the use of jargon as an unimportant issue,
it may be wise to consider its potentially insidious effects on our language and our
field. Perhaps we should be concerned. After all, what you don't know can hurt you.
Therefore with all these potentially pernicious effects of jargon firmly in mind, I asked
several I-O practitioners the following questions:
(1) Do you think we use too much jargon in our field? Please explain.
(2) Do you think the use of jargon has any effect on the credibility of
the person using it (either positive or negative) and/or on our field as a whole? If so,
(3) What are some of the buzzwords or jargon that you have heard lately
that you either like or dislike, and why?
(4) What if anything should we do about the use of jargon in the field?
Subj: Re: Comments for TIP
Date: 1/20/99 4:40:53 PM EST
I don't know if this is what you were looking for, but anyway...your
use of "paradigm" as potential jargon in your inquiry reminded me of this
experience. I was speaking with a client about the possibility that employees in his
organization might perform more effectively if they looked at things in a different way. I
said, tentatively and trying to signal that I realized I was in the danger zone for
jargon, that we could refer to a way of looking at things as a paradigm. Whereupon he
reached his hand to the middle of the conference table at which we were sitting, and he
slid a pair of dimes lying there in my direction. To this day I'm not sure whether I did
myself more good by signaling jargon-awareness, or more harm by using the term at all. He
did, however, agree to the consultation that we were then considering.
John L. Michela
Department of Psychology
University of Waterloo
Subj: Re: Comments for TIP
Date: 1/22/99 200 PM EST
I shared your questions with my office colleagues and we took a group
approach to the task.
(1) As a general rule, our firm (Sperduto & Associates, Inc.) makes
a practice of avoiding management jargon. There are two reasons we frown on the use of
catch phrases/buzzwords. First, we believe there are enduring fundamentals and processes
in areas like leadership and that these fundamentals do not change every couple of years
the way catch phrases/buzzwords do. Second, we feel that it makes communication between
people less effective. In particular, often people ascribe different meanings to terms
like paradigm. Sometimes these differences in meaning are subtle and hard to distinguish
but at other times they can be quite divergent. This lack of shared meaning can lead to
miscommunication. As an aside, regarding the word paradigm I have heard people pronounce
it "paradine" with an "n" at the end. This really makes me wonder if
they think it means the same thing I do.
(2) Jargon can definitely have a negative impact on the credibility of
the person using it. This is especially true when you are dealing with "people who
count." This would mean with colleagues and clients who are knowledgeable about the
field and may have an aversion to trendy terms. For example, one of the most effective and
intelligent leaders with whom I have worked hated "big words." This was not
because he had a limited vocabularyquite the contrarybut because he felt that
people often hid behind ostentatious words. He believed that they used "big
words" to mask the fact that they weren't as knowledgeable as they pretended to be.
His philosophy was that simple, clear language was best. Again, his objection was that
lofty phrases got in the way of clear communication between people.
(3) In our group discussion, we remarked on several trends that may
explain why certain terms or phrases may become buzzwords. The first is what we call
turning nouns into verbs. Examples of this would be coining new terms like
"teaming," "incenting," and "visioning." These seem to be
somewhat common. Another trend is the use of euphemisms in place of direct and sometimes
negative terms. For example, terms like "rightsizing" and "areas for
development" are used in place of layoffs and weaknesses. We also agreed that certain
types of people might be more likely to use or hide behind jargonfor example,
"people pleasers" sometimes use this type of language to gain influence over or
control of a situation.
(4) I think we need to be careful here. First, we should make a
distinction between jargon and catch phrases and buzzwords. In many fields (e.g.,
medicine, chemistry, physics, and even psychology) jargon is really just technical
language and as such is completely appropriate. As one of my graduate school buddies once
said to me "All graduate school is, is learning another language." Of course
this is an oversimplification but in part it is true. It is probably useful to make a
distinction between jargon (which can be described as the lexicon of a particular
field) and catch phrases and buzzwords which are more generic and less
technical terms. Second, we need to be careful in how we apply jargon. For example, I'm
sure we have all heard people misuse clinical terms like "psychotic" and
"assertive" which have very specific meanings. Using these terms inappropriately
can eventually lead to a distortion of their meaning. All in all, we need to be careful
about the words we choose and how we apply them.
and the Management Consultants
at Sperduto & Associates, Inc.
In sum, it seems that there is some potential for jargon to be harmful
to those who use it. First, it can jeopardize one's credibility with others. Second, and
more importantly, it can hinder clear communication between people. Third, it can pose an
even more serious danger in the long term. Specifically, one of Orwell's concerns was that
eventually the use of "Newspeak" would lead to the inability of people to think
critically about the world around them. Obviously, this would be a bad thing. Probably the
best strategy is to avoid it altogether. Of course, this is easier said than done.
If I Didn't Loathe You I'd Hate You
By now you probably have at least a general idea about the kind of
jargon am I talking about. However, since I am short on subtlety and can't control my
mischievous impulses I have put together a brief list of some of the buzzwords and catch
phrases that I find to be the most problematic and overused. These are my personal
favorites that I love to hate.
Anything + capital Intellectual capital, knowledge capital
Leverage + anything Leverage knowledge capital
Anything + leadership Thought leadership, loyalty-based
Anything + points Talking points, texture points
Energy around + anything Create some energy around thought
Grow + anything Grow the business, grow our employees
Anything + services Professional services, portfolio of services
Process + anything Process check, process map,
Paradigm + anything Paradigm shift
Value + anything Value added, value based, value equity
Anything + driven Market driven, customer driven
Anything + solutions Business solutions, real estate solutions
To my way of thinking, these phrases are unnecessary. There are many
suitable alternatives that are less trendy and therefore less likely eventually to become
Real stuff from Fortune magazine:
I also want to share a few more of my recent findings with you. While
poking through a recent issue of Fortune magazine, I began to notice a disturbing
trend among their corporate sponsors. It seemed to me that many of the advertisements used
an overabundance of vaunted phrases designed to make their company and its products and
services sound a lot loftier and more impressive than normal. As Dean and colleagues said
in their response, part of today's jargon is the use of euphemisms. Some of the more
amusing ones I have seen lately are listed below. My question is, do these advertisements
really make the organization they represent sound more or less appealing? You be the
What the ad said
|What it means
|"offer advanced calling services"
||are a phone company
|"are a leader in container transportation and logistics
||organize and move stuff
|"manage your network resources for competitive advantage"
||help you with computer stuff
|"are a global, real-time, event-driven enterprise"
||do stuff around the world
|"offer expertise in loss mitigation and avoidance"
||do stuff around the world
|"offer comprehensive data warehouse strategies"
||tell you how to file stuff
|"offer mailing systems"
|"have global multi-modal capabilities"
||do stuff around the world
|"offer global delivery services"
||mail stuff around the world
|"are a fully integrated beverage company"
||make beer and soda
|"offer global leadership in capital raising, asset-based lending,
cash management, risk management and foreign exchange"
||are a bank
Recently, a colleague of mine handed me a copy of Fad Surfing in the
Boardroom by Eileen Shapiro, a former McKinsey consultant and Harvard MBA. Basically,
Shapiro devotes most of the book to talking about our society's quest for instant answers
to complex organizational dilemmas. Further, she argues that many companies engage in
"fad surfingthe practice of riding the crest of the latest management panacea
and the paddling out again just in time to ride the next one; always absorbing for
managers and lucrative for consultants; frequently disastrous for organizations." The
latter portion of the book contains a dictionary for would-be fad surfers to use to get up
to speed on the latest business lingo. I have excerpted some of the more humorous examples
for your reading pleasure from The Expanded Fad Surfer's Dictionary of Business Basics:
Accountability: A characteristic of which everyone else in the
organization needs far more. Not to be confused with authority, which is what I need more
Benchmarking: The basis for great jobs in which the incumbents
have no substantive responsibilities other than to gallivant around the world, meet all
sorts of interesting people, make occasional proclamations about all the neat things other
companies do, and submit appropriately lavish expense reports.
Continuous improvement: A label that provides dignity to the
repeated efforts of an organization to get it right.
Groupware decision processes: A system that enables 20 or more
people who don't have a clue about what's going on to respond electronically to situations
in the belief that this collective lack of knowledge, when aggregated and presented in
multicolor graphs, will represent wisdom.
Horizontal career path: New name for the occupational breakdown
Process check: Politically correct way of saying "shut
up" and otherwise retaining the power to control the agenda of a working group;
related to a hockey check.
Statistically significant sample: Four people in a focus group,
especially when three of the four express the point of view espoused by the CEO.
Trust-Based leadership: How I can get you to believe in me long
enough for me to build trust funds for my children and grandchildren.
Another interesting book I came across in my research (if you can call
it that) was Business Babble: A Cynic's Dictionary of Corporate Jargon by David
Olive (1990). This book provides many serious and some tongue-in- cheek definitions of
popular business jargon. Although the author does not wax philosophic on the cause and
effect of jargon in our culture, he does nevertheless provide some pretty clever
Bottom line: The figure representing hope minus reality.
Census reduction: Mass layoffs, an effort to fire as many people
Compusavant: A person of prodigious mathematical ability, whose
talents and personality invite comparison to a pocket calculator.
Environmental audit: How many trees did we kill today?
Leverage: The act of borrowing five cents to purchase control of
something worth one dollar in the expectation of locating someone with five dollars to
unload it upon.
Opportunity for learning: The bright side of a mistake.
Paradigm shift: Term used by the CEO to tell his entire army
that it is out of step, now that he hears a different drummer.
Restructuring: An attempt at self-redemption, in which everyone
and everything is moved up, down or sideways, and then given a new name to see if the firm
works better that way.
Safety-Related occurrence: An accident in the workplace.
Strategic planning: Planning undertaken with care and
deliberation, as opposed to normal planning.
Vision: An idea in black tie.
Before I go I have a bit of house cleaning to take care of. For some
time now I have been working on some jargon of my own that is used to describe some of the
behaviors and situations one may find themselves in at the annual SIOP conference. These
were developed with a little help from some friends and colleagues at last year's SIOP
social hour. If you find yourself experiencing any of the following phenomena in Atlanta,
give me a holler!
Session obsession: The obsessive and often compulsive act of
asking everyone with whom you come in contact, "What sessions are you going to?"
and the subsequent need to justify any selections you have made that are different from
those of others. Similar to the "What's your major" phenomenon that one
experiences at all college parties.
Poster sprinting: The frenzied act of madly rushing into the
beginning of a poster session to grab up all the available papers in which you are
interested before they disappear. Not to be confused with the SIOP 5K Road Race.
Card dropping: The frenzied act of dropping business cards at
every poster station where papers were unavailable in the hope that you will receive a
copy of the paper in the mail before next year's conference.
Craning: A behavioral tic that occurs during conversations at
the annual conference. Characterized by excessive 180_degree head turning and room
scanning; usually to see if there is anyone more important to whom you need talk than the
person with whom you're currently talking.
SIOP neck: A sore neck that results from craning.
SIOParanoia: A state of anxiety created by the excessive
interpersonal stimuli that one is bombarded with at the annual conference. Characterized
by feelings of dread regarding perceived interpersonal blunders (e.g., no one likes me, no
one knows me, my career is ruined, why did I drink so much at the social hour?).
SIOP funk: The fugue like state one experiences after spending 2
or 3 days at the annual SIOP conference. This is heightened at venues with limited access
to the outside world (e.g., Opryland Hotel, Disney World), and is often a side effect of
SIOP truancy: The act of skipping out on the Saturday afternoon
sessions to do some shopping and/or sightseeing. Considered a minor felony. Can lead to
SIOParanoia and SIOPerjurythat is, the act of lying to others about what you did on
SIOP nostalgia: The annual occurrence of reminiscing about and
sentimentally glorifying the "good times" one has had at past conferences while
simultaneously ignoring all the SIOParanoia and other mishaps that occurred.
SIOPost traumatic stress syndrome: The state of complete
emotional, mental and physical exhaustion one experiences directly following the annual
conference. Symptoms include impeded verbal ability, extreme fatigue, and, in its most
severe cases, a comatose or semi-vegetative state.
I hope this edition of The Real World has done more good than
harm by raising awareness of an issue I feel is important. If not, then please excuse my
presumption and accept my (and Shakespeare's) humble apologies.
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream
As ever, I would like to thank my contributors John Michela, and Dean Stamoulis and
friends. Thanks to Allan Church for his feedback and to Seth Berr for
lending me his copy of Fad Surfers. Please feel free to contact me either by e-mail
at J9151@aol.com or at W. Warner Burke
Associates, Inc., 201 Wolfs Lane, Pelham, NY 10803 (914) 738_0080 (tel.), (914) 738_1059
Adams, S. (1996). The Dilbert principle. New York, NY: Harper Business.
Harvard Communication Update, January 1999 www.hbsp.harvard.edu/ideasatwork/adams.html
Micklethwait, J., & Wooldridge, A. (1996). The witch doctors: Making sense of the
management gurus. New York: Times Business.
Olive, D. (1991) Business babble: a cynic's dictionary of corporate jargon, USA:
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Orwell, G. (1949) 1984, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.
Shapiro, E. C. (1995) Fad surfing in the boardroom, Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.
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