beyond the press release


Repeat Offenders: Word Crimes Revisited

Back in November 2010, I wrote a column about Word Crimes: words that have been resigned to corporate jargon, ill-suited for the situation, or overused enough to render their meaning useless.

Unfortunately, these crimes continue and I feel a duty to round up the posse and bring more "offenders" to justice. Here are a few buzzwords of language malfeasance.

Proactive is, hands down, one of the most overused words in the world today. Whether it is in politics or business, being proactive, circa 2006, has been thought of as a revolutionary concept. My question is this: In business, why do people need to be constantly told to be proactive? The definition of proactive -- or acting in anticipation of future needs/changes -- is pretty much the definition of work, or doing business. The opposite of proactive seems to be just sitting around waiting for things to happen, so if you have to tell someone to "be proactive," maybe you should just say, "go to work." Proactive is not a selling point folks.



"At the end of the day...."
You know this phrase: it's always followed by a summation -- the situation boiled down into a pithy, already-known conclusion, such as, "At the end of the day, it all comes down to providing our clients with the best service possible." In all of such summations, is it not the same situation that exists at the start of the day? What profound event, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., has taken place to completely change such an obvious conclusion?

Okay, constructive is a good word, but my problem is with the context in which it's constantly used: people say "constructive" in meetings and memos to somehow imply that "now we're really going to get somewhere." What have we been doing up to this point? It should be implied that all of our intentions in business are to be constructive. Much like the word "proactive," why would you need to tell someone to be constructive? Again, the meaning of the word -- to promote improvement or development -- is an essential element of doing business itself. Oh, and if you're simply handing out criticism, without the intention of being "constructive," you're just being an arse.

For a while there, I thought this term had gone away (like end-to-end); however, it seems to have begun another crime wave. Although originally meant to be something (a project, construction, design, model --made popular by the IT industry) that is developed and built, then turned over, ready to use by the purchaser, "turnkey" is now used to describe every "solution" under the sun. Somehow along the way, it's also become known as the speed at which something is done, or to describe a solution that has been figured out along the way, or done impromptu. Personally, if I hear the word "turnkey," my BS meter is tuned to "maximum sensitivity."

"Non-Essential Personnel"
I don't know how to feel about this one: livid at those who coined the phrase, or sorry for the ones that are labeled as "non-essential." The phrase conjures up more questions than answers: how many non-essential people are necessary during ordinary times? Are there a lot of non-essential, paid-for activities going on day-to-day? Might I suggest changing the term to "Core Operations Personnel Only" when referring to the skeleton crew needed to keep businesses and governments running in times of crisis and financial distress?

"Sole Survivor"
I understand it's not a business phrase, but it's one that drives me crazy nonetheless. It's redundant. "Survivor," singular, means exactly one person that survives. "Sole" means "the only," or "one." Maybe we should play a game of spot the oxymoron next time?

And a few others:

  • "Let's circle the wagons ... on Friday" (I choked on my coffee when I heard this one)
  • Engagement (offenders, you know who you are)
  • Insights (provided by the "new" experts)

Of course, there are many more repeat offenders of word crimes so please be on the lookout for clichés, overused buzzwords, and useless lingo. Send them my way to as I compile a 2011 unabridged version of Bullshit Bingo.

4 comments about "Repeat Offenders: Word Crimes Revisited ".
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  1. Steve Ellwanger from Marketing Daily, May 16, 2011 at 8:59 a.m.

    Well said. At the risk of giving you more ammo for the next go-round, when I say "Not for nothing..." it drives some people nuts. Ditto "It is what it is." What puts my hair on end is when people say "That's past history." I usually respond, "As opposed to future history?"

  2. Joseph Olewitz from 22nd Story Strategies, May 16, 2011 at 9:07 a.m.

    Thanks for the post Vanessa and for opening the discussion.

    Yes, there are a great many over-used words these days, some improperly used ones too, and I agree with many of your comments. Then there's the potential discussion about the use of language as a result of new media... you know, like "LOL" and more.

    Another valuable conversation may be about ALL the current changes to our language. For example, is it exactly the same thing that made "Ye Olde..." into "The Old..." and the only reason we're noticing it is because in our current society the changes are happening at a much more rapid rate than they ever have in history? Language updates are often triggered by historical events like invasions, colonization and migration. Maybe this time it's because of technological revolution.

    A Forbes article from several years ago ( discusses some of this well including reference to your word "proactive" and also to "problem" vs "issue" -- one of my personal favorites.

    There's no point resisting the tide but I certainly hope there will be more posts like yours so the conversation will happen.

  3. Jennifer Finger from KeenReader Inc., May 16, 2011 at 11 a.m.

    Good article.

    There are business buzzwords and phrases I have really come to hate:

    "Thinking outside the box." I've read The Smartest Guys In The Room cover to cover, and it seems to me that this is what got Enron into trouble to begin with.

    "Take initiative." Whenever I've been told to do this, and I do it, I often get smacked down with a "Who told you to?" Especially since the person telling me to do it really wants me to be psychic and do exactly what they want me to do, when they want me to do it, how they want me to do it, without trying to add any input of my own.

  4. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., May 16, 2011 at 6:14 p.m.

    While I agree strongly with much of what you say, I think there might be a technicality on "sole survivor." I remember there was some language having to do with the draft about not taking a "sole surviving son" of a widowed mother. If there were a dozen sons, I think if a couple had died, the rest would be "surviving." It may be a fine line between the clarifying action of "sole" and the possible redundancy of it.

    Now, how about this: Today, at lunch, I read the back of a bottle of mayonnaise. It was made by "Lever Foodsolutions." As a colleague said, "Imagine: I have this sandwich. And the bread is dry. I need a solution. Leave it to 'Lever Foodsolutions' to provide me with a 'solution.'"

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