Five Words in English and in Corporate-speak

By Maeve Maddox

Corporate-speak takes many forms, but especially mysterious is the practice of taking a familiar English word commonly understood to have one meaning and using it with a less familiar meaning. Here are five examples.

1. actionable
common meaning: “giving cause for legal action.”
Example: Disrespect in the workplace may constitute actionable behavior.

corporate usage: able to be acted upon or put into practice.
Example: From Apple to the Toastmasters, the world’s most successful organizations demand that attendees leave meetings with actionable tasks.

2. ecosystem
common meaning: A biological system composed of all the organisms found in a particular physical environment, interacting with it and with each other.
Example: Sockeye salmon vs. Pebble Mine: Protecting a fragile ecosystem in Alaska from destruction.

corporate usage: a complex system resembling a biological ecosystem.
Example: For me, a successful Entrepreneurial Ecosystem is a space run by people with very entrepreneurial minds. Ecosystems are self-supporting, energetic environments that attract, nurture, move on and reward different stakeholders. 

3. granular
common meaning: Consisting of grains or granules; existing in the condition of grains or granules. (granule: A small grain; a small compact particle; a pellet.)
Example: “Sandpaper” is material upon which a granular layer of some abrasive has been fixed by means of an adhesive.

corporate usage: attending to or explaining the fine details of a topic.
Example: The CEO and CFO see the bottom line of the cost of your department more clearly than they see the success of individual projects. They’re not idiots. They can get granular if they have to, but what they really want to know is if the total cost of IT is worth the output.

4. socialize
common meaning: to civilize, to make suitable for society.
Example: Pet owners socialize their puppies by taking them into different situations.

corporate usage: to let people know about something.
Examples:
1. Employees will form beliefs based on what they experience before and after you widely socialize the new purpose and those beliefs will drive their actions.
2. When a good idea hits, find the fastest, cheapest way to get something that will demonstrate and socialize the idea to at least some segment of the target marked. 

5. surface
common meaning: intransitive verb meaning to come to the surface, especially, to rise to the surface of water. Figuratively, “to surface” means to come to public attention after a period of obscurity or concealment.
Examples:
1. Sometimes we saw the whale and the dolphins surface at the same time.
2. Fear of the truths that might surface about ourselves…

corporate usage: transitive verb meaning “to raise.”
Example: Plan on meeting regularly so that team members stay informed and any issues you surface are resolved in a timely manner.

All occupations develop specialized terminology that serves a practical purpose. For example, terms like banner, head, and gutter provide useful shorthand in the context of running a newspaper. Used in an occupational context, the words’ other meanings do not impede communication.

Wrenching the meanings of words like socialize and surface however, has the effect of muddying communication. Speakers who wish to be understood by the largest number of listeners will do well to avoid such meaningless cant in their business meetings and correspondence.

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8 Responses to “Five Words in English and in Corporate-speak”

  • David Kane

    Maeve, this is a great post. I work for the navy and they have their own lexicon. It is usually useful, sometimes amusing, and occasionally downright annoying. For example, lately we seem to have become enamored of replacing the word “use” with the word “leverage”. We will also often replace the word “old” with “legacy”.

    Notwithstanding their common usage definitions, I have observed the navy use of these terms drifting from their earlier, more subtle meanings. “Leverage” meant something more like “take advantage of” or “exploit”. In the past, “legacy” usually referred to a previous version of something. I suspect people replace the simpler words because they think it makes them sound smart, but it usually just makes the sentence confusing.

    “In order to meet operational demands, the intrepid crew of USS Freedom will leverage the legacy gray paint until the new supply arrives.”

    Thanks for your good work.

    David

  • John White

    Next up:
    -Solution
    -Platform
    -Visibility

    “Our hybrid cloud-native solution is a development platform that increases your visibility into real-time productivity metrics.”

    Ugh. I need a nap.

  • Curtis

    I’ve worked in offices, and I think they must do it out of boredom. It might also have something to do with liquid lunches.

    Whatever the reason, I wish they’d stop it. I find these abuses annoying.

  • dragonwielder

    I cringe every time I see words used like this. “Actionable” and “leverage” are my pet peeves.
    “Leverage” as a verb is defined in my dictionary as speculating in a business investment using borrowed money, and yet I often see it used to mean “use to accomplish a purpose” – as in “They will leverage their findings in planning intiatives.”

    “Synergy” has been hijacked as well. I came across this beauty once in a newsletter: “Their distinct competencies created excellent synergy.”
    It was talking about people working with each other on a committee.

    I’m inclined to think that a lot of this happens because the people who use words in this way think it makes them sound cool and important and smart. I’m with Curtis, I wish they’d stop.

  • Rahat

    Notwithstanding their common usage definitions, I have observed the navy use of these terms drifting from their earlier, more subtle meanings. “Leverage” meant something more like “take advantage of” or “exploit”. In the past, “legacy” usually referred to a previous version of something. I suspect people replace the simpler words because they think it makes them sound smart, but it usually just makes the sentence confusing.

  • Ed Desautels

    There’s the cringe-worthy “ideate,” which seems to mean “brainstorm” or simply “to come posit ideas.” A related bizspeak word is “vision” as a verb, which sadly begets the gerund “visioning.” I _think_ the verb form means “to create a vision.” To me, all these bizarre usages and neologisms simply serve as means to obfuscate (as in, “if you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bullshit”) and/or as a means for asserting your self-importance in the corporate or organizational jungle.

  • Ed Desautels

    Should be “to posit ideas” in my post above.

  • Jay Goodwin

    “Laser-focused” is my corporate pet peeve.

    On a side note, my son has been in Army ROTC for three years and he has been dropping Army-speak on me lately. It seems that that branch of the military is particularly fond of acronyms and he has been using a lot of them lately; it’ s funny sometimes though because he doesn’t always know what they mean!

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