English is my native tongue, language is my beat, and corporate America is where I earn my daily crust. Nevertheless, every so often I encounter an English word—in a corporate memo, speech, or email—that mystifies me. I've seen the word before; I've just never seen it used that way. I've always assumed the word meant one thing; here it obviously means something very different.
I'm not talking about the clichés and buzzwords that everyone loves to mock but no one misinterprets: "low-hanging fruit," "think outside the box," "level playing field," and so on. (For more examples, see my VT column "A Value-Added, Outside-the-Box Sea Change.") Rather, these words belong to a distinct subspecies of the corporate lexicon: the baffling dog-whistle code intelligible only to insiders and expert practitioners.
Here, as a public service, are the double-meaning words most likely to cause confusion among civilians, with their common and corporatese definitions.
Confusing real-world example: "Our team produced a lot of actionable ideas during the offsite."
Legal definition: Meeting the legal requirements to file a lawsuit. (A bad thing.) For example, West's Encyclopedia of American Law tells us that an assault is an actionable tort. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this legal definition entered the English lexicon in the late 16th century. Even BusinessDictionary.com gives this definition—and this definition only—for the word.
Corporatese definition: Capable of being put into practice in the near future; useful, practical. (A good thing.) This usage no doubt owes its currency to business schools; the Oxford English Dictionary provides a 1966 citation in Management Science ("A plan is a set of actionable decisions which has been selected from among a number of alternative sets") as well as later citations from business and medical sources. But I was surprised to discover that the earliest nonlegal usage of "actionable" dates back to a 1913 book called The New Housekeeping: Efficiency Studies in Home Management, written by a Mrs. Christine Frederick, who's identified on the title page as a "household efficiency engineer and kitchen architect." Mrs. Frederick also had a busy career in advertising, which may explain her penchant for creative wordsmithing. "Refuse to let the mind wallow and dawdle around a problem," Mrs. F. advised her readers, "without arriving at definite, actionable conclusions." Who would have guessed that 21st-century MBAs would be taking language lessons from an early-20th-century housewife? Bonus definition: In my real-world example, "offsite" (noun) means "a meeting held away from the office."
Confusing real-world example: "As a software engineer, you will be a scrum team member in a fast-paced, collaborative agile development environment."
Common definition: Nimble, active, graceful.
Corporatese definition: A descriptor for a method of software development based on collaborative teamwork and iteration rather than sequential processes. The technological definition of "agile" was coined in 2001 by the authors of the Agile Manifesto, who championed "individuals and interactions over processes and tools" and "working software over comprehensive documentation." The new definition eventually crept over to non-software contexts; "agile management" means "we'll get it to quickly, but in stages." Warning: Sometimes "agile" is part of a company name (Agile Software, Agile Mobile), and sometimes it just means "lively" ("The candidate should be able to build rapport with internal teams while working in an agile, constantly changing environment"). Bonus definition: in the confusing real-world example above, taken from a job listing, "scrum" refers to Scrum, "an agile framework for completing complex projects."
Confusing real-world example: "Discussions were on wide-ranging topics, including software release cadence, best practices, usability, social networking for user input, quality, and training."
Common definitions: Balanced, rhythmic flow (said of poetry or oratory); a falling inflection of the voice (phonetics); the measure of a beat or movement (in dancing or marching). From Latin cadentia, "a falling."
Corporatese definition: Schedule; frequency. This usage may have originated at IBM; an article about the company in the February 3, 2003, issue of Sales and Marketing Management referred to "the cadence of meetings" within quotation marks—an indication that the phrase was still relatively unfamiliar—and qualified the term as "IBM language." (Tip of the hat to Ben Zimmer for that citation.) The article went on to explain what that "cadence" was: "Frontline salespeople are required to attend only one meeting per week with their managers, for 30 minutes each Monday, when they receive coaching and commit to goals. Business unit executives meet with their regional leaders for an hour on Tuesdays, and so on up the hierarchy each day until Friday, when the highest-level sales leaders and executives meet for two hours with [CEO Sam] Palmisano." Warning: Don't confuse "cadence" with Cadence Design Systems, a publicly traded company in San Jose, California. Also, "Cadence" was the name of female characters in two movies from the early 2000s, American Wedding and Shallow Hal, and consequently enjoyed a brief (one hopes) surge in popularity as a baby name in the United States.
Confusing real-world example: "Marketers Try 'Conquesting'—to Get on Rivals' Nerves." (Wall Street Journal headline.)
Common definition: An archaic term for "acquiring by force." The OED gives a 1555 citation: "He euen then ... sente furth shyppes for the conquestynge of the Indies." By 1823 the word meant "acquiring by means other than inheritance": "The property is my own conquesting." The term seems to have slipped into oblivion until its late-20th-century Corporatese revival.
Corporatese definition: Marketers originally used "conquesting" to mean "deliberately placing advertisements or other brand messages adjacent to editorial stories about competitors' products or services." The usage arose in print media, especially among car dealers, grocery stores, and real-estate brokerages. With the rising influence of online search engines, however, "conquesting" has taken on a new meaning: bidding on the search terms of competitors so that your company's ad shows up in, say, a Google search for your competitor. "Conquesting campaigns are seen as a way of increasing brand recognition and building awareness," writes Sarah Tillitt in SearchFuel. "By aligning your ad with competitor brand terms, you're providing consumers with an alternative to your competition. . . . You may even sway a potential customer to your brand rather than the competition."
Confusing real-world example: "[P]rosecutors should confirm with agents that substantive interviews should be memorialized." (Memorandum from the U.S. Deputy Attorney General.)
Common definition: To commemorate; to preserve the memory of a deceased person.
Corporatese definition: To include in a memorandum. This usage of "memorialize" tends to be favored by government functionaries convinced that five syllables always trump one syllable. Here's another real-world example, from a letter written by the general superintendent of the Detroit schools to the vice president of the board of education: "This serves to memorialize and inform you and the other members of the Detroit Board of Education of those certain events that took place during my weekly meeting with Board President Matthis." ("Those certain events" reflect poorly on Mr. Matthis, who, if his "memorializer" is to be believed, behaved in a most ungentlemanly manner.) Tip: Do not use "memorialize" in this sense if you work for a mortuary. Much too confusing.
Confusing real-world example: "I have taken the time to transparently explain and socialize the idea through meetings, calls, webcasts, governance processes, and Town Hall updates . . ." (The CEO of Deloitte, LLP, in the Washington Post.)
Common definition: To take part in social activities; to train (e.g., a child) for a social environment.
Corporatese definition: To discuss with colleagues; to familiarize (an idea). In his On Language column for the New York Times Sunday Magazine earlier this year, Ben Zimmer traced this usage of "socialize" back to 1998, when "Let's socialize the idea" was already being used in games of "buzzword bingo." A commenter on Mike Pope's Evolving English blog said he'd heard "socialize it around" as far back as 1986. Interestingly, even conservative business types who rail against "socialized medicine" seem to have no qualms about "socializing" their own ideas. (For more on "socialize," see Ben Zimmer's Word Routes column.)
Have you seen other examples of Weird Corporatese that I've overlooked? Please memorialize them in the comments.
Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books.Click here to read other articles by Nancy Friedman