Vowel Movement: 5 bullshit words that make me want to hurt you

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

–Mark Twain

I have often been accused of vulgarity for its own sake. I’ve heard, many times, from many people, that “Real writers don’t need to resort to obscenity.”

Bullshit.

A real writer appreciates the texture, flavor, and propriety of each word at his or her disposal. The same way there is a difference between “there,” “they’re,” and “their,” between “simple” and “simplistic” or “sense” and “sensibility,” there is a difference between “making love” and “fucking.”

Write business-related copy long enough and one can very easily find oneself falling into the same linguistic patterns. Marketing jargon, like a virus, is insidious: even very intelligent people are susceptible. Why use a small word when you can use a big one? Why bother deviating from established language we all understand? So what if I should have used “thought” instead of “insight”? People know what I meant.

Except this:

You can’t make your audience do 100% of the work and still call yourself a communicator.

Words matter. If you’re going to write copy — for anyone, for any reason — and be taken seriously, you are going to have to do better than regurgitate from Seth Godin’s Guide to Enthusiastic Malapropisms (“Architecture in the acquisition of infrastructure and tools is one of the highest leverage pieces of work a tech company can do”? Is that ENGLISH, Seth? Does your mother keep your best sellers with your Kindergarten macaroni art?).

So let’s start with five common marketing words that make my eyes bleed. Use them if you must — but for god’s sake, don’t use them at all if you can help it.

1. Leverage

My disdain for this word is well-known among my colleagues, friends, and fellow misanthropes. That’s because it represents the worst, most frequent form of abuse in marketing/sales writing: swapping an existing word that works just fine for a bigger, more “professional-sounding” word that is hardly ever apt.

Let’s look at some definitions of this word, courtesy of the fine folks at Merriam-Webster.

leverage. noun. 
1: the action of a lever or the mechanical advantage gained by it
2: power, effectiveness <trying to gain more political leverage>
3: the use of credit to enhance one’s speculative capacity

leverage. verb.
1: to provide (as a corporation) or supplement (as money) with leverage; also: to enhance as if by supplying with financial leverage
2: to use for gain: exploit <shamelessly leverage the system to their advantage>

I am including the verb form only grudgingly. It kind of makes me want to stab my own face.

So. Acceptable synonyms for “leverage”: exploit; parlay; capitalize on; take advantage of. It does NOT simply mean “to use.” I don’t leverage a hairbrush to remove tangles. I don’t leverage a television to watch movies. And no matter how much I want to, I don’t leverage my fist to punish sloppy copywriters.

I am not alone here, by the way. Top Google search results for this subject: “Leverage is NOT a verb!“; “5 Words You Probably Misuse in Business Writing“; and my personal favorite, “Are you stupid enough to use leverage as a verb?” Even Forbes put it to a vote, and “leverage” is a finalist in their Jargon Madness matchup.

Unless you are specifically talking about inertia, stay the fuck away from the word “leverage.” I will find you.

Try these words instead: Use, employ, harness, utilize, apply

2. Architect

Okay, can I just say something here? Marketers? YOU CAN’T JUST TURN NOUNS INTO VERBS BECAUSE YOU WANT TO. I don’t food my lunch. I don’t car to the office.

There are 250,000 words in the English language. 250,000. Depending who you ask, that makes it one of the most diverse languages on Earth. The word you want exists. You don’t have to start mutating perfectly good nouns into diluted, half-assed verbs.

So. Let’s all agree that “architect,” like “leverage,” is a NOUN, and that using it as a verb makes you sound like a pretentious twat.

Try these words instead: Build, make, create, construct, form, manufacture, produce, fabricate, fashion, invent, establish

3. Ideate

My motion graphics editor boyfriend insists this is a perfectly cromulent word used by designers the world over. Merriam-Webster and the Online Etymology Dictionary put its first use somewhere between 1600 and 1610. That’s as it may be. But whatever its origins, “ideate” has been hijacked by the marketeratsi (yeah, I can make words up, too) to describe any situation necessitating thought.

I have some pretty specific feelings about this, but I’m gonna go ahead and let Baratunde Thurston express my disdain for me:

Try these words instead: Brainstorm, think up/think of/think about, conceive, plan, envision

4. Actionable

Unless you’re in the CIA and you need legal authority to move on an internationally wanted criminal mastermind, don’t use this word where I can hear you. I don’t have any good reasons. I just goddamn hate it. It’s a stupid word.

Try these words instead: Useful, practical, usable, meaningful, workable

5. Content

This word has come to describe something so vague, you might as well just go ahead and use “stuff” or “things” or “crap.”

Usually when we see this word, it’s in a sentence like, “Are you making the most of your business content?” or “Compelling content will improve your users’ experience,” or “Architect actionable content to leverage your best ideations.” I just saw a tweet that went, “The best content isn’t contingent on time & place. Shelf life matters.”

I have no idea what any of this means.

“Content” can be damn near anything; there is no way to know what it describes without some kind of context. Is it writing? Design? Both? Is it a takeaway, a call to action? Is it an experience? I can refer to the content of a website as easily as I can the content of one’s character. “Content” just means “that which fills a vacuum.” This can be literal or figurative. Whatever it is, it HAS to have some kind of qualifier.

Otherwise, it comes off sounding like a 7th grade book report on a book you didn’t actually read. “I enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time. Its content was very impactful. Especially the part where time wrinkled. I gave this book a B+ because it was very good but some of the content was not as good as the other content.” You can’t bullshit a bullshitter, you little twerp. Saturday detention.

Try these words instead: Theme, message, subject matter, essence, significance, text, meaning, purpose, intention

Comments

  1. Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes.

    Also, when my team at my old job first encountered the “verb” ideate, it was uttered by an overpaid marketing blowhard about as often as you or I would use a comma.

    It quickly became our team’s synonym for what we did in the bathroom after the day’s first cup of programmer coffee.

    • Charlotte A. Cavatica says:

      Obviously, nothing facilitates meaningful ideation like a good bit of fiber.

      • Just make sure you leverage the flush function to remove the resulting content of your ideation before you leave the stall, otherwise you might leave a bad smell.

  2. Love this post.

    I’ve been at a corporate job for about nine months now, and the jargon is simply unbearable. Every time I hear “low-hanging fruit” or “action items” I literally laugh out loud, regardless of how many people are in the fucking pointless meeting. It’s not a good laugh, though. It’s that kind of laugh where, yes, you are amused, but you also hate yourself for working in a place where you know you’re gonna hear that goddamn word at least seven more times before the day’s over.

    • Charlotte A. Cavatica says:

      One of my more… linguistically inventive… colleagues at a past job once used the word “ziggurat” as a verb in a meeting. ZIGGURAT. AS A VERB.

      Once the writers regained consciousness, we resolved to put this dude on our list of Most Ridiculous People Alive. I don’t work there anymore, but the memory alone makes blood gush out of my nose.

  3. I get forced to use the word “leverage” at my job. I try to use the word harness or utilize EVERY TIME. But no, my boss changes it to leverage and I have to go cry in my cubicle.

    • When people say ‘leverage’, as a verb, I cringe. But when they then go on to write it in official documents, that’s even worse. The difficulty is, how do you tell people without sounding like a pedantic prat?

  4. The Wall Street Bull says:

    Great. Now I’m afraid to utter a word lest I incite your wrath. How will I transform my ideations into content with this kind of pressure, yo?

    • Agreed. Especially when one is trying to describe the act of increasing a company’s speculative capacity through increasing its debt. You will need to “incentivize” me to stop using leverage as a verb.

  5. Something I hear all the time – and hate – is the use of “author” as a verb. Rather than “write” or “create” or “design”. I suppose you create stuff, but you author content.

  6. Variety helps a lot. If it wasn’t around people would be asking such things as

    “Are you content with the content contained in the container”

  7. “Actionable” bothers me because it used to mean “we’re going to get sued”, as in “Calling someone a prostitute is an actionable comment”. So when people use it I start thinking about what they’re going to get sued for.

    Also “leverage” has a very specific technical meaning in finance. It means using a little bit of money to try to make a lot of money, specifically by using debt. A deal that is “highly leveraged” is using mostly somebody else’s money and not your own.

  8. turnerjm says:

    Here’s my list:

    http://www.markturner.net/2005/08/05/take-these-cliches-please/

    I used to work with a guy who would spit out new verbal abominations every day.

  9. The node says:

    I hate it when people use male and female as nouns. Parts of a hose are female, parts of a flower are male. Men are to wear suits at work not males are to wear ties etc. Females are …I know it comes from police/military jargon. A male suspect gets shortened to a male was apprehended…

  10. I agree with you on (2) and (3). I disagree on the others, for these reasons:

    (1) Leverage. This is a useful verb to describe “using something as a (metaphorical) lever”, ie. making use of something to turn a small amount of effort into a big result. I don’t think you will find another word that carries all this meaning.

    (4) Actionable. OK, this is a bit of business talk, but I find it more elegant than saying “something you can take action on”. Actionable task, actionable comment, actionable plan.

    (5) Content. This isn’t a new word. Most languages have the equivalent.
    Like most words, it gets boring if over-used, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it.

    • Charlotte A. Cavatica says:

      The verb for “using something as a lever” is “lever”; e.g., “She levered herself over the wall.” The noun that describes this act is “leverage.”
      “Actionable” and “content” are perfectly cromulent words, yes, but I am not taking issue with their denotations or connotations — I am specifically taking issue with their uninspired overuse.

      • “She levered herself over the wall.” works for physical actions, however I think that “leverage” works better for non-physical actions. Hmm.. I suck at thinking up examples.

        “She leveraged her travel experience and her gift for languages to get a job as a translator.” You could write “made use of” here, but “leveraged” also conveys the connotation of turning a little into a lot.

      • Charlotte A. Cavatica says:

        No. No, no, no, no, no. “She used her travel experience and gift for languages as leverage.” I don’t disagree that “leverage” has BECOME the more appropriate verb, but only because it has been so thoroughly misappropriated via marketing parlance. Use it if you must but generally speaking, there are few situations where you must, and it will grate on me every. Single. Time.

  11. Times change. Usage changes. Some die from overuse and empty pretense. Some get welcomed into the lexicon for new shades of meaning they provide. How do you think we got to that 250,000 words anyway? Might as well get used to it. Party on!

Trackbacks

  1. […] And this one: 5 Bullshit words that make me want to hurt you […]

  2. […] after the wild success of 5 bullshit words that make me want to hurt you (seriously, people REALLY liked that one), what I learned is that you people like lists of […]

  3. […] Remember when I said, “You can’t make your audience do 100% of the work and still call yourself a communicator”? That wasn’t something I made up for funsies. I said it because there are people in the world who do this all the time. Glenn Beck. Ann Coulter. Every modernist poet ever (I’m looking at you, Wallace Stevens). It happens every time someone writes like shit and then gets their hackles up because we don’t understand them. […]

  4. […] last one actually kind of works. But you get the idea. You can’t make words mean whatever the fuck you want them to mean. That’s why we have different words to encapsulate different ideas — and even synonyms […]

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