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

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