Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Bad

Once in a while someone will coin an original phrase that impresses you the first few times you hear it. After a while it gets old, and it time it actually becomes annoying. There should be a "freshness date" on all catchy phrases that come into the language, after which a penalty is assessed (say a slap in the face) against anyone who uses the phrase after it expires.

The workplace is a breeding ground for overused phrases, mainly because there are few original thinkers in the corporate world. They hear a phrase that has become popular from overuse and think nothing of perpetuating the offense. Here are just a few horribly overused business terms:

"Failure is not an option" - Oh yes it is pinhead, and you'd better come up with a contingency plan because failure is likely if you're using a desperate phrase like this.

"Core competency" - Business people like to make what they say sound important, so they take simple words and make them complicated. Thus "skill" becomes "core competency."

"Empowerment" - This is some Harvard MBA term that means you have permission to use your brain. It's as if the American workforce was sitting around helpless and thinking: "If only someone would come along and empower us. What a crock.

"Synergistic" - You can't attend a business meeting without some empty suit uttering this word. Synergy is created when people work in concert to create an outcome that is of greater value than the total of the individual inputs. In corporate-speak, synergy means that management is empowering employees to work together to develop the core competencies needed for success. And failure is not an option. Pure crapola.

Even in our personal lives, these hackneyed words and phrases creep in. Some examples:

"Closure" - Everybody's looking for it, no matter what the issue. "We need to get closure on that" or "She'll never be at peace until she gets closure." Whoever's hoarding the closure out there, please share!

"It is what it is" - Was someone going around saying: "It isn't what it is", because a lot of people are trying to set the record straight with this stupid phrase. Stop saying it.

"Giving 110 percent" - Can't be done bucko.

"Carbon footprint" - It's a nice notion that individuals can alter the earth's atmosphere by small behavioral changes. I'm not sure how much difference it will make to the planet, but if you want to bike instead of drive to work, fine, just stop yammering about your carbon footprint.

Lastly we must endure words or phrases that are redundant or make no sense:

"Highly unique" - Unique will do it. There are no degrees of unique.

"Terrible tragedy" - A favorite with opposed to a wonderful tragedy!

Redundancies: Honest truth, free gift, foreign import, trained professional, past history, and one of my favorites, criminal lawyer.

If this sounds like a petty complaint, think about it as one more contributor to the devaluation of the English language. We are far less literate as a people than were our ancestors. Watch Ken Burns' Civil War documentary and listen to the letters written home by soldiers with a grade school education. They are not only poignant, but beautifully written. Listen to British-produced TV shows on PBS and compare the language spoken with the street talk heard on American shows where, for example, you may hear a character say: "My bad." (This is English?)

Am I a snob? I don't think so. It just pains me to hear what is becoming of our wonderful language. Maybe I shouldn't worry so the rate we're going, we'll all be speaking Spanish in a few years.


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