Words at Play

8 Ways to Avoid Business Jargon

Simple alternatives to the words that people love to hate


Ideate [verb]: To form an idea
If you'd rather avoid it: Think; develop ideas

Ideate appeared in English in the early 1600s, with the specific meaning “to form an idea or conception of” in Platonic philosophy. It's gained a new life as a fancy word for “create” or “develop ideas,” and has been associated with startup culture—so much so that The New York Times seems to enjoy making fun of it:

If it all seems like an episode of “Portlandia,” the arch sendup of Northern left coast culture featuring an ad agency where employees navigate Frisbee mazes and ideate in hot-air balloons, that’s no mistake.
—“A Stage Set in Montauk, With Bees and Ocean,” Penelope Green, The New York Times, 27 July 2011

But if there is a place to see-and-be-seen in the web start-up capital at the moment, the Battery may be it, at least for those who update their LinkedIn profiles religiously and count “ideating” among their daily rituals.
—“At a Bay Area Club, Exclusivity Is Tested,” Sheila Marikar, The New York Times, 12 January 2014

Jargon is often easy to make fun of, but sometimes the invitation to be critical can be difficult to resist, especially when a string of abstract-sounding terms follows one upon another in a sentence that would be much more clearly written without it:

After the ideating phase of the method was complete, students were tasked with finding inspiration for design solutions from existing products in other product categories.
Design Thinking: New Product Development Essentials from the PDMA, Michael G. Luchs, Scott Swan, Abbie Griffin, Wiley, 2015

Architect [verb]: To design, plan, or choose with careful attention to detail
If you'd rather avoid it: Design, plan

The noun architect began with the meaning “a person who designs buildings,” but quickly added a figurative meaning for a person who “designs” plans or ideas—in this case, a nearly literal transition from the concrete to the metaphorical. Shakespeare used architect in this way in Titus Andronicus: "Chief architect and plotter of these woes."

As a verb, to architect similarly has referred to the design of buildings and more figurative uses, like “the book is not well architected.” In business jargon, however, architect has come to mean something like “to design” or “to plan,” carrying with it a vague and confused idea that “to architect” is somehow more intentional, specialized, or expert.

“It’s not just Steph Curry,” he told me once. “It’s architecting a team, a style of play, the way they all play together. It’s all extremely thought through.”
—“What Happened When Venture Capitalists Took Over the Golden State Warriors,” Bruce Schoenfeld, The New York Times, 30 March 2016

“It’s not just about delivering on whatever project or initiative you’re working on, but also on being able to articulate what you are doing to connect the dots. You are architecting your journey, and it’s not something you should be passive about.”
—Betty K. DeVita, quoted in “President of MasterCard Canada shares how she climbed her way to the top,” Courtney Shea, The Globe and Mail, 16 November 2014

Citrix on Tuesday updated its cloud computing strategy, saying that its platform, which is based off the Apache CloudStack project, can span both private on-premises deployments and public clouds and is the only one in the market that takes an application-centric approach to architecting clouds.
—“Citrix aims for VMware, Amazon with new cloud strategy,” Brandon Butler, Computerworld, 24 September 2013

It’s probably true that the vocabulary of those working in innovative fields is itself innovative in many ways, but this jargon might surprise someone who doesn’t spend much time architecting.

Decontent [verb]: To remove content or features
If you'd rather avoid it: Pare

The internet age has brought new meanings to established words like mouse, cookie, and lurk, but the real workhorse words used to describe online activity are the ones that have kept their essential meanings but are now used in web-specific ways: browse, click, and especially content.

Content has come to mean everything from breaking news to cat GIFs online—a term so general that it’s defined as “the principal substance” of a web page in the dictionary. Such broad and ubiquitous use of this noun seems like an open invitation for it to become verbed. Sure enough, there is some evidence of this use, but it’s far from mainstream as yet. In fact, content as a verb seems to be taking a discreet back door into the language by being used frequently in a negative form as decontent (meaning “to remove content”). In addition to the online virtual world, the word decontent shows up in the lexicon of service industry personnel, hospitality options, and automobile features:

Familiar examples of this strategy in action are gas stations and retailers that have de-contented their labor models at the point of transaction to offer self-service and, in the case of gas stations, even some share in the cost savings.
—“Edge Strategy: A New Mindset for Profitable Growth,” Alan Lewis, Dan McKone, Harvard Business Review Press, 2016

One of the hottest trends taking hold as a result is 'decontenting'. Here are the pros and cons of this new hotel trend to reduce pricing by allowing guests to opt out of certain services.
—“The Pros and Cons of Decontenting,” Hospitality Marketing, Sherry Cummins, 4 November 2013

Much tut-tutting was heard from public relations types belittling Nissan’s decontenting strategy and decrying Nissan’s price shopping as both market-destroying and self-inflicted profit-bashing (essentially, all far and wide wondered how the Japanese company could generate a profit with such a bargain-basement price point).
—First Drive: 2015 Toyota Yaris, driving.ca, David Booth, 13 August 2014

Here's my understanding of the term "decontented." It's when a car company takes away features from a car and the price stays the same.
—“What "Decontented" is…and What it Isn't,” forums.motortrend.com, 11 March 2011

In another context, decontent is used to refer to “remove content” in a print newspaper—again, a surprising twist away from the online world:

…hedge funds have never had anything like a commitment to the communities served by the papers they own. Their sole purpose is Return On Investment, and in a distressed business climate acceptable returns are possible only by the kind of de-contenting and denuding the PiPress has been subjected to now for over a decade.
—“On 'harvesting' the Pioneer Press,” Brian Lambert, minnpost.com, 12 May 2016

And here in the very general concrete meaning of “remove the contents of”:

Unlike the hunter/killer subs most commonly found as museum ships, the Redoutable is a missile boat, a boomer, its main purpose to hide quietly as a silent threat of nuclear annihilation. After an extensive refurbishing (and some serious, let's say, "decontenting"), the Redoutable is open to the public.
—“A tour of the ballistic missile nuclear submarine Redoutable,” Geoffrey Morrison, CNET, 26 June 2014

Concept [verb]: to conceive; especially: to create the initial idea for a design, product, or story
If you'd rather avoid it: Conceive; create the concept

Jargon can seem forced or artificial if you’re not part of the group that uses a given term, especially if the term seems redundant or unnecessary. Concepting is a fancy way of saying conceiving. It's particularly seen in creative professions and marketing, where the noun form of concept gets thrown around a lot.

Lately he has been applying his aesthetic to household objects by way of a laser-etching machine, and formed his own creative agency, Mama Tried, so he can work with new clients "from the concepting stage," consulting on a brand's entire image, rather than just doing illustrations.
—“Ink Inc.,” Rob Walker, The New York Times, 22 April, 2007

"If you want to reach millennials, you want to go where they're living online," she said. "You want a very tight distribution plan to be baked in the moment you start concepting the show."
—Teal Newland, quoted in “Denny's Uses Web Series to Speak to Young Adults,” Andrew Adam Newman, The New York Times, 11 April, 2012

You're trying to talk, in an ideal world, 18 months at a minimum before the release of a movie--all the way up to 24 months. That's when they're concepting and doing production designs.
—Jeffrey Godsick, quoted in “The Business: Executive Suite Interview,” Hollywood Reporter, 12 February, 2016

There is some history to concept's use as a verb, though it has always been rare in English. Most evidence dates to the 1600s, when it was used as a synonym for conceive. Conceive had been in use for centuries by that time, but the spelling of concept shows a closer relationship to the ultimate Latin root of both words, concipere, which appealed to pedants who wanted to make the Latin elements in English as transparent as possible.

This doesn't make concepting any more transparent for readers today. After all, which sounds better: "From the concepting stage" or "from conception"?

Onboarding: The process of settling in to a new job
If you'd rather avoid it: Orientation

If you've recently started a new job, you may be in the midst of something called "onboarding." It's the process by which a new employee learns the ropes and gets settled.

What exactly that entails varies, but when onboarding is complete the employee typically understands the job and how to do it, and gets the company culture too.

The extent to which organizations make new hires feel welcomed and prepared for their new jobs, the faster they will be able to be productive and contribute to the organization's mission. In addition, good onboarding leads to higher employee engagement and greater retention rates.
—Joyce E. A. Russell, The Washington Post, 11 Aug. 2014

In the old days, the word orientation did this job just fine. But today we don't just want new employees to get their bearings and be able to find their way around the building (ideas implied in the literal meanings of orient), but to be on board—to be ready and able to move onward with the company wherever it may be headed. If orientation means "the process of giving people training and information about a new job or situation," the word onboarding summons up images of a more structured approach—like the highly structured and ritualized process of boarding an airplane.

Preliminary research dates the noun onboarding to the early 1990s, but it really didn't get much use until the early part of this century, and it's still not familiar to those outside the corporate world. Its verbal counterpart, onboard, is also used, but not as frequently. Some people complain about the term onboarding, which they consider an unfortunate example of annoying business-speak. Perhaps it's not surprising that onboarding can be unpopular: after all, many people dislike boarding airplanes as well.

Surface [verb]: To make easily readable or noticeable on a web page or app
If you'd rather avoid it: Highlight; showcase; present; display

The verb to surface, meaning “to put a surface on,” is the word’s oldest meaning in English, dating back to the 1700s. We see it in phrases like “surface the highway." When the verb is used to mean “rise to the surface of water,” it’s just over a century old. The latest meaning of this word has to do with the visibility of an image or article on web pages:

Surfacing is a way of presenting or previewing content typically embedded in links contained in Tweets, RSS feeds, Facebook and other content streams.
—“Why surfacing content will be just as important as curation in 2011,” Peter Springett, metia.com, 19 January 2011

As Twitter did in 2012, Pinterest introduced a new feature that it says will help surface better content to users.
—“Pinterest Allows Users to Opt Out of Being Tracked,” Nick Bilton, The New York Times Blogs (Bits), 26 July 2013

It’s easy to see how handy this word is for web developers, page designers, and business strategists, because it efficiently conveys both the goal and the act of making something appear online in a more prominent way. Although its meaning is transparent, it’s still new and specialized vocabulary, and probably will sound odd to most people. Only time will tell whether this use of surface remains specialized or becomes part of the general vocabulary.

Incent [verb]: To provide with an incentive
If you'd rather avoid it: Motivate

Both incent and incentivize were formed for the useful purpose of making a verb out of incentive. Incentive comes from the Latin word incentivus, meaning “stimulating” and ultimately derives from canere, the Latin word meaning “to sing.” The root word literally means “setting the tune,” which in English became “serving to encourage, rouse, or move to action.” Incent actually came first, in the 1800s. Incentivize, coined in the 1960s to refer to financial motivation, has gained more general acceptance, whereas incent has become a favored corporate buzzword:

Lone Pine said it "miscalculated" the consequences of both firms' acquisition-driven growth strategies coupled with "aggressive, highly incented management."
—“Lone Pine's Cypress Fund down 8 percent in first quarter, hurt by Valeant,” Svea Herbst-Bayliss, Reuters.com, 15 April 2016

The triggers would “provide significant value to our company by incenting Mr. Zuckerberg to remain with our company,” according to the filing.
—“New rules would make CEO Mark Zuckerberg lose control of Facebook if he quits,” John Ribeiro, pcworld.com, 2 June 2016

And we then incented the parents for things like their attendance at our early childhood sessions. They were incented based on the homework assignments that their kids handed in. They were incented based on the interim assessments that we actually conducted with their kids.
—John List, Freakonomics Podcast, 19 November 2015

While incentivize has always had a financial connotation (“incentivize employees with stock options”), incent seems more urgent and active: incentivize on steroids. Employees and customers are incentivized; CEOs and influencers incent.

Ask
Up Next
election-word-trends-merriam

Trending Words from Election 2016

Ask [noun]: Something asked for or required; especially: the asking price or initially desired offer
If you'd rather avoid it: Request or demand

It may come as a surprise that ask has been a noun as long as it’s been one of the most basic and common verbs in English. It originally meant “the act of asking” or “a demand or request,” a meaning that is still used today:

"Congress is being so aggressive because the ask is so concrete, there is something that Egypt can do about this," said one staffer for a Congressman who has been particularly vocal on the issue."
—“Egypt vs. Israel: How Congress Weighs the Risks of Cutting Our Aid to Cairo,” Zvika Krieger, The Atlantic, 16 February 2012

This meaning has spread to the field of fundraising, and there are even books with titles like The Art of the ‘Ask’ and 50 Asks in 50 Weeks: A Guide to Better Fundraising for Your Small Development Shop. More recently, ask has become a common term in the field of real estate as a way to refer to asking price (as in “the ask is $1.1 million”), but it can refer to price when bidding is involved in other contexts too:

But the demands of James and her literary agent, Valerie Hoskins, have caused more than one bidder to use the safe word. Sources say the ask is very far-reaching and nearly unprecedented, though one notes that it wouldn’t be completely unheard-of for a book that had actually been published.
—“E.L. James Making Unprecedented Demands for Film Rights to 'Fifty Shades of Grey,'” Kim Masters, Jay A. Fernandez, The Hollywood Reporter, 23 March 2012

In British and Australian English, ask is used as a noun to mean “something asked for, requested, or required of someone.” It's usually used in phrases like “a big ask” or “a tough ask,” as in:

To win here, though, Fowler will have to emulate the feat of Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 who became the last player to win the Masters at the first attempt. It's a tough ask, for sure.
—Philip Reid, Irish Times, 7 April 2011

The word’s long history notwithstanding, ask still sounds either very informal or very specialized to most ears.




Seen and Heard