Talking the talk
Language is ever restless and dynamic, even without the accelerating effects of technology. A major vector of change in the last few decades has been business jargon. It is paradoxical to think of jargon as an instrument of broad language change because jargon has traditionally been a mechanism of social exclusion. It separates group members from outsiders and gives rookies a confidence-building secret handshake. But in an era that offers big digital windows on every corner of world, the language of small subgroups can quickly become the language of all.
Business jargon is much derided, and anyone who knows me personally might expect me to pile on. Not today, however. Better to conserve energy (and reader good will) for moments when I truly need to be an arch word-snob. Instead, I’m going to argue here that some of the neologisms introduced by Business – and mocked by guardians of the English language – reflect an urge to enhance semantic nuance, not suppress it. In other words, I’m going to fly the flag for business jargon.
(At some later date, when I talk about PowerPoint icons and cartoons, I will make the opposite case.)
The why’s of the ‘ize’
The syllable of the hour is “ize”, a commonplace, Greek-derived suffix that means to render or transform. A propos, to “ize” something is to transform a noun, sometimes an adjective, into a verb: revolutionize, actualize, maximize, demonize, etc. At last count, there were over 700 words in English ending in “ize” (including jargonize) and the list keeps growing because everyone who speaks English understands the principle for constructing them.
So what incented ‘incentivize’?
While many of us have been known to “ize” freely, the business community must take full responsibility for the term, “incentivize”, a mid-century coinage much mocked for using four syllables to replace words that would seem to do the job in two or three – for instance, incent or motivate. That ribbing is partly deserved, but the staying power of the word, “incentivize” attests to something about its value. It suggests the previously “unmet need” for a word to describe not just action, but a process to foster such action. You might incent an employee but you incentivize an entire workforce. Incentivize is more than an action; it is a way of thinking about, and creating, such action.
And why did we recently start ‘socializing’ our ideas, not just our kids?
I must admit to having been much less sympathetic to the word, “socialize” when I first discovered how business was recasting its meaning about 5 years ago. Prior to that point, whenever the verb, “socialize” took an object, it was something done to (or with) people, not ideas or data. For instance, we socialize our children and we socialize with friends. However, things are now different in modern business parlance. Today, we socialize data – a complex, curiously transitive idea that involves helping business colleagues embrace new information while also shaping that information so that it is more easily assimilated and accepted. By my reckoning, it’s somewhere south of indoctrination but north of pure dissemination.
We are awash in data these days – much of it without trusted provenance or clear meaning – so it’s difficult to make people (and thus organizations) accept and act on new information in a committed, concerted way. You can begin to see, then, why socializing ideas to make them palatable and norm-compliant has become so important a process. It deserves its own word.
For everything a season: a time to ‘calendarize’
I winced just as hard when, a few years ago, I first heard the term, “calendarize” – that is, to put something on the calendar. What (I asked myself) was wrong with making an appointment or confirming a date or putting something in the calendar? Why did we need a verb that transformed something into a calendar event?
But upon reflection, I realized two things. First, all those phrases require more words than calendarize, so principles of parsimony might argue for a new, more compact verb. Fair enough.
And on further reflection, I identified the real reason to calendarize. It’s not about shedding syllables, it’s about acquiring the functionalities of online calendars. Outlook and Google Calendars et al have transformed the nature of business appointments and the process of making them. By reaching deeply into everyone’s personal calendar with invitations and menus of “actions”, Outlook has supplanted other less protocolized ways of memorializing agreement to speak or meet. As a business tool, Outlook makes spontaneity a vice – the sin of logistical sloth. And it has rendered the idea of written calendar notes – or any personal time-keeping reminder that cannot be shared digitally -- an affront to the hive.
So, of course, we need to customize a verb for this logistical tyranny by which we live. It makes perfect sense. And believe me: as I say this, my tongue is not in my cheek.
Keeping our ‘ize’ out for what’s next
The invention of new words makes our language more relevant to our cultural needs, which, today, include a keen sensitivity to process engineering in our daily lives. (Note how all those “ize” words aren’t just subtly infiltrating the language these days. They are blowing in the door!)
For that reason, it’s curious that we’ve not yet seen the advent of innovatize or innovationize – the process by which we innovate. For the moment, we are making do with phrases like “drive innovation” but there’s still time to give innovation the “ize” it so richly deserves. In matters of language evolution, we should never be surprized.
PS: If you are wondering why the word, “improvise” is the only variant that we Americans spell with an s instead of a z, feel free to email me and I’ll give you my answer.