Business Words Losing Meaning

Sometimes words and phrases lose their meaning. They get so diluted by overuse that they end up meaning nothing at all. And that’s important to track when we use them in business.

I first noticed that phenomenon back in the early 1980s with the phrase “user friendly,” as in “user-friendly” software. That phrase was so attractive to users and advertisers that publishers swarmed all over it. Within a matter of a year or so, “user friendly” lost all meaning. Ironically, lots of software, then and now, is actually user hostile. But we in the industry had to look for different wording. That phrase was empty. We all laughed at “user friendly.”

And isn’t this awesome? When I was a kid, “awesome” was reserved for a very few things that truly inspired awe, like Yosemite Valley, the Grand Canyon, and the powers of God (or gods). Hurricanes and earthquakes were awesome. Awe was the active word. You could look it up.

I wonder how much we were all influenced by one particular sportscaster (Howard Cosell) who liked to call a really good play awesome. We had awesome tackles and awesome catches. Whether it was that in particular, or just evolution, awesome now means “good.” Or even “nice.” We have awesome sandwiches, awesome suggestions, and awesome t-shirts.

Think about some of the business phrases we use all the time. How quickly we lose meaning. Nobody thinks inside the box anymore. There are no worst practices, not even intermediate or common practices, just best practices. And good luck with the basic math of giving 110% to anything you do. Even when the hold time is half an hour, the menu is nine levels deep, and the answers scarcer than user hostile software, we are still told, as we’re waiting, that customer satisfaction is that organization’s priority. It’s hard to image what customer service would look like if it weren’t a priority.

Take a look at your business messages. Are you using meaningless phrases?


  • Scott Asai says:

    Good thoughts. Words do say a lot about us. Our choice is crucial to clarifying our message and strengthening our brand.

  • William Gifford says:

    The truism you describe is not only found in the written word; just as often (or more so, as in the Howard Cosell examples you cited) one will hear it spoken long before finding it in print. I’ve been noticing these “newisms” in American speech for decades now, beginning in the ’60’s with the peculiar emphasis of syllables in the now-common phrase “no big deal”. More recent phrases of note are “real quick now” even when there is no evidence of urgency; and my latest annoyance: “Perfect.” As a single word indicating anything from “Fine.”, “OK.”, “I agree.”, “No problem.”, etc.

    Thanks for your insights.

  • Jim Whisnant says:

    Your article was awesomely awesome. Made me think about the movie producer’s instructions to his new starlet: “There are two words you must never say – one is “lousy”, the other is “swell”. ” “Marvelous”, she replied, “tell me the lousy one first”.

    Enjoyed your article.

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