Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” The quantity and quality of the words at our disposal are related to the quality of our thought. The more limited our vocabulary becomes, the less able we are to contemplate, articulate, discuss and develop potentially important concepts. You are what you eat. This is a significant issue for the business world, where it seems that we're constantly reminded of how limited we have become in our use of language. According to Forbes, the most annoying and enduring examples of corporate nonsense include “empower”, “scalable”, “ecosystem”, “solution”, “leverage”, “vertical”, “robust”, “synergize”, “impact” and – perhaps ironically – “learnings”.
Never mind. Here are some rare and beautiful words that might just add some colour to the language of business:
1. Eucastrophe! (A sudden and favourable resolution of events in a story)
This term was coined by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1944 to mean the surprisingly happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears. In the context of business, the word might serve as a healthy reminder that many of our successes are largely down to luck and therefore frequently a hair's breadth away from complete and utter disaster. Good news should always be welcomed. But as you raise the champagne to your lips, “Eucastrophe!” may be the word you mutter under your breath… particularly if you suspect that fortune played a significant role in your success.
2. Concinnity (the skilful and harmonious arrangement or fitting together of the different parts of something)
This word captures the beautiful logic many of us strive for in our work… even though we may only occasionally achieve it.
3. Velleity (A wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action)
This word originates from the Latin word velle, “to will”. It's a term you might use in everyday life to describe an idle daydream. Or an empty promise to go for a drink with an old friend you've just bumped into. The business world abounds with velleities, where they are more typically referred to as “mission statements”.
4. Mumpsimus (an idea that is adhered to although it has been shown to be unreasonable)
A malapropism that is attributed to an illiterate priest who mistakenly used the word in place of the Latin term sumpsimus: ‘we have taken'. When a member of his congregation corrected him, his response was to dig in his heels: “I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus.” I'd argue that a mumpsimus is a more elegant term for the limiting beliefs that are entrenched within many organisations; in more extreme circumstances we tend to call these “toxic assumptions”.
5. Brabbling (To argue loudly about something inconsequential)
For many of us, this term may function as a shorthand for “board meeting”.
6. Meraki (To do something with soul, creativity or love)
Possibly the opposite of brabbling. Meraki is a modern Greek word that describes the essence of yourself that you pour into your work. It's an antidote to the notion that working for a living is necessarily a soul-destroying activity. Especially useful if you happen to work in marketing.
7. Sonder (The realisation that every passer-by has a life as vivid and complex as one's own)
What's the difference between a consumer and a person? A consumer is defined through the lens of a transaction. He can be loyal. He can be lapsed. But he's more of an economic unit than he is a person; a ridiculously simplified, one-dimensional caricature. The same can be said of an employee. It's an unfortunate aspect of business language that we tend to use dehumanising terms like these to refer to people; they create an unnecessary distance between businesses and the audiences they rely on. A business that thinks in terms of “people” rather than “consumers” and “employees” is far more likely to establish genuine, lasting, valuable relationships.
8. Verschlimmbessern (To make something worse when trying to improve it)
An occupational hazard for anybody in a senior management position, or anyone who works as a consultant.
9. Schilderwald (A street crowded with so many road signs that you become lost)
A frequent problem. In some cases, this happens when an overactive internal communications or HR team feels the need to “brand” every single initiative they create, up to the point of organisational paralysis. It's just as common on packaging, where every single benefit and feature of a product has been afforded its own visual device, until the product itself becomes lost in a forest of marks, icons and callouts.
10. Kintsukuroi (The Japanese art of repairing pottery with gold or silver)
This is my favourite word on the list because it involves an appreciation that something can become more beautiful once it has been broken. “Excellence” is a word we hear a lot in business – it's one of the most commonly used of a set of corporate identikit values that also includes “respect” and “integrity”. In truth, no organisation in the world is capable of consistently and reliably delivering excellence. Business is messy. As Joseph Schumpeter famously pointed out: things get broken all the time. That's part of the fun. And the ability to pick up broken pieces and turn them into something beautiful and useful is perhaps the true defining quality of a leader.
Nick Liddell is Director of Consulting at The Clearing