Most people in business occasionally use buzzwords in daily conversations, documents and presentations. However, few people are aware business jargon often emerges from unexpected and sometimes downright weird place and events.
This post contains 25 examples. Some you may already know, but I'll bet you don't know all of them.
1. Ballpark Figure
Most field sports have well-defined areas of play and a ball outside those areas is "out of bounds." In baseball, however, a ball caught outside the bounds of the V-shaped playing field still counts as an "out." As a result, the term "ballpark figure" has become slang for any number that's not exact (i.e. within the legal playing field) but still "in the ballpark."
The first radios with electronic tuners used a vertical needle or marker that moved along a horizontal "band" marked with numbers. A station with a strong signal could be heard along a wider area of this band than a station with a weak signal and therefore had a larger "bandwidth."
3. Bleeding Edge
The related term "leading edge" refers to the edge of a knife, which is the part that moves through the obstacles first. "Bleeding edge" makes the metaphor more vivid by conjuring the image the knife drawing blood as it cuts through uncooked flesh. In both cases, the leading or bleeding edge is a product that is more advanced than similar products.
4. Boil the Frog
Supposedly, a frog put into a pot of tepid water will not try to crawl or jump out even when the water becomes so hot that it kills the frog. The metaphor applied to business refers to a situation where a set of executives remain immobile while market changes put them out of business. BTW, the boiled frog story is a myth. A frog will indeed try to crawl out of a pot the moment the water becomes uncomfortably warm. From this, we can conclude that some executives are not as smart as frogs.
5. Breath Your Own Smoke
This refers to the danger of being poisoned by the carbon monoxide produced by an internal combustion engine, like that in an automobile (other than a Tesla.) In business, the term is used when companies believe their own marketing hype and as a result make poor decisions.
During the dot-com era of the late 90s, people found it necessary to differentiate between online-only retailers (like Amazon) and retailers who have physical stores. Originally a derogatory term, it became neutral after Apple defied conventional wisdom and launched its successful line of "Apple Store" outlets.
7. Bring to the Table
This refers to the initial amount of money that a gambler brings to a card game and which other players have a chance to win. Bringing "a lot" to the table means that your contribution has the potential to enrich everybody else. Similarly, to "leave something on the table" refers to departing a card game when there's still the potential to win additional money.
8. Close the Loop
Refers to electronic circuits where components must be arranged into a loop in order to draw power from a battery or generator. Applied to business, "closing the loop" thus means getting approval from everybody with decision-making authority, thereby making a complete "circuit."
9. Come-to-Jesus Moment
When itinerant preachers held open meetings in circus-sized tents, non-believers in the audience were encouraged to "Come to Jesus," by deciding to convert to evangelical Christianity. The implication is that one's entire view of life (or in this case of a business situation) is changed so as to fall in line with the majority opinion.
10. Computer Bug
Contrary to popular belief, the computer scientist Grace Hopper did not coin the term "bug" when she saw that a moth created a short circuit. The term "bug" had been used decades earlier for any unknown problem in a system, such as a ship or aircraft. The term actually has nothing whatsoever to do with insects. Rather than coming from the Anglo Saxon word "bugge" (meaning "insect"), this usage emerged from the Welsh word "bwg," meaning an unseen ghost or spirit (related words are "bugbear" and "boogie man.")
11. Core Competency
The term "competent" was once slightly insulting because it meant that one could do the minimum required to complete a task. In 1990, however, a widely-read article on management coined the term "core competency" to encapsulate to the idea that companies should not try to manufacture every component and sub-component that goes into their final product.
12. Dog and Pony Show
In the 19th century, small traveling circuses frequently featured performing dogs and ponies, rather than horses and elephants. Since these low-budget acts were presented in public spaces, like racetracks and town commons, a "dog and pony show" came to mean a business presentation given at a trade show or conference.
13. Drinking the Kool-Aid
Some of the younger readers might not know this, but the term refers to the Jonestown massacre in 1978 where the religious lunatic Jim Jones convinced his fanatical followers to drink poison-laced fruit drink. The term now means any situation where managers demand employees hold an unquestioning belief in their corporate strategy.
14. Eat Your Own Dog Food
The Alpo brand of dog food for many years carried a label "Fit For Human Consumption." To demonstrate to reporters and customers that the claim was true, executives of the firm would sometimes publicly eat a spoonful. The term now refers to using your own product in order to test it.
Most people assume "holistic" is term that originated in the crunchy granola days of hippie movement. Absolutely not true. The term was coined in the 1920s by the South African politician Jan Smuts, who used it to describe the virtues (as he saw them) of segregation and apartheid. Later the word borrowed the meaning of the similar word "wholistic" and lost its racist character.
Roads built by the Roman Republic and Empire had marker stones set at one-mile intervals. These allowed travelers in the days before pedometers and speedometers to see how far they'd traveled and how far they had yet to go. Curious fact: roman roads were built far better than today's superhighways. Some are still in regular use today.
17. Next Generation
Early PC manufacturers needed a way to explain why PCs represented the future of computing, so they began referring to PCs as "third generation" with mainframes and minicomputers representing first and second generations respectively. The term became generalized as "next generation" when it was applied to a wider variety of consumer products.
Originally this was the adjective form of the word "organ" referring to the musical instrument. Because organs were the most complex machines of the middle ages, early physicians started using the term "organic" to refer the mechanical function (as they saw it) of the heart, lungs and so forth. This usage morphed into the general meaning of anything that's alive (i.e. has organs.) It was later applied in business as an alternative to the industrial age metaphor that companies should be machine-like. In other words, the word "organic" now has the exact opposite of its original meaning.
19. Outside of the Box Thinking
This comes from a brain teaser where you're challenged to draw four straight, connected lines that pass through all the nine dots in a 3x3 matrix. The only way to successfully do this is to draw lines that go beyond the implicit "box" delimited by the outer 8 dots of the matrix.
20. Push the Envelope
Flying aircraft create air turbulence that from the side resembles the shape of an correspondence envelope. As air speed increases, the "envelope" elongates as if its base were being pushed forward. That action, however, puts more pressure on the wings, which can break off, hence "pushing the envelope" is taking action that goes beyond the theoretical limit of stress on the aircraft.
21. Reach Out
In the 1980"²s, the telecom firm AT&T launched a huge TV advertising campaign for long distance calling featuring a catchy jingle with the lyrics "reach out, reach out and touch someone." The term crept into business lingo soon afterwards and immediately began irritating millions of people, of whom I am one.
22. Sea Change
Before the advent of reliable navigational instruments, ship pilots estimated the location by observing the color, turbulence, prevailing wind and "feel" of the sea. A "sea change" thus refers to a ship moving into a different part of the ocean that might require adjustments to the ship's rigging or course. In business a sea change means that market conditions have change thereby requiring new tactics.
23. Smoke and Mirrors
In Vaudeville, stage magicians used smoke bombs to distract the audience's attention while performing a trick. Those tricks often involved props that used mirrors to make things "vanish." Hence "smoke and mirrors" eventually came to mean any demo or presentation where the background details are intentionally hidden in order fool the audience.
24. Touch Base
Refers to the rule that a runner in baseball must touch the base on which he or she is standing before running to the next base, in the event of a fly ball that's been caught. Hence, before taking an important action, you must "touch base" to get approval of that action.
25. The Whole Enchilada
The Mexican food known as "enchiladas" are tortillas stuffed with a multitude of ingredients. Therefore "the whole enchilada" has thus come to mean anything that has many parts but is complete in and of itself.