Words


Dare Obasanjo earlier posted on some of the words Microsoft has killed. These include: Passion, innovation, synergy, and agility. From what I’ve seen, these are words the industry, not just Microsoft, has collectively placed onto a pyre and watched burn a slow painful death. There are other words that we’ve killed, either as an industry or maybe just at Microsoft. These include:



  • Focused. We used to be laser-focused, but when someone pointed out that we were overusing that, we switched to being merely focused, yet more often than not it’s a synonym for sticking to a plan even when circumstances change.
  • Community. A word now utterly without meaning, community used to have connotations of people connecting with other people who have like interests. Now it means a Web site. I’m hoping this one will be able to be reborn.
  • Predictable. Customers want us to be “predictable.” This should be a good thing. The translation into action, however, is often “announce a ship date then make it even if you have to remove every interesting feature from the product and still ship with a bunch of bugs.”

I’ll also toss a couple more onto the fire that aren’t Microsoft-specific:



  • Everyday. A wonderful word meaning “ordinary.” If, however, you mean something that happens each day, you want “every day” with a space.
  • Unique. You can’t have something that’s very unique or somewhat unique. Unique is a binary thing: either something is unique or it’s not. (And please remember that you’re a unique person, just like everyone else.) For fun, check out the Dictionary.com note on unique: it actually uses the word shibboleth -- a wonderful word that we should all try to use every day.
  • Super. I’m super-excited about this, that, and the other thing. Read through the transcript of a speech given by most general managers and vice presidents at Microsoft and you’ll find this word far too often. As a synonym for “very,” super is lackluster. Besides, the word “very” itself is largely meaningless (see Strunk and White). I’m recommending resuscitating one from my childhood in Boston: “wicked.” Things would be wicked cool and I should be wicked-excited.
  • “”. I was just in Arizona visiting my in-laws and on the roadside signs when businesses wanted to emphasize a word they put it between quote marks. As a visual substitute for italics, I must admit that it works: my attention was drawn to the signs. As an addition to our grammar… Well, ugh.
  • Momentarily. Ah, another wonderful word meaning “for a moment.” If you mean “in a moment” you probably are looking for “imminently” or “shortly.” When you’re arriving momentarily, you’re arriving for a little bit; when you’re arriving imminently, you’re arriving in a short amount of time. (Check out the Dictionary.com reference: it has a very interesting note on the "incorrect" usage.)
  • Less. This is the less vs. fewer thing. If you don’t get it by now, don't bother: our common usage is killing the word “fewer.” Personally, this is one I won’t miss greatly, but it still upsets me to see it go. It’s like watching the bell toll for “whom.” (Pun intended.)

Language is such a wonderful thing. It has never ceased to amaze me how rich English is. Yet we restrict ourselves to a vocabulary of maybe 500-800 words in daily conversation, and we choose to take a few of these perfectly good words and plow them into the ground by trying to associate them with complex concepts that have been reduced to pabulum (e.g. Agility). Worse, we look askance at those who actually dredge up those “old” words and use them in casual conversation. Recently, we’ve had to change various mission statements for use of words like “kinetic.”


This is where a host of people complain that I’m a snobbish elitist purist who doesn’t recognize that language evolves. Of course language evolves. I can still bemoan the loss of some of the colors in the tapestry of language while I try to fathom the new colors being woven in. It makes me sad, however, that all too often the new colors tend to be in gray and beige. And I reserve my right to be a curmudgeon about language, just as I can express frustration that mainstream food all tastes the same or that all big box stores carry the same products.

Comments (9)
  1. Dean Harding says:

    I hate when people use quotes to emphasize a word. To me, putting a word in quotation marks has much more cynical connotations. So if you say, for example:

    The "best" meal in town!

    You might be trying to emphasize the word "best" but to me, that reads as if you’re being cynical and it’s not the best meal at all (quite the opposite)…

  2. Doug Mahugh says:

    Hear, hear.  The curmudgeons are right about this very unique and "super-important" matter!

  3. johnmont says:

    I’ll be replying to all your replies "momentarily" but right now I’m focusing on enabling myself to be predictable.

  4. johnmont says:

    Oh, and another thing I hate: "Here, here" instead of "hear, hear." So thank you for being correct.

  5. Wicked good post John! (I live in New England and some of us still say that sort of thing.) Super excited execs are really starting to get on my nerves.

  6. Russ Ryan says:

    The loss of words in our language is just a symptom.  The larger loss is that of well rounded people. When I went to Engineering school many decades ago, at least half the curriculum was "liberal arts" courses we shared (and competed) with non-engineering students. We were required to take courses in the history of Western Civilization, basic courses in Music or Art, and courses to learn polished writing skills to name a few. This was arguably not universal even then, relatively wide spread. Through the years I have found not only good language, but better abilities to think well from well rounded people. Most of the software industry is staffed with graduates of trade schools with fancy names like the University of SomeState.

    I think this has led to a whole culture that values technical distinctions because that is what they know. The rest, language, arts, history, etc. is just filler.

  7. so i was wondering about my use of so at the beginning of sentences lately. i suspect it comes from blogging – its like the intro to a joke, or blog…

    so a man walks into a bar

    so i was reading this blog

    anyhow: i was actually considering starting *every* blog i write with "so".

    on the subject of super – i wonder if i ever sent over a copy of my six degrees of super-ation blog post? how close to bill are you?

    http://www.redmonk.com/jgovernor/archives/000262.html

  8. After my previous posts on language where several commenters pointed out that language is an evolving…

  9. Dave Kalman says:

    I remember when Microsoft killed the word "DBMS." Unfortunately, at the time I was running a magazine titled "DBMS." Bad luck for me. So, I shut down the magazine and started a new one.

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