Microspeak: On-board (verb)

Here are a few citations. On a list of activities:

  • On-board a new team member.

Presumably they mean bring on board. What makes this particularly interesting is that they didn't convert a noun to a verb; they converted a prepositional phrase to a verb, demonstrating once again the malleability of the English language.

Here's a snippet from a blog post which seems to use the same meaning, but dispensing with the hyphen:

Over the past 4 weeks, we have been onboarding customers slowly.

On the other hand, there are usages whose intended meaning I can't quite figure out. Some titles from documents I don't have access to:

How to On-Board Tools on the Extranet
On-Boarding Kit

And a subsection from an old document:

On-Board Schedule

Milestone Target Date Status
Attend a client planning meeting Dec. 2005 Complete
Frooble analysis Meeting daily with ABC team to map out migration
On-Board to client dev Feb. 2006
Client dev TBD
On-Board to client test TBD
Client test complete TBD
On-Board to DEF TBD
DEF sign-off by GHI TBD
File migration TBD
Go-Live TBD

ABC, DEF, and GHI were TLAs I did not understand. Frooble is a made-up word substituting for the actual word in the schedule. (And yes, "Go-Live" is a noun.)

As a final example, there is somebody at Microsoft whose official job title is Senior Onboarding Manager.

If you can figure out what on-board means, you're smarter than me.

Pre-emptive clever comment: Verbing weirds language.

Comments (36)
  1. Nathan_works says:

    Veep Cheney supports $ANY_boarding everyone that doesn’t agree with you, because they might be terrorists.

  2. Adrian says:

    Onboarding, unfortunately, isn’t limited to Microsoft.  The company I worked out a decade ago rolled out an extensive onboarding process for new employees.  The revised version was called "Onboarding 2.0".

    The document even used onboarding as an adjective, defining various roles in the process, like the "Onboarding Buddy" and the "Onboarding Mentor".  Those are different people, so don’t confuse them, OK?

  3. David Walker says:

    Oops — of course, you meant to say "you’re smarter than I" instead of "you’re smarter than me".  Sorry to nit-pick.

  4. Paul Gunn says:

    I found this phrase particularly awkward:

    "Over the past 4 weeks, we have been onboarding customers slowly"

    From a nautical point of view, you would phrase this as ‘boarding customers’. They are not ‘on board’ until they have boarded.

  5. JamesNT says:

    It’s official.  

    I hereby blame anyone who has a degree in marketing for the systematic slaughtering of the English language.


  6. Robert Barth says:

    Onboarding usually refers to the process of aquainting a new customer with the products and/or services  the company has to offer in addition to whatever they just purchased. The purpose is to make the very first few minutes of contact with the company as pleasurable as possible so as to induce further interaction and separation of said customer from more of their money.

    It can also be used to refer to the assimilation process new employees go through at a company where they’ve begun to work. Wikipedia actually has that definition, though I’ve not heard it used that way before (which really doesn’t mean anything other than I watch too much TV).

    As mentioned, onboarding is definitely not a Microsoft-only "word."

  7. joel8360 says:

    @David Walker: Oops — you thought we were speaking Latin.

  8. dsn says:

    I just like to imagine they’re actually putting things on boards.  For example, the "On-Board Schedule" could easily be a schedule, posted on an actual bulletin board!

  9. mike says:

    JamesNT and Adrian, given your aversion to "onboarding," I hope that you have also purged your speech and writing of "offshoring" and "downsizing." (Plus, of course, the many terms that are unique to programming, like "instantiating" and "performant.")

    Incidentally, a search reveals that Google has about a half-million hits for this term; it isn’t particularly new. It’s a term that’s widespread in HR, for one. See:


  10. JamesNT says:

    Looks like Mike might have a point.



  11. JimExSoftie says:

    You can be sure that the Sr. Onboarding Manager is looking to become a Principal Onboarding Manager not by onboarding, necessarily, but expanding the definition and scope of onboarding.

  12. codekaizen says:

    @David Walker –

    Sorry, Raymond has the correct usage, since "you" is the subject and "me" is the indirect object of the conjugated verb "to be." "I" is only used when it is the subject.

    I figure since we started the nitpick-fest, we might as well go all out.

  13. Lars says:

    I love verbing. Verbing awesomes language.

  14. anonymous says:

    See, language is developing. My suggestions for the next development: weaving a banner -> bannering

  15. Ben says:

    I think that "On-boarding kit" is what is given to employees at NEO.

    The table at the end seems to be describing a waterfall development model, where the dev team is brought "on-board" after the requirements are known, and then the test team etc. (I would expect to see things like E2E or ETE in those sanitized TLAs)

  16. Mark says:

    Why doesn’t language ever get better? If ‘onboarding’ can be created, why can’t we get rid of "whom", the letter "c", and silent letters? "Who’s nife kut the skalion?" much better.

  17. ::Wendy:: says:

    Is it another metaphor drawn from a military,  nautical (Navy) ccontext?  ‘Shipping’,  possibly once originated from the requirement to put on a ship.  As oppose to say delivering,  mailing,  posting,  sending or releasing.  Is thier a stong nautical theme in Microsoft lingo?  

  18. OK, Wendy is the only funny one here :)

  19. Robert Morris says:

    @codekaizen, David, and anyone else interested: (Sorry for dragging this on, but my inner linguist just has to…) Technically, "than" is a subordinating conjuunction with an elliptical clause (meaning, part of it is "cut off" or not said, namely, the verb "am"). Thus, it is tehnically correct to say "you’re smarter than I," since expanding the elliptical clause yields "you’re smarter than I am." There are also times in such clauses in which the objective case would also be appropriate, such as "She has more friends than me" (i.e., I’m not her only friend)–compare with subjective "She has more friends than I" (i.e.,she has more friends than I do). Note that the use of case here actually affects meaning, as it can depending on whether the verb in question is transitive and whether both constructions could be logical.

    That being said, many people have begun seeing "than" as a preposition that takes the objective case rather than as a subordinating conjunction, thus permitting such constructions as "…than me" even when the subjective case would be formally appropriate. (In fact, such constructions can be seen in writings that are centuries old, so this is not a new phenomenon.) This is becoming so widespread in informal speech and writing that use of the "proper" form can sound stifled.

    The best bet is probably to gauge your audience and the level of formality at which you should be writing. Since most people don’t read weblogs to see examples of formal writing, I don’t think anyone can fault Raymond for his choice of words. :)

  20. mikeb says:

    @Robert Morris:  

    You’re being far too accommodating.  I was hoping for an all-out "grammar fight!" (should be said using Cartman’s voice).

  21. Eric TF Bat says:

    I’m disappointed that it’s not a Microsoft-only thing, because if it were we could just assume it was a euphemism, as in:

    We are the Microborg.  We will add your technological distinctiveness to our own.  Resistance is futile.  You will be onboarded.

    … But I guess not.  Dang.

  22. David Walker says:

    Codekaizen: I always read that phrase as "smarter than I [am]".  "Smarter than me" is not right in this case.  Robert Morris’s comments notwithstanding…

    My Dad used to complain when I would answer the phone, and the caller would say "Is David there?", and I would say "This is me", and my Dad would remind me that the correct response is "This is he", not "This is me".  "He is this" = "This is he" = correctness.  Dad used to teach English.

    Eventually I started replying with "This is David", since most people say "Huh?" if you reply with "This is he".

  23. Bill says:

    As mentioned above onboarding is a fairly common HR word for the process new hires go through when the first come "on board".  This includes fun stuff like getting your ID photo taken, choosing insurance providers, etc.  Similarly, offboarding is the process employees leaving the company go through, such as having their swipecards removed from the system, being escorted out by security, etc.

    Sounds like some of these terms got corrupted a bit and drifted into weird IT usages.

  24. dlanod says:

    All I can say is that it sounds less painful than the offboarding alternative.

  25. Kyralessa says:

    I don’t know about onboarding, but I’ve worked for companies that like to waterboard their employees.

  26. steveg says:

    Emboard? Disonboard? Disemboard?

    I blame the grammaring taught at schools these days.

  27. I suppose you could think of onboard (v) as a shortening of "onboardify".

    I can’t bring myself to believe anyone has ever said "onboardify" though.

    Or that anybody would accept the title "Senior Onboardification Manager".

  28. Cheong says:

    Living in somewhere where this kind of usage is common,"on board" is used in similar way here.

    I think it means the action of getting (something) in. Sounds like the use of "water" and "watering". (Of course "watering" is valid usage, just saying the form is similar)

  29. Jonathan says:

    Sounds to me like:

    A person boards a train.

    The train on-boards the person.

    /*sigh*/ for non-native English speakers like me, verbing incomprehensibilize the language.


  30. codekaizen says:

    @Robert, David –

    Yes, I am going to push this tangent even further. Perhaps I could blame the blog software for not having an "offline this" button.

    I was taking "than me" as a prepositional phrase serving as an adjective, rather than a subordinating conjunction of a dependent clause. The reason for this is, apparently, I never had learned that "than" was a subordinating conjunction. Even dictionaries have "than" as a preposition. Thanks for the clarification.

    It is fascinating to think about how words change structure, role and usage, yet impart the same meaning (Microspeak, in the instances where it doesn’t just bend the rules, it embraces and extends them, excepted). Even more fascinating to consider how we can follow along, but a computer would just fall down, hard. Just what is it about human language processing that is so robust?

  31. Mikkin says:

    Presumably, the intent was a short form of "bring on board" or possibly one of "take on board," "put on board," "go on board," or some such. But there is already a perfectly good verb for this: "board." Adding "on" alone does not serve to disambiguate among these distinctions.

  32. Igor Levicki says:

    There is a lot of alternatives to now too often used term "onboarding" — onskating, onrolling… possibilities are limitless in (un)human attempt to differentiate from 6bn of its cohabitants of this weird planet.

  33. "Why doesn’t language ever get better?"

    Because people with limited vocabulary get it wrong through ignorance and pretend that this is part of the natural evolution of language?

    The objection to creating a new word is that so often the required word already exists (why invent "resonation" when you can use "resonance"?).

    Errors so common newsreaders are using them: disregarding plural/singular construction ("there is many cars in the parking lot"); adding inadvertent redundancies by failing to understand what words actually mean ("…animals wiped out to the point of extinction"); not understanding what a word means at all ("meteoric rise to stardom"); misunderstanding quantities ("amount of people", "number of dollars").

    When I hear a newsreader say "scientists are hoping to discover a big amount of species", I can’t help but wonder what was wrong with "scientists hope to discover many new species"?

    Our interpretation of English is robust, but not absolutely.  When language faults are encountered, it does make the going much harder.

    When I encounter it, I find myself like a CD-ROM with a bad sector: I have to slow down from 32x speed to 4x speed and re-read the bad data and try and error correct it before continuing with the rest of the data stream.  Badly constructed language sabotages speed reading and is quite painful when you have a lot of reading to get through.

  34. Simon Cooke says:

    You know, when I worked at Microsoft, this was definitely one of the biggest gripes I had.

    There’s this wonderful language out there. Everyone knows what it means. Most Microspeak just obfuscates the actual meaning.

    Of course, the most egregious one I’ve come across is "asks" to mean "requests".

    *sigh* Maybe I’m just getting old.

  35. Boris says:

    We have software for banks for onboarding customers. It is the process of verifying details and opening the account.

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