Buzzwords have a half-life of their own. A few influential people use them, followed by a rash of hangers-on. Then the buzzword hits the masses, where the meaning often changes and then it fades. Sometimes an old buzzword reappears, generally with all the appeal of the wide shoulder pads of women’s suits, circa 1982.
If buzzwords are marketed with skill, the curve of use is sharper. Using buzzwords is the office equivalent of sitting with at the cool kids table in middle school.
Two buzzwords I could do without are “opportunity” for “problem” and “investment” for “price.” The latter is more annoying than the former, but it is also newer.
For some reason, we don’t like the word “problem.” It seems to be a perfectly good word, with origins in the Greek word problema, or obstacle. We’ve substituted another good word, “opportunity” for problem. The two words are not synonyms, not even close. Opportunity is a favorable junction of circumstances, and that is not at all a problem.
A problem is something that needs to be solved. You can’t solve an opportunity. You can take advantage of an opportunity, and you can take advantage of a problem, too. Maybe that is where the idea of substitution came from. More likely, the boss didn’t want to use a negative word, and substituted something more positive and favorable.
But it doesn’t work. A drinking opportunity is not the same as a drinking problem. A problem child is not at all an opportunity child. Traffic problem is congestion; traffic opportunity is crossing the street while traffic is snarled. But the two words are not interchangable and no one is fooled by using one when the other is clearly called for. Grappling with and solving a problem is an honorable days work. Let’s use it more often.
Using “investment” for “cost” or “price” smacks of unethical substitution. If I need a pair of sneakers, I do not invest in a pair. I buy a pair. Investment is the outlay of money for income or profit. Sure, my feet may profit from the new shoes, but that’s a different kind of profit. Disguising a price as an investment is a way to make the payer feel smart for spending money in a particular way.
But that’s emotional swindle if the payer is shelling out money for something that can’t be re-sold at a profit at some later time. If I want to participate in a meeting or buy food, it has a price, not an investment. If I am buying a piece of art that I plan to re-sell in 10 years at a hefty profit, that’s an investment.
Marketing the cost of something as an equivalent investment is a deliberate blurring of specifics without considering the future. It’s a mistake we’ve made twice in ten years–once with dot.coms, the other with mortgages. Let’s not do it with our vocabulary. That’s a commodity too precious to trifle with.
Quinn McDonald is a writer, life- and creativity coach. She teaches business communication and journal-writing and keeping.