Saturday, September 27, 2014


The Evolution of Business-Speak

The way we talk about work has changed a lot as the types of jobs that we perform and the spaces in which we do them have changed. Just as the modern office would be a foreign world to a factory worker from the early industrial revolution, or to a craftsperson with a home workshop from an even earlier age, so would the language we use in the workplace today sound like it came from another country.

Cogs in the Machine

Industry was booming in the early 20th century. Factories were built and assembly lines devised where workers could each focus on a single, specific task. Mechanization and scientific thinking were the keys to boosting productivity, and whole companies, and the people who worked for them, were often thought of in terms of the well-oiled machine, working together towards a single purpose. The language of business, shaped by scientifically driven managers like Frederick Winslow Taylor, began to focus on maximized efficiency, accuracy, and production.

Cells in the Organism

The vision of the workplace and its workers as a machine began to change in the 1920s, when the metaphors used about the workplace took on a more biological theme. People began to talk about it as a living organism, rather than a machine. This shift in language was coupled with a growing interest in the psychology of the workplace and initiatives at places like the Hawthorne Works to create an environment where workers would be happier and therefore more productive. Terms like alienation, absenteeism and turnover became common.

A Corporate Culture

Another shift took place after the Second World War, when there was an upsurge of interest in the sociology of the workplace. It coincided with many upheavals in the workplace, and in wider society, not only because of the direct effects of the war, but also because of the changing status of working women and the creation of massive new corporations created by the many mergers of the 1950s. Individual employees no longer had a close connection to the companies they worked for, and were unlikely ever to meet the people who ran them. Managers needed to find a way to keep workers loyal, satisfied, and productive. To do this, they created a way of speaking about work that we still use today.

The concept of organizational or corporate culture began to be used at this time in order to talk about the way people interacted with each other at work. The goal of theories developed at business schools like MIT was to create happier workers who would feel connected to their colleagues and employers, and who would therefore work harder, and language was often at the heart of the cultures that were being built. Influential consultants like Peter Drucker convinced companies to see their employees as valuable resources, and to value them as knowledge workers for what they knew not just what they made. Rather than focusing on coercing reluctant workers into doing their jobs, managers began to talk about self-motivated workers who could be trusted to do their best and who would be driven by their own self-actualization, a term popularized in the 1960s by Maslow. However, people were still being described as resources, and all of this talk about personal fulfillment was aimed at increasing productivity.

This hidden focus on productivity came back to the forefront of office-speak during the 1980s, when the influence of Wall Street, management consultants and business schools began to be felt throughout the business world. Business terms became more aggressive and economically focused, with ideas such as leveraging, optionality, and the value-add becoming common. The terms used to describe getting rid of staff also proliferated, ranging from simple terms such as letting people go to more opaque terms such as streamlining and increasing operational efficiency. The focus was often on managing human "resources" to maximise efficiency.

Working in a Computer

Although many of these terms remain familiar to workers and managers today, more recent changes in the workplace have also had an impact on the way we talk about work. The spread of technology had a particularly dramatic impact, leading to people talking about workplaces as computers, just as they had once spoken of them as machines or living creatures. Terms such as bandwidth, hack, and multitask have spread out from technological firms, and along with the language, there has been a shift in our working cultures.

The focus has shifted back towards individual fulfillment, promoting innovation, creativity and disruptive ideas over conformity and productivity. The language used to talk about work has become more emotional, with people discussing their vision, values, passion, and energy. This focus on creating people whose jobs are their passions has even led managers to begin using words that were once more closely associated with spiritual concerns. One of the most recent buzzwords to spread through the business world is mindfulness, which has made its way from meditation, through psychology and medicine, and into the workplace. Big companies like Google have introduced mindfulness and meditation into their offices, where it is promoted as the key to productivity, job satisfaction and creativity.

Self-actualization is back at the heart of management-speak, although the goal is still to create a productive business, just as it was in the 1920s and 1960s, when other terms were used to encourage workers to enjoy their jobs. This time, it has been assisted by the spread of social media and the greater mobility that people experience in their working lives, with many workers grasping on to the idea of seeking their passion and creating their own personal brand to promote. Business-speak is not just a tool used by managers to create happy, productive workers, but also by individuals who want to work the system to their own advantage.


1. PBS Biography of Frederick Winslow Taylor
2. Harvard Business School explores The Hawthorne Effect
3. MIT’s Theory X and Y and Organizational Development
4. Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation
5. The Economist on Peter Drucker: Trusting the teacher in the grey-flannel suit
6. The New Yorker on Creativity Creep 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Scrabble Then & Now

Fans add a new word to Scrabble


Howard Richler

It was 1931, the height of the Great Depression, when American architect Alfred Butts joined the bulging ranks of the unemployed. There just weren't many buildings being erected, so Butts decided to construct something else – an adult game.

He called his game Lexico. It was played without a board and players received points based on the lengths of the words formed. One would receive bonus points by using less common letters, such as K or W, and very rare letters, like Q and Z would fetch you even greater points.

How did Butts do his computing in the pre-cyber era? He meticulously checked the frequency of letters on the front pages of the New York Times. He came up with a formula that consisted of 100 letters comprising 12 Es, nine each for the second-most-common letters A and I , and in decreasing frequency for other letters, down to one for, Z,X, Q, K, and J.

In 1938, the popularity of crossword puzzles gave Butts the idea of combining the letters with a playing board in which words could be joined as in crossword puzzles. Over the years, Butts's game was marketed under several other names. They included New Anagrams, Alph, Criss-Cross and Criss Crosswords – and finally the one that stuck in 1948: Scrabble.

Today, Scrabble is distributed in 121 countries and can be played in over twenty language versions. In other languages, the number of tiles of individual letters and the point total depend on lingual differences. For example, if you've ever enjoyed a meal consisting of zupa buraczkowa ( red beetroot soup) with kasza gryczana (buckwheat porridge), you probably won't be surprised to learn that in Polish Scrabble there are five Zs worth one point each. Some years ago I worked at a company of over 100 employees where I was the only person that had a W in his name explaining why W is worth ten points in French Scrabble.

Interestingly, Scrabble highlights differences in the English language or should I say English languages. For in North America, words are drawn from the Official Scrabble Players' Dictionary (OSPD) whereas in most of the rest of the world the official dictionary in SOWPODS. SOWPODS is a marriage of OSPD and OSW (Official Scrabble Words. In days of yore, North America used OSPD and the United Kingdom (UK) et al employed OSW. Then the UK decided to combine the lists and declare all those words acceptable. Since the resulting smorgasbord of titles OSPDOSW or OSWOSPD was a mouthful, the anagram SOWPODS was chosen. In any case the fusion that created SOWPODS leaves players who play under its rule over 80,000 more words than are available under the OSPD rubric.

This is not to say that OSPD has remained frozen. It was first published in 1978 and included words two to eight letters found in five official college dictionaries, and has been updated once or twice each decade. The last update occurred in 2005 adding approximately 4,000 words, such as 'qi,” a term from Chinese philosophy that refers to circulating life energy, the highly dubious “za”; a shortening probably coined by inarticulate pizza inhalers, the equally sketchy “al,” an East Indian tree and “oxid,” a variation of “oxide” were also deemed okay in this update. Incidentally, “ok” was not okay.

Also not okay are a series of words that were expunged from OSPD in the 1990s, such as the word “jew” used as a verb to mean “to haggle.” In toto, 170 words were deleted including “fart,” “jesuit,” “papist” and “redskin.” Many Scrabble players were incensed with this censorship and a compromise was reached: The official dictionary for home and school was censored but the “offensive” words were deemed acceptable for tournament play.

The company that makes Scrabble, Hasbro on March 12th of this year invited enthusiasts to nominate words via its Facebook page. Its announcements stated that thousands of new words will be added to OSPD such as “selfie” and “hashtag.” In an attempt to include the hoi polloi, Hasbro announced that fans had until March 28th to send in their nominations and that sixteen finalists would be unveiled on April 2nd before being narrowed down to a single word which was chosen and April 10th and added to the latest version of OSPD.

The “sweet sixteen” consisted of the following: “adorbs,” “bestie,” “bitcoin,” “booyah,” “emotypo,” “cosplay,” “ew,” “geocache,” “hangry,” “lifehack”, “luckbox,” “nowish,” “phlabet,” “retweet,” “woot,” and “zen.” Most commentators were betting that the eventual winner would be ew or zen but they weren't counting on the lobbying ability of aficianados of one of the words. Shortly after voting commenced, the Twitter feed implored its 56,000 followers: “Should 'geocache' count in Scrabble. Say heck yeah! Comment 'Geocache' on Hasbro's FB page.” Incidentally, geocache is a verb that means to seek items by means of a GPS device as part of a game.”

I was pleased that the interjection “ew” did not win as the official Scrabble rules already allows a plethora of them, such as, “ah,” “aw,” “eh,” “er,” “hm,” “mm,” “oh,” “oi,” “oy,” “sh,” “uh,” and “um.” When I play Scrabble I try to negotiate the the non-use of interjections.

Howard's latest book is How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.