Business has a way of inventing its own vocabulary. Often, the results are disappointing—long, Latinate words like formalize and utilize and monetize, or Frankenspeak like impactful or learnings. Such words are often created to make the person who uses them sound clever and smart. But they are really nothing more than obese, bloated versions of themselves.
Of course, words can shift and expand in meaning, too. As E.B. White noted in the seminal The Elements of Style: "The language is perpetually in flux; it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time."
And perhaps nowhere has that flux been fluxing with more speed and agility than in the world of Marketing. Interestingly, social media and technology are driving much of the shift—particularly of common words that existed for generations with a single, specific meaning but now find themselves with a complexity of depth and meaning that might surprise even the words themselves—that is, if words had the capacity to self-reflect. Which, of course, they don't.
Take "friend," for example. For generations, a "friend" was simply an ally. A supporter. Someone to regard with affection and trust.
Then Facebook comes along, and suddenly the meaning of "friend" is called into question both in an existential way as a noun (Is someone a "friend" even if I've never met them, but only know them online?) as well as a verb (as in To add someone to your list of people you are connected to online).
What other words have expanded and morphed in our newly social world? A bunch, including tagging, recommend, traffic, search, link, viral, link, visitor, surf, blast, ping, feed, alert, tweet, find, status, stumble, troll, bandwidth, at, check-in, and vote. But probably these 12 are my favorites:
Was: To use jointly, to partake, or to have in common. Implies giving half a candy bar to a friend, or two toddlers intent on a storybook straddling both their laps.
And also now: The broadcasting of our thoughts, likes, preferences and activities to answer the burning questions: What are you doing? Who are you doing it with? Where are you doing it? How much do you like it? What does it look like? Also: What do you think of what I'm doing and how much I'm enjoying it with the people I'm doing it with?
Curate (as a verb)
Was: To organize and maintain a collection of artworks, artifacts, or specimens, typically in a museum, library, or other esteemed and lofty institution. The person who handles said curating—a "curator" —often has a kind of higher directive or purpose (like to collect fragments of history or art in a specific time and place).
And also now: To continually identify, select, and share the best and most relevant online content and other online resources (articles, blog posts, videos, photos, tools, tweets, or whatever) on a specific subject to match the needs of a specific audience. Today, one might easily curate information about tankless water heaters, in fact.
Was: To travel or trail behind, or to come after. Conjures up small children, the spiritually devoted, and ducklings.
And also now: To opt into another person's social stream on one of several social networks, most popularly Twitter or Quora. Kind of like friending, but with less reciprocity implied.
Was: A verb that means to leave something undone; to be unsuccessful, undependable, insufficient.
And also now: A noun that means an error of colossal scale that exposes a significant, profound weakness and deficiency of a person, event, group, company, action … or just about anything else. Way worse when modified with "Epic."
Was: An adjective that means dissimilar or different. Discerning the "unlike" object is a popular cognitive game for children.
And now also: A verb that means you regard a person, brand, or bit of content with disdain or derision. Similar to unfriend or unfollow.
Was: A verb that means to agitate the air. Or as a noun: An ardent follower and admirer.
And now also: As a verb, the act of liking a group or entity on Facebook.
Was: Affix in a public place, often for public notice. Implies outlaws on municipal bulletin boards; yard sale flyers on telephone poles; renegade band posters on city edifices.
And now also: An entry made by someone on a blog, site, or other social networking space or forum. Often confused with "blog," as in "I wrote a blog." (No, you wrote a blog post.)
Was: Material—usually stone or wood—that encloses a space and keeps the neighbors out of your business.
And now also: Public space on Facebook to which your friends (and you) can post text, videos, birthday wishes, photos, greetings, and unsolicited invitations to networks like BranchOut, Stik, Roost, and the like. (See "Spam.")
Was: Chopping, cutting, striking into small bits (often in a violent manner).
And also now: Re-configuring or re-programming a computer system, website or online account to function in ways other than intended—sometimes, for devious or nefarious ends (i.e., purposes neither desired nor facilitated by the owner).
Was: To cultivate by growing (verb); or the thing itself: An area of land devoted to the cultivation of things and (romantically) featuring soft furry bunnies, combed sheep, happy livestock, rich furrowed soil and prize-winning jams cooling on windowsills.
And now also: A content sweatshop that generates large amounts of (generally) sub-par blog posts and articles pecked out by undervalued and underpaid freelance writers; designed to satisfy search engine algorithms rather than humans.
Was: A power to affect persons or events, often because of a certain power, expertise, or prestige.
And now also: A power to recommend brands to others based on one's perceived social credibility and expertise, along with an ability to engender trust.
Was: A friend or date whom one brings along to an event or party.
And also now: A new initiative that allows anyone searching Google to publicly endorse web results they like. It's a kind of digital shorthand for a thumbs-up. (The opposite of "Unlike.")
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A big thanks to folks in the MarketingProfs Facebook group for contributing a number of these. So: Your turn. What other ordinary words suddenly have new meaning? Add your own two pesos, below.
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