This week Opus Magnum is rounding out our list of the ten most popular posts from 2012. Today we’re down to #4. This post is another long-time favorite from our Jargon Genesis series – the final Jargon Genesis post in the top ten – explaining the history of the term, “Throw in the towel,” which actually originated as “throwing in the sponge.”
A plethora of academics use baroque vernacular to articulate significance. Huh? Let’s try that again. A large number of students use big words to try to sound important. Does it work? Not really, according to Inc.com. The reason you should probably ditch your thesaurus? You want your writing to be inclusive and appeal to a large audience.
Using unnecessary big words can often hinder your message from spreading because readers want to read something quickly and easily. They do not want to pull out their dictionaries to decipher what was said.
My smart colleague Dr. Wendy Wyatt passed along an opinion piece published earlier this fall in the Star Tribune. She knew I would like and applaud it. And indeed, the content was such that I can’t quite shake it from my digital-age brain. In fact, every ding of new email, log-in prompt and face lit up by a smart phone around campus brings my attention back to Chris Anderson’s commentary, “You’ve got mail! (Which means you’ve got demands).”
I mostly share his opinions, and they have come to claim a place in the front of my tech-stretched mind. With the new year nearly upon us, it seems timely to ask if Anderson might have put his finger on not only a profound problem but also a rather brilliant solution – one that can help all of us with an email inbox make sure next year is better than last. Could we be happier and healthier if we become better e-mailers? Sounds easier than losing 15 pounds!
Anderson’s day begins, like mine and likely yours, with a glance at his inbox: “A sample might include a message from the colleague of a friend about his startup venture. Another is about a staff issue. A third is a discussion, copied to six people, about an upcoming charitable event.”
He goes on, and this is where I started getting giddy and wanted to know more. I can’t stop thinking, “Oh my goodness. He’s pinpointed the problem to which I need a solution … as does, it seems, almost every adult, friend, student, colleague, administrator, staff, parent and pal I know.” He writes:
“These e-mails have nothing in common — except that none of their issues had been on my agenda that morning. I don’t even know one of the senders. But although it took only a few minutes to read these notes, I suddenly feel pressure to develop coherent thoughts on complex questions regarding someone else’s business, office politics and world peace. It’s barely 8 a.m., and I’m already drowning in e-mail. My day’s priorities have been commandeered. And more missives keep pouring in, including tweets, Google Plus notifications, Facebook status updates and instant messages. A fire hose of information all day long.”
I was recently reading an article and learned the story of the phrase “Pushing the Envelope.” I know we’ve covered that here on the blog before but I thought it would be worthwhile to repost that tale today:
When I considered the phrase, “pushing the envelope,” I assumed its origin had something to do with seeing how much one could fit into a paper envelope. I pictured an eager administrative assistant stuffing an envelope full and then adding one more piece of paper, really “pushing the envelope.”
But I was sorely mistaken! We have written record that during World War II, a test pilot’s job was to “push the envelope,” speaking of the mathematical envelope, not the paper one. This envelope is defined as the locus of the ultimate intersections of consecutive curves. Huh?
“If we don’t get any traction with our sales in Asia this year, we’ll have to throw in the towel.”
Ever wondered about that phrase? You who are fans of boxing might be well versed in its etymology. Back in the day, whatever day that was, boxers would return to their corner after having their face bludgeoned by their opponents. There the manager, whose face was not bludgeoned, would give sage advice and wipe their fighter’s face clean with a sponge. I am inclined to derail this etymological explanation with a diatribe against a “sport” that is so barbaric, it regularly leaves its participants brain damaged, but I will restrain myself.
I find the use of “brand” in a business context to be one of the most logical jargon thefts in our vernacular. The word brand comes from the Norse term brandr, meaning “to burn.” The concept of branding one’s goods, particularly cattle, has existed for centuries.
Fun fact! A “maverick” originally meant an unmarked calf. Samuel Augustus Maverick, a Texan cattle rancher, decided that since all other cattle were branded, he would not brand his. Thus, his brand was none at all.
Dr. Michael Porter recently informed us that “chomping at the bit” is, in fact, incorrect when referring to being impatient or anxious. Admittedly, this was news to me! So, armed with my newfound intelligence, thank you Dr. Porter, I would like to discuss the true definition of “champing at the bit.”
First, I’ll provide a sample usage of this phrase. “I am champing at the bit to get my hands on the new marketing budget so I can build my tactical plan for FY 2011.”
Let’s first learn about champing. I thought this website had the most interesting definition.
So, I have an axe to grind and am not going to “aks” whether you care.
Even in academia, people prove daily how little of the English language they have actually learned through reading. Daily reminders appear in both written and spoken abominations of common phrases or spelling, such as:
For some weeks, I’ve wondered where “thrown under the bus,” and its variations originated. Unfortunately, my etymological research availed little. I like to think the phrase comes from a well-publicized event where someone gave in to their natural, Lord of the Flies inclinations and saved their own life by pushing someone else, likely a person close to them, under a moving bus. But alas, there is no evidence of such an event.
Read what the Word Detective thinks could be the origin of this phrase.
Despite our lack of clarity here, it is certainly proliferating all arenas of communication, including businesses. In fact, in my opinion, it has become among the most over-used phrases of the 2000’s. Don’t believe me? Check out this video clip and post from the blog, fourfour.
…according to Newsweek “William Safire, the author of Safire’s Political Dictionary, traced the popularization of the phrase back to Cyndi Lauper, who jauntily tossed her critics ‘under the bus’ after the release of her debut album She’s So Unusual in 1983.” So that’s why she says it so much! She’s proud!
So next time you’re inclined to talk about being thrown under the bus, you might vary it up a bit. Perhaps, “thrown off a subway?”
Our usual Jargon Genesis author, Shanna, is on vacation this week, so this week’s post comes by way of, TYWKIWDBI, a blog of Things You Wouldn’t Know If We Didn’t Blog Intermittently, that recently discovered the Oxford University Press blog, and found an essay on the history of the filler-word “like.” (Not necessarily the Facebook-style usage, but more like, um, like this.) Full-time UST MBA students learned about ways to eliminate this filler word and others during Launch Week. Here’s some background from these additional blogs: