C-Suite Advisory

Does “ful” really make it a word? Evolving Language Should Unify and Bind—Not Divide and Confuse

Every year, the world’s prominent English-language dictionaries add anywhere from a few hundred to 1,000 “neologisms”—newly coined words or phrases—to their pages. For Merriam-Webster and Oxford, it’s an exhaustive process that can involve tracking words from sometimes obscure uses into the mass-market national, and even global, lexicon. 

These arrivals can also be less a linguistic evolution than an etymological eruption. For example, in our fraught times, recent new words and phrases have included “post-truth,” “climate emergency,” “permacrisis,” “quiet quitting” and “anti-vaxxer.” I advocated for creating a word in a 2019 CEOWORLD magazine commentary—“LINC,” or “leader in charge”—to replace the moniker “boss” and its dubious past.

In business, this process is more jargonistic and informal, and frequently involves what’s been termed “denominalization” by linguists, or “verbing” by others: converting nouns into verbs. There’s “vendorize” and “strategize.” (This practice is also not as new as it may seem, given that Benjamin Franklin labeled it “awkward and abominable.”)

In a riff on one of the English language’s great philologists, William Shakespeare, “What’s in a word?” 

Plenty, argues Columbia University linguist John McWhorter. “The fit between words and meanings is much fuzzier and unstable than we are led to suppose by the static majesty of the dictionary and its tidy definitions,” he writes in The New York Times. “What a word means today is a Polaroid snapshot of its lexical life, long-lived and frequently under transformation.”

An example is the verbing of “Google.” Twenty years ago, no one said, “I’ll Google that,” but it’s now part of everyday language, and used more often than “I’ll research that,” for example. 

Verbing can “act as vivid linguistic shortcuts,” according to the pop-culture-meets-scholarship website JSTOR, conveying unique information and enriching the language with “new rhetorical imagery.” Verbing can be particularly useful when it replaces a much longer expression, JSTOR notes. Contrast, “We got out by nudging others out of our way with our elbows” with “We elbowed our way out.” 

But beyond verbing, the addition of “ful” to create adjectives out of nouns is a random and bad habit that seemed to gather steam when “impact” spawned “impactful” years ago. Today, leaders are known to be “leaderful.” A recent NPR interview with the president of a labor union local representing Southwest Airlines flight attendants referred to the airline needing to personally speak to thousands of employees to reschedule them during the holiday travel meltdown as “an incredibly taskful thing to do.” Argh. 

Yet, whether it’s verbing or the “ful” noun-to-adjective trend, do these new words unify, enhance, or economize, or do they instead obfuscate and mystify? Examples include “dialoguing,” “actioning,” “efforting or transiting.” What’s wrong with “talk,” “act,” work” and “travel”? 

“Is the jargon-riddled business world ‘impacting’ how we speak now?” JSTOR asks. “Can we just boycott them and Houdini our way out of this mess?” 

And then there’s the euphemistic efforts to normalize thorny, complicated actions businesses often take. Think: “right-sizing” or “delayering,” which isn’t “right” to the people who are the extraneous layers. 

As language continues to evolve, it should bind and connect us, and bring order and a shared understanding to situations and environments we’re trying to navigate together. In other words, when changing language diminishes or euphemizes, it can distract, confuse and divide us. When it includes, empowers or simplifies, it can unify us and advance a shared understanding that will help us understand problems and arrive at solution.

Written by Stephanie Nora White.
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Stephanie Nora White
Stephanie Nora White is founder and managing partner of WPNT Ltd. The U.S.-based firm has provided communications training and strategy to organizations worldwide, from Fortune 300 companies to Silicon Valley start-ups, for more than 20 years. Stephanie is a lecturer at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, Northwestern University’s Graduate Integrated Marketing Communications program and at DePaul University.

Stephanie Nora White is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn.