17 irritating jargon phrases, and awesome new sayings we should use instead


bunny-1567479_960_720Hi everyone. Since the last few posts have been somewhat serious—boo!—this one is going to be a little lighter. A few months ago, I wrote 21 irritating jargon phrases and what we should replace them with. Well, we barely peeled the butternut on annoying cliches. So, based on readers’ requests, here are 17 more, and the awesome new sayings we should replace them with. Thanks to my colleagues for your contributions.

  1. Get granular. It means to get to a level of details. But why stop at grains of stuff. I recommend going even further, based on the level of details desired: Get molecular, Get atomic, or Get subatomic. And if you want even more details, the ultimate level, based on String Theory, is “Get stringy.” E.g., “This is a good strategic plan, but we need to get subatomic. No, we need to get stringy.”
  2. At the end of the day. At the end of the day, we all just want to punch anyone who says this. I really like a colleague (code name keneta)’s suggestion of “When all the rhubarb is harvested.” It sounds really nice and sophisticated. Try it. “I know we don’t always agree, but when all the rhubarb is harvested, we are each an amazing unicorn who makes the world better.”
  3. Take it with a grain of salt. Look, a single grain of salt is not going to do anything, OK? One grain of salt is completely useless, trust me (Worst margarita ever). I propose we replace it with “Take it with a swig of Pepto.” That pink stuff is magical, calming down any stomach ailment, and also makes a pretty good drink mixer (Consult with your doctor or bartender first). So taking a swig of it along with something you’re not sure about makes sense. “I’ve never planned a puppet-show on equity before, so take my advice with a swig of Pepto.”
  4. Buckets. I am so sick of buckets, especially when it’s used in finance, like “So our revenues can be divided into five buckets: Restricted, temporarily restricted, permanently restricted, unrestricted, and useless broken office supplies that we can’t throw away because we’re a nonprofit and so we hoard stuff.” Let’s replace it with tote bags. Tote bags are everywhere and are actually useful (except when we forget to take it to the grocery store, which is every time). “Our programs fall into three tote bags, as you see detailed on Slide 5. Which reminds me, we still have 1200 tote bags from the 1998 resource fair…”
  5. Piggyback. I’ve been hearing this more, like “I’d like to piggyback on that idea.” We are professionals. No one should be piggybacking on anything. And who rides on pigs anyways? That’s a great way to annoy our porcine friends. Colleague Alisha Johnson recommends a much better replacement: “That was a great suggestion, and I would like to pull out a lawn chair next to it and add…”
  6. Robust. “We need a more robust revenue model.” Ugh. Let’s replace this with something that is actually robust: Hodor. He’s a beloved character from Game of Thrones. He’s a big, sweet guy, and all he says is ‘Hodor.’ “We need a more hodor revenue model.”
  7. Circle back. Says a colleague, “Every time I hear someone say ‘I’ll circle back with you on this,’ I want to jam knitting needles into my ears.” Let’s prevent this sort of self-inflicted violence by replacing this cliché with “stir the risotto.” Risotto takes a lot of stirring; you have to come back to it constantly. “Hey, I’d like to stir the risotto on the conversation we had about that puppet-show on equity.”
  8. Take it to the next level. We have a very height-biased society that values things that are physically higher than other things. Why should the next level be more valued just because it’s higher? This needs to stop. I recommend “drive it to the next truck stop,” which recalls a horrifying bathroom I encountered on a road trip once. It was basically the 7th level of hell. We drove to the next truck stop. “OK, I know I just joined the team as the Development Director. But I want to drive our gala to the next truck stop. Staff/board musical numbers!” (If you don’t like that, colleague NextDoorInc recommends “Toss it to the next pterodactyl,” which is also great).
  9. Pain point. I shudder whenever I hear this, and I’ve been hearing it more, especially from tech people. “What are the pain points we’re trying to address by switching to a new donor database?” Shudder…Let’s use “Kidney stones” instead, because those are definitely painful. “The new database will take care of three kidney stones: Access, geographic stratification, and filtering major donors by yacht ownership.”
  10. Take-aways: “Before this training end, let’s go around the room and share three take-ball-1517310_960_720aways.” Always makes me hungry, because it reminds me of take-out food. Colleague Ethan Myerson has a great suggestion: “If my kids behave at the dentist’s office, the hygienist gives them a token to put into the machine and get a bouncy ball. So I propose ‘Bouncy Ball.’” “OK, so the puppet-show on equity is a great idea, but what is the bouncy ball we want to leave the audience with?”
  11. Learnings. Speaking of take-aways, we’ve been seeing “learnings” more often. Learnings? Learnings?! If I ever hear you say “learnings,” as in “Even though our puppet show on equity was not well-received, the learnings we got out of it are invaluable to our work,” I’m going to summon all my vegan strength to slap you with this copy of my organization’s 990. That’s 23 pages of pain. Just use “lessons learned,” OK? No joke.
  12. Red flag: I think this one hearkens back to bullfighting, where a red flag is waved to enrage the bull so that he would charge. Well, whether you are against bullfighting or not, this expression needs to be retired. I recommend “hang nail.” Sure, it starts small, but then it peels down just a little bit more, and then it’s painful as hell. “The discussion with our marketing consultant raised a few hang nails for me.”
  13. White paper: Where did this come from? I don’t know, but in our age of social consciousness, we should try to be more inclusive. So let’s change this to “Paper of color.” As in, “Did you read about the cool new way to visualize nonprofit overhead? They should write a paper of color on it. Funders love papers of color.” (Seriously, the new way to look at overhead is pretty cool. Check it out.)
  14. Value proposition. Another pretentious tech term. They’ve been invading our sector lately. Let’s replace this with “Fluffy bunny” because we need more expressions that involve bunnies. “We need a fluffier bunny if we want to convince our lapsed donors to come back.”
  15. ROI. Speaking of value propositions, ROI, which stands for Return on Investment, is getting peas-166970_960_720to be tiresome. A colleague, code name Frozenveg, has a recommendation for a replacement. But I actually prefer BFV, which stands for “Bag of Frozen Veggies,” inspired by her name, because frozen vegetables actually have really high ROIs, usually containing as much or even more nutrients than fresh veggies. “We should update our financial software. The BFV would be tremendous.” (BFV could also stand for “Big F#@&*%$ Value.”)
  16. Cherrypick. At a speech I gave recently on Weaponized Data, I said, “We often cherry-pick the data that aligns with our beliefs and ignore everything else. There is a lot of data cherry-picking going on!” Time for a better cliché. Colleague ScarlettB recommends “artisanally curate.” E.g., “I don’t care that we have limited resources. Artisanally curating the ideas from that community feedback session that already align with our strategies just makes us askholes!”
  17. Pivot. Says a colleague Diana Fox, “How did we ever change direction on anything before the tech sector taught us how to pivot.” Well, pivot is getting irritating, and always reminds me of Ross, the most annoying character on Friends, so I recommend we go Missy Elliott on it and replace it with “Flip it and reverse it.” For example, “Our strategy for earned income is not leading to a high BFV, so let’s flip it and reverse it. Is it worth it? I’m not so sure, but I think we should work it.”

All right, everyone. I know none of us have a lot of sticky dots, but let’s take time to be thoughtful about the words we use. It helps us all to think like pterodactyls. Next time, we’ll tackle: Reach out, leverage, seasonality, onboarding, loop someone in, best practices, forward thinking, out of pocket, engage, sweet spot, touch base, journey, partnering, win-win, capacity building, collective impact, gold standards, rock star, stakeholder, and a bunch of others. Send in the jargon that irritates you. When all the rhubarb is harvested, only when we replace our clichéd expressions with new sayings that will themselves become clichés do we have any hope of achieving peace in our children and grandchildren’s lifetime.

Related posts: 21 irritating jargon phrases and new cliches to replace them with. And Common nonprofit terms and concepts and what they actually mean

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69 thoughts on “17 irritating jargon phrases, and awesome new sayings we should use instead

  1. betty barcode

    Pure gold, Vu. Your column is the best thing about Monday mornings.

    Can anyone suggest an alternative to “behind the scenes?” It isn’t that this metaphor is awful, it is that there seems to be no other way to characterize work that the public does not see.

    1. RobAlex

      Most, if not all, cliches are unnecessary verbiage and can just be dropped without loss of meaning. These include “at the end of the day” “going forward” “refer back” “good, bad, or indifferent” “having said that …” and many others. The pointy-haired manager in Dilbert is a great source of non-think cliches.

  2. Mandy Valentine

    I’m going to use Flip It and Reverse It even if my colleagues have no idea what I am saying.

    I could have used the replacement for “buckets” at my previous job. Everything was buckets, baskets and tranches.

  3. MBU'town

    Could we please replace “silos”? As in, “We’re all working in our our own silos, we can’t see the ‘big picture’. (another I’d like to see gone)” How about we replace “silo” with “carbonite” and “big picture” with “meteor field”, because when you’ve silo-ed yourself you’re much like Han Solo, unable to move and not aware of the danger that your agency is in until it’s too late. “We’re all trying to work within carbonite! We can’t see the meteor field dead ahead!” And we can reference Star Wars, and only freaking hermits would miss those allusions.

    1. abstract668

      Ohhh I was just going to post the same thing, and you did the thinking for me! No one knows what silos are, except people who grew up on a farm or a nuclear test site. We all know Star Wars! Thank you.

  4. RobAlex

    You have hit a nerve with these extremely annoying cliches. Whenever someone uses these, my opinion about their intelligence drops a dozen or two IQ points because it means their brain is on autopilot. But let’s add one more: “Awesome.” So overused it is meaningless. Face it – very few things actually inspire awe, so why do we call anything remotely good as awesome? Cut it out.

  5. Cloggie

    Ugh, learnings! That faux word has invaded my office and it is horrible. I try to edit that word out whenever I see it. Yes, people want to send out official writing pieces (eg proposals) with “learnings” in it.

      1. Cloggie

        I haven’t seen this yet, but it would cause my forehead to immediately meet my desk a few times. Blech! Even as a Dutch speaker (where nounifying verbs is totally normal), this drives me nuts in English.

  6. SophieB

    A relative newcomer that irks me is “social impact sector” which goes along with “investment”. Perhaps it is my aversion to social impact bonds (SIBs) that makes me react to these reminders, but people have enough trouble understanding what nonprofits really are already without blurring the line with for-profit businesses.

    “Take it to scale,” is another one that sends chills up my spine–but again it may be the concept rather than the phrase itself that is so bothersome to me. It’s like saying we should make everything we do as big as possible, as if big is always better. I think we should strive for programs that are appropriately sized to be the most effective. When it comes to dealing with changing social conditions some of the best results I’ve seen are achieved in small community based and driven programs.

    1. Alia Khan

      Yes, yes, please stop saying “It is what it is.” Just tell me what “it” “is” (and while you’re at it, define what you mean by “is”) — e.g., “Let’s just call this grant report what it is: it’s a clusterf—/s—storm/soul sucking/motherf—ing snakes on a plane. Hodor.

  7. Debbie Duncan

    Great fun and good points, but I think we need to be careful not to throw the sunflower kernel out with the hulls. Overuse does not necessarily render a phrase ineffective.

    I had to look a couple things up. White paper I believed was an informal or internal document – thus not on letterhead or binder. Thanks to Wikipedia, I have leaned more – it was a British term for a government document to provide more in depth explanation. But to my delight its says “White papers may be considered grey literature” (with link to grey literature) [See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_paper ]. No coloratura in British documentation!

  8. Mehitabel

    Some of these I don’t mind – ‘circle back’, ‘at the end of the day’. But I could happily live out the rest of my days and never near ‘ROI’ again. Same for ‘take-aways’ and ‘learnings’, which bring up some really uncomfortable memories of touchy-feely staff retreats. And I’ve learned to hate ‘pivot’ just because the media uses that term to describe the Trump campaign about five hundred times a day.

  9. DenverDave

    Already so tired of “lean in”. Some of my nonprofit colleagues are “really leaning in on strategy”. Ugh.

  10. Sara Abernethy

    Hi Vu – thanks for the insight on this one. I work in the fundraising technology field, and I definitely don’t want to be annoying my clients by saying “Pain Point” and “Value Proposition” – yuck! That feels so robotic to me and impersonal. Now, in technology, we are certainly trying to solve for a problem or a challenge, but we definitely need to keep lines of communication open! I am so excited to try the term “Fluffy Bunny” on my next demo. 🙂

  11. Amber Minogue

    please, for the love of anything that is holy, tackle ‘thought partners’ and ‘thought leaders’ — they are the worst and every leader in the non-profit and government sector fancies themselves special unicorn thought leaders.

  12. Kate Ramlow Meyer

    Haha these are great. So is the other article. But you forgot “restructuring” “re-visioning” “revitalizing” “I’m a big picture thinker” and “we’re going through a transition”

  13. Rhiannon Orizaga

    I would like to replace “out of pocket” with “busy,” as in “I will be busy later, so I won’t be checking email.” It has worked for hundreds of years to accurately describe the situation. Unless, of course, one literally works in a pocket of some sort, in which case “out of pocket” does make sense.

  14. Laurie Marshall

    Oh, and let’s stop “unpacking” whatever baggage we’re referring to in our chats, shall we? I hear that all the time in podcasts!! “Can you unpack that for us a little?” “We’ll be unpacking the purpose behind…” Stop. Unpacking.

  15. Becky Ennis Green

    So glad that now FASB will eliminate 2 buckets by combining permanently restricted and temporarily restricted into one nice tote!

  16. drfinlay

    I think that “get quantum” might have a future as a new cliché, replacing granularity. I have a soft spot for “let’s put it in the seed tray and see if the budgie bites”.

    1. Dina Elenbaas

      I mean, at least that’s using the word “quantum” correctly. I remember when a company I worked for was promising to make “quantum changes in the marketplace”… okay, so, really really little ones?

  17. S NV Nonprofit Info Ctr

    I would have posted sooner, but I was too busy replacing KEY TAKEAWAYS as the title on the last slide of all my presentations with REMEMBER …

  18. abstract668

    While we are at it, where is “transparency”? Maybe we could substitute “X-ray glasses” for transparency in memory of all those glasses that were purchased from ads in comic books to let you see through clothes. I always loved the cartoons of boys with big eyes and high eyebrows, wearing X-ray glasses to see through dresses, but not bras, of cartoon women.”we need to be sure we are good for the X-ray glasses.”

  19. Jennifer Quiroz

    “Flip it and reverse it!” I love it. Is it worth it? I’m going to try to use that today. XD

    1. Fernando Maneca

      How did it go? Did you use that phrase in a work context? She’s singing about having sex.

      Is it worth it, let me work it
      I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it
      Ti esrever dna ti pilf nwod gniht ym tup I
      Ti esrever dna ti pilf nwod gniht ym tup I
      If you got a big [elephant sound], let me search it
      And find out how hard I gotta work ya
      Ti esrever dna ti pilf nwod gniht ym tup I
      Ti esrever dna ti pilf nwod gniht ym tup I

  20. John Scott Foster

    it tried for sometime to insert into the vernacular “monkey dance” after the balinese ketjak (if you are bored, you tube it. it is a very structured, very formalized performance, that leaves you wondering (as a non-balinese) “what the hell was that. i wanted it to be a way of describing meetings that have a very structured agenda, but seem to have no real purpose, outcome, or way to understand why it happened. also, the phrase “don’t take it personal,” particularly when it is in reference to someone else’s behavior/actions that are done with the intent to make a person look bad/less than capable.

  21. John Scott Foster

    “learnings” is the grandchild of “the creative” that always made me wince, the noun-i-fication of an adjective.

  22. LYNDA

    A couple of decades ago I tried to replace ‘paradigms’ with 4 nickels but I don’t think it caught on. ..or should i say it didn’t RESONATE.

  23. Debra Burrell

    As a puppeteer who has co-written and produced shows about heart health, sexual abuse, and second hand smoke, I personally think a show about equity could be fun and funny. I guarantee we could get a BFV, and even let people backstage afterward (for those who don’t like behind the scene).

  24. Brooke Battle

    Sad to say – I used the term ROI this morning but, in all fairness (also a cliche) it was in response to a question about ROI — I will use BFV (without explanation) next time. Thankfully “learnings” has not made it’s way here — not ok.

  25. Timothy Schimick

    I think we should definitely take your article with a grain of salt because it’s clear that you haven’t written anything before in your life and you thought you’d be cute to take these colloquialisms and start a new fad. Go back from whence you came. Such a shame that you can’t deal with tradition and you feel that you need to start your own but get over it. I notice you’re so proud of your work that you didn’t put your name on it. Fucking millenneals.

    1. Skittkate

      Clearly you’ve never written “millenneals” (millennials) before…good thing you’re still proud enough to put your name on it!

  26. Timothy Schimick

    Wait! Wait! I haven’t even better idea; let’s change the English language. Let’s remove commas and all punctuation for that matter. All that old shit doesn’t make any sense to millennial’s who are bored with life because they’re entitled. Let’s create something new because we are lacking meaning in our lives and want to be rebellious.

    1. Skittkate

      Were you giving us an example of being “rebellious” when you misused an apostrophe? Millennials are bored with life, not “millennial’s”. Sigh.

    2. Kathleen

      Sorry, I agree with eliminating some punctuation. What is the point of taking a letter out of ‘would not’, just to replace that letter with an apostrophe? Where is the gain there? Wouldnt is a perfectly readable word, as is cant, wont, and doesnt. Just because we have always done it one way, doesnt make it better. :o)

  27. Hilary Binder-Aviles

    Can we stop doing “deep dives” – there’s a lot of people out here who can’t swim.
    Or maybe we just do deep dives for shiny objects.

  28. CW WestRox

    Here are my top five:
    1. “Retention touch points” …sounds like creepy underwear, but it really means areas of focus when trying to retain business
    2. “New joiner” has replaced new employee at my company
    3. “Work streams” are, um, projects
    4. Closely related and absolutely necessary, “work stream leaders” have replaced managers.
    5. My personal favorite, “service alpha,” which is doing something for a client that enhances the relationship.

    Now, you’ll need to excuse me. I need to aspirate into my mouth.

  29. Kathleen

    Red flags have nothing to do with bulls. If they did, a red flag in business would get people all excited and angry, and then they would charge, and that is not what a ‘red flag’ means.

    . . . an action or statement which draws attention in such a manner as to raise question, doubt, or suspicion.

      1. Kathleen

        Nice guess, but as I imagined, the phrase comes from WAY before they invented automobiles. (And I bet the use of red flags in auto racing also comes from the many, many, many past uses of red flags to signal a warning.)

        Wikipedia says this: “The term red flag could mean either a literal flag used for signaling or, as a metaphor, a sign of some particular problem requiring attention.

        The earliest citation for “red flag” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1602 and shows that at that time the flag was used by military forces to indicate that they were preparing for battle.

        The earliest citation of “red flag” in the sense of a warning is dated 1777 and refers to a flag warning of flood.

        The term and the expression “to raise the red flag” come from various usages of real flags throughout history. The semaphore red flag (or red light) on railways means an immediate stop, while a red flag is frequently flown by armed forces to warn the public of live fire exercises in progress, and is sometimes flown by ships carrying munitions (in this context it is actually the flag for the letter B in the International maritime signal flag alphabet, a red swallow-tailed flag). In many countries a red flag is flown to signify that an outdoor shooting range is in use. The United States Air Force refers to its largest annual exercise as red flag operation. Red flags are used for various signals in team sailing races (see Racing Rules of Sailing). A red flag warning is a signal of high wildfire danger and a red flag on the beach warns of dangerous water conditions (double red flags indicate beach closure). Red flags of various designs indicate dangerous wind and wave conditions for mariners. In auto racing, a red flag indicates a stop to the race due to dangerous conditions.
        A signal of danger or a problem can be referred to as a red flag, a usage that originated in the 18th century. The term “red flag” is used, e.g., during screening of communications, and refers to specific words or phrases encountered that might indicate relevance to the case. For example, email spam filters make use of such “red flags”.”

  30. JAHansell

    How about “kick the can down the road?” When I first heard it five or six years ago I loved it, and used it a lot. Now I’m sick of hearing myself say it. How about “throw the boomerang?” (I don’t know why I thought of that.

  31. Jerrold McGrath

    I agree that overusing certain phrases can be irritating. NFPs are just as guilty. And value proposition is not a tech term. It comes from Kaplan and Norton in the mid-90s and Chandler before that (though not in those exact terms). Grain of salt comes from Pliny in the 1st century AD. Cherry pick has been around since I can remember (though I played hockey). White paper comes from the 1920s in England and has been around since, though its use has been broadened considerably.

  32. Mary Stewart Vallance Franco

    “getting into the weeds”; “Impacting” (making a noun into a verb); “networking”; and I am alread sick of “unpack it” even though it seems recent- everyone is using it. Way too trendy

  33. HappySimpleLiving

    Love this list and your new suggestions. Business jargon is the worst! I would rather have a root canal with no anesthesia than ever hear the phrase “low-hanging fruit” again.

  34. Lee

    I was very surprised to not see the term “socialize” mentioned among the most irritating misused transitive verbs, as in: “Did you socialize this document/idea with your colleagues before implementing the new policy?” It should be considered a felony to do so!

Comments are closed.