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Watch your language part 5

A field guide to business jargon and buzzwords

A field guide to business jargon and buzzwords

pivot [from Old French pivot: hinge pin, pivot]

“Asset managers are all too happy to pivot to a cheaper alternative.”
(Bloomberg, June 15, 2017)

Traditionally, pivot means to change direction around a fixed point—who can forget the Friends episode in which Ross exhorts the others to “Pivot!” as they wrestle a sofa around a corner in a stairwell–or, in basketball, to swivel on one foot. In business it has come to simply mean change direction. U.S. entrepreneur Eric Ries, who popularized that usage in his 2011 book The Lean Startup, defines pivot as a “structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth.” In a July 2012 tweet, Ries explained, “A pivot is a change in strategy without a change in vision. You cannot have a pivot without vision (that’s just wandering around).”


drill down [from Middle Dutch drillen + Old English d?n: bore + down]

“[HBC] needs to stop playing this acquisitive game and drill down into each of its operating strategies.”
(Mark Cohen, former Sears Canada Inc. CEO, BNN, April 5, 2017)

Anyone who uses a computer drills down on a regular basis: in IT, drill down describes the process of moving from general information to more specific details by clicking through drop-down menus or ordered file folders. In everyday speech, drill down tends to lose the sense of following a hierarchical procedure and simply means to examine in depth or take a closer look: “Let’s drill down on the causes of this governance gap,” Bank of Montreal vice-chair Kevin Lynch wrote in the Globe and Mail in May.


muscle memory [from Latin musculus + Latin memoria: muscle + memory]

“We aren’t going to surrender any of the expense discipline we have worked into the muscle memory of our firm,”
(Citigroup Inc. CEO Michael Corbat, Bloomberg, July 25, 2017)

What do muscles have to do with business procedures? Also called motor memory, muscle memory is the ability to automatically perform a movement learned through frequent repetition. Muscle memory isn’t stored in muscles but in the brain: it’s a type of procedural memory, which involves knowing how to do something without consciously thinking about it thanks to repeated practice. That memory needn’t even involve much muscular effort–for example, reading, driving a car or typing a password. Procedural or muscle memory is long lasting and habitual, which is why we don’t forget how to ride a bicycle–or to exercise expense discipline.


virtue signalling [from Latin virtus + signum: virtue + sign]

“What I want to see out of Canada is less of the virtue signalling type of approach…”
(Erin O’Toole, Conservative Party of Canada MP, September 3, 2017)

The Oxford Dictionary says virtue signalling is “the action or practice of publicly expressing opinion or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position.” The phrase virtue signalling gained steam with a 2015 Spectator article that observed: “One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous.” Erin O’Toole characterized the Liberal government’s plan to include gender, Indigenous and environmental issues in the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations as virtue signalling and “the centrepieces of Justin Trudeau’s image building.”