Watch your language

A field guide to business jargon and buzzwords

A field guide to business jargon and buzzwords

The corporate world often seems to have its own dialect that only the people who use it really understand. Or do they? Here we attempt to decode three popular business terms.


1. ro.bust [from robus, robur: oak, strength]

Justin Trudeau “had a robust speechwriting staff” (Maclean’s, Oct. 22, 2015)

Once that would have suggested a group of physically sturdy people. Now it presumably refers to their strong writing skills, but who knows? When “robust” is used to describe pretty much everything (a robust trade agenda, robust savings, a robust picture of housing market conditions, a robust progressive Opposition), its meaning becomes, well, weak. Powerful expression is possible without reaching for “robust”: it doesn’t show up at all in searches of the King James Bible, Shakespeare’s works or Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.


2. gran.u.lar [from granulum: granule]

“Businesses need a granular understanding of customer habits, distribution channels, pricing and regulations” (Financial Post, Nov. 3, 2015)

According to Oxford, the technical use of granular means characterized by a high degree of granularity, which in turn refers to the scale or level of detail in a set of data. More specifically, says, “The greater the granularity, the deeper the level of detail.” General speech, however, tends to ignore levels of granularity, using “granular” to mean “finely detailed,” “in excessive detail” ( or “overly detailed” (Urban—or sometimes just “extremely fine,” as in “granular detail.”


3. u•ni•corn [from unicornis: having one horn]

“Shopify… is a good example of a true unicorn” (Financial Post, Nov. 18, 2015)

Once upon a time, a unicorn was simply a mythical horse-like creature with a long, pointy horn on its forehead. Then in 2013, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Aileen Lee wrote an online article about U.S.-based software companies started since 2003 and valued at over $1 billion. She called them “unicorns” because they are so rare. Now the word is everywhere, spawning spin-offs like “decacorn” (tech startups worth US$10 billion plus) and “narwhal” (a Canadian tech company launched as of 1999 and worth CDN$1 billion or more).