Leverage is NOT a Verb!

12 September, 2007

Modern business-speak takes many diabolical liberties with the English language, but the Stateside ubiquity of ‘leverage’ used not as a noun but as a verb, really takes the cake.

Why use the noun form as a verb when there already exists a perfectly good root verb, i.e. lever? Would you say “I can’t imagination why he did it”? “This article confusions me”? “There is water seepaging through the wall”? No. But “to leverage” seems to have become acceptable parlance, without anyone seeming to be sure what it means.

In this excellent article, linguist Martin Edwardes looks at the root of the word and its usage in business, and concludes that it’s basically a ‘portmanteau’ word – “Just as whatsit can be used in place of any other concrete noun, so leverage can be used in place of almost any activity verb. This, of course, can lead to confusion (as is the case for whatsit): if an organisation is “leveraging a project” we cannot know, without other defining reference, whether they are starting it, ending it, or performing some intermediate process. But, at the same time, this obfuscatory aspect of the verb is an important part of its function and meaning.”

Edwardes hits the nail on the head here. People who talk about ‘leveraging’ things are usually trying to be obscure – either because they don’t want you to know what they mean, or because they haven’t got a clue themselves. Edwardes concludes that “It is one of the useful little white lies that allow the business world to keep turning.”

Thus, for people who wish to communicate in a clear, unambiguous, straightforward manner, ‘leverage’ should not be used as a verb. Ever. And really, unless you work for a company selling levers, it’s hard to imagine you using it as a noun that often either.

All of this is why I’ve chosen ‘leverage’ to appear in the title of a blog about clear business communication, its use as a verb being symbolic of the obfuscation, dissembling and cleverly disguised cluelessness that passes for much corporate speak these days. The point of my writings being to expose this sort of nonsense, and to help you communicate more clearly, particularly, as I do, when working in environments where your colleagues, suppliers or customers are not native English speakers.

I would be grateful to receive any examples of particularly cringeworthy uses of ‘leverage’, especially if they can top the following:

“For any requirements not met by using or modifying an existing report, the technical team will attempt to leverage a vanilla report.”

Vanilla report??? Time to write another post…

8 Responses to “Leverage is NOT a Verb!”

  1. […] 18th, 2007 In my earlier posting Leverage is NOT a verb, I mentioned the metaphorical use of the word ‘vanilla’ (as in ‘vanilla […]

  2. […] seems that, like the aforementioned ‘leverage’, corporate-speak enthusiasts have also co-opted poor old ‘impact’ into their repertoire of […]

  3. James Says:

    Good article, the misuse of this word is widespread in the banking industry.

  4. John Says:

    Unfortunately for those of us who strive for clarity and cringe at the use of “leverage” as a verb, no less an authority than Merriam-Webster does consider it just that. The citation is from 1957. Yecch.

  5. Peter A. Says:

    My guess is that the rampant and annoying use of “leverage” grew from its use in contexts like “leveraged buyout.” People using it seem to generally mean we’ll use this thing that was created for another purpose for some new purpose for which it was not originally designed.

    But the main reason for using it is plainly the same reason people use “verbiage” (or rather, “verbage”) when they mean “text” or “wording” — i.e. to try and make their descriptions seem more abstruse and complex (and hence, presumably, make themselves look more capable).

    I was once in a business exercise designed with the explicit purpose of simplifying some processes and documents. In that theme, and after much painful discussion on exactly how to state our goal, I suggested removing the incorrect use of “leverage” and replacing it with “use.” The response was “Okay. So how about ‘utilize’?” Clearly the problems with “use” were that it is too plain and has a paucity of syllables.

  6. RhydayRib Says:

    Are you attempting to play with my intellectual gang I have a fresh joke for you) What goes “Tick tock, woof woof”? A watch dog.

  7. Colin Baxter Says:

    How about this link on our intranet site?

    “Policymakers battle destructive de-leveraging”

    Given that “de” in front of the “L” word suggests a negative, and that “destructive” is also negative, then do we take it that it means that policymakers battle the positive?

    Ho hum..

  8. Colin Baxter Says:

    I went on to read the article which included this line:

    Time will tell whether this can prevent the destructive de-leveraging (debt reduction) that would lead to a deep and protracted downturn.

    So, the author realised that nobody would understand this and added the bracketed explanation. I wager that he earnes 20 times more than I do.

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