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Q & A With Authors of The BS Dictionary

Published Tue May 05 2020

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The following is a Q&A with Bob Wiltfong and Tim Ito, the authors The Business Speak Dictionary: Uncovering the Origins and True Meanings of Business Speak, an ATD book that decodes nearly 300 of the most commonly used, misused, and confusing business terms.

Why did you write this book?

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Bob: The idea for this book started one day six years ago when my wife, a successful business woman with a master’s in business administration, jumped on a conference call with colleagues from our home. Jill began using words I had never heard come out of her mouth before—things like “strawman,” “table stakes,” and “SEO.” Her co-workers responded with even weirder phrases to me—“Internet of Things,” “blockchain,” and “pivot.” I realized the phrases and idioms these business people were using seemed like a foreign language to someone who had never heard them before (me). I decided to start researching the meanings of these business speak (BS, for short) words and phrases. I noticed there wasn’t one source for all of them, and there were conflicting origin stories behind most. That’s when I said to myself, “I think there is a book here. . . . ”

Tim: Bob came to me with the idea, and I loved it right from the start. Personally, I’ve long been curious about business terms. One of my first jobs out of college was being a reporter at U.S. News & World Report magazine. One of the more senior correspondents, Steve Roberts, came into the office and said he would be “out of pocket”—a term I had never heard before (which I eventually found out meant “unreachable”). I thought to myself, “Why didn't he just say it that way?” But it led me down the road of wanting to find out where this and other terms came from. Pairing that with Bob's funny definitions, I thought we had an interesting book. In case you’re wondering, “out of pocket” comes from O. Henry, who first used the term in his 1908 story “Buried Treasure.”

You call this The BS Dictionary. Why do you use that abbreviation to describe this kind of work-related communication?

Bob: Business people love to abbreviate things that they talk about over and over again on the job (EBITDA, KOL, ROI). It saves time and demonstrates competence in their fields. I figured it would be only fitting to abbreviate the term “business speak” since that’s what we're talking about here. The double-meaning of the abbreviation BS (business speak and bull----) spoke to some of the underlying frustration business people feel when having to say (or hear) some of these terms over and over again on the job. It also captures much of the humor. The BS Dictionary is incredibly informative and well-researched, but it also has a lot of jokes in it. We want readers to laugh as they learn.

You said this book started with an idea about six years ago. Is that how long it took you to write it?

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Bob: Yes. Before Tim came on board as my co-author, I spent several years collecting information on terms, pitching it to a bunch of publishers via my literary agent. It was only after we came to ATD Press that Tim suggested we spend time trying to get to the real origins of each entry that the book became what you see today. I’m glad we took the time because with Tim’s help this book is far more accomplished.

How often do you find yourselves using BS when communicating with each other? or How much “BS” is out there?

Bob: We discovered early on that it’s almost impossible to do business without having some BS creep into your communication. Some of these words and phrases just plain work when exchanging ideas, so long as everyone knows what they mean. The knowledge we gained in writing the book certainly made us more aware of our word choices and gave us a new appreciation of choosing original words to communicate original thoughts.

Tim: I often found myself pausing when I said one of the words, becoming self-conscious about spraying business terms around. Yet, probably more annoyingly, at that point, I would stop and offer the origin of the word when that happened. I could tell by the strain on the faces of my friends and colleagues, particularly my kids, (“Please make the bad man stop!”) that the practice got a bit old after a while.

How did you research the origin stories of all these entries?

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Bob: Most of the time, we started with a good old-fashion Google search. However, we soon learned that in the case of word origins and what the public believes, the famous saying, “history is written by the victors,” needs an addition at the end in today’s world—that is, “. . . of search engine optimization (SEO).” There are so many sources out there telling people what things mean these days that if you don't get in the first couple pages of an internet search with the truth then you're going to have a hard time being found. So, to help us figure out fact from fiction, we asked the folks at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in the United Kingdom to help with a few phrases. The OED is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. They’ve been writing dictionary entries for more than 150 years and have the meanings, histories, and pronunciations of 600,000 words—past and present from across the English-speaking world. They were kind enough to help us verify some of our findings, and we’re proud to say we even helped them update a few of theirs.

Tim: There are a number of new sources now available to linguists and researchers such as Google Books Ngram Viewer—a project by Google to digitize books and other works going back to the 1500s. In many cases, we were able to find a reference older than an OED reference. We also interviewed a few experts who gave us great background on areas such as the sports terms and other fields.

What were some of the biggest surprises in your research?

Bob: I was surprised just how many BS terms there are in the world. This book has almost 300 of them, but we have a working list of almost 900 more already for future volumes. There is a lot of BS in today’s world. I would also say the origin stories for some of these phrases were fascinating. “Lunch & learn,” for example, was a phrase coined by two housewives in Nebraska in the 1970s. The origin story behind “blockchain” and “Bitcoin” is like something you’d find in a spy novel. Every time we looked at the origins of a word or phrase, there was something new, unique, and fascinating.

Tim: I personally loved the origin of “push the envelope”—one popularized by Tom Wolfe in the Right Stuff. I never connected the origin to the mathematical envelope (the curve at which you could take turns at high speeds in a plane). For whatever reason, I always pictured someone pushing a letter envelope across a desk. It reminded me that it’s important in life to sometimes dig deeper to get true meaning and not just guess based on some superficial connection.

How are the “BS Definitions” in the book different from the regular definitions?

Bob: The BS Definitions are our attempt to make you laugh. We tried with each one to write a joke (or two) that captured what that word or phrase really means when you say it in the office. For example, the BS Definition of “ergonomic” is “turning your laptop on its side so it matches your eyeline as you lay in bed working.” “Org chart” has a BS Definition of “the document that still shows Phil in a role he left in 1997,” and “with all due respect" is “usually said when you’re about to show zero respect to someone.” Again, we want people to laugh and learn with this book.

You said you started writing this book to address your own curiosity about what these business words and phrases mean. Who else do you think will benefit from The BS Dictionary?

Bob: This is the perfect book for any college or business school graduate. It contains words and phrases not necessarily taught in school but mandatory to know on the job in the English-speaking world. Phrases like “EQ,” “guerrilla marketing,” and “SWOT.” These are words/phrases you will hear at your job. If you’re unfamiliar with them, you’ll look less knowledgeable than your peers. We also think this is a fantastic resource for any foreigner who does business in English. Think about the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” for someone who didn’t grow up in America. This book explains the origins and meanings of phrases where literal translations would fail.

Tim: The general business audience will certainly appreciate this. Everyone knows that guy down the hall who overuses business phrases. Even for many younger Americans, the history behind phrases is lost. I think people who love trivia, origin stories, and language in general will enjoy this book as well. We hope readers will come out knowing a bit more about what they’re saying and get a chuckle or two.

About Bob Wiltfong

Bob Wiltfong is a former correspondent on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, an Emmy Award–winning journalist, a Peabody Award–winning storyteller, a public relations expert, content specialist, and coach. His love for BS was fostered through more than 20 years of working as a consultant in presentation skills for several Fortune 500 companies including T-Mobile, General Electric, and Charles Schwab.

About Tim Ito

Tim is the co-founder of three ventures: Marketing Nice Guys, a marketing training company, Clarendon Digital, a marketing consultancy, and Find My Marketer,a jobs and community site. Previous to those roles, he served as a vice president at the Association for Talent Development (ATD), overseeing the content and digital marketing division. His career has also included stints at ASCD, America Online, Netscape, and AltaVista in content, marketing and product strategy lead roles. Tim started his career as a journalist - first as a reporter and writer for U.S. News & World Report magazine and then as a senior producer for washingtonpost.com. He is the co-author of The B.S. Dictionary: Uncovering the Origins and True Meanings of Business Speak (April 2020), with Bob Wiltfong. Since 2015, he has also served as an adjunct professor of a popular digital marketing course at Georgetown University. He resides in Arlington, Virginia.

The BS Dictionary: Uncovering the Origins and True Meanings of Business Speak

ISBN: 978-1-950496-16-7| 340 Pages | Paperback

td.org/books/the-bs-dictionary

To order books from ATD Press, call 800.628.2783.

To schedule an interview with Bob Wiltfong or Tim Ito, please contact Kay Hechler, ATD Press senior marketing manager, at [email protected] or 703.683.8178.

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