I guess it started when I was working at the corporate headquarters of Starbucks in Seattle. I was in a meeting and I heard someone say, "Well, okay, but I'm not sure this is accretive to the brand."
What? Accretive? What does that word mean? It sounded kind of like something you step in on the sidewalk. Now, I like learning new words as much as the next would-be academic, but this word was about to take on a life of its own within the fertile buzzword breeding grounds of corporateland. (By the way, accretive means the addition of similar things, or cumulative, which is an equally fine word although not as heady.)
After hearing the word used first in the meeting by a senior executive, and then looking it up to satisfy my curiosity, I carried on with my life of using only words that have been used in conversation in the past seven decades. But, halt, what is this I hear? I am in another meeting the next day and I hear the 'a' word again. This time the word is used by an underling of the previous user of this elusive adjective. I heard, "Let's table this discussion until we can determine if the project is accretive."
Now, this time, I knew the meaning of the word, but wasn't sure if the word was being used in a way that was accretive to the accretiveness of the previous usage.
And then, the word spawned. Within a week, it was used first in every meeting I was in, and then, in every discussion, and before I knew it, in almost every verbal paragraph. Did I miss the 'accretive' memo? You know, the one that said, "everyone must use an arcane adjective at least ten times a day." Why just this word then?
I decided to investigate. I did some genealogical verbal sleuthing. Through careful plotting and calendaring, mixed with generous guesswork, I was able to trace all of the corporate usages of this word to that first meeting where a Senior Vice-President had laid that word on the table as a verbal challenge. At first I could see that the subsequent usages were adjacent to the first party of the first usage. But then, as the circle of accretiveness spread, I could almost guarantee that the seventy-eighth user of that nine-letter word had no idea who had started the verbal plague.
My plan consisted of three potential approaches.
1. Deccretive. Use the antonym of accretive in an effort to offset the accretiveness of accretive. Problem encountered-there is no such word and so the untruthfulness of this antonym was sniffed out, even by those who had very little idea what the opposite word-sister had meant in the first place.
2. Embrace the movement. Could I suck it up and just incorporate the word into my corporate vocabulary to remove the tension and perhaps some of my 'holding out' smugness?
3. Plant a replacement word. What if I planted another word whose magnificence could have the power to replace the 'a' word that had taken up temporary residence in the corporate conference rooms?
And so, after trying and failing with #1, and rejecting #2, I embarked on #3. I first considered words that were popular in the 1600s like forsooth, anon, aught, fain or prate (I basically started filching words from my Complete Works of William Shakespeare.) But, I decided I would be perpetuating the ridiculous, so I chose a human word in current vocabulary rotation. An ordinary word yes, but when unleashed in a corporate boardroom, a word that could have the potential to become an earworm.
Sauté. As in, "let's just leave that thought on the table and let it sauté for awhile." I said that in a meeting. And I did it with a straight face. And I looked meaningfully at my co-workers as I said it. And no one laughed. They returned my meaningful gaze and nodded in agreement. Okay, now I sit back and wait. Would sauté have the irresistible stickiness of the 'a' word? It didn't happen the first day, or the second. But, the third day, I was in a meeting with a group of people, none of whom were in the original 'sauté' meeting. And, there it was, it came out of her mouth like a gift from the queen of vowels and consonants. "Yes, I agree with most of your insights, but, why don't we let that concept sauté for a bit and see if we still feel the same way tomorrow."
I felt like a proud word-revolutionary manning the trebuchet as verbal projectiles flew over the corporate castle walls. I saw your accretive and I raised you a sauté. And yes, the usage continued for a number of days, stretching into a month until I found something better with which to occupy my mind.
So, for the sake of the English language, please stop using the word 'unpack' (unless you are removing your travel essentials from a valise). Just because you heard your corporate cohort say, "Let's drill down and unpack the issue before we ladder up to a solution," doesn't mean you have to propagate the aural assault. Let me see, what did we say before 'unpack' came along? How about: discover, uncover, reveal, unearth, expose, ascertain, discern, lay bare or just find out.
Now, that would be accretive to our sanity.