Performance Perspectives Blog

Is THAT what it means?

by | Aug 27, 2009

Please allow me to digress from the subject of performance measurement for a moment.

As a writer, I love words. I like to learn new words and have a better grasp of how words should be used. It’s interesting, I think, how many words have, through years of misuse, lost their original meanings. Let’s review a few.

A good thing or a bad thing: I recently learned that I had been mistaken about how to employ the word “visionary.” If I was called a visionary, I would have thought it to be a compliment, but YOU be the judge: “given to or characterized by fanciful, not presently workable, or unpractical ideas, views, or schemes; a person who is given to audacious, highly speculative, or impractical ideas or schemes; dreamer.”

Sorry, but this doesn’t necessarily sound like someone to be admired.

All or nothing … or most?: When I was Mayor of North Brunswick (NJ), my Director of Community Development loved to use the expression “lion’s share” to refer to most of something. For example, “they took the lion’s share of the funds that were available.” I would suggest that most (or should I say, the lion’s share of) people would agree with him. But sadly they’d be wrong; at least from the original intent of the word. The term comes from an Aesop fable:

The Lion’s Share
The Lion went once a-hunting along with the Fox, the Jackal, and the Wolf. They hunted and they hunted till at last they surprised a Stag, and soon took its life. Then came the question how the spoil should be divided. “Quarter me this Stag,” roared the Lion; so the other animals skinned it and cut it into four parts. Then the Lion took his stand in front of the carcass and pronounced judgment: The first quarter is for me in my capacity as King of Beasts; the second is mine as arbiter; another share comes to me for my part in the chase; and as for the fourth quarter, well, as for that, I should like to see which of you will dare to lay a paw upon it.”

Sorry, but does this look like the lion’s getting most of the hunt, or ALL of the hunt?

Stand on or at? Surely you’ve encountered a situation where someone refers to that device standing in front of a lecture hall or conference room as the “podium.” Well, the word includes the prefix “pod,” which refers to feet, as in something you stand ON, not AT (a small platform for the conductor of an orchestra, for a public speaker, etc). That device in the front of the room is a “lectern.”

Who uses podiums? Well, not many folks, but they are employed. From our definition we can see that conductors sometimes stand on them so that they are above the orchestra, as do some public speakers. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich used one when he spoke at conferences (he spoke at an AIMR (now CFA Institute) annual conference years ago where I saw one of his staff carrying one; Reich is a bit “vertically challenged”).

In each of these cases, we have multitudes of people employing them in a manner which is not as originally intended. Unfortunately, dictionary writers often give in and adjust the word’s meaning accordingly (check out, for example, “podium” and you will no doubt see the word “lectern” shown as a meaning).

Unfortunately some “words” that aren’t even words are often accepted into dictionaries, which some would consider blasphemy. Take for example “irregardless.” I first encountered this word in the military: I had a Battery Commander who often employ this word. The proper word is “regardless”: the “ir” serves no purpose. But, check it out in your dictionary: chances are it’s made its way in.

Oh, well. Enough venting for one day.

Sources: definitions come from Aesop’s fable was, of course, written by Aesop, but I found it at

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