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How foundations garble their messageand lose their audience Table of Contents
A foreword by Michael Bailin, President How foundations garble their message and lose their audience Philanthropy’s favorite noise,and the meaning it conceals Drawing sense from the wells of gibberish Copyright 2001 by The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation It was in that spirit that a little over a year A foreword by Michael Bailin, President ago we commissioned Tony Proscio to write anessay for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundationthat pleaded with people throughout the Writing has never come easy foundation world to rid their writing of jargon.
In Other Words, which featured a catalog of commonly misused or confusing words, argued that jargon-infested foundation-speak was more than an assault on our ears. The real threat these modest improvements to two things. One of unclear language is its power to extinguish was the good fortune to have had a series of jobs thoughtful public discourse about important issues that required me to write regularly for a range that foundations are trying to address through of audiences. The second was the habit of asking their work. As Proscio noted, when people don’t a sampling of those people to comment on my understand what they’re reading or hearing, writing. Most often, the questions I’ve asked are: they’re not likely to respond, react, or comment.
“Is what I’m saying clear? And what can I do to Instead, they’ll choose to opt out.
make myself better understood next time?” Since the book’s release, hardly a day goes by I’ve surely benefited from constructive criti- when people don’t request copies for themselves cism (even when it hasn’t been easy to swallow).
or for their colleagues. Not surprisingly, since Most helpful have been those people who, instead jargon isn’t the exclusive province of philanthropy, of commenting directly, held up my own writing requests come from all sectors and industries.
to me and asked me to explain what I meant.
Many have also written to urge us to keep up the good fight, to publish more words and guidance to our colleagues throughout the field (hence our comfort with jargon). Whatever the reason, and as the examples in this book show, we have to those requests. But it’s no mere sequel. It has a lot of work to do. Our failure to do a better job all the power and punch of the first. Like last of communicating will only undercut our ability time, Proscio began collecting words that founda- to achieve our missions. Grantmaking isn’t our tions routinely rely on to describe their work, only means for advancing change and improving and talked with others about the most egregious society. As foundations, we also need to engage examples he found. As he got deeper into his the public, along with policy makers and opinion investigation, he felt obligated to match—even leaders, in meaningful discussions about the surpass—his earlier effort to call attention to the underlying needs that are driving our grant hurt foundations do to their efforts to be heard choices. We also need to inform others, especially those outside our immediate circles, about the Proscio’s examples of the many ways founda- knowledge, lessons, and other discoveries that tions get tripped up by their own words are at are resulting from our work and that they might once illuminating and provocative. The message that came through loud and clear as I read his Many of the examples in this book will make essay is that foundations don’t yet pay enough you laugh, or even shake your head in disbelief, attention to the need, importance, and benefits but in the end Proscio minces no words about of clear writing and speaking. Some of that might the danger he sees in muddled communication.
be attributable to a long history of our talking And while some of the examples he uses and the mostly to each other inside our organizations or conclusions he reaches might sting, it’s important to remember that criticism is never meaningful if worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers it doesn’t hit home. In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that I frequently winced at seeing our intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler foundation’s own words offered up as evidence expecting to be met at a railroad station and of the very sins we want to quash. But in my view, not being met because of a slipshod telegram.
that is a fair price to pay for continuing the effort Still, if after reading this you feel Proscio that White could have culled from the rivers has done you wrong, he offers you the same of words that regularly pour out of foundations.
opportunity he gave us. Challenge him—and us, But instead of White, we have Tony Proscio.
too. Email your comments to
We’ll routinely post your comments—and Tony’sresponses—on our website at
volume, I recalled a plea for clear writing that E. B. White included in his revision of the 1935 classic usage book, The Elements of Style,originally published by William Strunk: Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope:death on the highway caused by a badly culled from a foundation memo recommending grants for These grants will incentivize administrators and educators to apply relevant metrics to assess achievement in the The writer seems to be saying that the grants would be used to pay teachers and principals who agree to test their students. Yet the writer was evidently embarrassed by this mercenary depiction of American educators (who seem to need “incentivizing” before they will consent to administer a test) and by the crudeness of ordinary learning, compared with Toward the end of the 1970s, the decade that replaced which “achieving competencies” offers young people a more the used car with the “pre-owned vehicle,” an alert reporter discovered that park rangers in the Grand Canyon were What could have inspired this writer to dance so awkwardly routinely killing wild burros. The beasts’ grazing evidently around his subject? “Muddled thinking” is one common, if contributed to soil erosion. Confronted with a charge of unkind, explanation. Many critics of clumsy writing are inclined organized slaughter, a ranger objected: “We prefer to call it to advance it almost automatically in situations like this one.
Trouble is, it doesn’t fit this case. The memo goes on—albeit in Some two decades later, a more benign but equally much the same style—to present a carefully reasoned and squeamish American foundation reported that it was lowering politically astute argument. The fact that it takes three readings the incidence of “negative health outcomes” among a group to figure out what that argument might be is unfortunate for of poor people. Fewer of the people, it seems, had died.
both the reader and the writer. But once it’s puzzled out, the (Unfortunately, the foundation’s boast may prove overhasty.
reasoning leaves no grounds for suspecting careless thought.
Sooner or later, all of us have pretty much the same “health A more plausible explanation might be an excess of cau- outcome,” an eventuality against which even very large tion. The writer is, after all, proposing that a foundation give endowments have been known to fail. But never mind.) people money for doing something that many (less astute) To be fair, death and disease leave most people groping observers would consider merely all-in-a-day’s-work. The for euphemisms. So perhaps the minced words in these sentence, like much of the rest of the memo, grapples with cases can be indulged, if not quite forgiven. Yet something some relatively ungainly political facts: Many teachers dislike more mysterious seems to be afoot in this next bit of gibberish, the kinds of tests that this foundation hopes to induce.
   The test results will embarrass some schools and teachers.
These questions of motive—of why experts in foundations And the foundation can expect some heat for stepping into and think-tanks seem intent on expressing themselves in so controversial an arena. Rather than state all of that bluntly, stilted phrases that harm their message—are not, by them- and thereby risk scaring off fellow officers, trustees, and selves, the subject of this essay. To some extent, it is beside assorted allies, the writer may have chosen to veil the contro- the point why people write this way, so long as they can versy in a camouflage of doubletalk. If that’s the case, then be persuaded to write differently. But in the months since the perhaps the intent is not all that different from the ranger’s publication of an earlier essay on this topic (In Other Words: A Plea for Plain Speaking in Foundations) I have heard A third possibility, in some ways the most likely, is that from many smart people in civic and philanthropic organi- the writer (and even some readers) consider the doubletalk a zations of all kinds who say, persuasively, that they find it matter of stature, a lofty and imposing verbal proscenium forbiddingly hard to write more clearly. The problem is not befitting the complex drama it frames. The cavalcade of Latinate that they don’t know any better, but that they find it painful, coinages—incentivize, metrics, assess, competencies—marches and sometimes even unwise, to avoid the buzz-words and past us in all its plumage as if to say, “Stand back! Something clichés that make their field seem impenetrable and off-putting to others. It’s useful to understand why they feel that way— Using words that way, as mere trappings of nobility, is why so many writers, scholars, and activists bewail jargon in often taken for arrogance, but it may well be just the opposite.
Authors who feel unduly humbled by the weightiness of their Within their field, these writers say, the obscure and subject may feel bound to pay it the homage of addressing it stuffy phrases enjoy too much prestige, and encapsulate too in Latin. The problem, in that case, is not a haughty author, many subliminal allusions, to be avoided or omitted entirely.
but an overly deferential one. If you’re intimidated by your It is simply not the same, they say, to write that some program subject—or worse, by the brazenly exhibitionist act of writing “helps” parents “deal more effectively” with the school about it to an informed public—you may resort to the learned system, when what they want to say—need to say, for subtle equivalent of hemming and hawing. You thatch together reasons of protocol and professional bona fides—is that the a few verbal fig leaves to deflect censure, rather than expose program “empowers” parents. The word empowers is over- used and vainglorious, they concede. But it also encapsulates a view of the world, shared by like-minded people and insti- tutions, that casts the parents as the heroes of a specific drama, in which the struggle for power is the chief plot element. It is a drama, moreover, whose cult following includes many of the old hands who know these words well will gain no insight committed and influential people to whom the writer wishes from reading this sentence (though they may glide right past to appeal. “If you want to preach in this church,” said one it, mollified by the murmur of reassuring sounds). Yet in fact, nonprofit official, “you’ve got to sing these hymns.” it was written for publication far beyond the philanthropic When foundation writers and scholars are dealing only cloister. Those helpless lay readers who don’t spend their with one another, and by extension with their ideological days talking about synergies and targets could only be baffled brethren, the hallowed old expressions probably do serve a —or, in a worse but likely case, annoyed.
purpose—especially if the author isn’t trying to say anything particularly new. But those expressions, precisely because they are so enthusiastically received among the faithful in the pews,     quickly become habit-forming. In time, through overuse, the A few lay people, grappling with the sentence about synergies, popular words come not to express serious thinking, but to might silently defer to the author’s superior expertise, assum- replace it. Using the terms becomes an acceptable substitute ing that the writing expressed something important but for thinking the thoughts, and eventually the terms line up like beyond their ken. That misimpression might even have been the facades of a Potemkin village, grandly adorning intellectual intentional, but probably it wasn’t. Most foundations don’t empty space, to the unwitting delight of gullible passers-by.
set out to intimidate, overwhelm, or befuddle their public.
So when a foundation officer writes—as one actually Most, in fact, seem eager to be better understood, and even to did—that “a geographically targeted effort will benefit from endure the self-exposure that clarity and understanding entail.
synergies,” the writer evidently wants the initiated to envision Foundation conferences for some years have been consumed the careful process that adepts understand as targeting, and to with a search for greater accountability, for a philanthropic expect the calculated chain reactions that social scientists like bottom line, for metrics of achievement, and so on. Foundation to call synergy. The implied meaning comes off looking quite leaders insist they want dialogue and partnership with their grand, really: We will pick such ingenious locations for our grantees, and feedback from their stakeholders. From all this grants that all the healthful vapors will gather like clouds of earnestness (however much weighed down with jargon of its angels about our cause. Yet what the sentence actually says is so own), we can only conclude that foundations are trying to own vague as to defy paraphrase. Incredibly, the writer never goes up to their ambitions, and to be held to account when they on to describe what synergies might be involved, or how they fail. Why, then, does their speech so thoroughly belie those would bestow their benefits. It’s all incantation with no point.
The writer no doubt had a point. But because of the The only charitable answer is that they don’t realize what soothing, almost narcotic effect of the jargon, she or he was they’re saying and writing. All that leaden verbiage means evidently unaware that the point was never made. Even the something to them, or so they believe, so it comes to them as practically begs people to read between the lines for more a bit of a shock when no one else can guess at their meaning.
shadowy meanings. Why? Because there is too little bright A less charitable corollary, though, may be that the mystifying meaning shining from the lines themselves.
vocabulary produces pleasant side-effects. Warding off Of course, the easiest response to impenetrable writing criticism is a happy achievement, even if the price is warding is simply to cast it aside, and that is, in fact, what most people do with it. But an unlucky minority have no choice but to That price may not seem terrible at first, but it grows read some of the denser material, because their jobs or their far worse over time. Opinion polls over the years suggest that passions require that they follow what people are writing in social causes in the United States—the sorts of humanitarian a given field. Among those readers, the stilted or pompous work favored by foundations, churches, nonprofit groups, writer will encounter something worse than indifference: civic associations, the whole altruistic establishment, Left distrust. Whether the listeners are your grantees, colleagues, and Right—no longer enjoy the respect or trust they did in scholars, ordinary citizens, or your own trustees, they are decades past. Some of that surely lies at the doorstep of a likely to conclude, over time, that your words don’t mean as few celebrated frauds who made off with charitable millions.
much as they seem to. Or worse, they may come to suspect But those cases are rare, and the most famous ones are many some contraband of inscrutable hidden meaning secreted years old. The more insidious and persistent culprit behind behind every comma, traps of sophistry set for the unsuspect- the civic world’s loss of stature may be the way it sounds.
ing. Either way, any hope of informing or persuading people (Something similar may be said of politics, but that’s a topic Make obscure points in vague and self-important language, and you can expect to be greeted with suspicion.
   People who can’t puzzle out your real meaning will soon Trusting that most foundations and nonprofit groups want draw their own inferences about it. “Various institutions are to avoid that result, the remainder of this essay sorts through creating tools to successfully advance this field within a some of the verbal gargoyles lately glowering down at anyone civic-minded framework,” says one paper meant for a wide who dares to join the American civic debate. Some of these audience. It is easy to infer from that sentence that other expressions meet the classic definition of “jargon”—the pecu- “frameworks” are to be regarded as less “civic-minded,” and liar vocabulary of a technical field—but others are not really that other people’s “tools” have unsuccessfully advanced the technical, they’re just obscure, evasive, or vague. In any case, field (a neat trick). At least overtly, the sentence is intended all of them aspire, in their daily labors, to fit the newer and to point toward good news and promising work. But it much harsher definition of jargon that The American Heritage Dictionary places first on its list: “nonsensical, incoherent, This listing supplements an earlier one, published in In Other Words (available, like this volume, from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation). Like the earlier list, most of the entries that follow were nominated by weary foundation and nonprofit officials whose own desks sag under the weight of all these sodden words and phrases. The terms appear here, in short, because they have by now annoyed or offended enough people to earn disrepute even within their fields.
Therefore, the normal defense of jargon—that it is a con- In the early years of World War II, when the British philosopher venient shorthand, useful to its adepts—scarcely applies to Bertrand Russell was briefly living in the United States, Harvard these expressions any more. They are approaching a stage University invited him to give a guest lecture to its philosophy of friendlessness that should make writers wary of them no department. Russell submitted a draft for approval, titled matter who the intended audience may be.
“Words and Things.” A bemused dean replied that the draft This discussion might therefore reflect the first stirrings seemed fine, but the title obviously would not do. This was, of a readers’ rebellion. Who knows? Though the rebels are after all, an elite group of philosophers, entitled to something still few, their vigilance, far more than any effect of this essay, a bit more … professional. Russell substituted something like may eventually subject the worst of these expressions to a “Linguistic Correlates of Epistemological Constructs” and “direct reduction,” or better still, a “negative health outcome.” But that, I fear, may yet take some incentivizing.
Herewith, a few of the more fanciful linguistic correlates adorning the epistemological constructs of modern philanthropy: Not exactly community, not exactly cheese-based On Sunday mornings, fresh from my faith-based institution, I stop at the community-based deli for a caffeine-based beverage.
After a thought-based interlude, I select an information-based publication from the rack, and the knowledge-based attendant accepts an income-based emolument in exchange for his more perfect beginning than - for a list of words whose customer-based service. I return to my home base wishing utter meaninglessness invites sinister interpretations, deceptive I could de- this language for good. But in at least one usage, and winking cynicism shared by user and reader alike.
sense, it is already as debased as it can be.
Where did all these - come from? When did things Storm clouds — but why look beyond the silver lining? cease to have qualities of their own and start being merely based on other things? In the field of urban development, In its original sense, the verb  was positively there was once such a thing as a community development crimson with menace. Derived from the Anglo-Norman word corporation. Now they’re all community-based development for “calumny,” it described the kind of mortal affront that led corporations. Groups of very smart people used to be proud men into duels. It has by now been so thoroughly emasculated of being learned or expert; now they hide their diplomas that, with all its remaining fangs bared, it could not frighten behind the lifeless claim of being “knowledge-based.” Why the neighbor’s cat, much less provoke anyone to arms.
are synagogues, churches, and mosques not fighting to regain In its domesticated state, some might argue that there is their sacred charter as religious institutions? Are they content . Jargon it certainly is not.
to have it said that they are merely based on faith—perhaps Yet its meaning is so diffuse and all-inclusive—on a par, the way Velveeta® is based on cheese—and not aflame with perhaps, with that ubiquitous placeholder the genuine article? Why are the clergy not marching on it serves, like many jargon words, to convey a false impression Washington over this? Where is the outrage? that something has been revealed or some position taken.
The answer is that this dodgy game of base-running is In fact, when most people speak of mincing words, they are actually useful in the sneaky political realms where such referring to expressions like “challenging litigation,” or “fiscal coinages proliferate. The Constitution may look askance at challenges.” In each case, the reality is far more troublesome alliances between government and religion, but it might be than the cowardly expression conscripted to its service.
said to be silent on faith-based activities. Community organi- The unintentional but certain message of those euphemisms zations might be expected to demonstrate actual support is that the writer is too effete or timid to speak frankly about from their neighbors—something many of them enjoy, but being hauled into court or impending bankruptcy.
not all. Yet if they’re community-based… well, all they really A writer friend of mine first drew my attention to these Our compendium of slippery language begins here, in the linguistic basement, solely because it is an alphabetical list, and “Physically challenged,” introduced a few years ago, was “ba” comes first. Yet on substantive grounds, there could be no one of those well-intentioned terms that invited ridicule almost as soon as it hit the page. People were jokingly call- like “the universal fellowship of all regular folks.” For example, ing short people “vertically challenged” within a week.
“mentally ill people should live in the community,” “service It’s arguable that this euphemism has caused more harm should be provided in the community,” and “the community than good to the dignity of disabled people.
Injuries and disabilities aren’t the only tough subjects that Should elderly people be helped to remain “in the have been swept under the  carpet. The euphemism community” (meaning, we presume, somewhere this side of has likewise made its way into business papers, civic plans, Antarctica), or would it be more to the point to say “at and, most of all, foundation documents, whenever unpleasant home”? There may well be a difference between those two realities threaten to rile the mighty. “Scaling up this demon- ideas, but if there is, the word  does not convey stration project is fraught with challenges” almost certainly it. When mental health programs are told that their work means that the odds of a successful expansion are one in ten.
should be done “in the community,” they are probably being “The grantee is coping with organizational challenges” means told that their hospitals and clinics are too far away from it’s time to send in the auditors. Strategic plans rarely speak where their customers live. But the word doesn’t say that, of “risks” or “dangers” any more, at least in the more genteel unfortunately—especially not if we read in an adjoining circles. Everything’s a “challenge,” and, thanks to that, the article that the “health care community” is doing something people who might be tackling and solving problems are instead or other. Are the services of the “health care community” left, like the neighbor’s cat, to purr unworried and unwarned.
not in “the community”? We’re back to oxymorons again.
Whoever wrote that services belong in “the community” no doubt wanted to urge that services be provided in “residential neighborhoods where many patients live.” To replace that specific idea with a formless placeholder like   In the earlier essay In Other Words, we discussed one version is to presume that everyone already knows what you’re really of this polymorphous word: the annoying sense in which it talking about. And if that’s the case, why are you talking at all? describes any group of people with practically anything in common. But readers’ response to that essay made it clear Everything between here and anywhere else that we had been too easy on , neglecting one of the other ways it has muddied philanthropic discourse. Quite apart from near-oxymorons like “the diplomatic community,” Before mounting our high horse to tilt against this tedious “the academic community,” and “the arts community,” the far expression, we are duty-bound to tip our hat to the people more mysterious use of the word is in its plainest and most who first dragged it into the civic realm. Those who tried, late generic sense:   —meaning, it seems, something in the 20th century, to create a “continuum of care” for people in profound need—the isolated frail elderly, chronically home- and foundation officials. And in fact, the deriders are right: less or mentally ill people, abandoned or runaway children— Although these words are correct English, they are pretentious did the world too great a service to justify quarreling over their and antiquated. (Indeed, not one usage from the OED is more choice of terminology. They argued convincingly that people recent than the mid–19th century, and nearly all are older.) with many chronic needs should get a more prolonged and In modern-day use, the word is nothing more than a posh seamless kind of help than was available from typically discrete, disguise for ordinary meetings, conventions, and conferences.
short-term programs. They are still struggling to make their The self-styled  is simply whatever outfit hosts case, which has been warmly greeted by theorists but only grudgingly accommodated by government and philanthropy.
There is, in fact, something slightly pathetic about But meanwhile, oh, what has become of their word! the bloated self-importance of the  clan. To insist Now every activity that lasts longer than a day and connects ever- on referring to the drudgery of meetings and conferences as so-glancingly with any other activity is officially a , if they were a summons to Buckingham Palace suggests and wants to be discussed in the reverent tones reserved a life starved for excitement. Said one foundation officer: for things with Latin names. Ever since Einstein gave us a “Whenever I’m invited to a ‘convening,’ I make it a point to space–time continuum, we have had to bear the encroachment decline. If they’re calling it that, they must be desperate of exotics like school-to-work continua, perinatal continua, for participation, and that means it’s the last place I’ll want the Left–Right political continuum (what does that leave out, to be.” The whole matter could not be put more succinctly.
exactly?), and the labor–management continuum. In the advancing postmodern ooze, very few things have rigid borders any more (everything has parameters, but almost nothing owns up to perimeters). Consequently, everything sooner or We hereby salute whatever 19th-century scholars of business later runs into everything else. Voilà! Continua all around! and management first came up with this sexy new word for the heroic swashbuckling capitalist—the adventurer who thinks big and lives dangerously, who wagers all on a great commercial dream. Their ambitious mot exotique, drawn from the French Some may be surprised to learn that these are venerable words word for “undertake” (entreprendre) does not, in English, with an ancient pedigree. The Oxford English Dictionary mean “undertaker” (more’s the pity, perhaps). It came out as traces  to at least the 16th century, and the noun the much dandier . In some circles, you get  to the 18th. But you’d never know it from the extra points for pronouncing the r’s as if you were dislodging howls of derision the two words summon from fed-up nonprofit fish bones from the back of your throat.
In the mid-1800s, when the word’s modern meaning To be fair: The watering down of  is not made its debut (referring, at first, to the proprietor of a music solely an offense of the nonprofit establishment. Even before hall or gambling establishment), it offered a colorful term for the word swamped the immune system of the philanthropic colorful people, a nice fit of form to function. The original world, it had already overrun the business libraries. “Like idea was indisputably so out-of-the-ordinary and specific as enterprise,” says the Bloomsbury Good Word Guide (1997), to deserve its own word. And when you want something color- “the noun  is losing its traditional connota- ful, there’s really no source like the French. (Even a fleeting tions of risk and initiative and is indiscriminately applied to acquaintance with the 1960s sit-com The Addams Family any person who becomes self-employed or sets up a new will call to mind the explosively libidinous effect of French small business.” That presumably means that, somewhere in on the leisure classes.  is, come to think of it, the entrepreneurial family portrait between Rupert Murdoch really the perfect word for a capitalist Gomez Addams.) and Archbishop Tutu, if I look closely enough, I should be So what is this gorgeously ruffled word doing lurking about in philanthropy? It sailed over from Wall Street on an immigrant ship loaded with other business mumbo-jumbo.
Just like capital and venture and return, the word -  has lately acquired the dignifying adjective  (q.v.) The useful word “incentive” comes into English from and set about Doing Good. Result: A word once specially (appropriately enough) the most alluring origins. Its Latin designed to describe Donald Trump or Ted Turner has lately root, incinere, past participle incentus, means “to intone,” or been applied with equal verve to the founders of peace move- “to sing to”—suggesting that the lilt of a lover’s serenade (no doubt under a balcony, surely by moonlight) may have By this route, the visionaries who inspire selflessness in been Western civilization’s first intentional incentive. Would others—so long as they go about it in any remotely unusual that all incentives had remained so sweet.
way—are now (get ready with the fish bones) social entrepre- The word has come a long way from the twilit Veronese neurs. They are also civic entrepreneurs, public entrepreneurs, cobblestones, nowadays turning up most often amid the and, more rarely, philanthropic entrepreneurs. By recent stan- tedium of construction contracts, economics texts, and labor dards, any effective leader who can finish the fiscal year on negotiations. But then, many things that began in the moon- the safer side of ruin is promptly anointed an “entrepreneur,” light end up losing their luster by and by. We would have and takes a place, however uncomfortably, alongside the wasted no sympathy on “incentive” on those grounds, had Rockefellers, the Morgans, and the Fords.
this charming little word not been kidnapped, abused, and sold into slavery in the past ten years, forced to play a verb and do the work of (far less tuneful) words like “encourage,” (Not only has the jargon not changed in half a century, but apparently neither has the prime topic of debate in the House Lately, you will find this erstwhile troubadour either painted in the cheesy makeup of  or stripped Churchill’s comment not only took aim at jargon but almost naked and forced to go about as . Both words cleverly poked fun at a subtle absurdity, as well: the “infra” now turn up everywhere among the writings of social in  means “below,” and it’s the opposite of scientists, public officials, and the scribes of philanthropy.
“supra.” “Supra-national infra-structure” would seem to “Formula-driven rent increases under Section 8,” says a describe whatever lies below the things that rise above nations.
paper on employment and housing policy, “disincent tenants ’s Latin roots strictly mean what lies to seek jobs.” First of all, shouldn’t it be “disincent tenants beneath (or within) things that are built. In that sense, steel from seeking?” Then again, who cares? Better prepositions girders and wooden beams are infrastructure. Subways and will do no good against the pestilence of . A word sewer pipes, too. It’s harder to understand why a bridge qual- that began as music has ended as rank noise.
ifies as infrastructure, though civil engineering does seem to It is hard to conceive the evil mind of whoever loosed classify a soaring span as if it were just a piece of undergirding  on the world. It is uglier, more abstruse, and less that managed to climb into full view—like the underpants expressive than almost any available alternative: “hinder,” defiantly hiked above the belts of modern teenagers.
“dissuade,” “deter,” “daunt,” or (most refreshingly) “scare off.” The problem with  is that, as metaphors It adds nothing to the rich vocabulary of discouragement go, it is often a good one—too good by half. Yes, many organi- with which all the social sciences are already ripe. Who could zations do need to improve the hidden, back-office functions possibly have concocted this ghastly word, and what was that are the bureaucratic equivalent of beams and girders. New their wicked design? Here, at last, is useful employment for projects usually do need offices, computers, phone lines, bank accounts, technical advisers, and contractors—all the mundane rigmarole that stands behind a successful effort. The word fits those usages, but it fits a great many others, too. Everything, one presumes, would benefit from the strengthening of some hidden component parts. Is everything, therefore, an infra- As early as 1950, Winston Churchill was already bewailing structure project? Ever since Churchill’s day (and evidently for the migration of this esoteric term from engineering into the some time before that), the word has been applied metaphori- whole realm of human designs. “In this debate,” he com- cally to so many things that it is now quite impossible to know plained in the House of Commons, “we have heard the usual which thing it is supposed to invoke in any given context.
jargon about the ‘infrastructure of a supra-national authority.’” Used sparingly, in situations where some kind of con- In finance,  typically describes the amassing struction or engineering is under way, the word still has some of huge investments or big profits without using a great deal frail integrity left. But in most cases, it is simply a grandiloquent of one’s own money. In that context, most leverage is smart stand-in for “component parts,” “elements,” “organization,” borrowing and good timing. Yet quite often it involves more or, in management circles, “administrative functions.” Clarity than a little hucksterism, too, as when a borrower induces would usually be served best by saying just which of those several banks to lend millions of dollars apiece to a shaky ven- ture, urging each lender to take comfort in the presence of the others. From such leverage, great S&L debacles are born.
“This grant leverages the contributions and talents of many participating organizations in the community,” said a foundation report. The clear implication: By making this The head of an exceptionally successful (and incidentally grant, we induced “many organizations” to take part in some- “well leveraged”) nonprofit organization gave this succinct thing that would not otherwise have interested them. By definition of philanthropy’s favorite buzz-word: “If I give further implication, the sum of all those efforts will be worth a dollar and you give a dollar, and we get the guy next door far more than we, the frugal foundation, are planning to pay.
to give a dollar, we each got 200 percent leverage. The budget Now, here is the reality in that case, as in so many others: may be $1 million, and we’re still $999,997 away from it, The “many organizations” were already rolling ahead on the project in question, and the foundation’s contribution simply More and more observers of philanthropy and fundrais- helped one left-out group to join the caravan, rather than being ing treat  as an automatic fraud alarm, and it is hard stranded on the roadside. That was kind of the foundation, not to agree with them. The nonprofit executive’s illustration and maybe a good thing for all involved. But was it leverage? perfectly illustrates why: The word is meant to imply (indeed, In financial circles, the word still means only one thing.
in most common usage it actually means) that someone has It gets out of control— sometimes comically so—when it slips done something timely and clever that induced others to do a the boundaries of finance and begins to describe everything great deal more toward the same goal. The image of a lever— else. “The paper leveraged a lot of creative thinking in the “a rigid bar pivoted on a fixed point and used to transmit child-welfare field.” “We leveraged more media from this event force,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary—was than from any of our previous efforts.” “The presentation got meant to invoke the moving of great objects with diminished excellent leverage in terms of feedback.” Oh, dear.
force. Yet often it is used to describe things done by any group of people that they would otherwise have done anyway.
square feet of renovated commercial space, and (with a more fanciful standard of reckoning) the number of jobs added to the neighborhood employment base. Compared with neigh- Many Americans still admit to being flummoxed by hectares, borhood development, only professional baseball is more litres, kilometres, and all the decimal exotica cooked up in the awash in metrics. So what more is the author of the quoted smoke-filled salons of the European continent. But sorting steres from deciares is child’s play compared with navigating The key is in the seemingly innocent word “success.” modern civilization’s other metric system: the cult of  In modern philanthropic usage, what distinguishes in the world of social policy and programs.
from mere measurement is that the fancier word gauges Change one or two words, and the following sentence success—or, as the mental health writer would have it, “long- will nestle snugly into the writing of any branch of the human term outcomes.” Metrics are contemporary social policy’s services: “The failure of the mental health industry to devise equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone—an elusive but potent adequate metrics to capture long-term outcomes has resulted medium that transforms the base metal of mere results into in confusion as to appropriate timing and levels of interven- the unalloyed gold of “long-term outcomes.” Building houses tion.” The phrase “to devise adequate metrics” is apparently and treating illnesses are fine, but will they permanently solve the universal choice to replace the hopelessly outdated and the deeper problems? Seek ye the metric that will pierce déclassé verb “to measure.” We no longer count anything in that mystery. And be prepared for a long search.
the digital age. We now devise metrics.
(To be fair to the alchemists who sought the Philosopher’s “Without metrics of success,” says a recent foundation Stone: They may have been a little confused about the limits paper, “it is impossible to say with certainty whether the of chemistry, but at least they knew for certain what gold was.
results of neighborhood redevelopment in the past 20 years The same cannot be said for those seeking today’s “long- justify the level of investment.” The sentence is remarkable not so much for its use of —it would be much more Striving for better and better ways of recognizing success remarkable to find a piece of foundation writing that does not and failure is a mark of excellence. Foundations can be justly use the term—but for its specific application to the field of proud of their pursuit of that goal. But showering the field neighborhood development. Here, one might have supposed, is a branch of American philanthropy and social policy that , and then arrogating to the term all the powers of divine wisdom, hardly advances the cause. At best, the is among the most metricked civic activities in history.
fruits of human services will someday be gauged over longer Neighborhood development groups in the past 20 or 30 years time periods, and units of comparison may come to fit more have made an art of counting new houses, refurbished apart- and more aspects of human progress. But even then, the ments, reclaimed blocks, numbers of investors and lenders, methods will still be those of measurement, plain and simple, of duty, would be funeralized the following day, and there and the resulting standards of “success” will still be partial, is, unfortunately, no reason to doubt it.
relative, and open to debate. The use of  perfumes Despite Newman’s best efforts (and his application of the whole enterprise with a false whiff of approaching finality.
methods from outright ridicule to gentle erudition and literate It seems to imply that someday mere measurement will wit), -ize is still with us a quarter-century after the funeralization become obsolete, replaced with something more conclusively of that Alabama deputy. As a result, we continue to endure scientific and indisputable. Around that superstition, with its sentences like this one, which appeared recently in a founda- gilded vocabulary of metrics and outcomes, gathers a new tion publication: “Long-standing museums [are] seeking to generation of cowled alchemists gibbering their way through reconceptualize their permanent collections as civic resources.” How are we to suppose these museums “conceptualized” their collections before? As matters of civic indifference? As exclusive playthings of the pampered elite? As parasites upon the body politic? The sentence doesn’t just confuse the reader, it invites all sorts of unflattering speculation.
Those who set out to cure jargon and other self-important Among the worst of the evil ize is , speech take their place in a humblingly long line of earlier merely because it enjoys some of the simplest and most scolds—a lineage stretching back at least to Aristophanes— obvious synonyms in this whole essay. Most of the time, you who had in their day no more success than this essay is likely can easily funeralize all six windy syllables and substitute to have now. The prospect of success, in fact, never seems “carry out,” “work on,” or simply “do.” For example: dimmer than when one confronts American jargon’s answer to “The next phase will be for the coalition to operationalize Original Sin, the perennial habit of attaching -ize to everything the elements of its plan.” Try “do what it planned.” in sight (maximize, strategize, localize, institutionalize, priori- “The challenge will be in operationalizing the six steps tize, and on and on). In his devastating 1975 essay “Ize Front,” to financial independence.” Try “taking the six steps.” the venerable NBC journalist Edwin Newman complained: “Having carefully negotiated a consensus process, the -ize is thought to have a businesslike ring or, what in some more difficult challenge will be to operationalize it.” Once you cases is just as good, to sound technical.… What those fix the dangling participle at the beginning of that sentence, who use -ize overlook is that it is usually unnecessary and always dull—it is a leaden syllable that imposes monotony The problem with  is not just that it’s on the language by making many words sound the same.… ugly, but that it is so sprawling a word—like an ill-planned I have been told that a television news broadcaster in building with too many additions—that it suggests something Alabama announced that a deputy sheriff, killed in the line complicated, demanding, and obscure. It tries to awe the of relativity, for example—everyone is forced to ask questions reader with its sheer unruliness, as if it contains so many ideas differently, and to view the challenges of science and philoso- that it might be dangerous to unleash them all. Yet the closer phy in a new way. Presto: a  .
you look, the more likely the thing is to mean nothing more It must have been obvious from the start that this word, than “do.” It’s a Texas-size word that, as Texan Lyndon B.
thus invested with so spectacular a meaning, would be pur- Johnson once said of some Lone Star poseur, turns out to be loined by everyone with a plan destined to change the world.
Nowadays we have a “welfare paradigm,” a “hospital paradigm,” the versatile “12-step paradigm,” “urban paradigms” of various shapes and colors, and “market paradigms” too numerous to reckon. All of them, according to some observer or other, urgently need to shift. These metaphors and models and what- Foundations can hardly bear primary blame for the relentless have-you are all related to Kuhn’s original idea, no doubt— spread of this muddy word, which by now has oozed all over the kinds of poor, distant cousins who show up in Dickens or the vocabulary of the social and natural sciences, philosophy, Balzac novels demanding bed and board. But any kinship with art criticism, business management, and just about everything Kuhn is so tenuous, and the relevance of the fancy word is so else. Its popularity has grown in direct proportion to the diluted, that most uses of  today are mere posturing, watering down of its meaning, which was never exactly intended to flatter the user more than to inform the reader.
concrete to start with, and has grown thinner with every new In some people’s view (we claim no license to judge), use. By now the word is indistinguishable from more honest Kuhn wasn’t being all that precise himself. “The notion of (if less thrillingly Greek) terms like “pattern,” “structure,” paradigm,” writes science historian Roy Porter in The Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought, “was too vague. The term Philosophers may still retain some rigor in their use of seemed to be used to describe both whole sciences and . It was their laboratory, after all, from which the individual concepts within them.” Yet whatever its original word first escaped, never to be recaptured. T. S. Kuhn gave it shortcomings, Kuhn’s idea was a dazzle of clarity compared a seemingly permanent mystique in The Structure of Scientific with the uses the word has been put to in modern public Revolutions, when he used it to describe the web of accepted policy and philanthropy. Because people in those fields often theories through which scientists normally regard their subject.
hope to change inherited ideas, practically anything they By Kuhn’s definition, a paradigm is the set of inherited touch turns to paradigms. In attacking the “insurance para- preconceptions, the “glass darkly” through which even the digm” behind Social Security, for example, a foundation most scrupulous inquirer habitually views the world. When writer apparently rejected the more accurate words “analogy” someone shatters the glass—as Einstein did with his theory or “model” in favor of something that sounded more perfectly involves not the idea of partnership, lopsided as that may be destined to shift. By borrowing Kuhn’s word, the writer in this context, but the word—and especially its more feeble may also have hoped to dress up a simple reform plan as relative, the verb  .
In the idealistic world of civic and charitable institutions, Similarly, by decrying the “educational paradigm” behind  has lately taken on the rosy mystique of the employment training, a writer seemed to be arguing simply more mawkish fairy stories, with the nonprofit grantees in the that such training should not be done by schools, or in class- role of Cinderella. “In this program,” says one princely foun- rooms. Seeking a “new leadership paradigm,” a foundation dation, “we invite our program partners to share in more than trade group probably just wanted to find new forms of leader- the funding of individual initiatives, but in a whole range of ship, or new management styles. Both phrases provided a supportive interactions.” The first mystery in that sentence is thunder of gravitas, yet neither meant anything special.
the peculiar phrase “program partners,” which turns out to Still, it must be said that in none of these cases was be a euphemism for “grantees.” The next is those unspecified the word wrongly used. Its general definition, apart from any “supportive interactions,” in which a jaundiced eye might special uses in philosophy, is so vague that it applies to almost detect a “come-up-and-see-my-etchings” quality. But we have anything. The Greek roots are simply the prefix para, for no time for such prurience here. The problem with this image “alongside,” affixed to the root deik, for “show” or “teach.” of partnership is not so much that the intentions might not be Anything that’s explained or taught with reference to any- honorable, but that the label is so broad that one can scarcely thing else probably fits the basic concept.
guess what intentions might be crouching behind it.
Small wonder that little or no clarity has come from that This ambiguity would be harmless enough, on a par with morass. For anyone genuinely intent on a scientific revolu- the gauzy endearments in Valentine cards, were it not for the tion, Rule No. 1 might be: Find a more concrete word with inflated expectations to which the word gives rise on all sides.
which to state your case, and shift away from .
The expansive use of  now in vogue commonlyimplies that the “partners” share all manner of confidences and dreams, shoulder one another’s burdens, support each other in sickness and health, and so on. (In actual experience, veterans of such partnerships most often come away sadder The pretense of many foundations to be “partners” of but wiser about what happens to love when money steps in their grantees is at best a charming absurdity. The kinds of the door.) The surprising fact is that, common as this blushing “partnerships” that result when one partner has a billion- sentimentality has become, it most often goes unexamined.
dollar balance sheet and the other an annual five-figure deficit are the stuff of Divorce Court reruns. But our brief here Dictionaries and law books tend to take a far more detached and mathematical view of , emphasiz- “When care is available at all,” writes someone in a ing explicit agreements in which control, expenses, profits, foundation health program, “it is normally in institutional and losses are all divided in fixed proportion to each partner’s settings.” Not in institutions? (Or better yet, in hospitals?) share in the capital and risk of the enterprise. That approach “Many lower-income youth currently receive balanced is true to the word’s roots—from the Latin partior, “to divide” nutrition only in educational settings.” Not in school? —the same word that gave us “partition.” In this traditional “Recreational programs are provided in community set- sense, still common in the making of business agreements, tings.” That would be sports, we presume, in the neighborhood? the partnership consists not in the sharing of “supportive In every case, besides being redundant,  is both interactions,” but in the precise dividing of material interests, more vague and more cumbersome than the simple word with each side knowing exactly how much of the common it replaces. Perhaps the writers intended their “settings” to enterprise it owns and where its privileges and obligations lie.
include more than the specific places suggested here. Maybe Strong fences, you might say, make good partners.
there are “educational settings” that are not schools. There One sign that foundations take a more whimsical view might even be “institutional settings” that aren’t institutions.
of these matters is the popularity of the verb  , a But if so, few readers are likely to guess that fact, much less breezy coinage rarely heard in the law offices where business to conceive what all those other, unnamed settings might be.
deals are hammered out. In The Oxford English Dictionary,  adds nothing but unresolved (and possibly spurious) which traces the verb back to Shakespeare, nearly every mystery—a useless hint of undisclosed scenery lurking example of its use refers either to light romance or to sport.
Where large sums of money are involved, it seems, common sense would seek more concrete terms. So should foundations.
Valuable, and apparently highly contagioussocial Nowhere in philanthropy and public policy is the cult of the financier more evident than in the gluey adjective .
“All the world’s a stage,” says Jaques in As You Like It, to which The term is now stuck onto every gilt-edge buzz-word from American social scientists and public policy aficionados add the New York Stock Exchange to the Harvard Business in chorus, “and all the scenes and places merely settings.” School: social capital, social investment, social leverage, social There must be something of the frustrated playwright in the dividends, social entrepreneur (q.v.). This fixation may have denizens of modern foundations and think-tanks. Wherever begun with a useful little metaphorical insight by, among they look, they see not buildings or locales, but only settings.
others, Robert Putnam, whose book Bowling Alone argues that the wealth of societies is measured not only in their without it. The word has passed the 1990s’ ultimate test of financial assets and human skills, but in the social glue that chic: There is a brand of underwear called , and encourages trust and interaction among members. The deple- as a standard of celebrity for high-fashion words, that is the tion of this last form of wealth, “social capital,” spells trouble equivalent of marrying royalty. The verb   —to for modern America, in Putnam’s argument.
which the OED’s British editors give the ultimate brush-off All’s well up to that point. But as happens so often, “chiefly U.S.”—has indeed all but overrun American usage, one evocative metaphor soon becomes an unstoppable fad.
in every context from art to brewing (where “craft brewed” is What began with capital has affected every other noun now a euphemism for “has some detectable flavor”).
known to capitalism, so that by now every financial doodad in Yet if  is “chiefly U.S.,” it earns no official welcome the Accountant’s Handbook has gone . This would be on these shores, either. The authority on U.S. English, the merely a cliché like so many others, if it weren’t for the belief generally lenient American Heritage Dictionary, has no patience —by now widespread in the foundation world—that all these with the word’s most common meaning: to put something pinstriped coinages have real meanings, and must be imposed together cleverly or write effectively. The AHD delicately on grantseekers as criteria for selection. To qualify for support brands that sense of the word as a “usage problem,” on the from many foundations, applicants now must show how they grounds that it portrays thinking and writing as, in the AHD’s intend to build social capital, earn social returns, increase phrase, “a kind of handicraft,” like stitching potholders or social productivity, and so on. All too often, grantees understand making angels out of toilet-paper rolls. A craft, in the most that this simply means they must dust off last year’s grant common sense, is a manual skill that can be taught and mas- proposals and rewrite the old points in this new Socialese.
tered by any reasonably coordinated person. In the fancier and more pretentious modern uses of , that is theopposite of what’s intended. Used in the fashionable way, the word defeats its own purpose. (An even older definition, “to deal evasively or deceptively,” slips an unintentional self- The ancient verbs “arrange,“shape,” “organize,“put together, revelation past modern writers who insist on “crafting” things.) and “prepareare out, chucked aside among the dowdy detritus But the real problem with both these words has nothing of the cool, corporate New Age. Today, everything with any to do with nuances of meaning. The problem is that they’re structure at all is , and anything that reflects everywhere, like overexposed sports celebrities with too the least craft must therefore be . The former word, many endorsement contracts. They have that starved look at which The Oxford English Dictionary sniffs “not common of the desperately publicity-hungry, a “hey-look-at-me” quality until the 20th c.,” is now so common that no writer who that has rubbed the shine off whatever glamour they once purports to be serious or sophisticated in the 21st c. can do possessed. Anyone looking for a refreshing way to describe Skills taught in school couldn’t just be lasting, they had to be something that is nicely put together or carefully prepared sustainable. Anything, in short, that made it past autumn’s would do well to try two genuinely unusual expressions sure to first frost was now sustainable. Any connection to the survival provoke surprise and admiration in any reader: “nicely put of whales or rain forests had been lost for good.
together” and “carefully prepared.” This perfectly illustrates the price we pay when a crisp, technical term becomes a mushy cliché, when commonplace ideas masquerade as technical esoterica. There is nothing Probably capable of lasting until the next grant more sophisticated about a “sustainable” budget than about a stable one, though writers who use  that way In the predecessor to this essay, we argued that most jargon is evidently hope to be taken for savvy and wise. Yet while they born in the technical laboratories of experts who are explor- are tossing the word around for empty effect, its usefulness ing new territory. There, it has a useful—and sometimes in its original context starts to dissolve. Is “sustainable” even noble—job to do, describing new or unfamiliar ideas.
development near the Everglades merely development that So when environmentalists and economists first applied will survive the first flood? No, that wasn’t supposed to be  to certain forms of development and methods the meaning at all. But thanks to (forgive the expression) of harvesting natural resources, they had something precise the watering down of the original term, the important, old and significant in mind. The best of them could tell you, with meaning has been … well, washed away.
great specificity, what they considered to be the “sustainable” method of fishing for tuna or culling a forest. Whether they The energy needed to fit tab A into slot B were correct about those things was a question that reason- able people could debate, because there was a definition of that both sides, supporters and opponents, This ostentatious word means nothing more than “working together.” It’s just the Greek prefix syn-, meaning “together,” Unfortunately, the environmentalists had picked a word stuck onto the word for “work,” ergon (which gave us the that already had a number of other meanings in occasional recent coinage ergonomics). It can apply just as perfectly to use. So the minute their new meaning caught the public ham-and-rye or bat-and-ball as to more ethereal stuff. There’s imagination, it took no time turning up in every subject that absolutely nothing occult about it. So why is it whispered all wished to borrow the political or scientific cachet of environ- over philanthropy in the awestruck tones normally reserved mentalism. Suddenly, no one wanted a sturdy or durable for exorcisms? Apparently because those who use the word program any more, they wanted a sustainable one. Expenditures believe (or maybe wish to pretend) that they are invoking could no longer merely be affordable, they had to be sustainable.
some sort of powerful mystical fusion, something understood Ask not what value you can add to your country… only by Tibetan monks and particle physicists. The dispiriting reality is that they are simply substituting an ancient Greek word for more common, and better understood, English Here, as with , is an expression that means nothing ones, like “cooperation” or “common effort.” special yet has somehow become indispensable to any serious We take the charitable view that those who use  discussion of civic or philanthropic affairs. The phrase means this way are unaware of the false pretenses under which it exactly what it seems to mean: raising the value of something travels. They are, we presume, hapless victims of a lexical by doing a little work on it. This thoroughly pedestrian mean- confidence scheme. The author of the following sentence, ing has some limited use in economics, and particularly in the for instance, would no doubt wish to have received a timely field of taxation, where foundations and nonprofits would nudge in the ribs before committing this absurdity to paper: presumably have no use for it. Yet in the philanthropic world, “A second benefit of this venture will be the synergies it   has been invested with all the gravitas of produces in the cultural, political, and social climate of the fundamental mission and high charitable purpose. You surrounding community.” Can’t you just see the acolytes won’t catch a foundation expressing a wish to do something readying incense and rose petals for this impending ritual valuable, or to be valuable to others. They all want to provide value added, or in briefer form, to add value.
Likewise, someone should have warned the author of this Well, who wouldn’t? The alternative would be to work all one: “The program has excelled in synergizing the efforts of day, then go home at night and face your spouse and children other community institutions around the community center.” with the pathetic admission that you had not made anything This bears all the marks of something out of a Kung Fu movie: better all day long. Perhaps there are people working in founda- Come forward, nimble warrior, and be synergized if you dare.
tions today for whom that nightmare is a daily reality. We are Finally: “The goal of this partnership will be to take not acquainted with them, thank God. But in any case, surely advantage of synergies with health care and educational insti- no one would aspire to that situation. And therefore, no one tutions.” You have to wonder whether that sentence originally should consider it any great achievement to “add value,” much said, “We’re going to work with hospitals and schools,” and less to “seek to add value.” It’s the very least that America can someone told the author to make it a bit more … professional.
ask of her sons and daughters. The issue is how much value you add, to what, and for how long. The expression  is silent on all of that. It says nothing about degree orquality or wisdom, just mere increment. Perhaps translating the phrase into Greek would make it more expressive. On second precise  of return, particularly if it is a  venture.
It must have , or else get   The hottest topic of debate in foundation circles nowadays is (see In Other Words) and keep all its  (see the merits of venture capitalism (or in some versions, invest- below) confident and content. Sort of drains the adventure ment banking) as a metaphor for smart philanthropy. The debate is not mainly about vocabulary or writing style, but The popularity of these words is only partly an out- about a real substantive question: Are grantmakers a species growth of the recent “venture philanthropy” debate. Before of investor, building benevolent enterprises that produce a anyone ever suggested venture capitalism as a model for measurable return for society, or are they more passive enablers the modern foundation, all these business terms ( of good, seeking mainly to support those who pursue charitable included) were already floating about the charitable ether, ends by whatever path. That is a thorny philosophical matter haphazardly sticking to any undertaking more ambitious than far beyond the boundaries of this essay. We therefore approach a grammar school bake sale. Sometime in the 1980s, talking like financiers started making people feel responsible and  warily, not as a way of settling the “venture philanthropy” debate, but as a window through which to prudent (perhaps it did the same for financiers, as their insti- view a broader phenomenon: the wholesale importation of tutions crumbled about them). At the same time, public financial palaver into the glossary of public and civic affairs.
attitudes toward foundations and nonprofit institutions were growing more skeptical. Thus did the bankers’ jargon increas- sidering that the word is a medieval foreshortening (probably ingly become a bromide for queasy grantmakers.
accidental) of adventure, with all the derring-do that implies.
Today, this pilfered vocabulary might actually be more relevant, and certainly more interesting, if it could regain some  had a cavalier, throw-of-the-dice quality—it meant random chance, or risk, or, in some senses, of its lost connotations of peril. The fact is that many of the hazard. It came into its modern business meaning through most urgent callings of modern philanthropy entail risks that the portals of risk: the word initially described the work of would make an ordinary business start-up look like a license to print money. The odds of achieving, say, a lasting recovery whose more far-fetched business ideas took on the qualities for a cocaine addict, or steady employment for a person of an adventure, a sort of safari into the jungles of commerce.
with no experience and few basic skills, or a safe and healthy These days, at least among foundations, it has acquired upbringing for kids in dangerous neighborhoods—now those almost the opposite meaning. To be a true venture, an idea are ventures, in the chanciest old meaning of the word.
now has to be gravely responsible, supported with all the In the tired vocabulary of “venture” and “return” and “investment” and the like, it is the genteel, leather-armchair  of a well-oiled organization, with quality that offends. At its best, philanthropy is an adventure, To develop a realistic, credible, and doable action plan—one with its first syllable fully intact and all its hazards out in the that requires buy-in from numerous stakeholders—we must devise an ongoing decision-making and consensus-building open. Foundations can accept the risks or avoid them, as they process, [including] determining priorities, identifying the see fit, but hiding them behind a suite of oak paneling gains implementing entities, … and assessing available funding.
nothing—except to take some of the fun, and much of the Now, for the benefit of tourists from English-speaking To be fair, some foundations do maintain “venture countries, here is a reasonable translation: funds” designed expressly for grants that lie somewhere out- To do this, we should have a good plan, and we’ll need side the foundations’ normal bounds of safety and familiarity.
support from the many people who will have to carry out When the intended meaning includes that sense of unusual parts of it. That means, in turn, that we have to set up a risk, the word plays exactly the role for which it was designed.
good process for dividing the work and the cost, and for Unfortunately for those foundations, most readers are by now so accustomed to seeing the word used in the stodgy What makes the second sentence better than the first? sense of “businesslike operation” and “responsible enterprise” Let’s compare the jargon with the ordinary English words that they are unlikely to detect any more daring intent.
  (vs. “plan”): There are, we presume, inac- tion plans somewhere in the world. But surely no one would write about them publicly. With apologies to Gertrude Stein, - (vs. “support” and “play a role”): Unless we are actually asking people to purchase shares or other securities, they are participating in and supporting our plan, not buying pieces of it. The “buy” language simply takes an ordinary In wrapping up this catalogue of doubletalk, we depart from process of participation and turns it into some unspecified the discipline of an alphabetical listing to linger a moment over a rare treasure, a jewel of modern jargon, a sentence that - process (vs. “process for making offers in one stroke an illustration of at least five of philan- decisions”): True consensus is nice but elusive. , in fact, is simply the Latin equivalent of the Greek sympátheia,“sympathy”: It entails a real harmony of feeling and purpose— lovely to imagine, but hard to accomplish in your ordinary, workaday “action plan.” What you want is a way of settling Wall Street would be delighted to give their stockholders the the inevitable disagreements. The result may be some set of heave-ho, as long as they could hold on to the capital.) parliamentary rules, perhaps. But true consensus? Not likely.
Among Wall Street wannabes, a word that gives the thrilling  (vs. “work”): The “implementing entities” feeling of stock without the nuisance of actually paying divi- in this sentence are simply those people (sorry: stakeholders) dends would naturally be a big hit. For those with a chemical who have to do the work. See In Other Words for a discussion dependence on the gibberish of high finance,  of that metaphysical bubble . Here, as in most cases, is something like methadone: It eases some of the craving,  refers amorphously to doing whatever has to without inflicting the harmful side-effects of the real thing.
 (vs. “people who need to play a role”): This isn’t an exact translation—not all “stakeholders” pre- sumably “need to play a role.” But we make the substitution mainly because the original word plays a cheap trick, and the translation tries to make it honest. In most civic and charitable projects, the people with a “stake” in the results are legion.
When people try to improve schools or health care or Social Security, who has a “stake” in the results? Answer: All of us— every last woman, man, and child. Half the time, -  is a passable substitute for “all the living, and even a few of the dead.” As such, in any practical context it is useless noise. In the sentence in question, the only people actually at issue are the ones whose “stake” is big enough to warrant giving a little sweat to the cause. For those people, The only explanation for the spectacular success of -  in the philanthropic demimonde is that the word sounds tantalizingly like its cousin “stockholders.”4 For those with a painful, gnawing envy of Wall Street and all its bland- ishments, the desire for stockholders must have the merciless pull of an addiction. (Funny, that: Most actual denizens of Not only do good people fall into jargon’s rhetorical traps—heads of worthwhile programs and fine organizations, thoughtful scholars, visionary reformers—but more specifi- cally, good writers do it. The words listed in the previouschapter are not the inventions of nincompoops, but more often of gifted people with a flair for language. Conversely, some of the clearest, frankest writing is the work of relatively prosaic Drawing sense from the wells of gibberish authors whose ideas are nothing special, but whose genius lies entirely in their candor and their passion to be understood.
Marry that candor and passion to the good work of the best Writing about Warren G. Harding, the 29th president and philanthropic and civic organizations, and the effect could be regarded by some as the worst American chief executive, impressive. Yet in practice, that rarely happens. Why? former Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo rendered One reason, almost certainly, is a fear of ideological taint—a desire to express ideas with the detached, antiseptic He spoke in a big bow-wow style of oratory. His speeches certainty of science, not the heat of zealotry. It is no coinci- leave the impression of an army of pompous phrases dence that the great majority of off-putting words and stilted moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes phrases in this volume (as in its predecessor) sprang from these meandering words would actually capture a strag- fields known for their cucumber-cool precision: engineering, gling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their the natural sciences, finance, the military. You don’t get sports midst, until it died of servitude and overwork.5 metaphors very often in philanthropy—at least not in the The Harding administration is happily gone and mostly official writing—nor do you get those of art or cuisine or even forgotten, but the “bow-wow style of oratory” lives on. The religion (- being a perfect illustration: it’s a armies of pomposity still amass daily in their fearsome battalions.
description of religion that is unknown in the actual practice But if the bow-wow orators and the uniformed windbags were of spirituality). Those fields are all too instinctive, subjective, the only ones ignoring the decencies of honest diction, the or creative. In philanthropy, it seems, the main impulse is to world would be no worse off than it’s ever been. The problem make everything seem like a law of physics or math, beyond with overblown, meaningless writing and speech—with jargon, shades of interpretation or traps of dispute, all strictly Q.E.D.
in a word—is not that scoundrels indulge in it, but just the From that impulse come , , and opposite. It is lately a sin of very good people with important . And they turn up among people with rich things to say. And the penalty is therefore paid not just by the vocabularies, perfectly capable of using more precise, clearer, guilty, but by the many honest thoughts that die imprisoned.
or more colorful terms. So what happens to those people? Privately, many of them confess to seeing no alternative; But responsible people can—and, we dare to suggest, ought to— they’re bound to use the conventional fad phrases to establish fight back in ways that don’t hurt their cause. Here are two: their bona fides among philanthropy’s big-shots—something First, when using vague clichés and insider buzz-phrases, like an “open sesame” to unlock the doors of foundation go on to explain them in concrete terms. This has the benefit conference rooms. A grantee of several major foundations of compelling both the writer and the reader to penetrate the told me bluntly, “If I wrote the way you suggest, I would be jargon and explore the practical meaning behind it. I stumbled discounted in half the foundations I now depend on. Give onto this principle, rather like Archimedes in his bath, when me a choice between a grant and a reputation as a lively I read the following sentences, written by some of the more raconteur, and I’ll take the money, thank you very much.” literate writers and thinkers in youth development (I’ve added Touché. But before we unfairly brand program officers as the sole villains of this tale, here is a similar quote (likewise Full appreciation of the significance of sports [as an off-the-record) from a program officer at a major national avenue for reaching troubled young people] must take into account the vast investment in infrastructure supporting youth participation. As the 42,000 Little League teams Any grant I write up has to pass muster with [an academic suggest, along with the thousands of other kinds of scholar in top management] and then with our general leagues and recreation departments around the country, counsel, who is looking for exact correspondences part of this infrastructure is organizational. At the same between the foundation’s program priorities and my time, there are tens of thousands of gymnasiums, football write-up. If I don’t use the right words, [the general and soccer fields, baseball diamonds, basketball courts, counsel] won’t see the correspondences, and [the senior and other physical forms of infrastructure crisscrossing manager] won’t feel there’s academic rigor here. Then there are the board members, who expect to see “tough business thinking” in these grants—by which they gener- The repetitive, insistent use of  in this ally mean banker-speak. How much trouble am I willing paragraph looks like a political calculation. Someone in the to put myself to, avoiding the very terms that all my bosses intended audience (perhaps several people) evidently suffers seem to want? I’m not in this for martyrdom. I’d write from an unwholesome fondness for the word, and the authors it in Flemish, if that got my grants approved.
felt it necessary to lay  on a bit thick to Point conceded. It would be merely quixotic to suggest appease that class of reader. Fine. But look at the rest of the that writers for civic and philanthropic causes should fall on paragraph: It’s a virtual catalogue of precisely what organiza- their swords just to avoid clumsy but popular jargon. If the tions, facilities, and programs the writers have in mind. Despite fad words of the moment absolutely must be used to gain the repetitive use of one buzz-word, an ordinary reader will credibility with a particular audience, then used they will be.
come away from this paragraph exactly as any good writer would hope: clearly picturing a national landscape of playing self-defeating habit. Breaking those habits, or at least subject- fields, gyms, and sports leagues, not the gas lines and sewer ing them to an unrelenting discipline, is the duty of everyone pipes that  ordinarily denotes. In short, the with anything even remotely important to say.
paragraph works, despite its descent into jargon, because it In the skeptical world in which most nonprofits and drowns the jargon in a deluge of clarity.
foundations ply their trade, writing nowadays is an act of The second duty of a careful writer confronting jargon salesmanship. Sometimes the sales job is aimed at particular is to police the language mercilessly—to subject every use of executives or trustees whose chimes are rung by - a faddish or technical expression to a test of necessity and  and  . Far more often, the prospect fitness, every time. The worst enemy of clear writing is habit— is some weary block association leader, civic activist, or the lazy reliance on cliché and boilerplate that, in Edwin congressional staffer, old enough to have been chastened by Newman’s phrase, “imposes monotony on the language.” Model Cities and “maximum feasible participation,” serial Readers who are impressed by jargon are powers to be reck- school and welfare reforms of no lasting consequence, and oned with, no question. But they are few, compared with the the occasional charitable chimera or even outright scam.
legions of other readers with no time or patience for tired, For today’s philanthropic message, every customer is a tough bloated, and imprecise prose. Every use of jargon should be customer, to whom tortured and alien language from any weighed on those scales: How much do I gain by impressing public-interest type is just one more signal to pull on the the few, and how much have I lost by alienating the many? rubber boots. In this atmosphere, the penalty for self-flattering The answer may be different each time.
doubletalk and empty stock phrases—for the “bow-wow “Give me a choice between a grant and a reputation as a style of oratory” popular in too many foundations, universities, lively raconteur,” said the seasoned grantee, “and I’ll take the and nonprofit groups—will sooner or later be the penalty money.” Fine, but that’s not always the choice—and for most paid by Warren G. Harding and his armies: dismay at first, civic and charitable activity, most of the time, that isn’t the ridicule later, and finally contempt.
choice at all. The words and phrases cited in this essay turn Harding, at least, may well have deserved it. Foundations up routinely in press releases, policy papers for elected offi- and their allies owe themselves a better fate.
cials, textbooks, even brochures and other public relations pieces. The purpose of those pieces is to prompt imagination, excitement, a thrill of discovery among a wide circle of read- ers, not to prove one’s membership in some technical club with code words and secret handshakes. When jargon turns up in those publications, it is almost certainly the result of unrelated topic. (Even though the topic wasn’t related to jargon, Derbyshire’s column did describe a scholarly tome “written in academic jargon,” by authors “who write ‘veridicality’ when they mean ‘truth.’”) Although I haven’t independently fact-checked either of these anecdotes, they have the ring Finally, I thank editor Anne Mackinnon for her ideas, inspiration, and chastening corrections. The world, sadly, is not overrun with good editors. But in my experience, it has Nearly every sample of jargon in this essay was nominated— been blessed with at least one great one.
and sample abuses sometimes supplied—by members of two national organizations, the Communications Network and the Council on Foundations. Both of those organizations gave me privileged opportunities to argue my point to their members and to solicit the words and phrases that now fill these pages.
Their help made this little volume much more complete than anything I could have done on my own.
Likewise, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation not only supported my work on this essay and its predecessor, but generously furnished some of the offending specimens from its own files. In the end, only a tiny minority of the samples I used came from those files, but the ones borrowed from the Clark Foundation were all offered voluntarily—a refreshing act of institutional humility uncommon in any walk of life.
The Park Service quotation in the opening paragraph came to my attention courtesy of a 1980s-era column by William Safire of the New York Times, whose tart weekly parsing of trendy English sets a standard to which this essay does not dare aspire. The anecdote about Bertrand Russell on page 19 came from John Derbyshire, contributing editor of the National Review, in a February 2001 article on an incent, 27incentivize, 27infrastructure, 28 This book was designed by Landesberg Design Associates, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The text is set in Bulmer, with additional text The book was printed by Herrmann Printing of Pittsburgh. The letterpress cover was printed A costly habit of well-meaning foundations


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