Buzzword of the Week: Business Jargon Goes to the Dogs

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From Snoopy to White Fang, Old Yeller to Lassie, mankind's greatest companions have always been its dogs. Little surprise, then, that America's testosterone-infused boardrooms resound with the barking rhythms of canine colloquialisms. From "dog's breakfast" to "dog's dinner," from "dog-eat-dog" battles to "dog and pony shows," America's favorite animal has his muzzle tightly pressed to the heart of the nation's financial sector.

Dogs are trustworthy and reliable, loyal companions through thick and thin. It makes sense, then, that conservative investors would want to put their money into the "Dogs of the Dow," a strategy that DailyFinance's business glossary describes as "buying the ten [Dow Jones Industrial Average] stocks with the highest dividend yield at the beginning of the year." Proposed in 1991 by investor Michael O'Higgins, the Dogs of the Dow strategy is followed closely by much of the business media, including Seeking Alpha, Market Watch and CNBC. It even has its own well-regarded website and newsletter, where fans can track the performance, study the history of and learn how to follow the dogs without screwing the pooch.

Health Care for the Dogs

Speaking of mongrel misadventures, dog references aren't always good. In fact, when it comes to the culinary habits of man's best friend, dogs tend to symbolize that a disaster in the offing. "Dog's breakfast," a British term that has crossed the Atlantic, refers to a poorly cadged-together program that's ugly, inelegant and unlikely to work.

For example, The Telegraph, a U.K. paper, described America's controversial health care plan as "a dog's breakfast of health care," while Institutional Investor's William D. Cohan argued that the motley mix of mortgages, auto loans and other risky investments that AIG insured comprised "a real dog's breakfast of risk."

(Ironically, "dog's dinner" is often used the same way, although its original meaning was the exact opposite. In the 1930s, somebody made up like a dog's dinner was ostentatiously overdressed.)

Regardless, dog food -- whether breakfast or otherwise -- isn't always the worst thing in the world. In 1988 Microsoft Vice President Paul Maritz famously told a developer that company employees needed to "eat our own dog food," or use its own products. The term caught fire both inside and outside of the software giant, even though Microsoft sometimes ignored this fundamental commandment. Today, a wide array of people -- from English teachers to nonprofits -- now proudly admit to chowing down on their own kibble.

Riding the Dog and Pony to the Gravy Train

Sometimes dogs -- or, at least, "dog and pony shows" -- represent the best that an institution can offer. Also known as a "road show," a dog and pony show is a seminar that a company uses to sell a product or financial instrument. These programs can be amazingly effective: As John Kinnucan, founder of Broadband Research noted earlier this month, when companies unleash their dog and pony shows, the money starts rolling in, and wise investors "get on board the gravy train."

A dog and pony show can sometimes save an entire economy. In June, Market Pulse FX reported Hungary's "dog and pony show stops EUR bleeding." The author, Dean Popplewell, theorized the country's willingness to undergo severe austerity measures convinced investors to intervene to halt a deepening recession in the country. In the process, Popplewell argued, it also strengthened the euro.

On the other hand, "putting the dog on" can have the opposite of its intended effect. In "Airport Security Screening: TSA's Dog and Pony Show," 24/7 Wall Street's Robert Herbst wrote America's airport security "is little more than a TSA government jobs program which is. . .wasting billions" of dollars. While impressive looking, Herbst felt the program was actually ineffective and unnecessarily disruptive.

Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) recently used the saying in a similar way, claiming that Democratic battles about Obama's tax compromise were actually political theater: "The American people don't want a political dog and pony show," he averred. "The bottom line is this: Stop the tax hikes."

While Herbst and Grassley join an ever-growing number of pundits who are busily redefining dog and pony shows, one thing is clear: When it comes to business, someone definitely let the dogs out. What's more, with an endless passel of pooch-themed catch phrases howling through the hallowed halls of America's boardrooms, the canine contingent shows no signs of giving up its spot at the head of the pack.

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bfpowersjr

Mr. Watson: I really enjoyed your article. However, there are too many abandoned and mistreated dogs (and cats) in this country. Perhaps your readers might consider a holiday contribution to help these animals(?).

December 24 2010 at 12:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply