A good example is the word "drive." Once a clearly defined term, it has become one of the most insidious and overused buzzwords in the business lexicon.
Once, drive had a clear meaning: to use force to compel or control a physical thing. Regardless of whether you were driving a car or a herd of cattle, a nail or a crankshaft, you were exerting pressure to make something move. Eventually, this compelling force became more abstract: You could have a drive to succeed, or be driven crazy, if the circumstances were right.
Now, before we are driven to distraction -- or to dissolution -- let's take a moment to think about where drive has landed in contemporary usage. Today, we are told, a well-designed program can drive traffic or drive numbers, and executives pride themselves on driving earnings and eyeballs, profits and results. Unlike the measurable, clear definitions of yesteryear, many of the things being driven are now intangible. To make things worse, the actual mechanics of what's doing the driving are often a mystery.
For many Internet publishers, "driving eyeballs" is a popular phrase. While the image of a careening car with a huge, oozing orb at the wheel is fun, the actual mechanics of driving eyeballs -- much less revenue -- is actually somewhat confusing. According to The Motley Fool, the key is having a catchy url: "When this whole Internet thing started, not many people realized what it would mean to have a popular domain name that could drive eyeballs -- let alone dollars -- to your site."
While there might be something to this theory, the owners of Pets.com, stocks.com, business.com and any number of other sites could attest that a successful business plan requires much more than a clever name. Also, as many pundits have noted, driven eyeballs don't necessarily translate into revenue in the brave new world of Internet content.
A more accurate, if cynical, opinion was offered by the Huffington Post's Diane Dimond, who noted that an arrest of Kody Brown, the star of TLC's Sister Wives would be a blessing for the network: "I wonder if executives at TLC are secretly hoping for a ratings-grabbing arrest scene for their Daddy? Wow, that sure would drive eyeballs to the channel!" In addition to offering a realistic analysis of the kind of drama that draws viewers, Dimond also shows an understanding of the TV business model, in which big ratings lead to big ad sales and impressive revenues. Thanks to the Nielsen company, the things being driven -- viewers -- are measurable, and the channel's ad sales fluctuate accordingly.
Driving Wall Street
The Internet isn't the only place where "drive" has driven off the deep end. On Wall Street, drivers can be anything that affects a company's bottom line. As the DailyFinance glossary notes, they can include legislation, litigation, competitors, financing or an endless host of other factors. This vagueness injects an interesting note of randomness into the supposedly rational world of business. After all, if anything can be a driver, then the more confusing or obscure the potential driver, the more effective -- and marketable -- an analysis can be.
While impressive-sounding, all this complicated driving leads to a fairly simple conclusion: More people are sending packages, which is giving FedEx more money. Since its costs aren't going up significantly, the company looks to be in great shape next year. While clear, however, this unvarnished truth leaves little room for executives to take credit or for analysts to bloviate. Little wonder, then, that driving enters the picture -- and then runs over it.
In the end, this is the secret of driving, at least as it appears in earnings reports and articles. For users, the word gives the illusion of control. With a cool linguistic twist of phrase, it becomes possible to explain -- and take credit for -- a popular site: "We're driving eyeballs, and that's driving profits." On the other hand, one can airily explain away the problems of an unpopular site, noting that competitors, poor design or mediocre content are "driving it off a cliff."
But this cool linguistic trick doesn't actually explain why anything happens. Then again, that may be drive's greatest strength: It lets you stop talking before you drive a topic into the ground.