Meet Bob Wiltfong & Tim Ito (Part 1)
Meet the authors of The BS Dictionary: Uncovering the Origins and True Meanings of Business Speak
Bob is a former correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and an Emmy award-winning journalist. His love for BS was fostered through 20+ years of working as a consultant in presentation skills for several Fortune 500 companies including T-Mobile, Lowes Home Improvement and Charles Schwab. He often confirms trending BS terms with his CMO wife and is reminded that he has a lot more to learn from his three kids.
Tim is a co-founder and principal at Marketing Nice Guys, a marketing agency. Having more than 25 years of experience developing content, optimizing websites, and running marketing for various organizations, he has particular insight into the challenges faced by companies and their marketing departments. Previous to Marketing Nice Guys, he served as a vice president at the Association for Talent Development (ATD), overseeing the content and digital marketing division. His career has also included stints at ASCD, America Online, Netscape, and AltaVista, in content, marketing, and product strategy lead roles. Tim started his career as a journalist, as a former senior editor and producer at http://washingtonpost.com/ and as a reporter and writer for U.S. News & World Report magazine. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he is the co-author of The B.S. Dictionary: Uncovering the Origins and True Meanings of Business Speak (April 2020), with Bob Wiltfong. Since 2015, he has also served as an adjunct professor of a popular digital marketing course at Georgetown University.
The BS Dictionary: Uncovering the Origins and True Meanings of Business Speak is a unique concept to focus on. Let's break it down. What is it all about?
The BS Dictionary has been described as, "a cross between an old school dictionary and an Urban Dictionary with a huge dose of biting personality."
Written by a former correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and a reporter for U.S. News & World Report, The BS Dictionary: Uncovering the Origins and True Meanings of Business Speak provides real-world definitions to about 300 of the world's most used business terms. The book also gives you a humorous interpretation of each entry in the form of a "BS definition" -- what it really means when someone says "it is what it is" at work, for example. In addition, the authors give you a well-researched origin story for each word or phrase (who coined the term, when it started to be used in the business world, etc.)
What sparked this idea and what inspired you both to collaborate on this book?
Bob: My wife, Jill, is a chief marketing officer and is steeped in business jargon. One day, several years ago, she was working from home and she got on speaker phone with some of her colleagues. I started to hear them use phrases I had never heard before in my life – stuff like “boil the ocean” and “tiger team.” When she got off the phone, I asked her what those phrases meant and was fascinated that this whole language of business existed that I was unaware of. I started to compile a list of these “business speak” phrases and their definitions (primarily because I found them so fascinating).
A few years later, my list had blossomed into hundreds of words, terms and phrases commonly used in the business world. I knew I had a book when a worker at one of the companies I was consulting with told me that he too kept a list of “BS” terms at his workplace – some of them highly inappropriate, but widely used.
What inspired me to work with Tim on the book is because, as he points out later, I needed help getting the material to the finish line with ATD Press (it was A LOT of work they were asking me to do). In addition, our friendship, his experience as a researcher and shared joy of the topic made it a no-brainer to bring him on board as my co-author. The finished product of the book is so much better because of that partnership.
When did you begin compiling the buzzwords and phrases for your book?
Bob: As I recall, it was around 2015 when my wife had that phone call at home that sparked the first idea of keeping a list of business jargon.
Tim: Bob had a list of phrases in mind – the ones that he found to be interesting and ones both of us agreed were probably overused. And we both added to the list over time and we finalized about 300 of the terms.
How did you know when you had enough for a book?
Bob: Part of my professional experience is as a TV news journalist and as an actor/comedian. As a result, I’ve written a ton of original work (in the form of news stories, comedy sketches, and one-man shows). I’m used to deadlines and time restrictions. Those help guide you to know when you have enough (or too much). With a book, I found that the only real restriction was the wishes of my publisher. The publisher tells you when you have enough for a book.
Tim: When we were too tired to research any more (joke). I know on my end, I wanted to make sure we covered every letter of the alphabet and had included the most used business-speak terms that we have heard being consistently used.
How did you approach adding humor to this topic?
Bob: It was an intense comedy writing exercise, I’ll tell you that! Think about it: how do you make a 1-line joke about the word “scalable,” for example or “EBITDA?”
Most of the humor in our book comes out in the “BS definitions.” The BS definitions are what it really means when someone says the word or phrase in the office (as opposed to their traditional dictionary definitions). Tim and I wrote our jokes primarily through trial and error. We would each take turns writing “BS definitions” for the different terms. Since I have more experience being a professional smart-ass, I wrote most of them and then Tim and our editors at ATD Press would tweak them to their liking for the final edit.
Unfortunately, as with any comedy content, some of your best jokes die in the editing process. I had a killer (I think) one-liner written for the term “career suicide.” Everyone I ran it by laughed out loud when they heard it. But the powers-that-be felt like it might offend some readers so they cut it. Oh well. You win some and you lose some!
Tim: Not being a comedian like Bob, I really just tried to follow his lead if I drafted something I made sure it was in the spirit of what he originally had in mind when he developed the idea. I also think the topic naturally lends itself to a certain humor because we’ve all worked with those business types who overuse certain language to try to appear smarter than they really are. In many ways, those people almost become a caricature, which makes it easy to skewer. I think the humor is also in the fact that people say something but what they really mean to say is actually something else, which is ripe for comedic talents such as Bob.
Can you share a few of the most popular or humorous words or phrases along with their meanings and origins? Do either of you have a favorite?
Bob: I think the origin stories of these words and phrases are the best part of the book. I have so many favorites. Two that immediately come to mind…
The word “piggyback” has nothing to do with pigs! It’s rooted in the terms “pick pack” and “pick back.” However, it was often misstated, and, over time, it turned into the term “piggyback” that we use today.
The word “boondoggle” (which means work or an activity that is wasteful but gives the appearance of having value) has a great origin story that comes from the Boy Scouts. In the 1920s or 30s, an Eagle Scout leader in Rochester, New York made up the word “boondoggling” to describe a particular craft his scouts did at summer camp. In 1935, the New York Times ran a story about the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) spending more than $3 million on training for unemployed white-collar (another BS term, by the way!) workers that included instruction on making boondoggles. Critics of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal pounced on the frivolous-sounding word as a synonym for the waste they saw in the WPA’s spending. Thus, the word “boondoggle” became a BS term!
Tim: Bob will groan hearing me tell this again, but I always go back to the first time I ever heard the term “out of pocket.” It was actually Steve Roberts, (husband of Cokie Roberts, who himself was a reporter at U.S. News & World Report magazine). One time he came into the office and announced he would be: “Out of pocket the rest of the day.” Which, being a young reporter confused me. “What did that mean?,” I thought. Was he out of money? What was going on? It wasn’t until later someone let me know that it meant: “Not available.”
What I think is interesting is that the term’s origins come from writer O. Henry who used it in 1908’s “Buried Treasure,” published in Ainslee’s magazine in July that year. Many people don’t know that O. Henry was also out of pocket himself on many occasions. During one period in which he fled to Honduras (after being accused of bank embezzlement in Texas), he also coined the term “Banana Republic.”
Your book pokes fun at business guff and sheds light on the waffle that’s probably spouted in daily meetings by numerous execs in an array of businesses. What kind of feedback have you received regarding this book? Have you received any push-back? If so, how did you handle that? Please share a few positive responses.
Bob: You can’t please everybody, right? I was constantly reminded of that fact in my work as both a news reporter and a comedian. No matter what you do – no matter how air-tight your work is or how hard you worked to make it – there’s always going to be someone in this world who’s going to have a problem with it. That’s life. This book is no different.
We had one early review sort of dismiss the book saying, with Google at your disposal, you don’t really need this as a dictionary. Unfortunately, that reviewer totally missed the point of the book. Just like The Daily Show’s book, America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction, isn’t a history book (and shouldn’t be used as one), The BS Dictionary is not a dictionary and shouldn’t be judged as one. Yes, The BS Dictionary has a ton of factual information in it. Yes, it gives you the definition of hundreds of commonly-used business terms (and their well-researched origin stories), but, first and foremost, this book is entertainment. It is made for trivia lovers and people who enjoy getting a chuckle as they learn about the language we use on the job.
In the end, I settle on this litmus test for all the work I do for public consumption: Is this thing something I, myself, would enjoy consuming? In the case of The BS Dictionary, the answer is a resounding yes! The fact that so many others (Amazon users; our friends and family; various media outlets like Forbes and The Washington Post) have reviewed the book and told us they share that point of view is icing on the cake.
Tim: I can’t say I’ve received any real negative responses to the book. People who I run into love it. I buy copies for the agency I run, and people love the topic. I had a guy at a conference come up to me and say: “This is my boss!” and I laughed because I think the people who overuse such phrases are universal.
Is business jargon universal? Did you come across similar lingo in other languages from other countries, or is this concept unique to the United States?
Tim: Bob wrote a section in the book about some of the different phrases used by those in other countries. And they’re definitely some weird ones. I do think there’s a natural tendency for business to adopt things such as sports phrases (especially horse racing and baseball) because business has that competitive aspect of winning and losing. You also see a lot of that from technology, religion, and the arts (Shakespeare) too, still being used. I don’t think it’s a particularly American thing, as the British have come up with a number of phrases we still use in business speak. But I do think Americans are uniquely able to create new words that catch on because we tend to innovate in a lot of different areas.
In the meantime, to learn more about these two authors or to purchase their humorous book visit:
ATD Press - https://www.td.org/books/the-bs-dictionary
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Twitter - @thebsdictionary
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