Avoiding an attack of the adjectives

I've always taken umbrage with our industry's obsession for unnecessary superlatives. As in "third-largest, privately owned, community-focused wholesaler of blah blah blah..."

I've always taken umbrage with our industry's obsession for unnecessary superlatives. As in "third-largest, privately owned, community-focused wholesaler of blah blah blah..."

It's really unnecessary to inflate a company's stature with impressive-sounding verbosity. Instead of enhancing a brand, this weird overselling often obfuscates the real definition of the entity or product.

Early in my career, I represented Japan-based companies. I'd often receive drafts of news announcements that needed major editing. The original drafts were created by people for whom English was not a native language, so they were often sprinkled with awkward translations that caused me to pause. One of the more intriguing phrases was "epoch making." As in, "We are pleased to announce OFFMAT, an epoch-making new office automation system."

I was puzzled that a new office automation system could be considered "epoch making." I thought you had to wipe out dinosaurs or move from an agrarian to an industrial economy in order to declare a new epoch. But the dictionary defines epoch as "an event that begins a new period or development." This is quite broad, so I can understand how my Japanese colleagues aggressively adopted the phrase.

Yet I struggle to forgive my fellow English speakers who have created such excellent new hype-boosting accoutrements as "optimize," "align," and the ever popular "actionable" and "sustainable." Indeed, there is no shortage of organizations that now promise to help you leverage your strategic assets, (if indeed your assets are both strategic and leveragable).

Restaurants, however, have taken adjective use to a new level. The trend began in the late 1980s with the emergence of "free range" chicken and "air dried" duck. Over time, these foodies crossed the sanity barrier and the age of outrageous descriptors emerged. It is no longer possible to order fried chicken, steamed fish, or braised beef. Ingredients must now be accompanied by a geographical locator, a haute cuisine indicator, and a PETA-approved background verifier. As in: Air Dried, Line Caught, Peruvian Tilapia. Or Pan Seared Wild Alaskan King Salmon.

Some of it is overwhelming, particularly to a Philistine like me, who gets confused by the confluence of exotic yet down-home attributes such as "herb marinated pan roasted free range chicken with roasted garlic Yukon gold whipped potatoes and market fresh vegetables." I took that verbatim from a menu on a restaurant's website. This dish has 13 adjectives for three ingredients (chicken, potatoes, and vegetables) - a 4.25 to 1 ratio of superlatives to articles. It violates my sense of order in the universe.

A few years back, my wife and I journeyed to Amish country in northern Ohio for a weekend getaway. We stayed at a small country inn with its own restaurant. The waitress was a fresh-faced Amish girl with excellent manners and a pleasant persona. She informed us the two dinner choices were trout or chicken.

"How is the trout prepared?" I asked, assuming that I'd get the LA too-hip-to-trip, four-adjective description of the Old World balsamic-reduction-basting process that was used to prepare the Wyoming free-bred, line-caught cutthroat.

Instead, she eyed me quizzically and said, "Well, we dip the fish in evaporated milk, roll it in bread crumbs, and bake it."

I chose the chicken. Maybe the use of a few adjectives isn't so egregious after all. 

Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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