Shopping Around For Sherpas
Check out this superb article by linguist, lexicographer, columnist, and self-described “all-around word nut” Ben Zimmer (@bgzimmer) in The Atlantic. Ben discusses the cultural misappropriation of words and how sherpas, ninjas, and gurus crop up everywhere: Why Do Supreme Court Nominees Have ‘Sherpas’?
Ben argues that this kind of contrived lexical exoticism hides the complex cultural origins of such words but also betrays a kind of lazy stereotyping of (in this case, Asian) culture. As he says, “It may look good on a LinkedIn profile, but you might want to think twice about calling yourself a sherpa, guru, or ninja just to add a dash of exoticism.”
Indeed, but you may also be adding a layer of mysticism to the unfortunate localizer who has to figure out what these words really mean in English before attempting to transcreate them in another language.
The Pope’s Guru
NPR’s excellent Code Switch radio program also explores the origin and lexical hijacking of the word Guru. My favorite example has to be, “The Vatican Sends Its Social Media Guru To SXSW Festival”.
The tech industry is notorious for this sort of nonsense, going far beyond the annexation of those Asian words mentioned to create even more grandiose, mystical job titles that frankly make no difference to the job description or employee performance itself. Plus, how do you localize Direct Mail Demigod? Digital Nomad? E-Commerce Wingwoman?
Are HR professionals now spending time at Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek, and Marvel movies to come up with some of these daft titles?
Storytelling Around The S-Bend
The now over-used title of storyteller really gets me going. Throw a stone in any pub in Ireland and you’ll still hit 100 storytellers (although we have considerably more colourful names for these characters). Lucy Kellaway, formerly of the Financial Times, and a legend for calling out corporate BS, had it with the craze for the word storyteller years ago: Dentists and plumbers do not tell stories. Nor should you.
My pet word hates from the user experience (UX) world have to be that job persona road warrior (translation: traveling salesperson) and then there’s that rockstar suffix do jour (translation: exceeds minimum professional requirements, now and then).
Attention tech developer and UX people. This is what a rockstar looks like and does:
See? No laptop covered with stickers in sight. No electric scooter on stage. That thing is an electric bass guitar.
Just Call It Like It Is
And so it goes on. There are probably gurus who have the job to misappropriate words from other cultures and make roles and titles sound a lot more interesting than they really are but without paying the employee anything extra.
Me? I’ll follow Oscar Wilde‘s advice: “It’s better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating.” (The Model Millionaire).
I think Peter Drucker nails for this kinds of poseur hell: “I have been saying for many years that we are using the word guru only because charlatan is too long to fit into a headline.” Or fit into a tweet.
Now, don’t start me on the casual militarization of language and where that might take us …
Nice one, Ben! You’re that total word guru for real!