Originally created 04/10/98

Dictionary catalogs jargon used in business



AIKEN -- Davis Folsom's interest in business jargon began innocently.

Four years ago, he walked into class a minute tardy. In the back row of the lecture hall four familiar faces sat engaging in endless chatter.

With a startled look on his face, one student looked up and whispered an obscenity acknowledging Mr. Folsom's arrival.

To which Dr. Folsom, an economics and marketing professor at the University of South Carolina at Aiken, replied, "How is my Group W Bench today?"

He recalled that "the students smirked, but I could tell they had no idea what I meant."

So he struck a deal. Anyone who could find the definition of Group W Bench would get five extra credit points tacked onto their final grade.

The next day, one of the students correctly identified the origin of the phrase, coined from a line from Arlo Guthrie's 1967 antiwar ballad Alice's Restaurant Massacre, referring to a group of inductees who might be unfit for military service.

"When I asked how he found it, he told me his roommate had given him the answer," Mr. Folsom said. But the student's first instinct was to look in the business and economics dictionaries in the campus library. But of course it wasn't there.

"That got me wondering how often I used phrases, terms and analogies that aren't familiar to my students, and it stimulated my interest and research into business jargon."

And so began a three-year odyssey to collect as many jargon terms as he could muster. From the Wall Street Journal to Forbes Magazine to his mother Myrtle, Mr. Folsom clipped every article he could find that had anything remotely to do with business jargon.

"My only problem was deciding how much was enough," he said.

In the preface of his dictionary, Understanding American Business Jargon, Mr. Folsom wrote, "Regardless of how you feel about it, global business had become a reality and American business presence can be observed throughout the world."

Much of the jargon is born from American pop culture and business presence, Mr. Folsom said.

Examples are easy to find and are well documented in the dictionary, which got a mention in a March 31 article in the Wall Street Journal.

"A few years ago, U.S. troops entering Somalia a few years ago were greeted by young people cheering, `Michael Jackson.' During the Gulf War, the Saudi Arabian government restricted movement and interaction of American soldiers so its society wouldn't be `corrupted' by American ideas," Mr. Folsom wrote. "The 16th Century royal palace in Kirktipur, a village in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, has a large Coca-Cola sign hanging from it. And in his book Video Night in Kathmandu, writer Pico Ivy depressingly describes seeing the movie Rambo dubbed in five South Asian languages. ... American companies, celebrities and brands are recognized everywhere."

Most of the copies have been sold to libraries, which offer it as a handy reference to anyone confused or curious about the new business jargon.

However, an Internet site also has been drawn from Mr. Folsom's dictionary, one of three books he has penned. Since the Wall Street Journal article, hits to the site have picked up.

An Israeli woman e-mailed to ask what a cash cow was. A British man wondered what playing "hardball" meant.

In the back corner of his office, dangling from a tack, a crinkled envelope bulges with new words and phases for a second edition.