Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Hello Sailor

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal contained an article where the lead line was “America’s captains of industry are starting to talk like, well, sailors.”  I read this with great interest, as I have been a competitive sailor for a number of years, spending many happy hours racing around buoys everywhere from the Great Lakes to Long Island Sound to Galveston Bay.  My reaction was, “Sailor’s lingo is perfect for our captains of industry; it contains technical terms that sound really imposing, but generally serve to obscure the issue at hand.”  Imagine my disappointment when I read the whole article and it turned out to be only about the use of the phrase, “we are facing headwinds”.  I mean, this really isn’t a great nautical term, nothing as evocative as “All hands on deck to haul the halyard and raise the mainsail.”  Rather, this is just the latest corporate cliché, replacing “We encountered a perfect storm” as corporate speak for “conditions were tough and we couldn’t overcome them to be as profitable as you expected us to be.”

In an attempt to overcome my disappointment, I have decided to offer up a few nautical terms that corporate chieftains could employ to their advantage:

Pooped :  to be overtaken by a following sea and smothered in a mass of breaking water, which often causes the ship to founder.  For example, the housing industry has been pooped by the subprime mortgage crisis.  This expression also has the advantage of being highly evocative.

Leeway:  the lateral distance a ship is displaced from its course while sailing to windward.  Any CEO worth his salt would be able to use this one.  I can hear it now: “We made good progress against our objectives in the quarter, but lowered consumer demand produced leeway which has caused us to reset our goals.”  Translation:  We couldn’t quite hit our profit targets, so we reset our bonus objectives.

Widdershins: In a direction opposite to the usual, in a wrong or contrary to direction.  This will enable corporations to avoid talking about losses, they can simply say, “Profit was widdershins”.  Very similar to the military talking about retrograde maneuvers.

Jetsam:  Goods thrown overboard to lighten the ship during a time of emergency.  (As opposed to goods washed overboard and found floating on the sea, which is flotsam.)  This could enable CEOs to talk about layoffs without talking about people – for example, “There were 2,500 jetsam which will help us return to profitability next year”.

Gunboat diplomacy:  to influence by force of arms rather than skilled negotiation.  A perfect replacement for the term “hostile takeover”.  Microsoft’s handling of their bid for Yahoo comes to mind. 

Scud:  to sail before the wind in a storm under reduced sail.  There are plenty of companies that are scudding right now – think of the U. S. auto industry.

There are plenty of other examples I can think of, such as loose cannon (rogue trader), trim the sails (corporate layoffs) and oakum (old pieces of rope picked into shreds – think employees approaching retirement), but I think you get the idea by now.  No use flogging a dead horse.  As the sun is now over the yardarm, I think I will shove off and go splice the main brace.

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