Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Being a language purist, nothing bothers me more than a word which has been bastardized into a cute marketing expression. So, although I don't do phrases, a request has been made for "grow" based on "to grow one's business".

Well, this is new to me. Grow is one of those base words from Medieval English "growen" from Old Norse "groa", and it has always meant "to grow". No derivations, no deviations, no distractions. Just grow. Now, of course, there are over a dozen variant definitions of the use of the word grow, but I'm going to focus on the misuse I stated above. And how does this differ from my prior suggestions to use words out of context? Because grow was originally an intransitive verb requiring helping verbs (He has been growing a rate of 1" each month; our crops have been growing well now that we have installed the new irrigation system), and only in the 1800s was it expanded to include living things directly (We grow grapes and roses; violets grow best with incandescent lighting), but the application to nonliving things was a sound byte apparently coined by President Bill Clinton in 1992 in his remarks to the People of East Lansing ("...that we not only could, but we had to grow the economy and improve the environment.). And the phrase took off, unfortunately. I suppose it's not such a bad misuse if you truly believe a business is a living organism, or analogous to one, which it not a big stretch. But this misuse was from "growing the economy" subsequently extended to "growing a business". Now, I am not a farmer, but I don't view the practice of planting, nurturing, pruning, weeding, harvesting, and selling of produce to be the equivalent process of trying to improve the economy, which is more like trying to make a path through a Brazilian rain forest with a butter knife. Therefore, you may, potentially, grow an idea to solve the deficit, as the idea may be germinated and nurtured, etc., but you cannot grow the economy all by itself--the economy was not a developed idea, but an analysis of an existing trading system, and you certainly cannot grow the deficit down (that just defies basic agriculture, physics, and common sense).

So, while I don't like "grow your business", as long as it can still be reasonably compared to farmer's crops, it is a not unreasonable extension. A small business owner may grow his business, but Microsoft may be beyond that analogy. You will note the legal caveats that I have included. I could never use this expression. My expansion of usage is only for sarcastic effect. There was no sarcasm in the 1992 speech or any other misuse since then. President Clinton meant it seriously (I hope), and one can only hope that he hired better speech writers since then. Meanwhile, although the expression is here to stay (I have heard it used in Fedex commercials), we can do our part to try to minimize its impact. For my part, when I hear such misusages, I try to rearrange their sentence/sentiment in my immediate response to properly use all the words. "I've got some great ideas to grow my legal practice," says the Plaintiff's attorney. "And what are your ideas to make your business grow?" I reply, with just a hint of irritation. After all, I don't like talking to stupid Plaintiff's attorneys generally, and worse when they misuse the English language they rely on for their livelihood. Let's not grow the English language this way. Yeah, that really does just sound wrong. Let's allow the English language to grow only in reasonable and proper ways. Better.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks! I was looking for other discussions regarding the misuse of the word. My dad and I discussed it just last week! You say that it began to be applied to living things as a transitive verb in the 19th century. But isn't it in fact only plants that be grown? For instance, I can't imagine saying "I'm growing my puppy." and feeling alright about it afterwards.