I’m a marketing professional. So naturally words are my stock-in-trade. I love words. I love language (and I speak several). I love understanding the etymology or words. Where they came from. When they became part of our language. And I love neologisms, which according to Webster means: a new word or expression or a new meaning of a word.
In this blog, I’m going to focus on two words that have taken on very different meanings in recent years. Disruptive and unicorn.
These are not new words. We all know what they mean. Or rather we knew what they used to mean! Because they have taken on very different meanings in current business parlance.
The first known use of the verb disrupt was in 1793 and it meant “to interrupt the normal course of.” The adjective form of the word, disruptive, carries the same meaning. Children can be disruptive when they demand attention while a group of grows ups are attempting to have an adult conversation. A person who is coughing in the audience during a classical music concert is disruptive. Until recently, in everyday parlance, disruptive had a negative connotation.
But put it together with the word technology, and “disruptive technology” takes on a whole new positive meaning in modern parlance. According to WhatIs.com, “A disruptive technology is one that displaces an established technology and shakes up the industry or a ground-breaking product that creates a completely new industry.” Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen coined the term disruptive technology in his 1997 best-selling book, "The Innovator's Dilemma."
Disruptive is now a good thing. Disrupting the status quo has paved the way for innovations that have made our lives easier and have made our businesses more agile. Disruptive technologies and innovations don’t wait for traditional methodologies to slowly adapt to change. They are game changers that quickly transform the way we do business.
Think about the speed at which computers replaced typewriters. Think about how email has become a faster mode of communication replacing mail, which we now fondly refer to as “snail mail.” Think about how cloud services have eliminated the need for costly on premise hardware.
Change is good and disruptive is good, too.
First used in the 13th century (!) we all know that a unicorn is a mythical animal often depicted as a very beautiful horse with a long and pointed horn extending from its forehead. Now you can forget that definition.
Because in today’s parlance, according to that omniscient source of all information, Wikipedia: “A unicorn is a start-up company valued at more than $1 billion. Canadian tech unicorns are known as narwhals. A decacorn is a word used for those companies valued at more than $10 billion, while hectocorn is the appropriate term for such a company valued at more than $100 billion. According to VentureBeat, there were 229 unicorns as of January 2016. The largest unicorns included Uber, Xiaomi, Airbnb, Palantir, Snapchat, Dropbox and Pinterest.” These are not definitions that appear in Merriam-Webster. I checked.
See how language has changed! It's positively astonishing. Unicorns are popping up all over the world, and I'm certainly not referring to the mythical beasts.
Fortune magazine publishes a Unicorn List and explains as follows: "they're called "unicorns" - private companies valued at $1 billion or more. The billion-dollar technology startup was once the stuff of myth. Today they're seemingly everywhere, backed by a bull market and a new generation of disruptive technology." Note the phrase "... backed by ... a new generation of disruptive technology." Thanks goodness you now know what that means!
Today, tomorrow, or the day after that, there will likely be more new words and more old words with new meanings. I, for one, am pleased that our lexicon is keeping up with the pace of change. Otherwise, my words would lack appropriate meaning. And that would not be a good thing.