Let me make two things clear. Firstly, language is organic. It grows and changes. Words pass out of usage, or take on new meanings. New words are invented for new objects and concepts. People who want language to remain as it is, frozen at the point that they did their English degrees, are probably afraid of change or have large rods inserted in particular orifices.
Secondly, language is important. It is important because it is our main tool for communication. Not only to understand, love and conspire with each other but even to be able to think in the first place. It is very, very difficult to think something for which you do not have the words. Our abilities to think and to relate are bound to our grasp of language – and the integrity of the language that is available to us.
So it’s worth keeping an eye on our words.
Why can leverage not be a verb?
Leverage is the advantage gained by the use of a lever. Imagine a big rock. You ram a crowbar underneath it, push down on the bar and the rock begins to rise. You now have leverage.
The word comes by adding the suffix -age to the verb lever. When you lever (verb) the rock, you get this:
lever + -age = leverage
We are used to this in language:
spill + -age = spillage
dote + -age = dotage
advance + -age = advantage
The suffix –age transforms these verbs into nouns. That’s what it is used for. You advance (verb) your army, to give yourself an advantage (noun).
So if you want to use further the advantage that you have gained, how do you do it? Let me tell you how you don’t do it. You don’t advantage your troops. That’s nonsensical. Because a verb transformed into a noun by adding –age can’t suddenly be a verb as well.
It sounds completely wrong.
And yet bloggers, especially those who would like to be Seth Godin, are doing this all the time.
They say that the way to capitalise on your position – is by leveraging it. In other words, to leverage (verb) your leverage (noun).
It is a crude bastardisation of language. It takes a verb, to lever, that has become a noun, leverage, and twists the word into another verb even though it ends with the noun-defining ending –age. The suffix –age is the linguistic equivalent of streaking across the live final of The X Factor wearing nothing but a banner proclaiming ‘I AM A NOUN’. You can’t get more noun-like than a word made into a noun by the suffix –age.
You can’t spillage me across the floor or dotage me into delirium for suggesting that language does not work this way.
Because if leverage was a verb then we could create leveragage by doing it. And that’s just getting silly.
What do people mean by ‘to leverage’?
In most cases, I think people mean one of two things:
1. They just mean ‘to lever’
‘if you leverage the content that you have already created, you will be able to squeeze out a bit more mileage’
If the writer (it would be unfair to identify him as so many people do it) means capitalising upon the work that you have already done, then the correct word is simply lever:
‘if you lever the content that you have already created…’
And if this sounds dumb, it is because it is. Leverage has become a buzzword, yet there are few situations where it is apt. A much better analogy for capitalising upon previous advantage gained would be advancing your troops further, or investing in new ventures having worked hard to create money in the first place, to name but two.
2. They mean ‘using the leverage you already have to your advantage’
‘The more you say leverage, the less you’ve probably thought about what you’re saying.’
It’s not just that it stomps all over obvious grammatical integrity. Using leverage as a verb is also confusing, because it means levering your leverage. That is not a simple concept to me.
A confession to finish
Let me confess that there is a recorded use of leverage as a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary. In finance, leveraging is using borrowed capital to make investments that will provide greater profit than the interest owed. Maybe that’s where some people derive it from.
I hope that the reasons not to emulate the financial world are evident without having to spell them out, particularly when it comes to language. Do we want to shape the world for the better with our ideas, or shut it out?
The writers who imposed the greatest number of new words upon the English language had the greatest grasp of existing words. When you can write like Shakespeare, by all means make up whatever words you like.
Until then, look after the words you’ve inherited. You might need them for something important one day.
Do you use leverage as a verb? Why? What do you mean by it? What metaphors could we use instead? Do you think this might be a British/US English thing?
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