At this time of year we make a lot of fuss about a composite figure who partly owes his beginnings to St Nicholas, a Greek bishop of the fourth century AD. But there are two other Nicks just as famous and notorious, who arguably have had a greater influence on our language, history and culture.
However, let’s begin with Santa: an origin tale of many tellers. That jolly gent in a red suit owes his origins to the folklore of a dozen different cultures. There’s the English figure ‘Father Christmas’ (Père Noël in French). There’s the Norse figure ‘Tomte’ (sometimes known as ‘Nisse’). Then there’s the Netherlands figure of ‘Sinterklaas,’ and the American version of this name, Santa Claus. There’s even ‘Kris Kringle’, a name derived from Christkindel (Christ-child). The German name of the Christ Child, Christkind, was commonly used in its diminutive form. In the USA the change from Christkindel to Kris Kringle took place over many decades, with intermarriage between Germans, Pennsylvania Dutch and English settlers. Once thought to be the Christ-child’s chief helper, Kris Kringle has reverted to an image of Saint Nicholas, though the name grew even more popular with the movie Miracle on 34th Street (1947), the story of a man named Kris Kringle who gets a job playing Santa Claus at Macy’s department store in New York City. The figure of Santa Claus first showed up in America among the Pennsylvania Dutch in the mid-1820s in the form of ‘Belsnickle,’ a derivative of the German Pelz-nickle, which means ‘Nicholas in Furs’. Belsnickle would travel the Pennsylvania countryside ringing his bell looking for good children to present with small gifts of cakes and nuts. If Belsnickle came across a child who had behaving badly in the past year, he would warn the child to be good or else he might give them a smack with his rod.
But who was Nick really? Nikolaos of Myra lived in Turkey in the fourth century AD, and was canonised after death. Orphaned young Nikolaos had inherited great wealth which he determined to use for helping others less fortunate. After his death, stories of his saintly generosity, many of them apocryphal, spread with the legend, especially in Russia, where he is the patron saint. Nick’s feast day is one of the most important holy days of the year there. Russian children would leave their shoes out, hoping that Saint Nicholas would come in the night to leave presents of chocolate and fruit. By a process of history-becoming-legend-becoming-myth, he evolved into a kindly gift-giving figure at Christmas. Yet originally people held his celebration on Saint Nicholas Day, December 6th. For centuries, the 25th December was known as the Feast of the Nativity, a separate Holy Day.
Until the Middle Ages, St Nicholas was unknown in England. Instead the English had a pagan tradition of the mythical figure known as Father Christmas, who flew on an enchanted white horse over homes on Christmas Eve to bring presents for placement under Christmas trees, and treats to fill fireside stockings. He wore a wreath of holly on his head and a long green robe on his stout frame. This figure is embodied in the Spirit of Christmas Present, appearing in Charles Dickens’ famous novella, A Christmas Carol.
Across the channel, children in France awaited a visit by Père Noël and his pet donkey, Mistletoe, on Christmas Eve. Families would gather to eat a large dinner called Le Reveillon (the awakening). At the end of this feast they enjoyed a dessert cake decorated to look like a Yule log called Buche de Noël. Then children would fill their shoes with carrots and hay, leaving them by the fireplace with a glass of wine. During the night, Père Noël travelled with Mistletoe and a sack of gifts to each home. He removed the carrots and hay and replaced them with candies and presents, knocking off the wine and snacks before he headed next door. Should anyone ever see Père Noël, one was supposed to wish him a Joyeux Noël et Bonne Annèe (Merry Christmas and Happy New Year).
Further north, in Scandinavian countries, children on Christmas Eve would receive gifts from ‘Julenisse’ and his pet goat Yuley. If a child had been well behaved all year, Yuley would knock his horns against the front door three times. When a child answered the knock, Julenisse would supposedly greet the child with a gift, and a small paper basket of candy to be hung on the Christmas tree. In exchange, the child would offer a bowl of warm meal, such as porridge, for the visitors to eat before their next call. Scandinavian families would circle around a decorated tree singing carols before opening their gifts. One was only allowed to open one’s gift after the last Christmas carol was sung.
In each of the aforementioned cultures, the mythical figure wore red or green (traditional colours of fertility), had a well-fed belly, sported a great beard (symbol of male sexual maturity), and a crown of leaves (the sign of spring’s return). So how did St Nick become synonymous with these heathen traditions?
Midwinter celebrations of pagan eras continued despite the spread of Christianity at the beginning of the new millennium. By the fourth century, many clergymen decided that if they couldn’t eradicate these traditions they would appropriate them. No feast of Jesus’ birth yet existed. The Bible identified neither the day nor the season. However, the connections between pagan festivals of earthly renewal and a Christian figure of spiritual rebirth seemed like a reasonable match-up. In AD 353 Pope Liberius made the official declaration that December 25th was to be Christ’s birth celebration date.
In time, various traditions blended into the new celebration season. The legend of a generous Christian saint, Nicholas of Myra, began to spread. Nick became the patron saint of children, and there was no stopping the growth of his mythology. So today in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, Sinterklaas (often called De Goede Sint, ‘the Good Saint’) is portrayed as an elderly man with white hair and a long beard who wears a red cape over the traditional white alb of a bishop, clutching his gold-coloured crosier, a ceremonial shepherd’s staff. To administer the distribution of presents, Sinterklaas writes in the book of Saint Nicholas which contains notes on all children, indicating who’s been naughty or nice during the year.
So that’s our tale of Santa, the good Nick. Now what about the evil one?
Well, the baddest of all baddies is obviously the Devil, sometimes known as Old Nick. This guy goes way back, much further than the earliest origins of Santa Claus. He predates the Pharaohs and the Fertile Crescent. He was here before that oldest of civilizations, the Australian aborigines. He was present at the Creation, or shortly afterwards, bearing the name of Lucifer. So the ultimate origin story goes. The Devil has had many names across cultures, religions and languages. Then when did he acquire the name Old Nick? The venerable Oxford English Dictionary can shed no light on this mystery. One theory goes that the name is relatively recent, and derives from association with the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, about which more anon. The first reported usage of the term ‘Old Nick’ dates from 1643, so that theory is plausible. The OED also mentions a theory that ‘Nick’ is a shortened form of ‘iniquity’. Historian Thomas Macaulay disputes both of these, saying that Samuel Butler’s Hudibras referred to usages of Old Nick as far back as Anglo-Saxon times, when he was called ‘Old Nicka,’ appearing in illustrations with horns, Pan-like cloven feet, part-man and part-goat; in other words, a pagan tradition. Pan was the original berserker. Not for nothing do we derive the term ‘panic’.
Then where does that leave a more recent Nick, the scribe of ill memory, whose eponym has become an insult and almost a synonym for Old Nick’s type of behaviour?
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (1469 –1527) was an historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist and writer living in Florence during the Renaissance. For years he worked for the Florentine Republic, with responsibilities for diplomatic and military affairs. Nick was a forefather of modern political science but he also wrote comedies, carnival songs, and poetry. From 1498 to 1512 he was secretary to the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence, when the Medici family was out of power. He didn’t write his masterpiece, Il Principe (The Prince), until after the Medici recovered power but then didn’t require Nick’s services. It’s a handbook on how to maintain and wield power, containing maxims about statecraft and politics. Instead of concentrating on the feudal idea of a hereditary ruler, Nick writes about the possibility of a ‘new prince’. Where the hereditary monarch needed to maintain certain societal institutions, this new form of prince should first stabilise his new-found power to build an enduring political structure. Nick maintained that social benefits of stability, peace and security could be achieved in the face of moral corruption. He wrote that public and private morality might be understood as two different notions for a prince to rule effectively. This new type of sovereign should concern himself not only with reputation, but he should be prepared to act immorally at times, by exercise of brute force or deceit; in other words, the end justifying the means. The Catholic Church banned Il Principe, lending it notoreity across Christendom. Nick was no idealist like Plato or Aristotle. By telling the truth about how power worked—and has always worked—he offended Christian sensibilities. This new Nick wasn’t alive to hear the storms of sanctimonious outrage, having died five years before the publication of his most famous work.
Has he had unfair press? Certainly the adjective ‘Machiavellian’ is seldom used in any sense except the pejorative, a synonym for deceit and manipulation which even denotes a personality as well as a behavioural type. But this Nick has made a lasting contribution to our body politic. His most famous work has influenced the development of republicanism and revolution. Nick’s work affected the Protestant Reformation in England and the spread of dissenter views on the continent, also the Counter-Reformation. Is it any wonder that his views have been associated with the naming of Old Nick? Nevertheless, he’s had his defenders. No less an august person than Francis Bacon named Machiavelli as a scholastic predecessor. Later thinkers such as Montaigne, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu have been tagged by academics as indebted to Nick. The whole Enlightenment movement owes him big-time. He was a major influence on the political development of the Founding Fathers of the United States, especially those in favour of throwing off the yoke of a hereditary prince in favour of republican rule. John Adams, the second president, went so far as to praise Nick’s candour and insight.
So although we mightn’t sing carols for him or put out hay for his reindeer, Nick doesn’t deserve his devilish namesake’s place in the underworld. Machiavelli was no Santa Claus but he told the truth, palatable or not. And partly thanks to his influence, nation after nation has thrown off the shackles of hereditary monarchy for rule by the people and their elected representatives. Not a bad Christmas present. Joyeux Noël, Niccolò. Bonne Annèe.
Business clichés: we hear them all the time but what do they really mean? If people list these in their CVs, language misdemeanors can turn into mortal sins.
If you have ever conducted referee checks for a prospective new employee, such terms ought to ring an alarm bell when written in an application or spoken by a referee, no matter how supportive that person claims to be. They could be warnings. They may even be a coded message for the listener.
When conducting job interviews I have often called the bluff of pompous jargon-users by asking what exactly they mean by ‘think outside the box,’ ‘touch base’ or ‘synergy’. Examples are always best, especially those involving real situations. This sorts genuine candidates from the chaff.
But not always.
A canny applicant may be skilled—or indoctrinated—in using business clichés. Equally guilty of cliché mentality may be the HR consultants, supervisors or managers doing the recruiting.
Business clichés can work as canaries in the mine of recruitment, alerting potential employers to bluff-merchants or else alerting job-seekers to blowhards in charge of the prospective new workplace.
So for the benefit of job-seekers and employers alike, I offer a list of hidden meanings for some of these overworn terms.
‘Goal-oriented’: suggests a person of purpose but it can also imply someone monomaniacal, bloody-minded or obsessive.
‘Team-player’ sounds positive but it can also be cover for a person unable to function beyond the confines of a committee or other colleagues who do all the real work.
‘Think outside the box’ can signify an original or ‘lateral’ thinker, but it may be cover for someone unable to perform a straight calculation or write a report on time. These mavericks might be great on intuition but lousy at finishing tasks.
‘Multi-tasker’ gives the impression of an intellectual octopus but it may indicate someone who can’t start one task and finish it without being distracted by seven other tasks.
‘Touch base’ is one of those vogue expressions meaning no more than meeting for a chat occasionally. It fails to sound technologically savvy; rather it indicates a fashion victim, a cliché spree shopper.
‘Going forward’ is another meaningless expression. It may suggest a person focused on action but it may also indicate a gadfly. After all, an examination of the past can be invaluable in avoiding future mistakes. George Santayana’s wise (and often misquoted) words remain as important as ever: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
‘Cost-efficient’ sounds impressive, yet it may also be code for a cheapskate willing to skimp on quality.
‘Flexible approach’ is a phrase nobody would be foolish enough to deny, even though an employer’s use of the term might hint at staff willing to sacrifice their weekends or work for less money.
‘Loyal employee’ is how a toady self-describes, and is no guarantee of employee honesty or that an employer will give due recognition to staff.
Vogue terms like ‘incentivise’ should be laxativised.
‘On the same page’ is a cliché that sounds collaborative but may suggest that the speaker cannot grasp anything more complex than a one-page summary.
‘Self-starter’ sounds impressive but it could be a euphemism for any organisational loose cannon, cowboy mentality or someone impervious to instruction.
‘Let’s dialogue’ indicates a lover of jargon but no love for language or the impact of such words on human behaviour.
‘Paradigm shift’ is a cliché from jargon users with no clue about science or epistemology.
‘Human capital’ is a business cliché that reduces people to unit costs.
‘At the end of the day’ is probably the number one business cliché and has no meaning at all. Which day? Excess usage may suggest a person unable to handle the truth that some problems are too complex for solution in a single day.
‘Work smarter, not harder’ is a really dumb thing to say: self-evident and unhelpful. It may indicate someone of limited imagination.
‘Change agent’ is an idiot phrase, as it can refer to every single aspect of almost everything.
‘Deliverable’ is a faux-noun, used as if it’s a component in a factory assembly line. Users of this term may not have advanced skills in dealing with people.
‘Best practice’ is an overused phrase that is ultimately without meaning. Who says a practice is ‘best’? What standards are at stake? By ‘best’ do we mean cheaper, more efficient or prettier in some way? This use of ‘best’ only amounts an opinion widely circulated.
‘Detail-oriented’ sounds impressive but this phrase may be code from a person who suffers from myopia and struggles to see the wider purpose.
‘Synergy’ is a faux-portmanteau word meaning a combination of synthesis and energy but adding up to a word-wanker. Warning bell ringing.
‘Value-added’ is only a fancy way to say ‘increased in value’.
‘Leverage’ is likewise just a fancy way to say ‘lever’.
‘Low hanging fruit’ is a clichéd phrase much open to misinterpretation, depending what the speaker and listener understand. Is the fruit ripe yet? Just because it’s low-hanging may not mean it’s the best fruit; in fact it may be overripe. Use of the cliché is suggestive of a jargon-adopter but not necessarily an original thinker.
‘Pre-planning’ means planning. So does ‘forward planning’. Does ‘planning’ not sound impressive enough?
‘Self-motivated’ might sound impressive but it could suggest someone who has no interest in the organisation’s aims.
There are dozens more of these clichés. Job-seekers do themselves a disservice by deploying them in interviews and Curriculum Vitae. Recruiters do themselves a disservice by using them in job descriptions, selection criteria and in interview questions. Either they fail to tease out the truth of someone’s ability or they reveal the paucity of an organisation’s hiring practices. Language deserves better as the primary means of making workplaces work.
The emperor has no clothes. Can’t we just admit it? Organisations do not need a mission statement. Sure, they need a mission and yes, they need a plan. But those banal blurbs splashed across annual reports are no more than managerial fashion accessories. It’s not fair to the English language. And it’s not fair to employees obliged to salute vacuous statements like mindless minions in a totalitarian regime chanting a credo they don’t believe.
What happens to organisations who choose not to be fashion victims? Without the empty rhetoric of a mission statement do they sink into a hole in the earth? Do they close their doors? No, they just get on with delivering goods and services. But they’re the exception. As much as eighty percent of all companies and non-profit organisations subscribe nowadays to the myth of the mishmash statement. Ever since Peter Drucker helped to popularise the notion in the 1980s, highly paid managerial consultants (eager to justify their fee) have continued to insist that all organisations must have a mission statement. Really? Why?
Let’s be honest. A mission statement is not a mission. It’s not even a statement of intent. It’s no more than a glorified slogan. If you teach at a school or sit on a school board, is your institution likely to cease teaching students and instead start making washing-machine parts or flipping hamburgers? Do you really need a mission statement to tell you that your so-called ‘core business’ is education?
If you’re a manufacturer of dog food, how likely is it you’ll suddenly turn into a roof-tiling business? Oh, but there’s a risk you might lose focus without a mission statement. Rubbish.
CEOs don’t need a mission statement. They know what their company is and what it does. They may even be the founder of that company. Does an organisation need plans and objectives? Of course, it does. Does an organisation need a statement to define its self-evident raison d’être? Not at all. The CEO already knows why his or her company exists.
Nor do CIOs need the extra verbiage. Or CFOs. They’re too busy running the place. Sure, executives and middle managers will agree to the imposition of a mission statement but they’re paid to say yes. They might not be fashion victims themselves but they won’t admit that the emperor’s new wardrobe is made of air. Mission statements are no more than empty fashion.
An all-encompassing statement of the bleeding obvious is just white noise. That’s the truth about mission statements: their sum is zero. Readers’ eyes skip past that guff, as they might rip open an envelope, to find what a company actually does. Mishmash statements are the orthographical equivalent of blah blah blah.
Don’t believe it? Try a search engine and find a mission statement. Read several. They mean nothing, do nothing, achieve nothing.
Here are some I have found:
Virgin America: ‘Make flying good again’
Total mishmash. Does this suggest flying isn’t ‘good’ nowadays or that it used to be ‘good’, whatever ‘good’ means? Does this ‘good’ imply truthfulness, virtue, spiritual experience or charitable behaviour? I’ve flown Virgin and found it to be a dependable and customer-friendly airline. But ‘good’? How exactly? This use of ‘good’ probably hints at ‘feel-good,’ ‘good value,’ or both. But the intentional vagueness of this mission statement can mean so many things that it adds up to nothing. Mishmash.
Starbucks: ‘Our mission: to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.’
Utter nonsense. ‘Nurture the human spirit’? From a fast-food chain? Give me a break. Perhaps a statement like ‘we intend to sell drinkable coffee in your neighbourhood’ would be more honest. This isn’t the United Nations or a Nobel Prize ceremony.
ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals): ‘To provide effective means for the prevention of cruelty to animals throughout the United States’.
Yes, this is a noble aspiration and an accurate, if dull, mission statement. But is it necessary? Doesn’t the statement simply paraphrase the organisation’s title? Therefore it’s redundant.
The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Mission statements are a wardrobe malfunction that its enthusiasts choose not to see.
Here are the two essential words in writing your mission statement:
(1) Challenge: never use the words ‘problem’ or ‘problem-solving,’ which suggest the existence of a negative attitude. No matter how realistic your objections might be, nobody likes a nay-sayer. ‘Solutions’ is a good word but ‘challenge’ is better. It’s so vague; at once suggesting that you can remove all obstacles merely by wishing, without having to deliver. Failing to achieve will simply be another challenge.
(2) Commitment: you must be committed to things. You don’t have to achieve them, just maintain your commitment. Anyone can do it. No matter how ambitious and pie-in-the-sky your aims might be, you can always be committed to them. It’s a must-use word meaning absolutely nothing. You don’t have to follow through on this non-promise. Yes, at XYZ Inc. we remain committed to—fill in the buzzwords—excellence, diversity, probity, quality, yada yada…
What about the so-called ‘vision’ statement? If anything, it’s even more useless. And how exactly does a vision statement differ from a mission statement? Ask ten management consultants and you will receive ten different answers. I have done so (eleven, actually). Here are some of the justifications I’ve received in answer:
(i) vision statements provide the big picture (doesn’t a mission statement do that also?)
(ii) vision statements comprise a set of ideals (the same justification is made of objectives, aims, mission statements and values statements)
(iii) vision statements help to articulate brand strategy (isn’t that the job of a strategic plan? Not every organisation needs a strategic plan, only those with multiple services or diverse products.)
(iv) a vision statement is the icing on the cake (cake doesn’t need icing, if the cake is any good).
Aside from fashion, what’s the real reason organisations need a mission/ vision statement?
Funds. Moolah. Cash flow. To win lucrative contracts, especially from government, organisations tendering for dollars must meet the almost mandatory requirement to provide a mishmash statement. Why? Well, because you have to. Government mandarins and bean-counters are accountable to the public, through publicly elected representatives. This accountability requires them to justify why Company XYZ gets a funding contract but Company ZYX does not. Decision-makers must justify decisions with a standard set of assessment criteria, one of which includes organisational aims and, yes, a mission statement. Because… well, because they do. It’s no more than managerialist fashion.
And in the private sector, mission statements are utterly unnecessary: a waste of time and effort, except for the consultant who gets paid to dream them up. Nobody reads those things. Nobody cares what they say. Some examples:
- Yahoo! powers and delights our communities of users, advertisers, and publishers – all of us united in creating indispensable experiences, and fueled by trust.
- At Microsoft, we work to help people and businesses throughout the world realize
their full potential. This is our mission. Everything we do reflects this mission and the values that make it possible.
- Exxon-Mobil: ‘We are committed to being the world’s premier petroleum and petrochemical company. To that end, we must continuously achieve superior financial and operating results while adhering to the highest standards of business conduct. These unwavering expectations provide the foundation for our commitments to those with whom we interact.’
Blah blah blah. Delete all of the above. Nobody working for those corporations will miss those mission statements, if anyone even knew they existed.
Time to ban the mishmash. Remain committed to the challenge and make stakeholder buy-in value-added.