Monday, April 26, 2010

Word of the Year: Conflate

My pick for word of the year is conflate. According to Wiktionary, it means “to bring things together and fuse them into a single entity.” It’s derived from a Latin word that means much the same thing.

Conflating is something people are doing more than ever these days, by accident, out of haste. People want to jump to conclusions because they feel they can’t take the time to check the facts. It takes only a moment to hope you made the right distinctions. Actually getting things right could take several minutes.

Taking an example from the weekend’s headlines, some people have started to talk about Goldman Sachs as a repeat of the Enron story. Enron never made a profit, in its later configuration, but created the appearance of a profit by manipulating its financial statements. Goldman Sachs actually made a profit, though there are questions about the propriety of its deals by which it did so. But to some observers, the difference disappears in a cloud of “Whatever.” That’s an example of the kind of conflating that people are doing this days.

This trend toward mixing stories up haphazardly shouldn’t be taken as an indication of the declining character of people these days, but rather an indication of the increasing time pressure affecting almost everyone. I don’t believe time pressure can simply increase forever, but the time pressure trend shows no sign of slowing down.

Making distinctions is the opposite of conflating — at least of the new kind of conflating. The more people mix things up, the more there is to be gained by making distinctions. If most people keep rushing and hoping they’re getting things right, but not taking the time to check, conflating could be a marker for profit opportunities. Where everyone else is conflating, stop and make a distinction, and you may find a competitive advantage.