The verb TO MAXIMIZE suffers, like many grandiloquent expressions, from a kind of inflation, being applied thoughtlessly to far smaller things than it is meant to describe. In that respect, it is cousin to words like “universal,” “brilliant,” “comprehensive,” and the oiliest of the lot, “holistic.”

It’s rare to see these words used with anywhere near the expansiveness for which they were intended. A “holistic” cure usually addresses two or three aspects of a problem, but almost never its entirety — to which the Greek prefix holo refers. (Compare with “holocaust,” a total immolation, or “hologram,” where all dimensions are visible.) Similarly, “comprehensive” programs usually deal with a handful of related things, but not all related things (which would quickly get us to the galaxy’s edge, and beyond).

Likewise MAXIMIZE, which ought to mean achieving the utmost — the living end, so to speak. To “maximize” your return on an investment, you should end up immeasurably wealthy, or at least you should end up with every possible dime that investment could ever yield. (The Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition of MAXIMUM is “the greatest of all the values of which a variable or a function is capable.”) Most investors these days are lucky if they get any return at all, but almost no one ever gets everything that’s possible, and most smart investors aren’t foolish enough to expect that. Far too many people, unfortunately, are foolish enough to say that they expect that — or worse, that they can deliver it — a practice that makes the speaker seem injudicious at best.

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