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Collaborative (n.)

Every so often we get a cry for help from a weary citizen of the public-interest world who is fed up with some grossly overused expression, and who hopes to obliterate it, root and branch. The objector typically dreams of banishing not just the offending word or phrase, but the whole sinister process that gave it birth. One common example is the complaint that this or that tiresome noun is really a verb, or this adjective is really a noun, or this verb … well, you get the idea. Nine times out of ten, the commenter is (a) perfectly correct, and (b) missing the point.

The practice of plucking words from one part of speech and using them in another is as old as English itself. If we tried to ban it, we would undermine a good chunk of the language, with no real benefit and much loss of useful vocabulary. A simple example: Any time the elders in your church tell you the meek shall inherit the earth, they are not just expounding an ideal. They are also mixing up parts of speech. “Elder,” “meek,” and “ideal” are all adjectives that have undergone a conversion and were born again as nouns. But they have lived their new, altered lives for centuries without being burned at the stake. (“Stake” was a noun in the 9th century that became a verb in the 14th.)

I bring up this history because, in one recent communiqué, we got a thoroughly justified complaint about the overworked noun “collaborative.” The word has been driven to exhaustion, no dispute: funding collaboratives, learning collaboratives, advocacy collaboratives, community collaboratives, artists’ collaboratives. But instead of focusing on the dreary, ceaseless repetition of “collaborative” — which nowadays struts and frets its way into every story in which any bunch of people does anything together — the complainant leveled the charge that “collaborative” is actually an impostor. It’s really an adjective, not a noun. That is technically correct: “collaborative” didn’t hop the grammatical fence until the early 20th century. But by now it’s everywhere — and that’s the real problem. It’s the proliferation of the word — the insistent tediousness, the lack of imagination — that makes it irritating. Its ancestry is mostly beside the point.

There are plenty of other words to describe groups of people working together: team, network, alliance, corps, group, committee, coalition, association. And, for that matter, the former adjectives cooperative and collective. (We will skip over cabal, cartel, conspiracy, and syndicate — although if we were being honest, we’d have to admit they fit the bill much more often than is polite to acknowledge.) Finding a better word, or at least a less tired one, is the real solution to “collaborative.” If a few of those preferable words are themselves migrants from other parts of speech, I suspect most readers would say, “So what?”

Mind you, this isn’t meant as a defense of ripping words from their native grammatical habitat and just relocating them willy-nilly. Among other things, species tend to proliferate and become destructive when dropped carelessly into new surroundings — like kudzu crawling through Georgia, or melaleuca overrunning the Everglades. “Collaborative,” set loose in the garden of nouns, ended up becoming weed-like in just that way. So sure, it’s good to be suspicious of old words in new roles. It’s just that trying to eradicate migrant words is a little too much like trying to wipe out invasive species with pesticides: you probably won’t succeed, and you’ll despoil much of the landscape in the process.

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