Tepid demand: it’s too hot, please make it tepid

March 16, 2011

I have come to hate the phrase “tepid demand” in news. It’s not a cliche in the general sense of the English language, though it is one in business journalism. I hate it because we and other news outlets use it all the time.

  • Bloomberg: Microsoft Corp will stop introducing new versions of the Zune music and video player because of tepid demand…
  • Dow Jones: Natural-gas futures ended nearly flat Wednesday, settling slightly lower as market participants weighed forecasts for mild weather and tepid demand in the U.S. against the impact of rising global prices for the heating fuel in the wake of the Japanese nuclear crisis.
  • Mint: The exemption of export duty on iron ore pellets may not be enough to boost production as miners may be deterred by tepid demand in global markets and the high cost of building such plants.

It’s not just our competitors. We love it. If it’s not tepid, we’re not eating it.

  • But many market players expect tepid demand from banks, which are major buyers of the maturity, as they are seen as reluctant to change their portfolios ahead of the March 31 fiscal year-end. (PS, there are many other things I could fix here, but one thing at a time.)
  • On Wednesday, the company’s Canadian unit, Sears Canada Inc reported a 28 percent drop in quarterly earnings, mainly because of tepid demand for appliances.
  • After strong sales in early 2010, chipmakers have wrestled in recent months with tepid demand and some have warned that growth in the last quarter will be less than in normal holiday quarters. (I am guilty. I edited this story.)

I understand why many of us like tepid. Its dictionary definition, depending on your dictionary, reveals synonymic words such as “lukewarm,” “halfhearted” and “uninterested.” The classic definition which I’m familiar with is “lukewarm.” It’s neither warm nor cold, as the dictionary denotes. It’s neither here nor there, it’s “meh,” or “ehhhh,” as the metaphorical meaning connotes.

But “tepid” is more attractive than those other words. It sounds nice on the tongue, and it looks nice when you stare at it. It’s a flashy word describing a bland feeling. It’s kind of pretty, but it’s kind of dangerous because we all end up using it.

And this brings me to the reason I get cranky about lots of words: it’s not that the words or the phrases always are bad. It’s that we use them so much that they become automatic, and then we overuse them. They lose their flavor. Vivid words are like garlic. Use too much in your tomato sauce and your guests will hate you forever. You’re supposed to use just a bit. When you overuse words, it’s not only your word aesthetics that suffer. The words start to lose their meaning too. You find a handy phrase like “tepid demand,” and then you apply it to everything from iron pellets to clothes to the Zune. What is tepid demand? It means it’s neither good nor bad, so how can you say that Microsoft is killing the Zune because of tepid demand? In fact, it’s shutting down project Zune because of poor demand. Or crappy demand. Or shi**y demand.

I realize that the latter two adjectives won’t work on our news wire. So why not say what the demand was — if they’ll tell you — or just say they killed it because Microsoft didn’t sell enough to make it worthwhile. That beats “tepid demand.” And it’s something precise we can rely on in the next decade, during which time “tepid demand” will join Han Solo in peaceful cryogenic storage.

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