10 words the startup community hijacked or just made up

The English language is constantly changing. As a writer, editor and ex-English teacher I should know more than most. With the edition of new words and phrases, so the language develops, some words having a seismic shift and taking on new meanings and some just blatantly made-up.

Throughout history there have always been new words and phrases coined; words like, ‘dwindle, exposure, hob-nob, majestic’ and many more invented by the great man himself, William Shakespeare, alongside more modern words like, ‘autotune’, ‘half-arsed’ and ‘twerk’ appearing in the 2015 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The startup community — not one to be left out — has been the pioneer of a handful of changes and additions. Some using old words for new meanings, and some bending the rules of the language to almost breaking point.

So, here is a non-exhaustive list of startup jargon in all its glory:


When I was a lad, a bootstrap was something my grandad used to pull his walking boots on. Today it has a totally different meaning. Having always meant — in the one context — ‘to get through something without external intervention’, I guess it’s still quite close, as today it means to build a company using your own means and without external funding.

Boots, most likely with straps. Photo: From file

In my teaching days I heard this word quite a lot, but usually because the students didn’t know the word ‘lessons’. Having seen this word so many times in articles and literature relating to startup recently, I’m beginning to question whether I can even speak my own language anymore. Although there is no known dictionary entry as yet, I guess my past students may still get to have the last laugh!


Now this one is a tricky one. You see in British English we don’t hire, we recruit; in American English they hire. We call people we take on, ‘recruits’ (you can see where I’m going with this can’t you). Now after doing a bit of digging, I have found that there is no dictionary definition that allows this word to be used as a noun; or a thing. So this little rebel is yet to break through!


Many years ago ‘hacking’ was something big chaps with muscles and axes did out in the forest, gaining huge amounts of ‘man points’; it then took on a new meaning. The image of a spotty teenager tapping away on his keyboard is what I see; opening and closing the Prime Minister’s CD drawer from his messy bedroom in a forgettably named suburb of Birmingham. I’m not alone, because that’s what most people today think of when they hear the word ‘hacker’. Within the startup community however, it has morphed again, and means to find a cool and innovative solution to a common — or not so common — problem.

The second meaning of ‘Hacking’. Photo: From file

This is clearly ‘word theft’. The word ‘pitch’ has been used for years to describe putting your ideas forward to sell something. My dad always used to moan about the ‘sales-pitches’ of door-to-door salesmen, or say that a guy with the ‘gift of the gab’ (skilled talker), “spins a good pitch.” The ancient Greeks used to pitch their social development ideas to unforgiving audiences in outdoor theatres, thousands of years ago. So pitching has been around for a few more years than you might have thought.


Now this one’s fairly simple to explain. Crowdfunding as a thing, has probably been around for many years, but with the advent of online crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, it has taken off in ways we would have only dreamt of ten years ago. Now many startups are entirely funded by you, the crowd, which lends itself nicely to what has become a common compound noun, ‘crowdfunding’; self-explanatory one might even say.


For most of my sheltered life, an accelerator has been that thing on the floor of a car that makes it go faster: yes I’m that basic. Then the internet came along with a new breed of accelerators, if a little less tangible, and for petrol-heads like me, a lot less fun. Now startup accelerators like Startup Wise Guys in Tallinn, are making new businesses go faster all over the world.

My kind of accelerator. Photo: From file

Like the word accelerator before it, this word is logical in its application to the startup world. Indeed both words simply draw on a the more literal definition that beforehand was less used. Much like the object that the word describes, a startup incubator gives a new company safe, controlled and optimum conditions in which to thrive. Aw, that’s nice isn’t it.

Incubating a new start. Photo: From file
A Media (as in company)

Another curious one. Media is the plural form of medium: a channel for which information, news or emotion can travel. So if you say you are a ‘media’, you are saying you’re a newspaper, not a newspaper company, you’re made of paper and people read you, then throw you away. A company which produces a form of media, is a media company. But, this one is up there with our other rule-benders, as although not correct English on either side of the atlantic, who are we to stand in the way of the development of International English. With more and more people around the world using English as a second language for business and in their social lives, there is bound to be a shift in its usage and new variants of words formed. We can only hope we are progressive enough to embrace it.


Now I thought I’d add this one briefly at the end, as it’s a word I keep hearing around the startup community. It’s an adopted 80’s American phrase to mean ‘strikingly or overwhelmingly tough, cool, powerful, or effective’ and has become the go-to phrase for such things in startup!

A kick-ass boss. Photo: From file
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