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Business types get new kick out of the ‘bucket’

Humble container becomes a trendy fixture in the vocabulary of boardrooms and books

SHARE Business types get new kick out of the ‘bucket’

Ashwin Shirvaikar, a Citigroup analyst, wanted to get a better handle on the cash flow of Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. "Does it make sense to think of it as a whole, or as two buckets — one in India and one in the U.S.?" Shirvaikar asked during an earnings conference call last year.

"I think of it as one bucket," replied Gordon Coburn, the chief financial officer of the technology-services company. "One bucket, OK, thank you," Shirvaikar said.

During a recent public-television interview, Dow Chemical Co. Chief Executive Andrew Liveris explained that producing ethanol "doesn't help the conservation efficiency bucket — it helps the diversity of supply bucket." Cingular Wireless boasted that its new rate plan in South Florida lets customers "dig into their big bucket of night and weekend minutes" earlier than before.

Suddenly, the humble bucket has become a trendy fixture of corporate boardrooms and PowerPoint presentations. It is pushing aside other business-speak for describing categories or organizational units, such as silo and basket.

"People are using it everywhere now," says Tom Rath, a management consultant and author of "How Full Is Your Bucket?" His book, which has been translated into more than 20 languages since its publication in 2004, advocates praise in the workplace. Rath's consulting firm has even begun selling readers metal buckets to place on their desks. Their purpose: to receive "drops" of praise from colleagues for a job well done.

A bucket is a container used to carry things such as water and livestock feed, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary cites other definitions over the years: In 16th-century England, slaughtered hogs were strapped by their hooves to a beam known as a bucket. That usage might have led to the expression for dying, or kicking the bucket.

It's also a verb, meaning to pour water on someone, according to the dictionary, as in: "Woe be to him whose head is bucketed with waters of a scalding bath."

But in the past several years, bucket has outgrown its barnyard roots and moved into the business world. "It's informal and universally understood — a bucket is a bucket everywhere," says Sunil Misra, vice president of consulting in the Billerica, Mass., subsidiary of information-technology services company Getronics NV of the Netherlands.

The blossoming of bucket comes as no surprise to Anthony Aristar, a professor of linguistics at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. When words — particularly those centuries old — become popular in new and different ways, that often indicates a gap in modern language. In this case, business has become organized in so many different kinds of subdivisions that no one quite knows what to call them all.

The result: Old words like bucket are being revived in a "metaphoric extension." Bucket, he explains, "still means a container for something, but now in a metaphorical context. You see this all the time with words."

For businesspeople, bucket trumps basket, which conjures an image of someone picking flowers in a field. Bucket sounds "more macho," suggests Misra.

Silo also has a negative buzz these days. It implies fiefdoms and exclusive divisions, rather than inclusiveness and working together as a team thrown together in, say, a bucket.

"A silo is a place to store corn or missiles," says Charles Prindiville, a commodities trader with UBS Securities LLC in New York who trades grains among other commodities. "In the past year or two you're definitely seeing people stay away from silo. I prefer to store money in a bucket."

Prindiville has heard bucket transformed into an adjective too. When a trader wants to sell a large block of stock, he looks for a buyer interested in "something bucket-y," says Prindiville. "It means something chunky, with some girth to it."

In the telecom world, industry executives recall first using the term in the late 1990s, as cell phones became ubiquitous. U.S. carriers, unlike most of their counterparts elsewhere, figured if customers purchased a block of minutes each month they would use their phones more often. They were right: U.S. cell phone bills and usage are among the highest in the world. And the block became a bucket.

European carriers are now considering the bucket model — and likely the term as well, says Andrew Cole, president of CSMG Adventis, a telecom consulting firm in Boston. "They will adopt bucket," he says. "That is my strong feeling."

The word is also popular in the computer world, where "bit bucket" refers to the mysterious destination of lost or unintentionally deleted computer files. This probably comes from the days of mainframe computers that used card and paper-tape punches. Getronics's Misra recalls how small chips of discarded paper were put into what was called a bit bucket.

A noted user of bucket was Frank D'Amelio, former chief operating officer of Lucent Technologies Inc. During Lucent's earnings conference calls, analysts used to eagerly wait for him to drop the word bucket into his business banter, according to Steve Levy, a former Lehman Brothers analyst. "That's really how the numbers bucket out," D'Amelio concluded an answer in a conference call with analysts in May 2004, according to a transcript, employing the word in rare verb form. D'Amelio, now chief administrative officer of the newly combined French telecom equipment maker Alcatel-Lucent SA, could not be reached for comment.

Philip Evans, a partner in the Boston office of Boston Consulting Group and a native of Plymouth, England, says he hears the word all the time, including as a verb to describe younger associates' potential with the firm, as in, "How should we bucket this person?" "Visually you think of someone being thrown into a pail of water," says Evans, an avid reader of Joyce and Shakespeare who describes himself as a word collector.

"It's hardly a dignified process, particularly when you think the stuff in a bucket is often animal waste," he says. "Even milk gets a bottle or a jug, not a bucket."