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Leaner-and-meaner contest results

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Awhile back, I wrote in this space that in most cases, “lean and mean” really means emaciated and unpleasant. Dave Teleki objected: “‘Emaciated’ is just a bit too Latinate and abstract,” he complained good humoredly. “And ‘unpleasant’ is this year’s contender for understatement of the decade.”

And so was born the leaner and meaner contest. Fittingly, we understaffed the contest committee, and overcommitted KJR‘s writing staff (me) with other subjects, which is why we’re only just now announcing the contest results.

It was a tough decision. We had to choose between rhyme and alliteration; between entries with a tone of mild rebuke and others that were harshly bitter; and between entries that carefully preserved the exact meaning of the original phrase and others that took liberties. In all, we reviewed more responses than to any other column since Keep the Joint Running made its first appearance a year and a half ago.

So Famished and Feeble it is — an apt description of many lean-and-mean organizations, and euphonious, too. It was, however, a tough call when you consider the alternatives we had to relegate to honorable mentions.

Our winner offered a second strong entry: Wizened and Weak. I liked “wizened” but worried too many executives would mistake it for “wizardly” and think it was a compliment.

The estimable CJ Rhoads, my host at a speech in Berks County, Pennsylvania, offered Gaunt and Grudging. It’s easy to like this one, but it lost a tenth of a point in the dismount: It’s a bit further from the original meaning than the winner.

Stephan Fassmann gave us two suggestions: Gaunt and Greedy, and Scrawny and Squalid. Nice turns of phrase, each characterizing a slightly different kind of unpleasant place to work. The judges liked both of them, just not quite enough to win.

“Gaunt” was popular. Colin Daniel paired it with “Grumpy.” Gaunt and Grumpy is a great phrase, but the judges decided it sounds too much like Snow White starving a dwarf.

David Shockey also provided two first-class entries: Seedy and Greedy, and Shabby and Crabby. They both have nice rings to them, don’t you think?

Then there was Haggard and Hostile, suggested independently by Jon Strayer and Rebecca Burgoyne. Thanks to both. It was a close call, and to anyone thinking it lost because I’d have been out two books, for shame. IS Survivor Publishing isn’t that lean and mean.

Another entry discovered by two separate entrants was Slim and Grim. It’s hard not to like Slim and Grim, but like Highlander, in the end there can be only one. Unlike the Highlander sequels, Jonathan Barden and Buck Meyer’s entry was quite good.

In one more example of enlightening striking twice, Charles Faber and John Krein offered Starved and Surly, for which I can only say, close but no stogie. Very close.

It almost struck three times: Cliff Allo also liked “Surly,” but paired it with “Stressed,” instead. Stressed and Surly is an apt description of many lean and mean companies.

Bob O’Hern took a medical tack with Bulimic and Bi-Polar. Several other entries that didn’t make the finals diagnosed the malady as anorexia rather than bulimia, but let’s not quibble over a metaphor.

Ken Ryback offered the disquieting Malnourished and Malevolent. Creepy. I figured, though, that “malevolent” suggests a level of competence, albeit evil competence, where lean and mean companies starve themselves into an inability to perform.

Also in the macabre vein is Skeletal and Sadistic from Philip Dawson. It goes way beyond lean and mean.

Stuart Brogden’s suggestion, Spent and Bent, has a great sound, but the opportunity for misunderstandings and double entendres was just too great. Sorry.

Then there was Skanky and Cranky. RT Williams gets the credit for this one, and deserves it — it has a certain flair, don’t you think? Along with the ability to make me say, “Yuck.” The judges loved this one, but it was just too over-the-top to win.

Poor and Ugly, Allen King’s entry, neither alliterates nor rhymes, but I like it anyway. Great image.

It’s a lot to keep track of, so to help, here’s the list, organized into carefully crafted categories:


  • Famished and Feeble.
  • Wizened and Weak.
  • Gaunt

  • Gaunt and Grudging.
  • Gaunt and Greedy.
  • Gaunt and Grumpy.
  • Down and out

  • Scrawny and Squalid.
  • Seedy and Greedy.
  • Shabby and Crabby.
  • Poor and Ugly.
  • Bad mood

  • Haggard and Hostile.
  • Starved and Surly.
  • Stressed and Surly.
  • Slim and Grim.
  • Medical/forensic

  • Bulimic and Bi-Polar.
  • Malnourished and Malevolent.
  • Skeletal and Sadistic.
  • Bad hygiene

  • Spent and Bent.
  • Skanky and Cranky.
  • I’m giving the last word this week to Jeff Sakamoto. Jeff-san reminds us that the Japanese coined a word for this a long time ago: Karoshi — death from overwork.Which really isn’t very funny. I’ve lost a couple of friends to karoshi over the years. I wonder how many CEOs, driven to make their companies more famished and feeble, realize they’re going to preside over a tragedy.

    And of those who do, how many care.