Translated: the baffling world of business jargon

Insufferable or indispensable? Sohel Parvez Haque/www.shutterstock.com

On your first day in a new job, when you are told by a colleague to prepare for a “blamestorming session” followed by some “blue-sky thinking”, do you rejoice or despair? Once settled in, will you nod sagely or succumb to panic on receipt of a memo from the boss reminding you that “even in a gig economy with the right metrics, marketers can prove the effectiveness of digital in delivering brand lift”?

There are now many varieties of non-standard English competing for our attention, including slang and messaging abbreviations, regional dialect, advertising slogans and the “journalese” used in headlines by the tabloid press. But one in particular provokes the wrath of purists, bewilders the innocent and may even disrupt our working lives.

Most often labelled “jargon”, this language category includes the management buzzwords uttered above: blamestorming is a free-for-all discussion which identifies scapegoats; the more familiar blue-sky thinking means going beyond the obvious in the search for solutions. In the boss’s memo, gig economy refers to on-demand providers such as Uber and Airbnb who cater instantly to individual consumers and brand lift is the extent of marketing’s positive outcome.

The coiners of new expressions play with the technical possibilities of English (or offend against all its rules, depending on your perspective). In this world, the noun “incentive” becomes the verb incentivise, which is then abbreviated to incent and risks being turned back into a noun in this new short form.

Buzzword bingo.

The concept of leadership begets the concept of followership, and the receptionist morphs first into a client interface manager, then perhaps a data hub facilitator. Devotees of business-speak select keywords and promote them relentlessly, so that a specialist term becomes a slogan or mantra, and eventually a cliché. Recent examples include disruption, resilience, pivot, scalable and silos.

Loathe it, love it, or learn to live with it

During the past decade, surveys by pollsters, HR agencies and academics have canvassed workers’ views and identified the use of jargon as a major irritant. Junior executives and office workers in particular feel intimidated and excluded by superiors’ obscure and pretentious language. They also suspect that this is often employed to conceal incompetence, or disguise unpalatable decisions.

The version of Chinese whispers through which such language spreads can result in embarrassing gaffes. Across the piste, a phrase inspired by skiing, became fashionable not long ago to mean something like “taking the widest perspective” or “affecting a wide range of people”. Through mishearing or misunderstanding, many professionals now say across the piece, while a hapless few are guilty of across the beast.

It is inevitable that technical language will cross over into everyday usage, when it deals with aspects of technology and commerce, for instance big data, the internet of things, crowdfunding and clickbait. This is also the case when language describes changes that are affecting our lives such as negative equity, downturns and downsizing, outsourcing and offshoring, or when it provides a shorthand for fairly complex concepts such as the glass ceiling, the precariat or soft power.

But the spread of management-speak and the language of the market into other spheres is not something neutral or innocent, as academic linguists working in the field of what’s called critical discourse analysis have pointed out.

It carries with it the ideology – the values and assumptions – of market capitalism. In the words of Gerlinde Mautner of Vienna’s Wirtschaft Universität:

The market is now no longer simply a place of exchange but an overarching social principle. As a result, discourse in a number of previously public domains, including government and education, has become marketised, in other words genres and lexical choices have been influenced by discursive practices from the business domain.

The result is that health authorities, universities and churches, just like corporations, talk of maximising deliverables, empowerment and choice, growth trajectories, customer journeys and adverse headwinds. This tendentious terminology reinforces the power relations between bosses and subordinates, between state and populace and, as with any insider language, those who know how to deploy it can do so to bamboozle or intimidate those who don’t.

Can we really afford to bin the jargon?

A crucial test of jargon’s validity is its users’ intentions. If they seek to inform or inspire, we can probably forgive their use of exotic language. But they might risk condemnation. If, for example they use new terms simply to disguise uncomfortable truths: managed separation or transitioning for redundancy, rationalisation and rightsizing for cutting jobs, deficit levy for tax. Or use it to promote questionable ideas: data drill-down for surveillance, subprime instead of worthless.

No more, please. dotshock/www.shutterstock.com

Condemnation is growing. In 2009, the UK Local Government Association moved to ban the use of jargon among council leaders, and more recently the British prime minister attacked its use.

Help is at hand, since many organisations now publish jargon-buster guides, some serious, some tongue-in-cheek to assist the uninitiated with specialist terminology. If you would like to play at coining new terms yourself there are also buzzword generators to help you do so.

Much as we may flinch at corporate babble and double-talk, the new vocabulary of business, lifestyle innovation and social change is part of the national conversation. Fluency in it marks you out as in-the-know, at work as a member of an expert community. But too much of it and you risk a cringe-effect.

Try this simple test. When you come across an example of what linguists call, in their jargon, lexical innovation, see if it can be expressed more simply or briefly in everyday English. If so, you can choose to reject it and move on. If not, empower yourself, take ownership of the narrative, get with the program(me) – and do try to keep up.

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