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Corporate jargon: the woes of a lonely pedant


Charlie Lyons Jones

By

October 9th, 2015


The rise of corporate jargon has set us on the short path to banal uniformity, laments Charlie Lyons Jones


Some acronyms are useful, other acronyms are nauseating. Some metaphors are beautifully pure while others are dreadfully mixed. Some images are clear; others are frightfully unclear. Some words are created and make English more meaningful while others are created but add no meaning at all. When used well, jargon can help make thinking precise. When used poorly, jargon can usher a thought down the short road to meaninglessness. The trouble is that very few people know how to use jargon well, especially in an office. Tortured jargon has begun to suck any life there was out of corporate discussion.

The reason for this is plain. The ordinary office has become a place in which simple words are used rarely; they have been shunned by the trousered men and women we might call ‘corporates’. Instead of a boss asking an employee to ‘help the business somehow’, the boss will ask her employee to ‘bring something to the table’. Instead of a boss speaking of an employee’s ‘strengths’, the boss will talk of his employee’s ‘core competencies’ or her fulfilment of ‘Key Performance Indicators’. Rather than saying ‘we agree’, a boss will tell her employee ‘we are in agreeance’. Rather than telling employees that their work is ‘due’ soon, a boss will tell them that their work is ‘due in soon’. These turns of phrase are as frustrating as they are forgettable. I say we should forget them and forget them quick. I will explain the issues with each of them to show you why.

I will start with the expression which suggests that someone ‘bring something to the table.’ Corporates use this term as though it were helpful and meaningful. If I were to hear this silly phrase, the only thing I’d bring to the table would be my Fowler. Why might this boring collection of words be so frustrating? I will start by explaining the expression’s semantic meaning which should seem obvious. If one is required to ‘bring something to the table’, one would have to take some object and put it on a table. So the expression refers to a simple task. However the cultural meaning of the expression is subtle. If one is told to ‘bring something to the table’, the requirement is to think of an idea which would be useful in the usual operations of business. This might involve forecasting revenue or preparing a product for sale. These tasks are often quite complicated. Therefore the task to which the expression refers explicitly is simple but the task to which the expression refers implicitly is complicated. This means that the boss who tells an employee to ‘bring something to the table’ is really saying: ‘you go and do a complicated task that I think is simple.’ How patronising!

I will now explain why talk of ‘core competencies’ and ‘Key Performance Indicators’ makes my blood curdle. Professor Bruce Barry summarised the ridiculousness of ‘core competencies’ by asking ‘do people talk about peripheral competency?’. No, they don’t Bruce which is why the term makes me as mad as a donkey in a ditch. Are ‘Key Performance Indicators’ as bad as ‘core competencies’? The short answer would be ‘yes’ with a number of reasons rushing in support. Firstly, ‘key’ should only be used as a noun but it is used as an adjective in this instance. Secondly, ‘performance’ and ‘indicators’ are both nouns and one noun cannot modify the meaning of another unless the two are connected by a preposition; examples of which would be the ‘indicators of performance’ or the ‘performance of indicators’. Thirdly, seeing as ‘Key Performance Indicators’ violates every rule of English I just mentioned, the term has no meaning whatsoever. If a term is meaningless, one could forget it quite easily.

Now that I have dealt with two terms, I shall turn my attention to one word. ‘Are we in agreeance?’ No, for that sad excuse of a word is like the pretentious, obnoxious university student that deserves to be forgotten. The trouble is that some find it hard to forget such students. To them I say, what about the humble, clever student called ‘agreement’? Shall we agree on that? I say we should because that will allow me to write about my greatest frustration which is with those who use ‘due in’ as though the two words were one. If a document is due to be submitted, it must be put in some place, like a box, or on some date, like New Year’s Eve. Saying that a report is due in in a box is silly; saying that a report is due in on New Year’s Eve is equally silly. So omit ‘in’ when using ‘due’, unless ‘in’ demands to be used as a preposition and not as a suffix taped onto a small, yet powerful word. Remembering this rule should make corporate language much nicer.

George Orwell once wrote that ‘[o]rthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.’ Unfortunately, corporate jargon has become orthodox in corporations. The orthodox language of bosses and employees in corporations has become pretentious and boring and such language is scarcely used in reference to the grammar of English. The grammar of English should be used as a way to make arguments logical. The fun and simple words of English should be used as ways to make ideas clear and appealing. If corporates decided to use grammar and simple words as though they were ways to unpretentious and lively language, life at work might become more bearable and effective than it is now. The arguments and ideas expressed at work might seem simpler and more reasonable than they are now. In short, a sentence should convey meaning for colleagues, not obscure it for them.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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