The changing meaning of ‘socialist’ Next post: The changing meaning of ‘socialist’

Beastie Boys lyrics have even found their way into the OED. Previous Post: Beastie Boys lyrics in the Oxford English Dictionary

corporate jargon

Incentivizing proactive synergistic visions, going forward

Have any of you out there received a memo yet informing you that 21 May is National Memo Day? No? Me neither! Nevertheless, in honour of this world-shaking event, I thought it would be apt to imagine how such a memo might read:

To: all stakeholders
: Director of Insight and Strategic Marketing
Subject: Leveraging National Memo Day
Going forward, all stakeholders in National Memo Day will be tasked to proactively think outside the box and produce a synergistic vision for growing the impact of this day on the national consciousness. This is a ground-breaking chance to get behind this concept 120% and to idea-shower strategies for leveraging our assets and incentivize dynamic solutions in order to evolve a set of win-win deliverables to add value to this high-altitude occasion.

Was that was teeth-grindingly terrible enough for you? Having to write it was certainly somewhat distressing. What is it about management jargon that winds us up so much? When I asked some friends to provide examples, they positively relished the chance to offload their favourite corporate gobbledygook (thanks also to BBC Online for some choice contributions to the following foray into business-speak).

Moving the goalposts to pick the low-hanging fruit

Before we delve into corporate jargon, it’s worth taking a look at what exactly jargon is, and what its purpose is. All jargon, whether it be legal, business, military, or scientific, is specialist language used by specific professional groups. The members of such a group need to talk the talk, employing distinctive terms (jargon) to express the concepts relevant to their group. The understanding and use of jargon therefore signifies membership of a group (relegating non-specialists to the position of outsiders), and members gain status by demonstrating that they can correctly use the appropriate terminology.

However, the downside of some jargon is that it can be used to hide unpalatable truths. Military jargon seems particularly adept at this: friendly fire actually means ‘the accidental wounding or killing of soldiers by their own comrades’, while collateral damage is a mealy-mouthed way of referring to civilian casualties in wartime.

In the case of corporate-speak, it often seems to be used to wrap up mundane things in supposedly more ‘colourful’ language (e.g. move the goalposts refers to unfairly changing the rules of something while it’s still happening and low-hanging fruit just means ‘things that are easy to achieve’). Much of the time, though, ‘corporatese’ , like military slang, is used to obfuscate or to provide a positive spin on disagreeable matters (everyone knows when a company starts talking about downsizing that jobs will be lost). The result? Cynicism reigns supreme or no-one actually understands or cares what’s being communicated.

Bringing deliverables into the loop

Since leaving my job, I’ve been out of the loop when it comes to company emails and meetings, but many irritating terms and phrases are (obviously) still imprinted indelibly on my mind. I began to notice metrics (meaning ‘a set of figures that measures results’) continually cropping up in contexts similar to this example, from the Oxford English Corpus (OEC):

We see an uptick in the metrics we use to evaluate the amount of potential business in our pipeline.

Allied to this was the increasing appearance in business-speak of the formerly scientific term synergy and its related words, synergistic and ‘synergize’ (the latter used loosely as a synonym for ‘integrate’).

You have the right support, cooperation and synergy in the work place to achieve goals.

The company has attempted to synergize its casino with its racing operations.

And don’t get me started about going forward, which now seems to be tacked on unthinkingly to every utterance:

We will seek guidance from the attorney general on how to proceed going forward.

I’m not sure why these particular terms used to bother me, but many colleagues shared my views. And why single out business emails and meetings for criticism? Job adverts are another rich source of mind-boggling corporate phraseology (the following have been abridged and anonymized to protect the perpetrators):

  • Job one: Managing and pushing forward insight across the whole European sector of this thriving global operator – creating powerful insight strategies in a dynamic and ever changing market. Fully supported by senior management who really encourage ‘blue sky thinking’ – you will enjoy the freedom to transform and adapt in a competitive and stimulating customer insight environment.
  • Job two: You’ll be responsible for supporting the whole project life cycle from migration strategy through to cutover and post implementation support. Working with the business/data owners to help develop a robust strategy for data management and reporting to ensure one version of the truth is pervasive across all data reporting functions.

Outreaching to some typical jargonistic strategies

As is evident from these adverts, strategy is a highly overworked word… so let’s look more closely at some characteristic strategies of business-speak. We’ve already seen that synergy was originally a scientific term, and strategy itself comes from military usage. Borrowing of words from other spheres of activity is common in corporate jargon: as mentioned earlier, it’s often done to dress up commonplace concepts in a more colourful and interesting garb. For instance:

This is all fine and dandy and can enliven corporate speaking and writing… until total overuse makes such terms clichéd and no longer fresh or vivid.

Another typical feature of corporate jargon is the transformation of nouns into verbs, either by adding –ize/ise to the end of a noun (incentivize, synergize, metricize), or by just adding the usual English verb inflections –ed, -ing, and –s (this gives us to silo, to transition, to task, to impact, to leverage, and umpteen more). Although this evolution of nouns to verbs occurs in other areas of language apart from jargon, it still causes the hackles of many people to rise. Here are a few prime examples from the OEC:

Public policy also needs to leverage extra training resources from the private sector.

Servicers are continuously outreaching to our homeowners through letters, campaigns, and phone calls.

We’re really excited to have him this time because his career is actually transitioning right now.

He found that his manufacturing teams were so siloed that they caused expensive production breaks.

Of the above, ‘outreach’ has a long history as a verb, being recorded as such in Old English according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but a new meaning has evolved of ‘reaching out’ to influence people. Conversely, the conversion of silo to a verb meaning ‘to separate different business functions unnecessarily’ is a recent development, and crops up chiefly in US English.

Let’s play meeting-speak bingo!

Not surprisingly, many employees have begun to question and make fun of such flim-flam, and are developing some coping strategies in order to get them through the daily jargon jungle. One of these is ‘meeting bingo’, a game in which you have a scorecard of commonly used business terms and mark them off as and when they crop up in a meeting (it has the advantage of making participants appear as if they are totally involved in their colleagues’ outpourings).

It’s time for me to sign off, leverage my core competencies, and metricize the flow of some deliverables, but if you’d like to have more fun with business-speak, check out this Corporate Jargon Generator, courtesy of the Plain English Society, an organization dedicated to cutting through the forest of officialese and other jargon and promoting straightforward, easy to understand alternatives.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.