Making sense of jargon

2nd of October 2018
Making sense of jargon

Ever sat through a business seminar gawping in bewilderment at the bizarre vernacular coming at you from the platform and musing that the speakers must have beamed down from planet Gobbledygook? Well, you’re clearly not up to speed with the latest corporate jargon. But don’t despair. Hartley Milner offers the following guide to help you make sense of the nonsense.

For starters, try wrapping your thinking gear around this little teaser (WARNING: requires much patient googling and copious cups of coffee)…“Going forward, vis-à-vis our plans to facilitate more flexible, more customer-centric logistics channels, we need to adopt a KISS approach, eviscerating our existing distribution strategy and transplanting lizard-tail structures that can be rapidiously autotomised should they fail to interface holistically in response to market pressures.”

I hear your screams! Excruciating isn’t it? If you have managed to extract a meaning, congratulations: you are either an extraordinarily resourceful surfer of the web or precociously gifted gobbledygeek yourself. More likely you will have thrown your hands up in defeat and dismissed the passage as just another piece of inane, obscure, pompous claptrap. And so it may appear on the surface. But a profound message is likely buried deep in there somewhere, so let’s dirty our hands a little parting the bullshit to reveal the insightful gem lurking within.

Going forward – meaning ‘from now on’ or ‘in future’ and a must-use-at-every-opportunity phrase in the purveyor of piffle’s vocabulary. No corporate presentation, email or memo would be complete without a liberal peppering of ‘going forward’. No wonder that it is regularly voted one of the most irritating terms used at work. It is especially infuriating when used with the word plan. How can a plan be about anything but the future?

Vis-à-vis – a la-di-da way of saying ‘in relation to’ or ‘with regard to’. The phrase translates literally from the French for ‘face-to-face’. It was first coined by intellectuals and is now used by highbrows and lowbrows alike. Serial users of vis-à-vis include The Office’s David Brent. Enough said!

Customer-centric – putting a positive customer experience at the centre of all things. No great sin, this one. I only include it because the term is frequently confused with customer-focused. Customer-centric companies aim to build relationships with their customers and cater for their long-term needs rather than just focus on their short-term wants.

KISS – ‘keep it simple, stupid’, meaning the most straightforward solution or path should be taken in a situation. “This principle can be applied to any scenario, including business activities such as planning, management and development,” according to the online Business Dictionary. Sound advice those who proffer a KISS approach should keep in mind when drafting their pearls of wisdom.

Eviscerate – from the late 16th century, meaning ‘to disembowel’, as in the horribly gruesome method of execution much favoured in those times. Today it is used more broadly to describe the removal of an essential part of something. For example: “The British government has taken much flak for eviscerating its Brexit strategy of essential elements of the total withdrawal that people tacitly voted for at the referendum.” Or, perhaps…“It’s intensely irritating to be on the receiving end of communications eviscerated of all meaning.”

Lizard-tail structures – huh, what? Takes obscurity to another dimension. And in a flash poll around the office the term provoked a chorus of groans. Yet even here there’s a meaning. Google suggests it is all to do with the lizard’s ability to self-amputate its tail to avoid being gobbled up by a predator. It’s win-win for both parties; the lizard scurries away to safety to grow another tail while the predator is left to make a meal of the severed and still wriggling limb.

This amazing survival strategy is called ‘autotomy’, which goes some way to explaining the phrase ‘lizard-tail structures that can be rapidiously autotomised’. Still with me? I’m afraid it doesn’t get any less surreal, as we must now grapple with the word ‘rapidiously’. Or is it an actual word? I ask because much tedious trawling of the net failed to turn up a single definition for ‘rapidious’.

I suspect someone has been indulging in a little mischievous wordplay here, corrupting the adverb ‘rapidly’ in the arrogant belief that their message is far too deep and meaningful to express in simple terms used by us peasants. Where ‘rapidiously’ does crop up online, it is always in context with some other piece of obscure meandering, as in “rapidiously matrix premium core competencies”.

And lastly…interface holistically. You would not find less compatible bedfellows on TV’s Love Island. On their own, the two words have meanings that are unambiguous; a place where things meet and interact, and a philosophical belief that we should deal with the whole of something rather than just a part of it (holistic medicine). Together, they do not make for a meaningful relationship, so let’s dump this odd couple altogether.

But the passage still has more padding than the shoulders of a Joan Collins outfit, so we need to purge it of all superfluous verbiage, which leaves us with something I hope is nearer to what the author was seeking to convey: “The plan is to overhaul our distribution strategy to make it simpler and more responsive to the needs of our customers and the market.”

Hey, that’s pared back the original by almost 50 per cent, as well as translating it into a language we can all understand. Job done! Take the rest of the day off…you will likely need it following your caffeine-fuelled efforts trying to decipher the message. But as your head clears you may start to reflect on what possesses people to dish up such drivel, something the Plain English Campaign has been asking for almost 40 years.

“A message is often purposefully clouded to confuse,” says the campaign’s Lee Monks. “Most of the time, it’s simply a matter of poor writing or a failure to grasp what it is a writer or organisation is really trying to say. But there are two main reasons obscurity may be intentional: the knowledge that something is in reality very simple and the desire to make it artificially sound impressive, and the knowledge that something is not going to go down well and the desire to make it seem incomprehensible or ludicrously euphemistic.

“Jargon is useful as a shorthand between members of a captive audience wanting to communicate quickly, as long as the jargon pertains to something substantial. People rightly don’t trust jargon in general communication, and it can suggest slipperiness, elitism and pomposity. It’s a failure to involve those not part of a business.”

So what jargon grates with us most in 2018? An online survey of 2,000 employees in the UK by job site Glassdoor found that ‘touch base’ (to meet up) tops the hate list, followed by ‘no-brainer’ (requiring little or no mental effort) and then ‘punch a puppy’ (to do something horrible for the greater good). Not far behind were ‘game changer’ (a disruptive product, idea or process), ‘mission statement’ (a guiding principle or objective), ‘run this up the flagpole’ (test the popularity of a new idea), ‘if you don’t like it get off the bus’ (implying that an unhappy employee should quit the company) and ‘I want to leverage your synergies’ (to enhance a person’s range of skills for the benefit of an organisation).

If corporate lingo rankles with us so much, why have office workers not risen up in revolt? Monks explains: “Plain English needs backing from the top. Without that, the desire to please superiors will always erode it, and most people are scared to suggest they don’t understand jargon. If bosses insisted on it, jargon would soon be stigmatised and rightly seen as a hollow reliance on vacuous nonsense.”

Stigmatised? I’m calling for jargon to be criminalised! Why not? It’s an irritating, time-wasting distraction that stresses and frustrates us, is bad for workplace morale and makes us want to punch a puppy. It demands at the very least an offence of ‘gratuitously littering communications with intent to confuse’ and for the most heinous breaches a charge of murdering the English language.

I had toyed with execution by evisceration as an appropriate punishment but that would be letting offenders off far too lightly. No, I would lock transgressors in a soundproof booth and play them a tape of the most toe-curling jargon phrases over and over again until they scream for mercy and repent their sins.

Okay, I got a little carried away, but as already said change has to come from the top…from the same people who are guilty of generating much of the gobbledygook in the first place. And that is not likely to happen soon, so it seems we are stuck with it, going forward.


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