Opening the Kimono: Thoughts on the Language(s) of the Business World, Part One

Let me say at the outset that I have never worked in a large company. But I do love language, and am fortunate enough to be married to a woman who is an executive in the corporate consulting world. Through her post trip debriefings, I have become fascinated with the language of that world.

One thing that seems striking to me is that business language functions at two very different levels: the first consists of highly abstract constructions which are often completely mystifying to an outsider, seeming to obscure rather than clarify meaning, like snow falling on the normal verbal landscape. My wife points out that the world of service industry consulting is intrinsically more abstract and mysterious than the world of manufacturing which it has largely supplanted. I think she has a point, but when people like Dan Pallota of the Harvard Business Review Blog Network note that “in about half of my business conversations, I have almost no idea what other people are saying to me,” one has to wonder if some line has been crossed. It is one thing when jargon is unintelligible to outsiders. When it also begins to mystify insiders, it seems like a sign of decadence.

But there is another, highly direct level of business language, full of phrases that are concrete, vivid, and memorable, if sometimes downright weird. And the two levels of jargon are continually intermingled with each other. Let’s start with the abstract level, where, interestingly, its most trenchant critics are business world insiders.

Intuitive platform integration; proactive synergy modeling; personalized solution space metrics. Note how easy it is to swap out the terms of these three phrases. How about intuitive synergy metrics, or proactive solution integration, or personalized platform modeling. I take these examples from a clever “Business Jargon Generator,” created by Thomas Thurston, the president of Growth Science International. Thurston creates three separate columns of 17 terms each and invites you to take one term from each column and string them together in order. Together, they yield hundreds of different phrases, each as meaningful, and as meaningless, as the other. Thurston introduces them with a cheerful: “Need random verbiage for a slide presentation? Want to impress the boss? Want to toss out a tough question in your next meeting even if you’ve been playing Angry Birds under the table the whole time?”

One of the keys to this style of jargon is never to use words of Anglo Saxon origin when a Latin equivalent is available, e.g., competency rather than skills. Another is to change action verbs into inert nouns, viz. “We documented the team’s learnings.” Ouch. Or, alternatively, adjectives get transformed into nouns: “We serve the manufacturing vertical.” (Here too, note that the reverse has happened as well: the upstanding substantive manufacturing has become an adjective.) A particularly ugly bend of noun to verb is to incent or to incentivize. Double ouch.

Even when simple words are deployed, two are often used where one would do. Price, for instance, becomes the more portentous price point. Or how about: “The proactive solution integration team meeting has a hard stop at 3,” instead of simply “stops at 3.” Is the redundant hard only there because the strong verb “to stop” has been replaced by the feeble “to have”?

No one actually knows much about the origin of the word jargon. When used by Chaucer at the end of the fourteenth century, jargon meant simply the “twittering of birds.” Subsequently, it turned derogatory, although already it seems to have the sense of being unintelligible to outsiders, which remains key.

What does jargon accomplish? For sure it helps give a group of people a distinct linguistic identity. And not just an identity, but one which outsiders cannot readily understand, which may increase a feeling of solidarity. How many people outside the world of commerce would know that to disintermediate means to get rid of a middleman? And what exactly does it mean for a company to leverage its knowledge process engineering?

The desire to confine linguistic understanding to an in group is hardly new. The Renaissance-era upper classes clung to a mandarin language tenaciously, for instance. As late as the sixteenth century, doctors, lawyers and priests wrote all of their works in Latin, which effectively barred lay access, though it made international communication easier for the elite. There were actually ordinances forbidding the writing of texts in other languages. When the great French surgeon, Ambroise Paré, dared to write a learned treatise in French, his fellow doctors took him to court for so doing. Merchants, of course, being of relatively lowly social origin, helped undermine the sway of Latin and ultimately helped overthrow the class that embraced it as well.

And yet I wonder if the preeminence of highly abstract, Latinate constructions in current business English may express a kind of yearning for a mandarin past. Perhaps in addition, the abstractions serve as a fig leaf for the bare-knuckled reality of business competition, a language which elevates the user far above the stink of profit, which though it is the prime mover in business, is perhaps still faintly looked down upon. Gross profit, for instance, gains weight by being voiced as EBITDA (Eebeda?) meaning Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization.

Next week’s installment: the down-to-earth delights of business slang

Author: Tim Wright

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