The language of business

Why is business language so often a grotesque parody of the way we speak in real life?

'Through the Looking Glass' when Humpty Dumpty says: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." I wonder what Humpty would have made of this recent announcement from Virgin Trains in response to complaints about its online booking service:

"Moving forwards, we at Virgin Trains are looking to take ownership of the flow in question to apply our pricing structure, thus resulting in this journey search appearing in the new category-matrix format … I hope this makes the situation clear."

There are two possible ways of reading this. The first is that it's a joke - "I hope this makes the situation clear"? That surely can't be serious. But while it hardly endears one to Virgin Trains to interpret its message as being one of contempt for its passengers, the alternative is more disturbing: that this wording was intended to clarify the matter in hand. Because if that's the case, it means there are people working for a major transport company, in roles involving queries from the public, who have not only lost the ability to communicate but are unaware that they've done so.

I wish I could believe there's a prankster at Virgin Trains.

But, sadly, the latter interpretation seems more convincing. Rail companies, after all, are far from alone in erecting a barrier of jargon between what they do and how they discuss it - indeed, the larger the organisation, the more difficult it can be to deduce precisely what it does simply by listening to what it says. In today's corporate world, even words that once enjoyed clearly defined meanings are churned out with increasing vagueness. Words like 'development', 'ownership' and 'innovation' are now relied on more for their talismanic weight than for any precise significance. And the need to lend importance to the most mundane utterance is such that everything has to be described as 'key' - even 'peripherals'.

If it were simply a matter of growing inured to a self-important use of language, and learning to live with fatuous constructions like "going forwards", this might not be worth getting exercised over. But the increasing use of jargon has worrying implications.

If business language is being commandeered by those who believe that, for example, the phrase "the core functionality of this process" says something that "what this does" fails to convey - and who, moreover, think it not only appropriate but necessary to use such terminology - what does that say about the business world's ability to speak to the community at large? The Virgin Trains proclamation was rightly greeted with derision, which is hardly the response any organisation seeks to provoke in its customers. So how did we get to this point?

Keeping it brief

Well, ironically enough, we got here because we thought we were taking a short cut. If there's a single reason for inventing business jargon, it's brevity - why use half a dozen words when one will do? Take 'diarise'. Diarising something is a much swifter process than putting it into a diary, so just think of all the precious time the word saves. But the process snowballs, and a form of linguistic oneupmanship comes into play. Diarising is a common enough verb now - it's in the New Oxford Dictionary - but it's only one of a number of coinages wrestling over the same basic meaning. Although the clumsy 'calendarise' has all but disappeared, there's a new verb on the block: to 'outlook'. 'Outlooking' is diarising with software; software that was once restricted to those within reach of a desk, but is now available in a handheld format. So we 'outlook' meetings, to underline the fact that we are not deskbound, and do not rely on notes scribbled in biro, but are high-tech, up to speed, and likely to start BlackBerrying each other at the drop of a SIM-card.

And by this stage it's clear that there isn't one single reason for inventing jargon; there's another, underlying force. Jargon is born of a desire to use a word that's more impressive, more intimidating; that will convince the listener that the speaker not only belongs to the modern world but that he - it's usually a he - is on the cutting edge. This involves injecting dynamism into the most humdrum of pronouncements.

Just as one leadership manual after another pretends that management is a form of jungle warfare, requiring Rambo-like survival skills, so a certain machismo creeps into business language, and terms like 'firefighting' are deployed to describe what, more often than not, amounts to writing a few emails or taking a phonecall.

Action-words proliferate, and nouns become verbs: we task things. We parameterise them. We dialogue. And because it's imperative always to be
out in front, we take things that already exist and put a twist to them to show how innovative we are. 

Not all of this is bad in itself. Languages need to grow if they're to thrive, and coinages that are a genuinely creative response to hitherto unremarked concepts, or a pithy summing-up of an existing problem, are to be welcomed. 'Up to speed', 'cutting edge', 'state of the art' - all of these fell strangely on the ear on first being heard; all are nowfirmly embedded, and need no gloss. And if there's one thing we can say with certainty it's that many of the terms evolving right now round the water-cooler - see? - will be part of everyday speech ten years down the line.

What the surviving phrases have in common is that they work. They're of general application and are self-explanatory, or draw on an immediately recognisable image. Few people hearing 'herding squirrels' for the first time are going to be in much doubt as to its meaning. But other examples require translation. 'Ideas hamster' sounds amusing, and evidently has something to say, but what, exactly? Tony Thorne's 'Shoot the puppy: A survival guide to the peculiar jargon of modern life' reveals that an ideas hamster is "an employee charged with generating or proposing innovative concepts".

But you might not appreciate that without being told. The two things we all know about hamsters are that they spend much of their time running on wheels that go nowhere, and they hoard foodstuffs in their cheeks. And neither attribute is likely to inspire confidence when applied - metaphorically or otherwise - to a colleague.

Nevertheless, if the sins of business language were confined to in-jokes, or amounted to nothing more than the odd manager smugly outlining his 'key deliverables', there'd be little harm done. If nine-to-fivers want to imagine themselves survivalist warriors, that's up to them. But it's not the invention of playful terms to compensate for being an office worker that causes problems; it's the self-aggrandisement that goes along with it. The compulsion to add value - or apparent value - to the most basic items of information has engendered the false belief that ordinary words are inadequate to the needs of business.

Not long ago, I heard a senior manager express the opinion that his company had 'acquired learnings' from a particular process. Really? Basic vocabulary wouldn't appear to be among them - it's to be hoped that any infant returning from nursery to talk about the morning's 'learnings' would be gently corrected. We learn lessons, we don't 'acquire learnings'.

Similar over-reaching produces verbs like 'eventuate', and by now the supposed aim of brevity is in the distant past, and we're wasting time twice over. Because not only does 'eventuate' take longer to say than the word it's replacing, but the first time you hear it, you're going to waste precious business-seconds wondering why whoever used it didn't say 'happen' instead.

At least in these examples translation is possible. But at one short remove from 'learnings' and 'eventuate' - whose usage might, after all, arise from ignorance - lies a whole new world; a territory of hardcore jargon like 'leverageable global knowledge', 'mission-critical strategies' and 'front-end ideation'; phrases never encountered outside a business context. And, at this level, jargon is evidently no longer about brevity, nor even intimidation - it's about exclusivity; a deliberate separation of business language from everyday communication.

This separation is, of course, nothing new. Business letters have long come freighted with phrases that have no place in a verbal exchange: "further to your recent communication", "we regret to advise you", "for your convenience". But these have entered the common currency, and - crucially - no rational person would dream of using them outside their proper context.

Lack of substance

The problem with today's business jargon is that it all too often escapes into the mainstream - as with that Virgin Trains letter - and when that happens, its self-defeating nature becomes apparent. Because exclusivity works both ways. There are only so many walls business can build around itself before it becomes shut in. And the very existence of those walls is frequently perceived by those outside the business community as providing cover for the fact that there's no substance behind them.

And frequently there isn't. Lucy Kellaway, the Financial Times's jargon-buster, recently quoted the following, which emanates (almost inevitably) from a human resources department:

"For HR to succeed it must re-equip itself through its own competence, capabilities, governance, delivery systems to enable managers to build the organisation capability needed to succeed."

The striking thing about this is its air of desperation. If headless chickens could talk, this is what they'd sound like. Here we have language deployed by someone who has no idea what they're trying to say, other than that it has to sound positive; accordingly, they've simply piled together a list of words that are unattached to their meaning, repetitive, wrongly punctuated and ungrammatical - all common features of the jargon-heavy statement. Grammar and punctuation, after all, have a specific function: they make plain the sense. But jargon is the enemy of sense, used in place of argument, not to bolster it. Applying grammar or punctuation here would be like erecting scaffolding around mist.

Ongoing positivisation

So why has business developed a form of language largely devoid of substance? One answer is that it needs to create a context in which performance can always be adjudged a success. In a marketplace that demands constant growth - which is, by any rational frame of reference, an impossibility - some targets have to remain abstractions so that nobody can deny they're being met. 'Performance enhancement' can be achieved without reference to profit or loss. 'Recognition-purchase' may not be quantifiable, but that doesn't mean it can't be described as 'growing'. The vaguer the target, the better. And business language's need for a positive outlook shows in its relentlessly upbeat nature. Being 'good' is no longer good enough: degrees of excellence now spiral all the way up to 'paradigm-shifting', just as all services become 'solutions', to underline a constant sense of achievement, of problems overcome. At the same time, bad things have to be downplayed, via widespread use of euphemism. Nobody needs reminding of the wealth of terms that have replaced the word 'sacked'. With all information being filtered in this fashion, it's no surprise that when businesses fail, it often seems to outsiders to have happened overnight. That's because warning signs have effectively been censored; smothered under a blanket of positive noises.

It would, of course, be naïve to think that the business community in its entirety was taken in by the language it espouses. Nobody with any intelligence ever listened to a management address, or read an HR email or a company newsletter that was loaded with this jargon and thought that, stripped of the business speak, it made an awful lot of sense. And yet jargon-laden messages keep on being released into the real world, where they're met with ridicule. How useful is that to anyone?

For business to mould its language on the 'Humpty Dumpty' model, whereby only the speaker knows what he means by the words he uses, might make for some cosy moments in the boardroom, but it's folly to apply it anywhere else. The business of language is to communicate. When the language of business fails to do that - when it hedges itself with self-congratulatory but meaningless babble - then business is talking only to itself. And let's not forget that, following his precipitate vertical repositioning, nobody put Humpty back together again. Probably because nobody understood his cries for help.

Mick Herron is a professional editor, and is also the author of four novels including 'Reconstruction', a hostage thriller set in a nursery school in Oxford.

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