The business of gobbledegook

Posted by on May 11, 2011

When we communicate in a business environment, obscure jargon is an occupational hazard. Given how specialised are many industries and work environments, it’s natural that people will use a certain amount of terminology that won’t always make much sense to outsiders. The trouble is when this language is used in inappropriate contexts, or when it becomes so vague and jumbled as to be impenetrable even to its target audience.

Business depends on presenting a positive and knowledgeable front. It’s generally considered important to reassure stockholders and potential clients and investors – to talk the talk, and to downplay fears and bad news. Markets are notoriously sensitive. But there’s a fine line between optimism and fancy. Some people make a habit of bluffing; they conceal or avoid the truth through the use of gobbledegook peppered with buzzwords and clichés. For example:

In the current economic climate, we have a paradigm-shifting window of opportunity to capitalise on integrated sustainability in a value-centred industry environment, thereby incentivising operant personnel to migrate strategically towards asset realignment and deliverable frameworks for the bottom line of leveraging synergistic output productivity going forward …

It’s possible to find occasional half-sense in this muddle of management jargon. (I made it up, but it’s only slightly exaggerated.) Passages like this can sometimes indicate overcompensation for a lack of meaning or understanding, or sometimes a sincere and tantalising effort to convey plans and sense by someone who has simply lost the knack of doing so in plain English. Hence the recourse to what is, in the ears of most listeners, mystifying gibberish.

Plain-language alternatives to gobbledegook are not always available or obvious to speakers, and when we speak extemporaneously we’re under more pressure to keep talking than to carefully search for the best and simplest phrases. Used repeatedly, even the most hollow jargon can gain a woolly kind of meaning, and so its currency grows. String enough of it together, and you’ve got an impressive chunk of wordy nonsense that your boss might swallow rather than admit to not knowing what you’re talking about.

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Comments (5)
  • Good post, Stan, and just in time for the new series of The Apprentice, which always showcases some of the most hilariously baffling and/or nonsensical business jargon.

    If I hear “skillset”, “relatability” or “comfortability” used seriously again this year I’m going to beat myself over the head repeatedly with a copy of the Plain English Society’s constitution!

    Posted by dan on 11th May, 2011
  • Hi Dan, I tweeted this yesterday: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-13338023 Some true gems in there 🙂

    Posted by Kati on 11th May, 2011
  • Thanks, Dan. I don’t watch The Apprentice, but I would have guessed that it offers rich pickings to jargon-spotters like ourselves. Kati’s link showed me just how rich!
    It seems that plain English is too simple and direct for a lot of people, but I find it immeasurably more impressive than the inflated, convoluted language so popular in business circles.

    Posted by Stan on 11th May, 2011
  • Unfortunately, it is drifting into acceptance as poetry also.
    Cite: deconstructed prose.
    Cite: unrhymed short stories.

    Thus the world progresses, making room for the masses.

    As someone far smarter than I once said – ‘ follar the dollar ‘

    Jim.

    Posted by Jim on 15th September, 2011
  • Jim: Turning corporate jargon into poetry has potential, I think, as a way of making it sound even sillier than it does in the meeting room. But then I’ve always liked nonsense poetry for its own sake!

    Posted by Stan on 15th September, 2011
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