Last week I wrote a parody of corporate communication as part of a competition for Macmillan Dictionary’s Business English month. Enjoyable as it was to write, I had even more fun reading the responses – readers’ translations of my imperfect storm of management buzzwords. The comments showed how naturally people see through (and play with) this kind of language, even when it borders on incomprehensibility.
It is satisfying to replace officialese and ‘corporatese’ with more direct and meaningful words, to use our creativity – whether mentally or in a more concrete way – to improve vague and inflated guff. But gobbledegook remains all too customary in business and politics, and the inexorable creep of commercialisation and politicisation means that it is apt to end up almost anywhere. It seems to spread partly by contagion; in all but the most careful speakers, passive exposure can lead to use.
Fortunately there are efforts in the other direction, promoting plain language. For example, President Obama recently signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which obliges federal agencies in the U.S. to use “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use”. In 2009, the Local Government Association in the UK listed 200 words and phrases to avoid. Although the LGA clearly meant well, some of the words it blacklisted were useful, and some of the alternatives it suggested were little or no improvement on the undesirable jargon.
My parody article obscured the act of firing people. This act can be a regrettable economic necessity during a prolonged credit crunch, but euphemising it with periphrasis and weasel words like rightsizing, downsizing, offshoring, strategic reorganisation, involuntary career realignment or decruitment implementation event doesn’t make anyone feel better about it. On the contrary: it demeans and irritates people. It pushes their irritation buttons.
Plain English is a frank and straightforward style that does not lend itself readily to expressing longwinded nonsense and hiding unpleasant facts. It is well suited to conveying meaning clearly and without guile, thereby showing a measure of respect for people’s intelligence, feelings, and capacity for dealing with difficult truths and situations – not “challengeful reality-based outcomes, going forward”. Our brains do a lot of hard work decoding language into sense; in business, it doesn’t pay to multiply this workload.Email this Post