business English

Weaselly recognised

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.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • Plain English isn’t necessarily just the removal of biz-speak vocabulary items. When I lost my job a few years ago due to ‘restructuring’, in meetings prior to the redundancies, I was repeatedly pulled up, by someone from the HR department, for saying ‘so you’re making me redundant’. Apparently the correct form is ‘so you’re making *my job* redundant’. Did it make me feel better to be told that my rôle in the company, rather than me myself, was being fired? No. I was still out of a job, & the mealy-mouthed linguistic hedging around that unpleasant fact made me feel worse, not better – it was, quite frankly, silly and patronising.
    And by the way, the term HR, ‘human resources’ also sticks in my throat a little – what was wrong with ‘personnel’? I prefer to think of myself as a person rather than a (by implication, expendable) resource!

  • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Janet. I overlooked restructuring (and probably many other terms) in my collection of euphemisms for firing staff. Your experience sounds horrible: bad enough that you lost your job, but that they would be so fussy about how you described their decision is petty and pathetic indeed. I agree with you about human resources, but there seems to be no escaping the term. The same goes for consumer – a word that serves to limit and commodify human experience.

  • That’s a very interesting post Stan. Has the term “natural wastage” gone? A horrible, offensive term which has been used to describe people at retirement age. Companies relied on “natural wastage” to downsize. I haven’t heard it of late, hopefully it’s been consigned to landfill, where it belongs…

  • Helen, I don’t remember ever hearing that euphemism before, but sure enough it has an entry here. I would have assumed it meant sewage or something similar! Let’s hope it dies a quick and natural death.

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