Have you ever felt personally victimised by the phrase run the numbers, or best practice, or low hanging fruit, or literally just the word ‘bandwidth’ used in any context except for referring to internet connection? Starting my first job as an intern at a global company has exposed me to many things I never thought twice about previously. The most shocking thing, however, would be how the world of work butchers the English language, on a daily basis. Anyone in an office job has come across idioms that sound fancy but don’t make sense, until we’re left to ‘circle back’ in an infinite loop of meaningless phrases.
The rise of corporate jargon is nothing new. Brahm Capoor argues that to investigate corporate jargon, you must start with the buzzword, a singular unit of jargon, such as ‘cross-promotional’ or ‘synergy.’ Similar to internet vernacular, where phrases can develop new meanings like Chinese whispers, buzzwords do the same thing, creating a cloud of confusion around the original meaning. These words start off as powerful and specific explanations of complex processes or ideas, but become watered down, as “people start to turn against the word and it dies a loud and noticeable death.” We’re left with a language of diluted communication that gets used and abused beyond the rooms they were born for, whether it be within finance, marketing, banking.
Capoor analyses the phrase ‘the long tail,’ which, in 2004, explained how e-commerce markets can shift from flashy, popular products to more niche markets – sourced from the fact that when graphed, the demand curve for these products resembles a long tail. But as the phrase’s popularity grew with a New York Times bestseller book of the same name, it “saturated the discourse.” Capoor recounts a developer telling a journalist that the secret to profitability was about “the long tail – transitioning from viewers to users, despite the fact that the long tail has nothing to do with views or users.” This misinterpretation, overuse, and eventually parody leads the phrase to die a painful death.
One explanation of why corporate jargon has prevailed links it to David Graeber’s “bullshit jobs” theory. In 2018, Graeber asserted that capitalism creates “bullshit jobs” which don’t provide any economic or social benefit. One could naturally conclude that the increasingly superfluous nature of buzzwords matches the rise of bullshit jobs. But I think it’s more serious than that.
Rather than talking about buzzwords in isolation, academics have gone so far as to classify this discourse as its own specialised “Business English.” Semantically, its purpose of limiting phrases is to help people communicate ideas across cultural and linguistic barriers, which has become necessary as the world has globalised. Users often participate in Business English only in commercial contexts, and revert to their preferred language or dialect in social and domestic spheres. This way, business English is viewed as a means or a process, and not a product which itself carries meaning. This is possibly why much of corporate jargon feels so meaningless and stale.
So does Business English intentionally try to obfuscate things? Are there more sinister implications for society at large? For one, forcing us into these predetermined linguistic moulds may strike diversity of thought from the rooms we occupy. There are definitely limitations to how creative our language, in the corporate context, can be. However, I believe the beauty of our language allows us to relate to other humans in profound ways. It helps us express personal perspectives and, forcing everyone into the same few phrases diminishes our ability to communicate individual ideas.
David Markowitz, a professor of communications at the University of Oregon, examined how corporate communications, such as mission statements, influence how the public perceives that company. Those who used obfuscatory language were seen to be more immoral and less trustworthy. Extending upon this, some corporations are also masters at shifting blame through language; famously, the phrase ‘carbon footprint’ was manufactured and shoved into our personal lexicon by BP to shift personal responsibility onto consumers. The knowledge of this ‘deceitful PR campaign,’ makes the general public rightfully skeptical at best of large corporations with historically shady intentions.
Ultimately, I’d like to see a world where we reject corporate jargon creeping into our linguistic spheres and embrace the full span of the English language to communicate clearly and honestly. If we allowed a larger span of phrases and words into our corporate communications employees wouldn’t have to sacrifice their individuality to be heard and taken seriously.