Jargon and the English language
Thread poster: Kim Metzger

Kim Metzger  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:19
German to English
Oct 3, 2003

Here’s something about the English language and bureaucratic jargon that I thought might be interesting to Prozies. One of my favorite writers on the English language, Richard Mitchell, in Less Than Words Can Say, writes: "The propensity for borrowed jargon is always a mark of limited ability in the technique of discursive thought. It comes from a poor education. A poor education is not simply a matter of thinking that components and elements might just as well be called factors; it is the inability to manipulate that elaborate symbol system that permits us to make fine distinctions among such things."

And here’s something I found on the Internet:


Do you keep falling asleep in meetings and seminars? What about those long and boring conference calls? Here's a way to change all of that.

1. Before (or during) your next meeting, seminar, or conference call, prepare yourself by drawing a square. I find that 5"x5" is a good size. Divide the card into columns-five across and five down. That will give you 25 one-inch blocks.

2. Write one of the following words/phrases in each block:

* synergy

* strategic fit

* core competencies

* best practice

* bottom line

* revisit

* expeditious

* to tell you the truth (or "the truth is")

* 24/7

* out of the loop

* benchmark

* value-added

* proactive

* win-win

* think outside the box

* fast track

* result-driven

* empower (or empowerment)

* knowledge base

* at the end of the day

* touch base

* mindset

* client focus(ed)

* paradigm

* game plan

* leverage

3. Check off the appropriate block when you hear one of those words or phrases.

4. When you get five blocks horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, stand up and shout "BULLSHIT!"

Testimonials from satisfied "Bullshit Bingo" players:

-- "I had been in the meeting for only five minutes when I won."-
Adam W., Atlanta

-- "My attention span at meetings has improved dramatically."-
David T., Florida

-- "What a gas! Meetings will never be the same for me after my first win."- Dan J., New York City

-- "The atmosphere was tense in the last process meeting as 14 of us waited for the fifth box." - Ben G., Denver

-- "The speaker was stunned as eight of us screamed 'BULLSHIT!' for the third time in two hours."- Bob Q., Indianapolis

[Edited at 2003-10-03 23:20]

[Edited at 2005-10-12 14:12]


Diogo Santos
Local time: 02:19
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Nice way to "stay alert" Oct 3, 2003

I'll try this for sureicon_smile.gif

Although shouting bullshit 100 times in the same meeting won't be very gently to the speaker..., nonetheless it's a very nice way to force him to finish earlier his statement and make his way home,
WITHOUT COMING BACK!!icon_biggrin.gificon_biggrin.gificon_biggrin.gif

Diogo Santos


Daniela McKeeby
United States
Local time: 21:19
Italian to English
+ ...
sounds familiar :-)) Oct 3, 2003

My favorite is “to tell you the truth”. Every single time I’ve heard the expression I had an urge to stand up and ask “whose truth? And by the way, what is truth?”


Sylvain Leray  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:19
Member (2003)
German to French
Excellent! Oct 4, 2003

That's just what I think when I have to translate such texts!
Great idea!

[Edited at 2003-10-04 09:29]


Narasimhan Raghavan  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:49
English to Tamil
+ ...
And adding insult to injury Oct 4, 2003

Is it not already boring to have to encounter these cliches time and again? When you have to translate them, the client will expect you to reduce the translation on account of fuzzy and other matches and this when your whole outlook becomes fuzzy due to these repetitions1

Sylvain Leray wrote:

That's just what I think when I have to translate such texts!
Great idea!

[Edited at 2003-10-04 09:29]


Beyond Words
Local time: 21:19
Portuguese to English
+ ...
"Buzz" words ?? Oct 4, 2003

I am eager to share this with every professional I know. Whereas jargon clearly has its place, original thought and a clear understanding of the topic to be discussed ought to be a priority. I am anxiously awaiting the opportunity to play the game, play the game, Everybody play the game ..............


Local time: 02:19
that's great, Kim! Oct 4, 2003

I love it!I'm sure I'll custom-build one of my next lessons....
Thank you very much!


ntext  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 20:19
German to English
+ ...
Initiating Mission-Critical Jargon Reduction (NY Times, Aug 3, 2003) Oct 4, 2003


Asking a business consulting firm to repair the damage business itself has done to the English language may feel a bit like entrusting the school nutrition program to a fried chicken chain. Nonetheless, since last month almost 100,000 people have downloaded a free program from Deloitte Consulting that plugs into Microsoft Word and PowerPoint and flags jargon like "best of breed," and "synergies" and proposes ordinary English alternatives. The program is called BullFighter.

Over the past 20 years, business has replaced the bureaucracy in the public mind as the chief perpetrator of doublespeak. On the Web, references to corporate or business jargon outnumber references to bureaucratic or government jargon by 3 to 1. It's a remarkable shift in attitudes, particularly since government hasn't exactly been sleeping on the job.

True, complaints about the language of business aren't new. Critics have long griped about the use of "contact" as a verb. Back in 1931, a Western Union vice president called the verb "a hideous vulgarism" and banned it from company documents, and H. L. Mencken described it in 1936 as one of the "counter words" of "the heyday of Babbittry." (The condemnation is repeated in the most recent edition of "The Elements of Style," by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, which is apparently still holding out for "write, phone, fax, wire, e-mail or click on us.") And mid-20th-century businessmen were ridiculed for inventions like "performancewise," and "depreciationwise" — a vogue promoted by Fortune magazine, which Archibald McLeish once described as "understaffed good-writer-wise."

Still, it's hard to get over the impression that where there's smoke, there's downsizing. Business jargon may not be new, but it is more visible and more pervasive in corporate life than it used to be. Strategists and consultants bandy clichés like "coopetition," "low-hanging fruit" and "mission-critical," which repackage old concepts in shiny new shrinkwrap.

Human resources departments (Mencken would have loved that name) have appropriated the language of the human potential movement to smooth the edges of hierarchy and conflict — "Let's revisit that issue to align our end-state visions."

Naming consultants churn out high-tech portmanteau names, with an eye to how they will play on Wall Street rather than on the factory floor. When a chemical company spins off its decorative building products division as Omnova Solutions, they're thinking of how the name will look on a stock offering, not a softball jersey.

And then there's the stiff-gaited swagger of managerial slang. I recall a line from a memo I received on the day I started work at a corporate research lab: "Cascade this to your people and see what the push-back is." If that sentence were a person, it would walk like George W. Bush.

It's tempting to see all this as the sign of an increase in managerial pretension and fatuity. That's the view according to Dilbert, which depicts the modern office as something like the England of Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, where hard-working English-speaking serfs are oppressed by supercilious overlords who speak a foreign tongue.

That picture appeals not just to the grunts in the cube-farms, but to their corporate superiors, who find Dilbert's dimwitted boss as risible as everybody else does.

In fact Dilbert's creator, Scott Adams, has made a lucrative sideline out of helping management to get its message across. In his consulting capacity, Dilbert has enabled Honda of America to "develop the key message [that] quality is a core value" and helped Xerox to invest employees with the "sense of ownership" that comes from an "empowering work environment."

That's the curious thing about corporate jargon — everyone deplores it, but nobody can resist it.

The Deloitte division that developed BullFighter promises "thought-leading research" that "empowers global enterprises." A promotional brochure from a large British law firm that offers its clients "tax compliance advice which is effective, clear and jargon-free" continues: "Our approach is proactive. We also believe that tax rules can play a positive role in incentivizing investors."

Reading that, you're struck less by its pretension than by its ingenuousness — it reminds you of Molière's M. Jordain, who was astonished to learn he had been speaking prose all his life.

But blaming the proliferation of business cant on an increase in phoniness is like blaming the recent corporate scandals on a sudden increase in greed. Both are the outgrowths of the changing nature of the corporation itself. If there's an invisible hand that moves the market, there sometimes seems to be an invisible mouth that speaks for it.

Consultants like to talk about "building high-performance corporate cultures," but as with a lot of the things we distinguish as cultures nowadays, the differences between corporations are actually pretty superficial — if they weren't, people wouldn't all be using the same jargon and papering their cubicle walls with the same comic strips, nor would top managers find it so easy to move from soft-drink companies to computer firms.

But America does have a culture of the corporation, and it is increasingly detached from the values that are touchstones in our personal dealings. Few people nowadays perceive the historical connection between "private sector" and "private life."

The corporation was created as a legal fiction to reduce personal responsibility. The new language merely acknowledges that function. Reducing your work force to cut costs doesn't carry the same moral stigma as dismissing an old family retainer. It's understandable that managers would want to find other words for the process — it's nothing personal, after all.

And in its way, the language also serves to insulate employees from the implications that everyday words would have. In ordinary life it's enough to recognize problems, goals and watersheds, but when we get to the office we're obliged to talk about issues, missions and inflection points. It isn't just that those words are grander; they are also reassuringly removed from the things we really care about.

When people talk about wanting to make happy lives for their children, they don't call it a "mission" — it's too important for that. Yet some companies do manage to talk more plainly than others — Deloitte points to the Home Depot and Apple Computer — and in fact the evidence suggests that that's a good indicator of a company's financial well-being.

Not that curbing jargon is likely to do much for a company's bottom line all by itself. But it can't do any harm to call people on the buzzwords they use. It's like requiring gang members to leave their colors at home and wear blazers and ties to school — it may not subdue their obstreperous natures, but it makes those cocky poses a little harder to strike.


AngieD  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:19
+ ...
sounds so familiar! Oct 4, 2003

Thanks for this Kim!
Since almost half my texts at the moment are on knowledge management, I'd need a much bigger grid ...
Enough jargon for tonight.


PAS  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:19
English to Polish
+ ...
Beee-yooo-teee-fulll Oct 6, 2003

There's a variation of this on the Dilbert site - The Mission Statement Generator.


Pawel Skalinski

If, during interpreting, I was paid per buzzword instead of per hour, I'd have retired a long time ago.


Domenica Grangiotti  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:19
English to Italian
+ ...
Corporate jargon is encouraged, not deplored - at least not within corporations Oct 6, 2003

That's the curious thing about corporate jargon everyone deplores it, but nobody can resist it.

I worked in a multinational corporation for 11 years and the Top Management produced a booklet entitled *Missions and Values*, whose first aim was to clarify the *mission* of the company (making money?!! of course, but *in the right way*) and to create a set of *common values* which all the employees had to share.
It was - in a way - like sharing a glossary, because the first thing you needed to do to *learn the language of the company* ...
In other words, they gave you *their words* to express *their concepts* so that both - concepts THROUGH words - could become your own.
A sort of Orwellian Newspeak Revisited!

Have a good day.


Mario Marcolin  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:19
English to Swedish
+ ...
Nice game Oct 8, 2003

Thank you Kim, I will spread the word....

The thing about jargon:
I find it hard to accept that business jargon often is used as a means of maintaining corporate hierarchy, and when hierarchy matters more than productivity or work ethics.
As when someone is promoted from a team to middle management ("minor management") and starts using snob corporatese..

[Edited at 2003-10-08 21:11]


Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:19
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
I thought that was why it's called fuzzy?? Oct 13, 2003

[quote]Narasimhan Raghavan wrote:

Is it not already boring to have to encounter these cliches time and again? When you have to translate them, the client will expect you to reduce the translation on account of fuzzy and other matches and this when your whole outlook becomes fuzzy due to these repetitions

Absolutely the definition of fuzzy thinking!
Actually I think we should charge extra because these texts are extremely difficult to translate (but we'd never get away with it...)

- Firstly it is extremely difficult to find out what precisely they mean, apart from "Now it's my ten minutes to bore you all."

Then the translator has to find equivalent cliches in the target language and fit them together.

Finally the translation must not reveal how stupid the source text is (which it usually does), because the customer loses face and blames the translator for not understanding his brilliant intentions...

Translators need to be mind-readers sometimes.


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