Jargon: It’s not the business world’s fault!
Why we blame the wrong people for our most annoying phrases
How do I fire thee? Let me count the ways: lay off, downsize, rightsize, optimize, streamline, restructure, reshuffle. In an infamous December 2012 press release, Citigroup announced that it would begin “a series of repositioning actions that will further reduce expenses and improve efficiency,” resulting in “streamlined operations and an optimized consumer footprint across geographies.” Translation: 11,000 people would be repositioned out the door.
Business-speak, with its heartless euphemisms and empty stock phrases, is the jargon that everyone loves to hate. Complaining about it has become such a sport that this past February, Forbes constructed its second annual March Madness–style business-speak bracket, pitting “thought leadership” against “takeaway,” “going forward” against “make it happen.” And yet a new analysis suggests that we may have the wrong culprit: Some of our most detested business jargon may not come from business at all.
Americans have been complaining about business-speak since the era of modern management began. In 1911, the engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor published an influential monograph called “The Principles of Scientific Management,” laying out his case for a more efficient style of business operation, requiring not charismatic leaders but systematic thinkers. “Taylorism” was soon the subject of academic conferences, congressional investigations, and debates in the popular press.
As the new business philosophy spread, critics perceived a change in the general culture. “The spoken [English] of the Americans is now taking on a very pronounced commercial colour,” wrote the British expatriate editor Douglas S. Martin in a 1914 article for The Academy and Literature. “At the tea-tables in the St. Regis, in New York, and the Copley Plaza in Boston...the breezy gossip of the American woman is simply redolent of the broker’s office, the curb market and the warehouse.”
No realm was safe from this commercial talk. Young clergymen, for instance, were warned not to speak of “selling” a new idea to their congregations. “Just a bit envious of the precision and efficiency he notes in his visit to the president of the tomato-can factory,” wrote Lloyd C. Douglas in the Oct. 12, 1922, issue of The Christian Century, “he even finds it pleasant to adopt the tomato-can president’s business lingo, and tries to think of himself as a manufacturer. He is a manufacturer of ideals, he says.”
But when one looks closer at the complaints about business language being leveled in the 1910s and 1920s, one discovers a surprise: The offensive terms were generally just the slang of the moment. Here’s a partial list of words and phrases that Martin railed against: “stop in,” “deliver the goods,” “win out,” “the straight dope,” “make good,” “get away with it,” “put one over,” “show down,” “come across,” “get wise,” “on the level,” “bawl him out,” “got his number,” “get his goat,” “get warm around the collar,” “hit the ceiling,” “fall for it,” “get busy.” Why did people hear these expressions as business talk?
The same misapprehension, it turns out, is present in people’s complaints about business jargon today. For several years, Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, has been keeping an eye on the words and phrases that are condemned as business-speak, and he has noticed that as much as “mission statements” and “deliverables,” what gets under people’s skin are expressions like “impactful,” “at the end of the day,” and “low-hanging fruit.” As he has investigated these expressions, he noted in a post last month on the blog Language Log, he has found that they are as common in sports, politics, social science, and other spheres as they are in business.
Take “impactful.” Liberman analyzed the 4,430 current Google News hits for this word—which Robert Hartwell Fiske, in his 2011 Dictionary of Unendurable English, calls a “condemnable” adjective “often used by businesspeople and marketers.” Liberman found 40 percent of the references in sports writing (“the team’s most energetic, impactful player”), 10 percent in arts and music writing (“a classic album as impactful as Innervisions”), and more clusters in several smaller categories that all ranked ahead of business.
But did “impactful” get its start in business? Liberman searched for the earliest recorded
uses of the word and found two in the 1950s and more in the 1960s and 1970s. These examples roughly divided into three strands: academic literature in the arts and clinical psychology; African-American media; and cultural writing. Similarly, Liberman has found evidence that the phrases “going forward,” “low-hanging fruit,” and “at the end of the day,” all popularly bemoaned as business-speak, are not used to an unusual degree by management types.
Why do we think this if it’s not true? Liberman argues that we are unconsciously combining our negative feelings about work or “bosses” with our discomfort for new slang. “Different groups—and groups in different settings—do have different ways of talking and writing, and everyone knows this as a matter of personal experience,” says Liberman. “But ordinary people have reasons to dislike managers more than they dislike sportswriters or particle physicists.” Managers give us orders. They make us attend meetings. Occasionally, they fire us.
“So when a neologism rubs someone the wrong way,” says Liberman, “and their stereotype-forming system is looking for a group to associate with it, ‘managers’ are a likely target.” Business does produce some strange new language, but so does everyday culture. In the end, we may have to admit that the language we hate is really our own.
Joshua J. Friedman, a former editor at the Atlantic and Boston Review, is a writer in New York City. He can be reached at joshuajfriedman.com.