Saturday, October 2, 2010

Loop back to me and we'll touch base about this offline.

While teaching at a large bank recently, I started talking about business jargon, and more precisely business buzzwords. I said that for many native-speakers, this sort of language can be incomprehensible, sound pretentious or just sound plain ugly.
In the UK many employees say they feel cut off from management, as they haven’t a clue what management are talking about. [1]. It has got so bad that the government has even sent out a list of ‘forbidden words’ to local councils. [2]

Business jargon - interactive lesson

Like any other jargon, business-specific jargon can of course be very useful, can even lead to more precision, that otherwise would involve long explanations. But what we are talking about here is something different – those trendy expressions which are used perhaps to impress and which Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times has been campaigning against. [3]
One of the students said they don’t know how to differentiate between what we could call legitimate business terminology and meaningless buzzwords. There are several places on the web where you can find lists of these expressions, but we’ll start with those that the BBC find people in Britain hate most. [4]

Buzz expressions

These are quite easily spotted, as they often sound strange, stupid or pretentious.

Exercise 1 - See if you can match these expressions with their meanings. Use the drop down selectors, and then click on 'Check answers'

1. Blue-sky thinkingaLooking to the future
2. Get your ducks in a rowbTo tell everything you know about a particular topic
3. Brain dumpcImprove performance by going beyond commonly accepted boundaries
4. Think outside the boxdIdealistic or visionary ideas - not always with practical application
5. Joined-up thinkingeHave arrangements efficiently ordered
6. Drill downfGet more detail about a particular issue
7. Push the envelopegAn overview
8. The helicopter viewhTaking into account how things affect each other - not looking at something in isolation
9. Low-hanging fruitiDon't limit your thinking to within your job description; be creative
10. Going forwardjThe easiest targets

Verbification

This is: "the tendency - usually American - to turn perfectly good nouns into perfectly bad verbs." [5] NB I have used AmE spelling in this section, as this what you are more likely to see.
Note that several simple words can sound better than a single 'verbified' verb. Or you can try using a different word instead. Eg influence instead of impact

Look at these verbs, all relatively recent adaptations of nouns, and at how they are used in context.

NounVerbExample sentence
actionactioncould you all action this ASAP?
incentiveincentivizewe need to incentivize the staff
priorityprioritizeyou should prioritize your tasks
moneymonetizehow can I monetize this blog?
impactimpacthow will this impact the business?
favoritefavoritethis video has been favorited three times
tasktaskI've been tasked with bringing coffee to the meeting.
decisiondecisionwe're decisioning that right now.

Exercise 2 - Now look at these noun constructions. Which noun goes with which construction?

favourites   · action   · decision   · impact   · incentive   · money   · priority   · task  
1. put things into order of
2. be given the of doing something
3. be added to somebody's list of
4. make from something
5. have a(n) on somebody, something
6. give a(n) to somebody
7. take / make a
8. put something into
It's not that all verbification is ugly. I happily use 'Google' as a verb, for example. I probably even talk about accessing a file. And many verbs we now take for granted such as sleep, ship (as in transport) and divorce, started off life as verbs. It's just some sound better than others. And it's also all very subjective.

Leverage - note that this word now has several different meanings

The noun

  1. The action or advantage of using a lever
  2. The power to influence people and get the results you want. It is used a lot in this sense when talking about negotiations [6], and has been for a long time.
  3. a) The use of various financial instruments to increase the potential return of an investment.

    b) The amount of debt used to finance a firm's assets

The verb as technical jargon

Using credit, based on the third meaning of the noun - we heard this usage a lot during the financial crisis. [7]
  • over-leveraged - has borrowed too much money and cannot make payments on the debt
  • de-leverage - try to get out of debt [8]
  • leveraged buy-out - to use borrowed money to buy a company [9]

The verb as buzzword

"The grandpappy of nouns turned verbs, 'leverage' is used indiscriminately to describe how a resource can be applied to a particular environment or situation. 'We intend to leverage our investment in IT infrastructure across our business units to drive profits.'" (MBA Watch) [10]
"To utilize a resource. A list of the worst business jargon would, of course, be incomplete without it." (TheOfficeLife) [11]

Some funny buzzwords

And now for some tongue-in-cheek buzzwords I rather like, as they are rather creative. Many of them come from here [12]

Exercise 3 - Try and match the words on the left with their definitions. Click on 'Check answers' when you've finished.

1. Al Descoato have a largely silent phone.
2. BrandalismbBullshit you've definitely heard somewhere before.
3. Conspicuous non-consumptioncA food product with some claimed health benefit (e.g. tastes great and reduces cholesterol).
4. Deceptionistdthe way that libraries, art galleries etc. now have their walls defaced with the logos of their corporate sponsors.
5. Deja-mooethe tendency - usually American - to turn perfectly good nouns into perfectly bad verbs. Eg incentivise, productise, remoting, tasking, visioning.
6. LatteratifDescribes any meal eaten at your desk (you have our sympathies if it's dinner).
7. Multislackingga receptionist whose role is to confuse, intimidate and obstruct rather than facilitate access to those he or she works for.
8. Nutraceuticalhto do several different types of very little at once (e.g. watch MTV, eat Doritos and download music).
9. Serial entrepreneuripeople who frequent bookstores, but only to use the on-site coffee shops and read the free magazines.
10. Smirtingja type of snobbery based on what an individual chooses not to buy. (e.g. 'we'd never have a satellite dish.')
11. Text starvedkA person who starts several (not necessarily successful) business ventures.
12. VerbificationlTaking the opportunity to flirt with co-workers while huddled together for an outdoor cigarette break.

Buzzword bingo

Buzzword bingo is a bingo-style game where participants prepare bingo cards with buzzwords and tick them off when they are uttered during an event, such as a meeting or speech. The goal of the game is to tick off a predetermined number of words in a row and then yell "Bingo!" (Wikipedia) [14].
You can see it in action at YouTube. [15]. There are versions available for iPhone and Android (see the Wikpedia article).
Or you can print out cards at Bullshit Bingo [16]

Final thoughts

Where to find them

The most comprehensive collection is probably at TheOfficeLife [11]. I like the author's comments at MBA Watch [10]. Buzzwords 4 lists the funnier ones [12], and there's an index at Wikipedia [13]

Lost causes

As even Barack Obama uses going forward, I'm afraid we're stuck with it now.
Words such as prioritize, and expressions such as paradigm shift have crept into the Business English course books, so unfortunately we're stuck with them too.

One man's meat is another man's poison [17]

In the end this is all very subjective. I don't particularly mind - to grow the company - although others including Kellaway think this verb should be reserved for plants etc. On the other hand I hate - incentivize - while others have no problems with it.

Yesterday's buzzwords are commonplace today

It's worth remembering that words like brainstorm and outsource were probably once considered buzzwords, but seem perfectly normal words to us now.

Links and Sources

  1. BBC News - Workplace jargon 'isolates staff'
  2. The Telegraph - Councils told to ditch meaningless jargon
  3. BBC News - Lucy Kellaway's campaign to ditch 'going forward'
  4. BBC News Magazine - 50 office-speak phrases you love to hate
  5. Buzzwords 4
  6. Wikipedia - Leverage in negotiations
  7. Investopedia - Leverage
  8. Investopedia - Deleverage
  9. Investopedia - Leveraged buyout
  10. MBA Jargon Watch - "Where business jargon goes to die" (very funny comments)
  11. TheOfficeLife - "The Ridiculous Business Jargon Dictionary" (very comprehensive)
  12. Buzzwords 4 - (very creative)
  13. Wikipedia - List of buzzwords
  14. Wikipedia - Buzzword Bingo
  15. YouTube - Buzzword Bingo
  16. Bullshit Bingo - Cards for Buzzword (aka Bullshit) Bingo
  17. Free Dictionary - One man's meat is another man's poison

Answers

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