The English language has around 1,035,877 words.
With all those words, you’d think we’d constantly be creating new phrases and sentences. However, when I switch on the TV and catch a glimpse of any of the current reality shows (celebrities eating creepy crawlies, people stuck in a house being watched 24 hours a day or people singing their way to fame and fortune), I hear the same clichéd phrases again and again; “I’ve been on a journey…” or, “I’ve given it 110%”.
We may now think of a “meme” as being a humorous image or video which spreads on the Internet. However, “meme” was originally a term used in Biology to refer to an element of a culture or a behaviour which generally spreads from one individual to another by imitation. It’s interesting to think that there’s a biological basis to explain why, over time, people living together or working closely together tend to use the same words and phrases.
It’s also clear that some organisations have their own “corporate vocabularies” comprising esoteric phrases, jargon and acronyms. Employees may find themselves using language which is not actually that meaningful to them or to others within the organisation; let alone to those on the outside looking in!
Take this example of jargon I found in a recent job advert; “…to collect and analyse internal insights in combination with external thought leadership”.
“External thought leadership?” Really? Like the little boy in the tale of the Emperor’s new clothes, it takes a brave person in a corporate environment to challenge the norm or to point out the truth, “That’s jargon. I don’t understand what you’re saying” or to ask the hard question, “What on earth do you mean?”.
Someone once said, clever people can take complex concepts and make them easy to understand. So, why do others seem to make things more difficult to understand by using long words and jargon? Is it defensiveness, group norms, politics or positioning? Or do people fall back on jargon when they’re unable to give clear direction to others? The Plain English Campaign (2014) noted that staff working for large corporate organisations can use jargon or management-speak to detract attention from their own poor management skills.
There’s a wonderful “Gobbledygook Generator” on the Plain English Campaign website which, at the push of a button, generates random business phrases:
- We need a more contemporary reimagining of our holistic asset resources.
- At base level, this just comes down to integrated relative paradigm shifts.
- We need to get on-message about our responsive asset programming
- My organisation believes in systemised strategic contingencies.
You get the gist. Have a go, push the button…hopefully you won’t recognise any of your own phrases in there!
So, whether it’s “blue-sky thinking, touching base offline, having a level paying field and going after the low hanging fruit”, “not enough bandwidth to cascade the relevant information to form the strategic staircase” or “wanting to reach out, circle back and get a helicopter view”, we are surrounded by jargon every day. We may have stopped noticing how much exists in our own organisation…
If you do notice … let me know which phrases, clichés or jargon irk you?
Director of People Solutions