Houston, we’ve had a probletunity, going forward

Management jargon and political gobbledygook exert a perverse pull on my attention, despite their often deadening inanity. At its best, this vacuous form of verbiage demands a dubious but undeniable skill (or key competency, if you prefer). When confronted by it, I am torn between fascination, mild horror, and the urge to fall suddenly, disgustedly asleep. It can be both oppressive and impressive that someone can utter so much so easily, yet say so little.

This is the realm of advanced output impacts and feedback-based linkage operations. It is where key deliverables are leveraged, values are strategically implemented (then iterated), and frameworks are structurally reinforced — and synergised, if they’re lucky. Every problem is a probletunity.* If it is cross-functionally achievable, so much the better.

That these phrases are largely interchangeable underscores their basic meaninglessness. Yes, I made them up, but who would notice this in a Monday morning meeting? They are, in the main, a pretence at sense, an aggregation of abstracted affectations that would fit snugly into many a mystifying mission statement or corporate design manual.

Jargon can serve a useful purpose as a shorthand for specialists. But it’s getting out of hand when change is a systems enhancement, wind is a wind event, and newborn babies are — I wish I were joking — OB products. Hamlet didn’t suffer an existential crisis: he experienced liveability issues. One does not learn: one actions knowledge-based self-education training.

In The Making of a Counter Culture, Theodore Roszak warned of the deeply estranging effect of “chilly jargons and technical terms that replace sensuous speech”. Though Roszak was dismantling the myth of objective consciousness, his point holds for mumbo jumbo regardless of its objective. Nonsense for its own sake is one thing; nonsense masquerading as reason, news, or official policy is another matter altogether.

Weasel words and their ill-judged ilk are Don Watson’s specialist subject. Watson writes books and essays on lexical mangling; his dictionary of Weasel Words, Contemporary Clichés, Cant & Management Jargon, which inspired some of the examples above, is a scathing collection intended to induce irritation, curiosity, laughter and rage — which it does, sometimes all at once, at least in this reader.

Watson also gives talks on language and what he sees as its contemporary abuse. Yesterday I watched one of these talks, called “Bendable Learnings” after his most recent book.

[Note: the image below is a screengrab, not a video or click-through.]

Watson’s speaking style is thoughtful and low-key, even deadpan, but also expressive. It doesn’t mask his passion for the glorious heights that language can reach, or his quiet fury with the lazy cynicism and artless absurdity of what he dubs a “language without possibility”.

He discusses, among other things, gobbledygook’s inhibitory effect on thinking — an especially dangerous development for anyone in a position of power — and he cautions: “Once you start talking like this, there’s no going back.” Instead, like salmon, “we now go forwards all the time.”

If you have an hour to spare, it’s well worth a watch or a listen (various formats are available). It’s also good for some mordant laughs, which is perhaps the most appropriate response to gobbledygook, going forward.

* One of the least elegant portmanteau words I’ve ever seen.

12 Responses to Houston, we’ve had a probletunity, going forward

  1. Fran says:

    One that annoys me is when I’m asked to ‘deliver’ a lesson. I’d much rather teach, to be honest.

  2. Jesus Stan probletunity truly is a hideous portmanteau…. but there is one expression that makes me froth at the mouth and that is the use of DNA in a sense that does not relate to Deoxyribonucleic Acid

    Perhaps that is just the Biochemist in me

  3. Stan says:

    Fran: You say that now, but when you’re asked (or tasked!) to implement interactive modular learnings, you’ll look back fondly on the days of direct lesson delivery.

    Jams: Probletunity is an eyesore all right! And DNA does seem to have taken on a strange figurative sense. It’s as though the need to establish pseudo-credibility by importing scientific terms is in the DNA of some speakers.

  4. It’s a shame you couldn’t take more of a helicopter view on this one.

  5. wisewebwoman says:

    Transparency, Stan.
    At the end of the day.

  6. Tim says:

    Hey, nice typewritten account of verbose and preposterous absolutes. Utilising the focal capacity of my retinal chambers to scrutinise the outworkings of such a well-planned presentation to highlight the extremes of unnecessarily extended verbage incited the fundamental essence of my intellectual repository to undergo its own extreme; one of dizziness.

    Recently, a Japanese friend of mine asked me to give my opinion as to why the author of the following piece included his or her first two commas. I agree that they are unnecessary, but what really caught my attention is the sentence itself. It is a good example of verbose gobbledegook:

    “A slender acquaintance with the world, must convince every man, that actions, not words, are the true standard of judging the attachment of friends, and that the most liberal professions of good-will are very far from the surest marks of it.”

    Actions speak louder than words, but mind those who do good with an ulterior motive in mind! (The cynical interpretation, haha).

  7. Stan says:

    JD: That would improve my blue-sky thinking in a vertical market, but I would no longer be able to sing from the same hymn sheet, going upward.

    WWW: Exactly — transparency is a dynamic predictor of beaconicity, and could be the mechanism for an entirely new holistic paradigm.

    Tim: Oh, you’re good at this. I apologise for the retinal assault and will skip to your example. It’s from George Washington, I think. The comma after world is not only unnecessary, it is ungrammatical; the comma after man, though unnecessary for grammar or logic, could be justified on rhetorical grounds. But I wonder whether either comma appears in the original quote, since I would credit Washington with knowing when and how to use them effectively. I suspect, in other words, that they were inserted later by a comma fetishist. To modern eyes the sentence seems old-fashioned and flowery, but I wouldn’t call it gobbledygook. In fact, I like it!

  8. Ben Zimmer says:

    Probletunity really doesn’t measure up to Homer Simpson’s crisitunity.

  9. Someone once asked me to translate a document full of such jargon from English to Irish. I gave them a choice: I could produce a fairly direct translation, which would inevitably highlight the document’s absurdity, or charge them double the amount and translate it first to meaningful English and then to Irish. They wisely chose the second option. Translation makes an excellent jargon-detection tool.

  10. Stan says:

    Ben: If only there were some way to compare them sensibly! I had forgotten about crisitunity. At least it has the excuse of having been written as a joke word, and unlike probletunity was probably never meant to be spoken with a straight face.

    Pretty far west: I think it’s you who was wise. Translating jargon-laden gibberish into meaningful English can be troublesome, to say the least, and it requires considerable patience and a strong stomach: not a job for the faint-hearted! I must admit, I would love to have read the direct translation that you didn’t have to compose…

  11. Sean Jeating says:

    Not sure if it fits here, but I came spontaneously to think of a word that in my opinion not only is gobbledegook, but debunks vileness, cynism and perversity of their ‘creators’: waterboarding.
    We would not voluntary enter a boardinghouse, had we to expect water torture, would we?

    Thanks for another brilliant post, Stan.

  12. Stan says:

    Sean: Anything you wish to write fits anywhere on this blog! I would categorise “waterboarding” as a euphemism rather than gobbledygook, and I would agree with your assessment of how it reflects on the parties responsible for it. It is a technique of torture with the name of a fun sport. Along similar lines, I think you will enjoy this list of euphemisms compiled by John E. McIntyre and his readers.

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