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.