Respectful Insolence

I consider myself very fortunate that I don’t work in business. As a physician and a scientist, I just don’t think I would fit in the culture that well. Oh, I’m sure I’d adapt if ever the killer opportunity in big pharma or surgical device manufacturing ever came around to which I couldn’t say “no,” but this bit on the 50 Office-Speak Phrases You Love To Hate shows that I’d clearly have a lot to learn as far as the language goes.

The list is from England, but I’m sure my American readers will recognize many of the same phrases, albeit maybe spelled or phrased a bit differently. My favorite? It’s either got to be:

“My employers (top half of FTSE 100) recently informed staff that we are no longer allowed to use the phrase brain storm because it might have negative connotations associated with fits. We must now take idea showers. I think that says it all really.”
Anonymous, England

The connotations of the term “idea shower”…disturb me.

Or maybe this one:

“At my old company (a US multinational), anyone involved with a particular product was encouraged to be a product evangelist. And software users these days, so we hear, want to be platform atheists so that their computers will run programs from any manufacturer.”
Philip Lattimore, Thailand

Isn’t this sending mixed messages, being an evangelist on the one hand and an atheist on the other? (I’m so confused.) And what does “platform atheist” mean, anyway? That you don’t believe that any platforms exist?

Anyway, if you have any good examples of office-speak that are either not on the list or are particularly amusing examples of ones from the list, lay ‘em on me in the comments.

Comments

  1. #1 wfjag
    June 17, 2008

    Orac:

    I think you should solicit your readers to submit their least favorite pseudoscience phrases, have them reviewed at the Skeptics Circle, and then publish the winners (or losers, depending on the way you look at it).

  2. #2 Calli Arcale
    June 17, 2008

    It might be a tortured corruption of the phrase “platform agnostic”. That’s not a business-speak term; it’s an engineering term. It means that, ideally, your product will not care what platform it runs on. This can lead to interesting results, especially when the real-world differences between platforms rear their ugly heads. Platform-agnostic solutions are usually either very small and very simple or very large and complex because at a low level they spend a lot of effort figuring out what platform they’re running on and accounting for differences between platforms. It’s a noble concept. But platform atheist? That spunds more like Microsoft’s desired approach — support just one platform and deny that the others exist (or are worth supporting, anyway).

  3. #3 Marlowe
    June 17, 2008

    We had one of our middle managers refer to a layoff as “right-sizing”

  4. #4 Warren
    June 17, 2008

    I’m not even sure platform agnostic is the engineering term; I always used “platform independent” when I was hacking code. It’s a nice idea, but tends to break down in practice.

    My most-loathed term is “crafting”, as in “We’ll be addressing your concerns soon; we’re crafting a memo right now.” As though a cadre of highly-skilled artisans are busily developing le mot juste to discuss Q4 losses.

    Next up is “leverage” used as a verb. “We’ve leveraged our assets.” Huh. Not quite what I imagine when I think of a place to stand and a large lever.

    I also perennially detest “impact” when the words “effect” or “affect” are proper: “That sudden reduction in raw materials costs really impacted our bottom line.” No, unless your bottom line shares in common the traits of a wisdom tooth.

    Following closely on its heels is “grow” used to describe inanimate objects, as in “grow the economy” (which, as with agriculture, tends to require phenomenal amounts of bullshit); or “grow the business”, which almost makes the business sound like some kind of infection.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    June 17, 2008

    I’m genuinely surprised that “low-hanging fruit” is on the list. Scientists I know use the phrase freely: e.g., “Taking the power spectrum of that time series might easily disprove the first hypothesis. That’d be low-hanging fruit.” It’s not even a new coinage, being at least twenty-four years and two days old.

  6. #7 Dr. T
    June 17, 2008

    Platform agnostic is a correct term for when the software or gadget runs properly without even knowing what platform is used. Platform agnostic is much stricter than platform independent which means able to run on any platform (but needs to know which platform it’s on).

  7. #8 Bronze Dog
    June 17, 2008

    Orac:

    I think you should solicit your readers to submit their least favorite pseudoscience phrases, have them reviewed at the Skeptics Circle, and then publish the winners (or losers, depending on the way you look at it).

    Here’s one other place you can send them.

  8. #9 grumpy
    June 17, 2008

    I’ve heard researchers use the term “unpack” instead of “explain” or maybe “simplify”. I hate it.

    “Now, I’ll unpack this diagram for you.”

    I think, “No you won’t chuckle-head, you’ll explain it in simpler terms.”

    I also dislike, “drill down,” as in, get into more detailed information (that was mentioned on the BBC site).

    From the business world I don’t like the term “price point”. For some reason that one really bugs me. And using “source” as a verb. “I have to source that item.”

  9. #10 Brian
    June 17, 2008

    “My most-loathed term is “crafting”, as in “We’ll be addressing your concerns soon; we’re crafting a memo right now.” As though a cadre of highly-skilled artisans are busily developing le mot juste to discuss Q4 losses.”

    Having never had to deal with any of these types of office-speak terms, I actually like ‘crafting.’ It’s not a worthless neologism – it actually means what the person is saying, at least in that context. If you’re trying to break bad news to somebody through a memo, you’re crafting the memo. It might not be a beautiful piece of prose, but it still could be a work of art. The big problem with a lot of the office-speak here is that it is not representative of what the person is trying to say, nor is it particularly attractive language. I think that ‘crafting’ (and the now-derided ‘brain storm,’ for that matter) fits the bill.

  10. #11 DLC
    June 17, 2008

    Archaic: “let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes”

    More recent, and despised by me:
    “Let’s pull the trigger on this one.”

  11. #12 Blake Stacey
    June 18, 2008

    What people have against the phrase “at the end of the day” also puzzles me. Is it equally forbidden to say “when the chips are down” if one is not actually gambling?

  12. #13 AndyD
    June 18, 2008

    Clearly some people hate biz-speak while others think it’s cool. Thinking laterally and outside the box, I suggest we form a dialogue between the disparate parties so as to find common ground and put this issue to bed.

  13. #14 Autumn
    June 18, 2008

    “Proactive”

    There is never a case of this non-word being used in which the speaker means to say anything other than “active”.
    “We need to be proactive in our search for soloutions” means “we need to be active in our search for soloutions”, and would be even better as “we need to search for soloutions”.
    Not many people really need to have it pointed out that a verb is transitive. The rationale I always hear when I bewail the use of this idiotic coinage is that the speaker means to anticipate future problems, and act before they occur. Disregarding, for the moment, that there is no way that the prefix “pro-” would mean such a thing, they have merely let me know that they had no idea that there may have already been a word that meant the opposite of “reactive”.
    Morons.

  14. #15 TimJ
    June 18, 2008

    Currently doing development writing platform agnostic code, I realize that to be the most widely used term. However, to me this seems to imply that we can never know if platforms exist or not. Perhaps I’ll try to see if I can evangelize the more technically correct “platform apathetic” into wide use. :) I’m afraid most managers I know would not like the perceived connotations though…

  15. #16 Nat
    June 18, 2008

    Most annoying but also most diagnostic of corporate morons.

    “Steep Learning Curve” to describe something hard to learn rather than what it really means which is something quick to learn.

  16. #17 Martin Watts
    June 18, 2008

    A product demonstrator giving a presentation to our company used the phrase “leveraging the object-oriented paradigm”. This was back in the ’90s but the horror is with me still.

    That British company went belly-up in 2001, shortly after the boss was ridiculed for using a baseball metaphor in his address to the minions. We all knew what he meant, but he wasn’t an American and neither were the majority of the employees. It just had the unmistakable odour of management jargon.

    So now I’m stuck in a call-centre and required to be “proactive with renewals”, which means asking callers if they have renewed and offering to help them renew, even if they have called about something else. And, of course, without increasing the call times.

  17. #18 MartinM
    June 18, 2008

    I’m amazed no one’s mentioned synergy yet.

    As part of my doctorate, I’m required to take a few MBA modules (don’t ask). The marketing course somehow managed to generate the phrase “…in order to more deeply penetrate the ‘mature woman’ market…”

    Complete with hand gestures accompanying ‘deeply penetrate,’ of course. Well, OK; technically, fist gestures. You get the general idea.

    I’m almost positive this was completely unintentional, which just made it even funnier.

  18. #19 S Silverstein
    June 18, 2008

    Pharma has a language of its own. It’s a bizarre dialect and subculture. After just a few years there, I had to unlearn it to rejoin the “real world.”

  19. #20 BB
    June 18, 2008

    When I worked for pharma, I was told that multiple myeloma and melanoma were essentially the same disease- both are cancers and both begin with 2 M’s. The same genius (unfortunately my boss) told me- at a meeting- that 7 days were a shorter time span than overnight.
    Do you wonder why I left for academic medicine?

  20. #21 PuckishOne
    June 18, 2008

    To all of the MBAs and assorted others in the business world: The word “matrix” does not refer to an Excel spreadsheet so rudimentary a monkey could have made it.

    (That has been my corporababble hot button for many, many years, during which time I’ve come to agree with whomever first suggested that MBA stands for My Bleeding Arse.)

  21. #22 speedwell
    June 18, 2008

    No, no, “platform atheist” means you don’t believe that the gods of platforms exist. Right?

  22. #23 Interrobang
    June 18, 2008

    The one I get the most annoyed with is “pushing the envelope.” You’re not pushing an envelope, stupe; the term is “pushing the outside of the envelope” from engineering and test flying (of all things) and refers to working with something at the extreme limits of its design, right out where its most likely to fail (and possibly kill you in the process). The image this should conjure for you isn’t someone shuffling stationery around, it’s someone standing inside a casing of safety and stretching it out around them (and hoping it doesn’t rupture somewhere). Yeesh…

    Also, the word “solution” can leave anytime; it reminds me of that song on the radio that you used to like before they played it a thousand times too many. And I think whoever coined the term “webinar” ought to be boiled in oil until they’re nearly dead, and then stoned with one of those 20-odd volume Oxford English Dictionaries.

  23. #24 Tulse
    June 18, 2008

    To hear the Silicon Valley dialect of this bizspeak in action, watch the irrepressible Merlin Mann give his elevator pitch for the Worst. Website. Ever.

    “FlockdUp is really uniquely positioned to suck all the oxygen out of this vertical vis-a-vis an incredibly sticky, really uncomfortably sticky approach to creative network effect as regards a drill-down that will take us far down the path…we’re not going to boil the ocean…I’m going to open the kimono for you because this is all under FriendDA….”

  24. #25 MartinM
    June 18, 2008

    Also, the word “solution” can leave anytime

    Especially when verbed.

  25. #26 Uncle Dave
    June 18, 2008

    Taken from the article;
    “My employers (top half of FTSE 100) recently informed staff that we are no longer allowed to use the phrase brain storm because it might have negative connotations associated with fits. We must now take idea showers. I think that says it all really.”

    Anonymous, England

    Indeed it does…

  26. #27 Jeff Read
    June 18, 2008

    I’ve become really good at sussing new buzzwords out from context; there’s a particular tone in speech, and to a less extent writing, when these buzzwords are used.

    “Drill down”.

    “Utilize” instead of “use”. Better than “leverage” as verb, but that ain’t saying much.

    Brace yourselves for this one; it’s going to hurt, especially if you’re a scientist: “Titrate” referring to people. As in “We’re putting a team together and we’re trying to titrate out the perfect mix of technical skill and creative energy.” Something like that. It’s rare but I’ve heard it used. Oddly enough I’ve never heard the form “to titrate a solution” used outside chemistry, but it’ll happen I’m sure, it tickles the old buzzword receptors far too much.

    “Solution” has found its way into Microsoft’s development tools; now instead of building projects in Visual Studio you build “solutions”.

    (computers only) “AJAX”. This neologism was coined by Jesse James Garrett (a name which sounds self-bestowed) of Adaptive Path as a post-hoc description of what Google did with the Gmail interface. In other words, he didn’t come up with such an idea, but he did give it a cool name and so hopes to reap the credit and business for making it something everybody must do.

    To “webinar” I would also add “webisode”; it refers to multi-part Flash animations and its use is almost universally indicative of terrible writing. Good Flash animators (like the ones behind Homestar Runner) call them “cartoons”, “shorts”, or “episodes” like normal human beings.

  27. #28 JSinger
    June 18, 2008

    Many of the entries both there and here are either originally useful terms that are misused by some (granularity, drill down, in this space) or perfectly reasonable to me (low-hanging fruit, price point, platform agnostic). And the misuse of “unpack” is a humanities thing in my experience, not a business term.

    Anyway, as long as we’re throwing stones, how about “write a grant” for “fill out a grant application”? Or people unable to get through a sentence without using “putative”? I won’t even get started on what happens when academic biologists get near a statistical test…

  28. #29 Jeff Read
    June 18, 2008

    Putative is a perfectly cromulent word, but using it, or any word, too much makes you sound like Ascertain Guy. It’s a question of overuse vs. playing fast and loose with meanings.

  29. #30 Danio
    June 18, 2008

    RE:

    Putative is a perfectly cromulent word

    Indeed. A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.

  30. #31 Kaleberg
    June 18, 2008

    Platform agnostic refers to the platform from the software’s point of view. The idea is that the software cannot tell anything certain about the nature of its god or gods, that is, the life giving hardware and related software structures. Software developers have to understand how their programs see the world around them, and they use the same skills that are used in hunting, selling clothing, repairing automobile engines, and pulling a long con. I gather it involves using mirror neurons and the like, but I’ll leave it to the brain scientists to figure it out.

    Programmers have often borrowed religious metaphors to describe the world from the software point of view. Unlike our world, software must deal with seriously with superstition and arbitrary dark forces. For example, programmers will often refer to a particular register or memory location as “sacred” to some deity or another, usually something hardware related. Any program which violates the taboo, for example, by using the stack register to hold some temporary result, will find itself horribly destroyed.

    While our software may be agnostic, we know perfectly well that the hardware exists, the software libraries exist, and the operating system exists. Despite our superior knowledge and grounding, we software people still find ourselves taking the lord’s name in vain, screaming “Damn you Windows Vista!”

    P.S. Of course, it is possible to write software to explore the realm of the gods. From HACKMEM,

    ITEM 154 (Gosper):

    The myth that any given programming language is machine independent is easily exploded by computing the sum of powers of 2.

    * If the result loops with period = 1 with sign +, you are on a sign-magnitude machine.
    * If the result loops with period = 1 at -1, you are on a twos-complement machine.
    * If the result loops with period > 1, including the beginning, you are on a ones-complement machine.
    * If the result loops with period > 1, not including the beginning, your machine isn’t binary — the pattern should tell you the base.
    * If you run out of memory, you are on a string or Bignum system.
    * If arithmetic overflow is a fatal error, some fascist pig with a read-only mind is trying to enforce machine independence. But the very ability to trap overflow is machine dependent.

    By this strategy, consider the universe, or, more precisely, algebra:

    let X = the sum of many powers of two = …111111
    now add X to itself; X + X = …111110
    thus, 2X = X – 1 so X = -1
    therefore algebra is run on a machine (the universe) which is twos-complement.

  31. #32 GDad
    June 18, 2008

    Orac,

    You are truly lucky not to have to listen to this claptrap every day. Sometimes, I wish I could faint on command to make the pain go away.

    GDad

  32. #33 Jon H
    June 18, 2008

    Ah, I LOVE Lucy Kellaway for this.

    A while back, she eviscerated a memo from an Accenture bigwig for being full of this crap. I used to work for Accenture and this sort of pseudo-language was a cancer. (I never drank the kool-aid there and escaped to a computer job in Academia working for HHMI.)

  33. #34 Pseudonym
    June 19, 2008

    Don Watson, a former political speechwriter, has written two books and has a site dedicated to this topic. They are well worth a read. Especially “Death Sentence”, which reads like one long rant.

  34. #35 wackyvorlon
    June 19, 2008

    That reminds me of one experience I had. When I was working at one large computer company, they would never refer to the computer having a fault, or a problem, or a failure. It had a ‘challenge’. It was an utterly bizarre use of english.

  35. #36 kitty
    June 20, 2008

    ‘We had one of our middle managers refer to a layoff as “right-sizing”‘
    In one Fortune 500 corporation, the official word for layoff is “resource action”.

    “offline” as in “let’s take it offline”. Meaning: let’s interested parties discuss this subject after the meeting. Can also be used when a speaker doesn’t know the answer.

    “win, execute, team” where “team” is a verb.

    Another synonim of “solution” referring to a software application is “offering”.

    For somewhat outdated (1990) but still funny examples of one large company jargon and old computing terminology check out:
    http://www.comlay.net/ibmjarg.pdf

  36. #37 Cooper
    June 24, 2008

    It looks like several of the items in the article (e.g. “low hanging fruit”, “all my ducks in a row”) may be Americanisms that British and other non-American officeworkers associate with management (who perhaps got the American colloquialism from some seminar or other?).

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