Friday, 13 July 2012

When language isn't beautiful

I love language. I love new words and new ways of expressing things. I love how it changes and adapts and is alive, how we find a way to express anything we want with it, how new generations put their own slant on it. Despite having a strictly classical education - including having a degree which required me to read and write in Latin and Greek - I am not one of those people who winces at a neologism or adaptation of a word or when someone turns a noun into a verb or whatever. I think that's what language is allowed to do. I also have a tendency to prefer style to correctness, although the fundamentals must be correct if the writer is to achieve the clearest meaning and communication.


I can't stand it when people hide behind absurd jargon, thinking it makes them sound clever. Management-speak and Government-speak are ugly, usually quite unnecessary, verbose, exclusive and frankly rather pathetic when you deconstruct them.

Anyway, recently I was waiting for a train and couldn't avoid listening to a woman on the phone. She was speaking loudly, presumably to a colleague, and crikey, did she think she sounded clever! I wrote down some phrases that particularly struck me. The list that follows consists only of the phrases she used more than once:

"We need a starter-for-ten agenda."
"That's the absolute drop-deadline."
"...project-specific parameters..."
"Can you lean on the time-scales?"
" close of playday..."
"We should microwave that one but the other one's a slow-cooker." [She didn't mean a TV dinner.]
"It's a decision in transit situation, then?"

Yeah, I know what they mean, of course. That's not the point. The point is the clubbiness, the in-speak, and the ugly pointless messing around with words, in ways which don't make meaning clearer or more beautiful.

Self-conscious, affected. Ugh.

Until Mr M managed to stop working for a certain large company - speak not its name in my presence, unless I am armed with garlic and a silver cross - he was plagued by the ugly contortions of the language. He used to come back from work with tales of weasel phrases bandied about in the usually pointless meetings that held him back from his real work (and, indeed, the company's real work). Phrases wouldn't last long because "they" always had to create new ones as soon as anyone had got used to the old ones.

One I remember: "We need to schedule his on-boarding."

There were also a whole load of abbreviations, which one was supposed to know in order to avoid withering looks.

Can you guess the meaning of these:

AGAP = eg "It's an AGAP situation here."
CAC = eg "What is the CAC for your taxi?"
And probably the best: KSOR = eg "It's a KSOR issue." 

Any suggestions?! And do you have any management-speak phrases that annoy you? Amuse you?


  1. I go mad with abbreviations. It took me a while to suss out what LMK meant at the end of an e-mail. I came up with much more exciting (and insulting) options than what it really was.

  2. Hmm, I would probably advise someone to mind the gap with the first example.

    There are many annoying management speak things over here too. One that a former boss - a director at a private school - would always say while nodding her head knowingly was, "We have to leverage our resources."

  3. AGAP - It's an 'All Guys are Partying' Situation here.
    CAC - What is the 'Crabbit Arrival Cost' for your taxi?
    KSOR - It's a 'Kick Some 'Orrible Rabbits' issue.

    Honestly? I have no idea...

  4. My old boss was alwys muttering 'at the end of the day we could always move the goalposts for some blue sky thinking and top-down-cascade the outside-the-box parameters.' Or she could just tell everyone her new plans.

  5. As part of my job I read a great many government reports and legal documents. I respond to them in my version of "plain" English". It is my way of trying to "facilitate learning"! :-)

  6. Like Marisa, I'd probably suggest the provision of a bridge if I encountered the first expression.
    AGAP - It's an "All Gone And Penniless" situation here.
    CAC - What is the "Currently Acceptable Currency" for your taxi?
    KSOR - It's a "Keep Soldiering On Regardless" issue.

  7. I worked in climate change policy once, and it was the worst jargon-ridden environment I've ever worked in. You needed a dictionary of acronyms and initials just to read the executive summaries. I sort of understand their reasons. Because they were creating so many new frameworks and they couldn't just make up new words, they'd have all these expressions that referred to something specific to a particular context. For example the rights of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. I thought that meant local people. No, no. It was this very specific target group and the each word had been debated for hours and had legal implications as to the rights of these people. And forgetting the "s" of Peoples in any document caused much grief. So the words stopped meaning what they actually meant, and they might as well be reduced to IPLC.
    It was mind numbingly dull, but I think it's quite interesting from a linguistics point of view. It would have been more fun though if they'd decided to make up entirely new words. The rights of grimbles. Now that's catchy!

  8. My friend has to take minutes at management meetings. Here's one she told me about:

    "Don't assume. It makes an ASS of U and ME."



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