Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

When Business Language Attacks

When Business Language Attacks

English is an easy language to massacre. Anyone with the mere ability to speak or write has the opportunity to bastardize one of its many words. And, each time someone mispronounces, misappropriates or misuses a word, it’s as if someone takes a shot at our beloved mother tongue.

Rather than simply pelting it with bullets, the business world has opted to carpet-bomb the English language. Corporate America has created its own dialect within modern English to convey its messages. Unfortunately for corporate America, no one else speaks with the same accent.

Business isn’t the only group to try to re-create English in its own image. Writers have always tweaked English, tugging the language in every direction, trying to stretch the most out of its mere 26-character alphabet. And more recently, technology wizards have stepped into the fray, trying to wring from the letters A through Z descriptions of everything from token-ring networks to downloading.

However, the business world has twisted English in a different direction than writers and techies. Writers search for new words to describe complex ideas and computer experts seek to describe exactly what goes on behind the glowing monitor screen. Despite the English language’s amazing flexibility, its ability to bend in the direction of almost any meaning, the business world seeks to tie this supple stalk to a lead pole. The business world seeks to make English more vague.

The companies populating the realm of corporate America have, over the past decade, sought to increase their “value.” But what does “value” mean? It’s more than profit – it’s also efficiency. Essentially, it’s corporate consumer sense: companies want to make sure they are getting the biggest bang for their collective bucks.

Still, investors don’t want to see a mission statement that reads, “We seek to increase corporate profits while efficiently managing our human and financial resources.” “Profit” is such a cold, harsh term – businesses don’t want the public to think that they’re only interested in their own bottom lines. Besides, “efficiently managing our human and financial resources” rekindles the rhetoric of the recession in the early 1990s. Heck, the word “value” even implies that both the company and the person reading the statement are going to come out on the plus side. After all, it’s always good to have value.

Companies can’t unilaterally build “value”; they need to work with someone. But rather than use simple, straightforward terms like “work with,” “work for” or “partner with,” corporate America has opted to adopt its own, funny sounding phrase: relationship building.

Back in the 1980s, companies had clients for whom they worked, firms that worked for them and outfits with which they worked. But firming up these connections wasn’t called relationship building. Relationship building was what people attempted to do at various bars on the Upper West Side. The job was called getting clients. It was simple and to the point.

Today, people are designated to lead these relationship-building endeavors. They are called relationship managers. A decade ago, a relationship manager tried to salvage your shambles of a love life. Today, they broker million-dollar deals. But they did have a name before they received their new, sanitized moniker. They were once called liaisons.

But even when business stops watering down the English language and attempts to give peppy, specific words, it tends to err toward creating euphemisms rather than crafting viable verbs and nouns. Noted “linguist” George Carlin noticed this trend when the government adopted terms like “post-traumatic stress syndrome” to sanitize what was once called “shell shock.” But 25 years after Vietnam, the business world picked up on the trick.

It began when “downsizing” replaced “mass firings” in the American lexicon. As the business world got more tech-savvy in the late 1990s, its lingo adapted a more digital feel. “Synergy” supposedly means maximizing the resources of two corporate divisions to mutual benefit. However, it also sounds much better than “eliminating the overlapping jobs between the two departments.”

“Thinking outside the box” has recently crawled into the discussions across America’s boardrooms. This used to be called having “vision,” but if employees think they have vision, they might run off to Silicon Valley and try their hand at entrepreneurship.

Thinking in terms of inside and outside boxes is more comforting for employees – they can peer out, look around and describe what they see, but can still go back to their box (or cubicle) at the end of the day. Despite that vision, there’s no reason to jump ship from an established company.

Still, corporate America has drawn up a few gems. “E-business” will work so long as the Internet is a novelty rather than a necessity. “Messaging” someone, or zapping them with an e-mail memo, is here to stay, and it makes sense. But for every practical word that business drops into the stew that is the English language, they toss in 20 that disagree with the public’s linguistic appetite.

And so long as people giggle at the idea of “increasing value through synergy,” we’ll know the English-speaking world isn’t biting.

Days on the Hilltop appears Tuesdays in The Hoya.

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