Language, it seems, is fickle – or at least, her masters are. Here in the corporate world, an entire new subspecies of wordage has crept, deformed and malignant, into the common parlance: action has become a verb; blue sky thinking has replaced optimism; gamebreaking has replaced ground-breaking, despite the fact that their usage is identical; and the instruction to get across something no longer implies a physical manoeuvre. In highschool, I witnessed a similar phenomenon: knowledge outcomes, learning objectives and – shudder – juxtapositioning came to glisten with a slick, unholy patina from their over-use, misuse and general degradation at the hands of the NSW Board of Studies, so that by the time I entered University, I’d developed a healthy mistrust of official documents.
But jargon, as a concept, is hardly new: bright lads that they are, the world-wide amalgam of medical practitioners cottoned on centuries ago, when some wry descendent of Hippocrates worked out that you could have a different Latin name for each of twenty-six bones in the human foot, and if that name was made up of two words, well! – so much the better. Tradesmen have their own inventive dialouge, as do lawyers, gardeners, soldiers, engineers, computer scientists, regular scientists, mathemeticians, philosophers, psychologists and a wealth of other professionals. For all we might resent being told we have an Oedipus Complex or a ruptured laetissimus dorsi, we don’t object to this type of jargon so much as grumble at the need to have it explained. It would be hard to write a book lamenting that doctors and lawyers are largely unintelligible; but Don Watson has made a pretty penny lambasting the corporate, educational and political spheres for being just that.
And then there is slang. Words like hot and cool, despite being diametric opposites, have come to mean exactly the same thing; but no-one objects. Fluctuating with creative glee, cultural terms like bunnyboiler, whale-tail and muffin-top are happy cornerstones of multi-generational slang, while most families have at least one or two clan-specific terms that are either entirely made up or less widely used elsewhere. My own eccentric kin are particularly good at this: to use a few examples, dub means toilet; tataise indicates a pleasant drive with no planned destination; sneety describes any sleek, pointy, long-nosed dog, such as a Jack Russell, but can also refer to cars, pens and, occasionally, mobile phones; erfs are eggs; a Horace Horse-Collar is any loutish, genially ignorant male youth; turkeys are fools; nadger describes any visible skin complaint; old gougers are old men; and rendezvous is pronounced phoenetically – ren-dez-vus – ever since I tried it out that way at age seven, with hilarious results.
So what’s the difference?
Ultimately, it boils down to our base affection for language. We have no innate objection creating new terms for old concepts, provided we can take pleasure in the task, bending words in clever, funny, outrageous, inventive, ironic or downright incendiary ways. Popular usage filters out terms that don’t quite work, or provides other options where people disagree. Corporate jargon, on the other hand, is largely redundant, taking the place of other terms while being less fun to use. Language is bullied into new forms through a process devoid of creativity; quite often, it results from sheer ignorance as to how the words in question were originally meant to work. Corporate heirachy and protocol then force them into common usage with none of the usual social safeties, such as mocking terms we think are silly, correcting those which are foolish, or altering those with potential. True, this process doesn’t apply to medical or legal jargon, but that’s because those terms aren’t taking the place of anything more natural: they are specific and ultimate, surgical tools for delicate work.
For most people, being forced to use corporate jargon is a kind of cruel and unusual punishment. Imagine going to work one morning to discover that, overnight, your office has adopted a new policy on slang. Funderful has replaced good; jivin’ has replaced cool; and there are lots of fifty year-old white men attempting to call one another bro. The pain of this scenario is utter. My God, you would think, backing slowly towards the door. It’s all so…so…lame.
And you’d be right. For those of my readers who are no longer between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, remember the hideous embarassment you felt whenever a resident adult tried – oh, how they tried – to be hip, latching onto a word or phrase that had either gone out a decade ago or which, because they didn’t appreciate it was only cool when spoken by someone not trying to be cool, made you cringe with horror and check that they hadn’t been overheard, even in your own house. This is the reality of corporate jargon: a bitter combination of middle managers trying with zero success to be funky, idiots on all levels mangling tense, and enough yes-men to perpetuate the crime throughout all departments – yea, throughout the whole company and, verily, even the competition – until we are all ready to implode at the mere thought of human synergistics.
Bunch of turkeys and Horace Horse-Collars, all. Given my druthers, I’d send them home – Jason the Dog – with their hair aflunters.