31 July 2012

Verbal Camouflage

Dear business people – Stop abusing the English language in an attempt to get outside the paradigm and revolutionize the box. Nothing is being impacted. The word is affected. Stop telling people, “Don’t hesitate to contact Joe or myself.” The pronoun is me. Imagine saying, “Give myself a call” to get an idea of how ridiculous you sound. I love language too, but there is nothing awesome about unintentional misuse. Stop cascading ideas. Stop suggesting we let things marinate. Proactivate your brain and accept the fact that attempts to gussy up the banal only impresses idiots while broadcasting your own idiocy.
This basically sums up everything I hated about B-School.*  The constant use of highly technical (and often misappropriated) language to describe mundane processes was extremely frustrating because it was inefficient and because it felt highly disingenuous.  It was as if middle managers were expected to confuse the reality of their role in the organization by misusing language.

I realize now that this practice of using language to hide reality is neither new nor limited to business school and middle management.  Economists, for example, are just as guilty of padding their language as business people:
[We need to] identify the determinants of intergenerational mobility, with an eye towards finding policies that increase equality of opportunity. Should we be focusing on increasing access to higher education? Changing the structure of elementary schooling? Revamping the tax code?
This is Grade-A bullshit.  Seriously, what is intergenerational mobility?  Does it mean moving between generations?  Does it mean getting older?  Or is it just meaningless jargon that exists to fill up a press release or university bio?

Of course, verbal camouflage has existed forever.  Isaiah speaks of those who called “evil” “good” and “good” “evil.”  It takes some serious linguistic tricks to reach a point where referring to something as its opposite sounds reasonable.  And yet, we all do that every day.

We don’t support the murder of innocent babies; we’re merely “pro-choice.”  We don’t have anger issues; we’re just “passionate.”  We don’t yell; we merely raise our voices.  We’re not arrogant; we’re self-confident.  We’re not obnoxious; we’re opinionated.

Ultimately, though, we recognize the obfuscatory nature of language.  We even embrace it, because we realize that we only have two choices when confronted with unpleasant realities:  change it or change how we speak about it.  When we realize that we have, say, anger issues, we can either admit this or we can deny it.  If we admit it, we are essentially implying that we must change, unless we convince ourselves that our anger is acceptable.  If we deny it, then we have to change how we talk about the matter, elsewise we simply continue to be confronted by our failings.

Thus, we constantly hide behind our words because we cannot bear to deal with reality.  We invest in our pretty lies, and cannot bear to have them taken away from us, and so we change how we talk about reality, to hide the unpleasant truths from before our faces.

On a macro level, we cannot admit that the ideal of free trade is bad policy, nor can we admit that equality does not exist in any material form.  On a micro level, we cannot bring ourselves to admit to our flaws, misbehavior, and sins.  And so we call reality a lie and we call lies reality; we call good evil and evil good.  Ultimately, we hide the truth.  We hide the truth behind language.

* From which I’ve finally graduated, for the benefit of those readers that may care about these things.


  1. Reminds me when the latest and greatest Business school/consultant advice required every company and department to have a mission statement. Scott Adams came to the rescue at the time with an automatic missions statement generator (apparently no longer available at the Dilbert website.) The statements that came out of it made as much sense as what most companies came up with, after paying big bucks to consultants no less.

  2. On a related note, I've cultivated a hatred for PR people.

  3. "This month's target is any barbarian who says advisement. We can advise, or give advice, or even do some advising. Advisement permits nothing beyond what we can already mean with the words we have. Perhaps, by analogy to confinement, it might name a condition in which we suffer the consequence of having been advised; or, like government, it might indicate some cloud of loosely related abstractions and institutions. Those who say it to us must simply mean advising, but they fear that a clear naming of what they do will reveal how little it needs doing, and they will find themselves in the streets selling wind-up toys. Such people feel degraded unless what they do ends with -ment or some other official sound such as -ation or -ivity. Work that ends with -ing makes them nervous."

    [Source: Mitchell, Richard. "What Can We Do?" The Underground Grammarian 1.1 (1977). (http://www.sourcetext.com/grammarian/newslettersv01/1.1.htm)]