Let's touch base on this office jargon

We claim to find terms like "no-brainer" and "thinking outside the box" annoying - so why is it they flourish in the office environment?

Lee Williams
Wednesday 26 September 2012 11:47 BST
Production staff on the weekly fashion magazine, Grazia
Production staff on the weekly fashion magazine, Grazia (Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


I’m coming to you ‘with an open kimono’ on this one but let me just ‘run it up the flagpole and see if it flies’. I want to take a ‘high altitude view’ of office jargon while at the same time really analysing the ‘granularity’ to see why so many of us ‘cubicle monkeys’ are talking like this and some of the reasons why. Boy am I ‘amped’...

Right. In case you’re not an office worker yourself I just said I might be opening myself up to criticism here but I want to try take a high and wide view of office jargon to see why so many office workers use it these days... and I’m very excited.

Office jargon like the above is becoming as much a part of the office furniture as water coolers, according to a recent poll. The survey for Wonga.com found that office workers annoy their colleagues at least ten times a day with such phrases as it’s a ‘no-brainer’ and ‘thinking outside the box’.

These were the most used phrases (44% of office workers admitted to using them) out of a top ten that also included such workplace gems as it’s a ‘win-win situation’, ‘touch base’, ‘going forward’, ‘close of play’ and ‘it’s on my radar’.

But why, despite the fact that we all profess to finding them irritating, are such phrases so much in use? And why for that matter do we feel the need to speak differently when we’re at work in the first place?

Well, a lot of office jargon seems to act as an intelligence amplifier. We feel that we sound brighter by using a jargon word instead of plain English. One way office jargon does this is by replacing plain, useful, straight-to-the-point-language with language that circumambulates the point. Why use one word when four will do just as well? Why use a one-syllable word when a tongue twister is available?

Using office jargon in this way is what has people saying things like ‘action’ instead of ‘do’ and ‘core competencies’ instead of ‘skills’. Unfortunately many of us forget that such language amplifies pretentiousness much louder than intelligence.

Another reason for using office jargon seems to be a quixotic attempt to sidestep reality, a misguided effort to turn the workplace into a kind of Disneyland where problems become ‘challenges’, redundancies become ‘delayering’ and severely pissing everyone off becomes ‘wrongsiding the demographic’.

A third category of office jargon seems have to no linguistic reason whatsoever other than to fill up space. These phrases act like ballast that weigh down overly terse and functional statements, making them less angular and slim-lined and more pleasantly rounded and waffly.

Sentence-fattening fare includes phrases like ‘in this space’, which can be placed pretty much anywhere in a sentence without adding or detracting anything to the meaning, as in: “How can we help our customers ‘in this space’ going forward?” Go ahead and try it tomorrow. Drop it into any part of a sentence and watch your colleagues’ jaws drop in awe.

My favourite office waffle of this kind has to be the brilliantly calorific: ‘and also in addition’. Wow. You could use it in a sentence perhaps like this: “How can we help our customers going forward ‘and also in addition’ in this space?”

Okay so not all office jargon is quite so annoying. Some of it actually involves colourful and perhaps even amusing metaphors for otherwise grey, workaday terms. Such phrases might include ‘apple polishing’ someone instead of flattering them, or eating your lunch ‘al desco’ when you don’t have time to leave your station. They might involve calling the head of IT the ‘alpha geek’ or a boastful story an ‘anecgloat’.

Maybe there is a place for some office jargon after all then – the odd imaginative phrase slipped into a formal conversation which makes you see something from a new perspective, or even brings a smile to your lips. Yes maybe, but let’s not forget that such bon mots can quickly become stale and even workaday themselves. The phrase ‘blue sky thinking’ may have brought a smile to the lips of the first person who heard it but I don’t think it has that effect anymore.

And it works both ways. The office jargon that we find unpalatable today will probably trip off our tongues instinctively in the future. Phrases that are now firmly part of the vernacular such as ‘snowed under’ were once the office jargon of their day, now we use them unthinkingly. Chart toppers from the aforementioned survey like ‘no-brainer’, ‘at the end of the day’ and ‘going forward’ are already worming themselves into our collective unconscious.

Jargon it seems is here to stay which means, rather depressingly, that in fifty years time we will all be saying things like: “At the end of the day it’s a no-brainer so let’s touch base before going forward 110% and also in addition flag up what’s on our radars in this space before the end of play.”

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