The Fog Of Language

“Simply stated, it is sagacious to eschew obfuscation.”

Norman Ralph Augustine

When it comes to written and verbal language, I’m a big devotee of precision. Nary a day passes without encountering people using words that are close but incorrect. For example:

  • “That doesn’t jive with the facts.” (jibe)
  • “We have to staunch the bleeding.” (stanch)
  • “I could care less about your problems.” (couldn’t)
  • “I feel nauseous.” (nauseated, unless you meant you feel like causing nausea)

A subset of this is made-up words, such as “flustrated”, “supposably”, and “sherbert”.

Laziness? Ignorance? An indictment of our public schools? I don’t know.

I’m also an enthusiast of precision’s offspring: clarity. Say what you will about politicians, their messages are generally clear. Misguided, bombastic, outrageous, disingenuous, sure. But rarely unclear.

Business is a different kettle of fish altogether. The language of business often seems designed specifically to disguise, confuse, obscure, and otherwise bamboozle. Meaningless clichés, tired idioms, and word-out bromides flow forth from businesses like bodily functions.

Often, strings of gibberish appear (“press releases” or “statements”) that reach levels of inanity as to beggar belief, as well as eliciting grudging admiration. After all, it takes real talent to create a combination of words that sound impressive yet are devoid of any real meaning. Sometimes the goal appears to be impressive without specifics; other times to simply hide something.

The careful reader can spot the nonsense. Consider these examples, taken from articles that appeared recently in the business section of my local paper.

Example 1: In a statement announcing that restructuring would cause 220 people to lose their jobs, the CEO stated the following (buzzwords noted in red):

Over the past five years, we have transformed our market focus, innovation portfolio and manufacturing capabilities to deliver value for customers, shareholders and employees. As we continue to shift our product portfolio to a richer mix of higher growth, higher profitability adhesive market segments, we need to ensure our resources align with our vision. The proactive changes we are announcing will allow us to invest in the highest opportunity areas within our portfolio and become more agile as we support our customers’ success and deliver our 2020 plan.

Did you break the code? They want to make more money by dumping some products and people. Interestingly, a company spokesperson noted that over the past four years the company had added 200 jobs. So perhaps in the next cycle they’ll add some more people, presumably to enhance their innovation portfolio.

Example 2: In announcing a global restructuring, the company’s CEO stated:

We continue to prioritize both growth and returns. The structural changes announced [Monday] will help us unlock global growth opportunities and go after them by efficiently restructuring our teams and processes.

Let’s parse this a bit, shall we?

  • We continue to prioritize both growth and returns. Maybe a nit, but can you prioritize more than one thing?
  • …unlock global growth opportunities and go after them… What’s the difference between “unlock” and “go after”? Isn’t it assumed that after you go to the presumed trouble of unlocking, you would then go after them?
  • …by efficiently restructuring… That means they’re going to restructure in an efficient manner, not restructure in order to become more efficient.

Example 3: Announcing the demise of the print edition of one of their magazines, the publisher’s chief business officer and president of revenue (now that’s a title!) stated:

By re-imagining how [the magazine] creates content and how we distribute it, we are uniquely positioned to give consumers more of what they love while creating innovative and engaging opportunities for our advertising partners

Just a guess, but “innovation” seems to be the buzzword du jour.

Credit where credit is due: business people know how to turn a phrase, even if the result is something described by old Bill Shakespeare in King Lear: “Nothing will come of nothing.”

So we are left with a choice: ridiculousness from politicos, or nothingness from titans of industry.

Choose wisely…


Today’s Fact Cetera

China has more English speakers than the United States.


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