Fresh off writing about Boren’s “When in Doubt, Mumble,” I see Joe Queenan’s article, “Office jargon – where meaning goes to die,” in The Rotarian magazine. J.Q. comes down hard on “360 approaches,” “emotional quotients” and doing things “24/7.” He’s not much easier on “win-win situations,” “sooner rather than later” and “in the final analysis.”
I have to say, though, when he disses “at the end of the day,” he goes to meddling. I confess to being the first puzzle author to put that phrase into a New York Times crossword. (Yes, I know it has 18 letters; I had to use two answers, AT THE END and OF THE DAY, to fit it into the 15x15 grid space available.)
Actually, Queenan does not so much criticize the lingo as he does those who overuse it. “When you constantly resort to these catchphrases,” he chides, “you start to get on other people’s nerves.” Queenan has clearly been around a lot of speechifying consultants who themselves may be “all steak, no sizzle” and whose presentations, if not their opinions, should be “deep-sixed.”
I wonder whether, as the author suggests, those who engage constantly in corporate-buzz-speak “feel more important” as a result. I’m more inclined to think they just develop the habit and then practice it, blindly or otherwise. As Mario Cuomo once said, “I’m a trial lawyer. On a good day I sound like an affidavit.”
The article cites “straight-ahead jargon,” such as “What metrics are you using?”; needless metaphor, such as “I’m going to do a deep dive on this”; and “first-rate blather” (“… update all your tasks … to ensure we standardize our process management …”). The last of these three smack of Boren’s fictitious International Association of Professional Bureaucrats.
Rightly so, Queenan notes that some metaphors are cute and refreshing when they first appear (e.g., “think outside the box”) and then become tiresome when overused. He would contrast with such metaphors “prefab banalities,” like the “360 approach,” that “wear out their welcome fast.” I’m reminded of a cartoon in Boren’s book in which a boss replies to an employee’s request for a raise: “We cannot arrive at an expedited humanistic accommodation.”
Queenan posits that it’s “widely known that the best jokes are invented not by stand-up comics but by stockbrokers. But nobody knows where jargon comes from.” I think he’s making a joke here, and a not-too-original one at that. Everyone knows jokes are invented by prison inmates. And that any time a new bunch of jokes comes floating through, it’s a sure sign the parole board has released a crew of felons.
Queenan writes that it’s “hard to pinpoint where expressions such as ‘vertical sunrise’ and ‘nuking the placebos’ came into being.” Ditto for “icing the snowman.” A paragraph later, he confesses that, as to the just quoted phrases, “I simply made them up to demonstrate how easy it is to manufacture jargon that sounds vaguely plausible.”
Manufacture jargon? Now that’s beyond my bandwidth. However, I find myself agreeing with Queenan that sometimes surplus verbiage is used like “fancy gift wrapping” to disguise a crummy gift. (But I will be icing some snowmen before the next vertical sunrise.)
Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.