Verbing Weirdly
June 13, 2017 5:46 PM   Subscribe

I have just sat through another interminable business meeting where people "visioned" and "ideated" and otherwise perpetrated various other linguistic monstrosities upon the English language. I'm guessing that people wanted to be heard but didn't have a great deal to say and so we ended up with a bunch of weird verbal contortions and a lot of passive voice. I find it infuriating but it's obviously A Thing. What is this phenomenon called? And where can I read more about it?
posted by ninazer0 to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Well, it's possible to actually have something to say and still use these weird modern verbings. It's also very easy to buzzwordify vacuousness with this method so that it sounds more substantive (see what I did there?). Here's a basic lexicon.

I'm not sure what you're referring to as far as passive voice goes, can you give an example? I see this a lot with "new paradigm" businesses and can probably find better references with more examples. You are correct that it's primarily an ego-driven wish to feel like you are contributing, as far as that goes.
posted by ananci at 5:52 PM on June 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Part of why it spreads is because if you want people to hear what you're saying, you find yourself phrasing things in terms they're used to. I hate the way "optics" is used to mean "how will this look to people outside our organization" but given current circumstances where I work, I've found myself in meetings saying "it'd be great if we could do that, but what are the optics on it?" It's a convenient shorthand, unfortunately.
posted by Lexica at 6:37 PM on June 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

Corporate speak. See also Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter's Guide and its ilk.

Deborah Tannen's work on communication gets relevant too.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:56 PM on June 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Ultimately, it's somewhere between laziness and deliberate obfuscation.

(I just last night dreamt that someone verbed "income" -- in a sentence something like "He incomes at about $100,000/year" and I was so angry that I immediately took to dream-Facebook to rant about it...)
posted by tivalasvegas at 7:17 PM on June 13, 2017 [25 favorites]

And where can I read more about it?

right here on metafilter
posted by exogenous at 7:33 PM on June 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I suspect that it's an overapplication of the generally reasonable guideline "use active voice; use active verbs*" for people who don't understand what those things really mean.

"Use strong verbs" is what is usually said, but that's a different thing entirely.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 8:11 PM on June 13, 2017

I will preface this by saying I am also irritated when I hear business-speak. I was recently seconded from faculty to a temporary position in academic administration, and I was suddenly surrounded by people who unironically used terms like "going forward" (rather than "from now on"), "take this conversation offline" (rather than "talk about it later, privately") or "drill down" (rather than "examine in depth"). It kind of made me want to gouge my eyes out.

Business speak functions as a shibboleth, and there is a strong incentive to use it with colleagues to signal you are part of the in-group. might find this Language Log post by linguist Mark Liberman interesting, as well as
this article from The Boston Globe that references it. The gist is that for at least the last century, people have been irritated by what they perceive as "business speak/jargon" but according to Liberman's research, more often than not it is actually just the slang of the day and did not originally come from the business world.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:38 PM on June 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

Awesome responses, guys!

ananci: it was part of a very convoluted exchange that went something like "We recently attended an offsite where some of the onboarding team were able to hold ideation sessions to better realise some of the creative visioning that was requested as an offshoot of our leadership Innov8 (spelled that way) campaign in which..."

There was more, but I was too busy trying not to stab out my own ears. Ugh.
posted by ninazer0 at 9:16 PM on June 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Managementese, from the book Managing Humans, talks about the times when this kind of language is useful and the times when it makes people dislike and mistrust the speaker and get stabby.
posted by clawsoon at 9:22 PM on June 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Although the title is "Politics and the English Language," the Orwell essay is more widely applicable.

"As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don't have to hunt about for the words; you also don't have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors....A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. The will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself."
posted by praemunire at 10:36 PM on June 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

You know, I hate it too, and sometimes it's lazy, but much of that business speak ends up just being a shorthand way of saying things that you have to say repeatedly.

"Let's take this offline," for example, doesn't exactly mean "let's talk about this later." It means "let's talk about this later in a different context so we're not derailing the conversation we're supposed to be having." (Or possibly "in private.") You *could* just say "let's talk about this later," but that might mean later in the same meeting or later with the same group of people, while "offline" means something specific.

My pet peeve was always instantiation. It comes from instantiate, which means to create an instance of something. But then shouldn't it be called an instance? Why is there a whole new word? But I looked it up and heard it in context a lot and realized that actually, an instantiation is an instance that you specifically created for a purpose. So using the new word does add information and clarify, and in certain kinds of conversations it's going to be clearer than using the word instance. And if the people who use it then sometimes overuse it, well, I've been guilty of overusing new or favorite words, too.

So I've gotten a lot less irritated by business speak lately. It only kills me when it is clearly being used to obfuscate (whether deliberately or by accident) rather than communicate.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:17 AM on June 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

I suspect that it's an overapplication of the generally reasonable guideline "use active voice; use active verbs*"

This reminds me of a thing (not business-speak-related) I noticed about American speech when I first moved here from India: Americans use the active voice in cases I found strange, e.g. "you're obsessing about her", "you're stressing over work" etc (where in India you would only hear these terms in the passive form: "you're obsessed with her", "you're stressed by work" etc).

Besides not being used to it, I later realized the reason it sounds wrong is because it *is* wrong - the subject *doing* the stressing is the cause of stress, not the person; the person being stressed is the *object*. So even if one were to use the active form form of the verb, the correct expression would be something like "Your work is stressing you", not "You are stressing".

Anyway, that's a long digression of only slight relevance.
posted by splitpeasoup at 6:12 AM on June 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think a lot of it is also about a business person trying to project authority and expertise. "I ideated" can make the speaker seem more knowledgeable and important than a phrase like "I came up with some ideas" would. You see this a lot in academic writing too, where a writer uses obscure words or academic buzzwords where simpler language would work better at conveying meaning.
posted by Leontine at 7:58 AM on June 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's easy to rail against these terrible people and their terrible atrocities except you almost certainly commit the same atrocities every day. It's also easy to pretend this a recent thing - a management fad - but that's just not the case.

Drawing on, can one head an organisation? But head was a noun before it was a verb. Can one butter bread, or bread a cutlet? Same story. Prescriptivists once raged about 'contact' being used a verb, yet now it's commonplace and nobody raises an eyebrow. This is also likely to happen with some of the 'verbing' that rankles you today.

Or see this article, for example. A quote:
This conversion of nouns to verbs is known as ‘verbing’ and it has been around for as long as the English language itself. Ancient verbs such as rain and thunder and more recent conversions such as access, chair, debut, highlight and impact were all originally used only as nouns before they became verbs. In his book, The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker tells us that ‘Easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries; it is one of the processes that makes English English.
In short, these are not "linguistic monstrosities perpetrated upon the English language". They are the English language.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 10:24 PM on June 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think several of the major reasons for jargon have been covered: shorthand, displaying membership, increasing authority, obfuscation (makes me think of Carlin on soft language), and that's just what happens in English.

Another reason is worry over sounding simplistic. This bit from Zinsser's On Writing Well always struck me as accurate: "The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn't think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple--there must be something wrong with it." I've been working with college writers for almost ten years now and I see the same fear that simple=not smart.

As for where you can read about it, you might check out the work of William Lutz on doublespeak and Don Watson (Death Sentences seems a good starting point). And then you've got Bad Language in Business.

Also, if you haven't seen/heard Weird Al's "Mission Statement," you must.
posted by xenization at 7:00 AM on June 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

« Older request for language   |   please rec film/documentary re the horror that was... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments