Did you ever wonder why our “thought leaders” “run it up the flagpole” and never attempt to “boil the ocean”?
I did. And it put me in “hot pursuit” of the reasons we use office speak so much.
I’m not just talking about the latest office buzzwords. I’m talking about phrases and vernacular that are so common we probably don’t recognize that they’re a nod to the past – and sometimes a nod to things we best avoid.
Office speak and jargon
“Jargon is the verbal sleight of hand that makes the old hat seem newly fashionable; it gives an air of novelty … to ideas that, if stated directly, would seem superficial, stale, frivolous or false,” says David Lehman in his book, Signs of the Times.
Not to say office speak and jargon are all bad. In fact, they can be helpful.
“In its best form, jargon is used to convey a complex set of principles in a shorthand way that all insiders instantly get,” says Tessa West, author of Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them. “But once it’s used to replace already existing shorthand phrases to make a simple and clear concept become unclear, it’s dumb!”
It’s dumb when it’s overused and/or under-explained. Office speak can either diminish importance when people hear it too much or complicate a message when people don’t understand it, according to research in The American Journal of Industrial and Business Management.
So let’s take a look at where some of the most prevalent office speak comes from – a bit of a background check on the everyday jargon we know, love and love to hate.
From advertising and marketing
Some of the most used and prolific workplace vernacular was born in advertising. And Mad Men’s cigarette-smoking, whiskey-drinking philanderer Don Draper made it look so cool!
- Run it up the flagpole. It came straight out of the 1950s Madison Avenue admen offices – and was completed with the phrase “… and see if anyone salutes.” It’s basically asking if others like the idea.
- Thought leader. A relatively new phrase, it bubbled up in 1994 and took hold of offices more recently. It’s someone or some organization that is thought to be an expert on a given subject.
- Ideation. This is the process of working to come up with good new ideas. It’s actually old, having evolved from a word in Plato’s 1800 philosophy “ideate.” But as advertisers and marketers needed new ideas, they also created new words to describe their work – brainstorming, blue-sky thinking, to name a couple more.
Salespeople often talk sales speak. But their language has long bubbled over into the everyday workplace. Some of the most popular:
- A hard sell. This came of the 1950s to describe aggressive or forceful selling tactics to get people to buy quickly. Today, it’s often flipped, describing someone who is hard to sell an idea to.
- Low-hanging fruit. This could be one of the most enduring pieces of office talk with origins in sales. It comes from Peter Drucker’s 1980s problem solving plans and refers to problems that were easy to solve. (Note, other jargon from that plan didn’t survive as well – rattlers were obvious problems and pythons were big problems built by bureaucracy.)
We often characterize our bean counters as stoic and less creative than their ad or marketing colleagues. But they developed some office speak we all continue to use:
- Bean counters. Let’s start with what we sometimes call the CFOs, controllers, finance managers and accountants. It gained popularity the 1970s, and its origin is linked back to a German term that meant pea counter.
- Bottom line. It was originally coined in corporate America in the 1960s, describing the physical bottom line of a profit and loss statement – showing if they made profit or took loss. Today, the bottom line seems to be the final answer in most workplace situations.
- Leverage: Today we leverage everything – information, status, resources, weight, etc. But it became typical speak from Wall Street in the 1980s.
The tech sector gives us the latest technology developments peppered with plenty of office speak. The tech jargon with endurance:
- Disrupt. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen first used “disruptive innovation” in the mid-1990s and became synonymous with the tech industry. Now “disrupt” seems to cover any change in the workplace.
- Bandwidth. While it was first used in the late 1800s in science, it became office fodder in the 1990s as “the capacity for data transfer of an electronic communications system.” Now, it covers how much capacity a person has to handle anything.
Consultants often make an impact with a unique perspective. And they’ve created quite a bit of unique, enduring office speak over the years.
- Boil the ocean. It means to take on an impossible task or project or make a project more difficult than it has to be – and we’ve been telling people to avoid boiling the ocean Will Rogers made an off-handed remark during WWII.
- Think outside the box. Scientists had used this for decades, referring to a brain-teaser exercise to connect nine dots without lifting a pencil, before consultants brought it to company leaders.
What not to say
Unfortunately, some office speak – and everyday phrases – comes from darker places, and really don’t belong in the workplace.
Dr. Molly Pennington, a culture researcher, identifies these three phrases to kick to the curb:
- Basket case. It comes from WWI slang, referring to soldiers who were so seriously injured they’d fit in a basket. It’s an uncompassionate term.
- Rule of thumb. It supposedly goes back to English and American laws from the 1600s that said a man could beat his wife with any stick no wider than his thumb. Not appropriate then or today.
- Grandfathered in. The grandfather clause usually refers to someone getting a benefit others won’t because of an earlier generation or their long-time loyalty. It came from privileged voters in southern states with a grandpa who had voted before 1867 – before Black voters had rights. Not right to be used today.