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A (Very Qualified) Defense of Some Corporate Jargon


There is a cottage industry of writers moaning about the stupidity of corporate jargon, and there certainly are some egregious examples of it to be found. But most paint with far too broad a brush (to use some jargon).

Andrew Sullivan excerpts a New Yorker article about a “Corporate-Jargon-to-English Dictionary”:

You type in a particularly odious word or phrase—“incentivize,” say—and “Unsuck It” spits out the plain-English equivalent, along with a sentence for context. (“Incentivize” means “encourage” or “persuade,” as in “In order to meet our phase 1 deliverable, we must incentivize the workforce with monetary rewards.”) One feels a certain cathartic glee as well-worn meeting-room clichés are dismantled one by one: an “action item” is a “goal”; “on the same page” means “in agreement”; to “circle the wagons” is to “defend an idea or decision as a group.”

At least two of these three examples are misleading translations.

“Action item” is much more specific than ”goal.” It is closer to “a specific task that will be assigned to one person or one identified organizational unit before the conclusion of the meeting.”

“Incentivize” also has a much more specific meaning than “encourage” or “persuade.” As per the contextual sentence, it normally refers to setting up comp schedules, feedback forms, promotion guidelines, and the other economically-linked HR details that are required to, well, incentivize people. If you substitute “persuade” for “incentivize” in a meeting, you will lose this meaning.

Plain speaking is in short supply everywhere, but too often, people who don’t seem to have ever had the experience of trying to accomplish a series of tasks at scale in a large for-profit corporation expose their inexperience when making these kinds of criticisms. Jargon develops inside organizations, in part, to help coordinate activities efficiently. It should lead the author of the criticisms to question her premises when at least some of these terms are widely used not only in unsuccessful, but also highly successful, corporations.