Jargon’s golden age

Low-hanging fruit is a pain in the neck for them, too

Was there a time when we didn’t have to listen to people in meetings telling us what to do with low-hanging fruit? Indeed there was, and it was more recent than you think.

Usually I go back only a few years when I do my research. But if we take a longer view, it is possible to get some perspective on when we really began talking like idiots.

I can’t tell you when jargon was invented. It is thousands of years since someone discovered that by using words that they didn’t really understand he (it was a he, take my word for it) could kid people that he actually knew what he was talking about, and convince them to do his dirty work for him (even if they couldn’t quite understand what it was he was asking for). Like this:

Caveman 1: (pointing at cave painting of buffalo) Ug!

Cavemen 2, 3 and 4: Ug?

Caveman 1: (raising eyebrow significantly) Ug.

Caveman 2, 3, 4: (nodding sagely at each other) Ah, ug.

It should be pointed out that “ug” is cavespeak for “value proposition”.

Fast forward to the sort of jargon that needles us today. For a lot of the buzzword bingo-type words we hate, the real growth occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s, rather than recently. Look at this graph of how often low-hanging fruit, outside the box and brainstorming turn up in American publishing, adjusted so that their frequency in 1993 was 100 in each case. For these three, as for countless other jargon phrases like world class or cutting edge, a period of slow growth during the early 1990s suddenly accelerates for five or six years. After 2003 or 2004, growth often stops.

The phrase outside the box, used as jargon for thinking creatively, was five times as common in 2003 as it had been in 1998. It’s not like we were unfamiliar with the concept of creative thought until 1998 – of, for that matter, the concept of a box – so it looks like it’s down to people trying to sound hip.

Some of today’s most painful jargon was effectively non-existent in our lifetime. Until the mid-1990s no one wrote about low-hanging fruit (1990-92, seven articles mention it), unless they were writing an article about the location of, well, fruit.

What can this mean? My big theory, based on information that I’m not revealing yet to build up the suspense, is that this was a dot-com phenomenon. With hindsight most of that generation of entrepreneurs were a bit rubbish at changing the world (though few were as loopy as the creators of the iSmell), but they talked a lot about how they were going to do it. For a short time we all wanted to be like the dot-com kids, so we parroted the same crappy MBA jargon that they used. After 2003 the dotcommers mostly disappeared; but now apparently we can’t stop ourselves from talking like them.

The buzzwords the dotcommers left behind are the fag burns in the plush carpet of our language after a bullshit orgy has been held on it. Thanks, guys.

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