The enemy within

"Firmly grasp large-scale revolutionary criticism"

It’s not fair to blame everybody for the amount of crap that plugs up our inboxes. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a few people ruin it for the rest of us. This table of jargon that I compiled from 2009 press releases demonstrates it:

What’s can it mean? Read across the row. There’s a 3.7 per cent chance that a press release will use robust. But, if it also describes something as next generation, it is three times as likely (10 per cent) it will chuck in robust as well. And if it describes something as next generation and flexible, now there’s a 17 per cent chance you will find robust in there as well.

In short, the more jargon you use, the more you’re likely to use.

We get to the silly situation where, having described the product or service – or, I’m willing to wager, the solution – as next generation, flexible, robust, world class and scalable, more than a quarter of press releases chuck in easy to use as well.

I have three explanations why the press releases might need to call on “easy to use” in this situation:

1. It’s really important for sales: the company thinks that something which is next generation, flexible, robust, world class and scalable might sell badly because we worry that we won’t find the on switch.

2. Ease of use is not an obvious feature: if you can’t even write a press release that ordinary people can understand, it’s unlikely we will believe you can make a product that ordinary people can use.

3. Once I watched a TV report on how they used to typeset Mao-era Chinese communist newspapers. Because the Mandarin alphabet has a basic vocabulary of more than 3,000 characters it was easier for the typesetters to keep entire ready-made Cultural Revolution jargon phrases at hand, like the one at the top of the page, and just assemble the daily paper from the revolutionary brainwashing twaddle kit with a few names thrown in.

When we close our minds we tend to rely on empty, grandiose phrases to please authority. Of course in the West we’d never do anything like that, because here we are free to choose which words we use. Apparently.

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4 Responses to “The enemy within”


  1. 1 Brett Hetherington June 25, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    I used to write press releases when I worked for an MP and always disliked doing it. Many journalists seemed to only react to words like “slam” : MP slams government, and other sensationalist phrases.

    Flexible has become code for “do what you are told to” in the workplace. Has anyone noticed that the “flexibility” in the workplace only works one way?

    We must be flexible in our working hours…but only when that flexibility suits the employer and almost never when it suits the employee.

  2. 2 Jo Higgins June 30, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    Biz jargon is now so widely used (lots of senior execs seem to like it) that it becomes necessary shorthand that everyone feels bound to use. I caught myself saying ‘skillset’ the other day. The shame of it.

  3. 3 Tim Phillips June 30, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    At the risk of sounding like Noam Chomsky, I think one reason that execs like it so much (like Jo sez) is because it gives them a chance to ask for unreasonable or unfair things (like Brett sez) in a way that makes the whole thing sound totally thrilling or inevitable. When we all begin to use the jargon without thinking, then we because part of that process.


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