Earlier this month, when we set about to demystify some of the worst business jargon at the World Economic Forum in Davos, we could not have imagined it would hit so many of our readers’ raw nerves.
Hundreds felt compelled to get in touch with their own submissions, some unprintable, but the best of which we have “outlined” below.
There was, of course, plenty of criticism of our selections, with many objecting to the singling out of “benchmarking” – a term that has been in use in many disciplines for several decades – and a passionate debate about the precise meaning of “negative feedback loops”, more of which later.
But perhaps the wittiest critique came from Charles Crowe, who maintains that “all these explanations lack granularity and do not contain metrics sufficient to let us know if we need a new paradigm”.
We have taken that on board, Charles.
Alec Finney vented his frustration: “Everything HAS to be AGILE now. Managing projects, building computer systems, having lunch.” There was no shortage of agility at Davos, come to think of it. Indeed, shaping the “agile governance of technology” was one of the key themes of 2018’s World Economic Forum.
As of yet
Hugo Pettingell emailed: “When I was a lad ‘as yet’ was considered sufficient to indicate ‘until now’. Or am I being picky? Bit like the unnecessary ‘per’ in ‘as per usual’.”
We think you are being a tad picky with the last one, Hugo. “As per usual” was used as far back as 1923, by none other than acclaimed writer Katherine Mansfield.
Pete S wondered what we should call this jargon: “When my father worked in the Pentagon in the ’60s this claptrap was called ‘bafflegab’,” he emailed. “What is the term now? Perhaps, ‘globaloney’?”
“I don’t have the bandwidth for this” – meaning “I don’t have the time or capacity”. Adrian Watt added: “probably destined to become interchangeable with headspace”.
This one irked David Burns. It’s widely used, but pedants, or “careful writers” as the Routledge Student Guide to English Usage calls us, would do best to avoid the phrase, as strictly speaking, a “central point cannot go around something else”.
“I think it means to reduce the risk of something happening or to dump risky stuff (it’s always stuff) somewhere,” said Richard Nash. Your guess is as good as ours, Richard.
Robert Webb joined many in submitting this hideous phrase for consideration. “Planning is always for the future so the addition of “FORWARD” is totally irrelevant,” he fumed.
High net worth individuals (or HNWIs)
David Burns again. “Of course,” he wrote, “Davos is not for rich people, it is for ‘high net worth individuals’.” Well, and for low net worth journalists, David.
Learning receptor units
A gem courtesy of Michael Rosenthal, of Warwick University. “Take a look at the language university administrators use,” he emailed.
“Some time around 2000 I wrote ‘our principal aim must be to maximise the cost-effective throughput of learning receptor units’ in a document that went through two or three meetings before someone suggested we might substitute ‘students’ for ‘learning receptor units’.”
Negative Feedback Loop – THE BACKLASH
Such was the level of feedback to this entry (irony alert), that it almost took the BBC email servers offline.
“Sorry to have to correct you but your explanation of negative feedback loop is totally the opposite of its true meaning,” wrote Airbus spacecraft engineer Ian Walters, joining a chorus of condemnation.
“A negative feedback loop, as used in every control system on the planet, provides stability by feeding back a control signal that is opposite to, or negative, to the measured error.”
“You perfectly describe a system having positive feedback from one economy onto others.”
Steve D, who works for the UK government, had similar expertise to impart.
“You’re incorrect about the negative feedback loop, also known as balancing loop. This is a term from systems dynamics. It happens when an increase in something feeds into a loop of interactions that ultimately tends to dampen down the increase.”
Helpfully, he provided an example:
“In predator-prey modelling, suppose the number of rabbits increases because more grass is available. This leads, because of the ready availability in wolf food, i.e. rabbits, to an increase in the number of wolves. However they eat more rabbits, decreasing the overall number of rabbits. Less food is available for wolves so their numbers decrease, which means more rabbits survive. The populations eventually stabilise, based around the new amount of food available for rabbits.”
Jim from Warrington joined dozens of others in suggesting “negative feedback loop” – in business jargon – is used to connote what is actually a positive feedback loop.
That, he explained, “is what happens when an output is fed back into the input, making things spiral out of control – for example, bringing a microphone close to a loudspeaker – a small sound picked up by the mic gets amplified, output by the speaker, picked up by the mic – pretty soon your ears are hurting.”
Thank you all. You can stop emailing now.
Adrian Watt again: “Variously applied to people (recruiting, signing up or otherwise involving) and things, such as software (acquiring or implementing). All of which still sound like better words than onboarding.”
How on earth did we miss this one? Clearly by not pivoting quickly enough.
Quarterbacking (as a verb)
This one, according to Oliver Cann, the long-suffering head of media content at the World Economic Forum, is “moving up the rankings”. Its origins, of course, are from American Football, in which the quarterback plays a leading role. Hence the transitive verb, meaning, to “direct or organise something”. Becomes less offensive (excuse the pun), as the NFL becomes more popular worldwide.
UK diplomat John Derrick, via Twitter, recalled this being used in Brussels: “GCSE maths was a long time ago but I’m fairly sure geometry wasn’t variable,” he says. It does, apparently, have an official, and timely, definition. According to an EU glossary, the term is used “to describe a method of differentiated integration in the European Union.”
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“It acknowledges that, particularly since the EU’s membership almost doubled in under a decade, there may be irreconcilable differences among countries and that there should be a means to resolve such stalemates.”
While geometry may or may not be variable, one thing remains stubbornly enduring – business people’s abuse of the English language.