The Forthwrite Dictionary of Buzzwords and Fashionable Business Jargon
DO NOT attempt any piece of writing at work without using these 20 words
The Devil’s Dictionary of Jargon
Ambrose Bierce (see below) created the world’s first dictionary to poke fun at fashionable phrases in the 19th century.
Here are a couple of his entries:
Egotist (n) A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
Positive. (adj) Mistaken at the top of one's voice.
That last one rings true in 2021, doesn’t it? But for our community of business writers, we think the time has come to update his diabolical project for the 21st century. So here it is: The Forthwrite Dictionary of Business Jargon.
Traditionally, this was a term only used by the legal profession. If something is actionable, it means you can begin a legal case. Businesses took it over; and it now simply means ‘an agreed task’. Example: According to the agency, our latest ecosphere of brand encounters is now actionable.
NOTE: In the 1980s, ‘to action’ became a verb, much to the dismay of many writers, who thought you could take off the second half of the word without changing the meaning.
A clever way of curtailing debate, most easily translated as ‘shut up and do what you’re told’. Example: Mark is now aligned around our new title for the report.
A vague or multitudinous area of operation. Example: Our new strategy is centred around the need to acquire new customers, focus on loyalty, change brand perceptions and increase sales. (See goal, target).
Circle back (vb)
To reply or return. Implies the writer has been on an interesting and long journey in between your communications. This is rarely the case.
When a brand says it plans to ‘educate our customers’, watch out. It usually means they are planning to cut services and raise (or up) prices. (cf raise).
Focus (vb, n)
The ocular nerve works differently in the corporate world. Whereas the normal human eye can only focus on one thing, the corporate version can accommodate numerous different focal points simultaneously. Example: This report will focus on a wide range of activities within our marketing and distribution ballpark.
Similarly, a target (n) and a goal (n) used to be small and distant objects. You required great skill to hit or reach them. Now targets and goals can best be summed up in the phrase ‘vague aspirations’. (cf centred)
‘Fun’ is a ghastly range of mirthless activities usually forced upon the unfortunate employees of marketing agencies by bosses who think the said activities make them seem more ‘creative’ and human. Example: We’ve installed a pinball machine in Finance, because above all we believe coming to work should be FUN!!!
The metaphor of a single tool that can unlock a difficult problem is now obsolete. Someone turned the noun ‘key’ into an adjective. Today, that adjective means – nothing at all.
It is simply a monosyllabic noise we are expected to make before any human activity, especially in politics and business. There are no initiatives that aren’t ‘key’; no report findings that aren’t ‘key’; no recommendations that aren’t ‘key’.
‘Key’ has taken over the mantle of rhetorical superfluousness from that 1980s and 1990s favourite, major (adj). Yet even now, it is rare to hear of a political speech or policy announcement that is not ‘major’ – just as there are no longer any models working in fashion: only supermodels.
Moving forward (vb)
A reminder to anyone who needs it that time as perceived by human beings proceeds in a linear direction.
A condition of being engaged in any paid occupation, regardless of your real feelings about, or emotional commitment to, your work. Example: Here at Hinckley Paperclips we are truly passionate about the stationery-attachment world.
Pillars (pl n)
No organisation, campaign or message is complete without pillars. You can have any number of pillars including, in defiance of architectural logic, odd numbers of them. In old-fashioned language, a pillar could be anything from a theme in a brief, to a section in a document, to the elements of a company reorganisation. But pillars sound so much sturdier and important. They’re built to last, aren’t they?
A hot newcomer, this. It’s a U-turn, a change forced upon you by customer or voter resistance, a panic measure in the face of failure. Yet ‘pivot’ sounds so premeditated, elegant – almost balletic – doesn’t it?
Pride used to be a sin. No longer. In Business English, to say you’re proud is an invitation to the reader to see you as a paragon of selflessness, philanthropy and purpose (see below). Example: We at Hinckley Paperclips are incredibly proud of our ongoing efforts to support the tawny pygmy marmosets of Indonesia.
Before 2010 or thereabouts, companies had no reason to exist. They just – were. Thankfully, this has all changed and they now have purposes coming out of their ears.
This verb is now obsolete. Everyone uses ‘up’ instead. Once, it was only antes that were upped. Now everything is.
We cannot define this better than David Frum at The Atlantic: ‘resiliency’, he writes, translates in plainer English as ‘higher taxes and higher prices.’
This means ‘to check’.
A compulsory word for all modern writers of corporate English. If you don’t put it in, someone else will. No-one is exactly sure what ‘sustainable’ means – it is applied randomly to everything from balance sheets to bathroom fittings – but with its connotations of responsibility, eco-awareness and careful management, it is THE word du jour.
Once a favourite of urban planners, tourism executives and anyone seeking a euphemism for ‘messy, chaotic and potentially dangerous’, vibrant has now taken over the world. There is not a city, a borough, a bar or an atmosphere that is not vibrating like hell. Sometimes, you just wish it would all just stop for a minute.
Any piece of social media read by at least two other people outside your organisation.
We all have words that make us wince – especially the ones that crop in presentations, proposals and marketing material. Shares yours with us at email@example.com.
The devil and Mr Bierce
The compilers of dictionaries can’t resist a bit of satire. The original lexicographer, ‘harmless drudge’ Samuel Johnson couldn’t. Nor could Noah Webster. Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas is full of acid commentary on 19th century French society. But the American humourist Ambrose Bierce went the whole sardonic hog with his masterpiece, The Devil’s Dictionary.
We are indebted to Bierce. Or as he might put have it: indebted to – plagiarise, rip off, use without ascribing credit or paying royalties.
Learn the leaner way
There’s a serious point behind all this gentle goading of corporate writers and their favourite tropes.
Language gets tired and worn out. Phrases and metaphors that once made a sentence more vivid and real now just drag you back into a grey world where Dilbert is king and the one essential item of office equipment is a bullshit generator.
It needn’t be that way. Writing can survive without all this padding. We can make everything – documents, decks, emails, proposals – shorter, more transparent and much less reliant on the familiar buzzwords and empty jargon.
Tell you what – contact us at Forthwrite and we’ll work on it together.