Does some corporate jargon make you feel icky? HRM took a look into the history of some current office phrases and wonders whether you’ll have to have a “thought shower” in the near future.
“How was your day?” I asked my friend over an evening drink.
“I think my boss has been to a leadership retreat or something. He was talking about wanting us to do a ‘thought shower’ today and he said that we weren’t going to punch a puppy,” he responded.
I was stunned, distraught at the idea of someone wanting to punch a defenseless puppy. Even though I was reassured that no puppies were harmed in the making of this phrase, I couldn’t help but scoff at the ridiculousness of its meaning. However well intentioned this manager’s message was, there’s nothing like a ludicrous string of jargon or a confusing buzz-phrase to completely disengage employees.
While I (and many others) may dry retch at the thought of engaging in some ‘blue-sky thinking’ to get ‘our ducks in a row’ in order to get a ‘high-level view’ of ‘performance metrics’ during our bi-weekly ‘deep-dive’ ‘spitball session’ – the truth is our offices have been infiltrated by this bafflegab for some time now. Jargon you no longer hate is just vernacular.
A brief history of jargon
The word “brainstorm” would have confused an 18th Century blacksmith. A storm inside your brain? You must be dying! Now, it’s one of the most commonly used workplace terms; many people don’t consider it jargon at all.
Brainstorm is thought to have been popularised by advertising executive Alex Osborne, in his 1949 book ‘Your Creative Power’. Prior to this, the term ‘brainstorm’ had a much more literal meaning: cerebral disturbance/a mental catastrophe. Trust an ad man to put a positive spin on temporary insanity.
Some new, “flashy” corporate idioms also have distant roots. For example, the term ‘ideation’ extends back hundreds of years ago. Forbes says that the word “ideate”, is “a hideous hodgepodge of ‘think’, ‘plan’ and ‘solve’”. I’d also argue that the term “hodgepodge” is questionable, but that’s neither here nor there.
In his book ‘Who Touched Base in my Thought Shower? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon’, Steven Poole says the verb “to ideate” was first used in the 17th century and that the term ‘ideation’ came along in the 19th century.
Other common terms that spill from our mouths without thought to their actual meaning are: “no brainer”, “deep dive”, “circling back” and “picking someone’s brain” – and this list barely scrapes the surface.
Then there’s the fleeting jargon that’s fallen almost as quickly as it rose. Whitespace is one of those – a term used to describe when unfulfilled needs, that were not articulated, are uncovered to create innovation opportunities. Simply put, potential sales to existing clients.
Why are these particular terms fading into the distance? Who knows. My guess is that they’ve been replaced by a new fandangled term that’s likely ten times weirder and more off-putting.
Strange jargon that we’d rather not deal with
For these phrases and terms we can only cross every finger and hope they won’t catch on.
Thought shower: this one sent collective shivers down the spines of my colleagues when we ‘brainstormed’ ideas for this article. It means exactly what it sounds like, a group of people spontaneously gathering to contribute ideas to solve a problem. Interestingly, as shown in the graph below, its use in literature had a strong peak in the 1940s and then dipped – only rising again recently.
Big hairy audacious goal, or a ‘Bhag’: why an idea has to be big and hairy is beyond me. James Collins and Jerry Porras were the gentlemen that felt the need to inflict this phrase upon the rest of us in their book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. It’s a term used to describe a business goal that, to an outsider, might seem too ambitious but feels achievable to those within an organisation. Just like when a friend says “you couldn’t possibly eat that entire pizza to yourself”. That’s a bhag worth taking on.
Flearning: this takes failing + learning, and meshes it together to birth a truly hideous fusion that should only be uttered when you’ve made a cataclysmic mess and you want your boss to think otherwise. Sure, the notion of “fail fast, learn faster” is valid but do we really need to give it a name?
In the chart below, HRM has compared some commonly used jargon. Keep in mind that this data is pulled from a variety of different books online so “deep dive”, for example, may not always be referring to an in-depth session; it might actually be about deep sea divers.
When jargon works
You could make the argument that industry specific jargon is a good way to embed a sense of togetherness and community within your team; it’s a secret language. It’s also a good way to convey a sense of know-how. Say you’re a lawyer or a doctor and you’re able to “speak the language” – clients and patients will trust you more.
In his research paper, Leading Through Language: Choosing Words That Influence and Inspire, Bart Egnal points to acronyms as an example of positive jargon.
“There are benefits to both [formal and informal acronyms] because informal acronyms create a sense of affiliation among members, whereas formal acronyms and formal jargon are more for expediency.
“There are positive benefits to be had from the careful definition and use of jargon. It can create a common language, a shared identity, and a stronger shared culture. To achieve these benefits, speakers must be sure they have defined the words and that the audience shares that understanding,” he says.
While most of the time it’s easier to just call a spade a spade, perhaps there are some circumstances that require a fun, made-up word to clearly communicate an industry specific term. We can only hope that the “thought shower” will take the same path as “whitespace” and get drained out of our lives for good.
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