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Office Life Tuesday, 17 November, 1998, 09:48 GMT
Clear as mud: The plot thickens
Animated graphic
Lost in the maze of office linguistics
The Babel fish, as any fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy will tell you, will - if stuck in the ear - instantly translate anything said in any language.

Judging from e-mails sent to BBC News Online, office workers would be excused asking for Babel fish to understand the stream of management-speak they are being subjected to.

For the last few weeks, Office Life has been inviting e-mailed examples of tortuous English. We have not been disappointed.

A lot of the time, management-speak simply seems ridiculous. But campaigners for plain English say there is a more serious side to the issue.

From the ridiculous. . .

For example, Barnaby Hart sent in this memo from his manager:

" In summary, pro-active implementation of the system integration model through free brainstorming and TQM will undoubtedly result in an enhanced splinter matrix."

Mr Hart said: "We still don't know what it means or quite what we're meant to do about it." He's not the only one.

And Dawn Lindsay, from New South Wales, Australia, sent in a definition of "work" from a code of practice for the petroleum industry.

"Work: any task connected with the construction, demolition, addition, repair, servicing, maintenance, excavation or filling, installation, removal, alteration, modification or replacement of any facility within a restricted area, but does not include routine operations."

Colleen Harvey, from Washington State, US, bent the rules slightly, submitting not a quotation from her own office, but from a publication by Joan F Adams and Richard C Adams.

"Companies that successfully innovate complex-complex products devote considerable time and resources to training and "enculturating" their people to learn and thrive within these organic organizational processes."

Reboot! Reboot!

Alan Jones, from Sydney, Australia, highlighted the way un-plain English has festered in the computer-driven world.

He said: "People in our (Silicon Valley) organisation aren't content with employing 'architect' as a verb instead of 'build' - lately they've started saying we will have to 'monetize' elements of what we do, rather than saying that we will have to make things profitable."

Vinny Parker, who works on an IT helpdesk in a large British company, quotes one of his colleagues, who was trying to explain a problem over the phone to a customer.

"In principle, understanding the problem is simple, but in practice understanding the principles is complicated."

The culprit's colleagues - as well as the customer - were confounded by what this meant, Vinny said.

Chrissie Maher, of the Plain English Campaign, looked over the entries, and was not amused.

"These phrases may seem amusing but there's nothing funny about the time and money wasted in business as people try to decipher this twaddle.

"Nobody in their right mind would speak like this, so why do they persist in writing it?"

Downsizing honesty of expression

George Orwell
Orwell: Lies made to sound truthful
George Orwell wrote in his definitive 1946 essay Politics and the English Language: "Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable."

And if that is true about politics, there seems an equivalent truth about the workplace - business language being designed to make sackings respectable.

Julie-Anna Evans says that in New Zealand the term disestablished means someone who no longer has a job with a company, and is now a softer and less obvious version of the term "retrenched".

And on the same theme, Richard Elwin wrote, also from New Zealand, that his company's chief executive referred to forthcoming redundancies by saying: "I like to think of the Department as a family . . . some of the family members will be leaving home."

An admirable, but unsuccessful, attempt to see people as people rather than as a business resource - a point illustrated by Steve Rothwell. He wrote that a company proposed to achieve its objectives by "leveraging our people asset base".

Bob Blancato, of Delaware, US, said: "My entry for silly office language is: 'submitted for non-objection' - meaning here's something for you to review that you cannot change, only approve or reject."

He submitted it to us, but we rejected it.

Back to the ridiculous

Some examples are just too ridiculous to be taken seriously. Leigh Porter sent us this contribution, which Chrissie Maher said was her personal favourite:

"The way we currently do this is not the way we should currently do this and is not the way I want to currently do this, therefore the way we currently do this will be changing soon. Indeed Fiona is currently creating a current and on-going assessment of the way we currently do this for the change that will be coming currently."

And the victorious contender is*

The winning entry came from Suria Clarke, from New York. This remarkable contribution to the English language is, Suria says, cited with upper and lower cases as it originally appeared in a "mission marketing statement" for an un-named product.

"Leverage Powerful Brand Created Around [un-named product] While Using Momentum Of Marketplace Awareness Generated By Campaign, To Augment Member Companies' Sales Efforts Aimed At Converting High, Medium And Low-Share Customers/Prospects To [un-named product] Packaging For Their Branded And Private Label Products."

The prize of a guide to plain English will be sent to Suria, to be surreptitiously left on the desk of whoever contrived that tortuous phrase.

The ultimate locution**

The subject however cannot be left without a mention for Tommy Brown, from the Institute of Terrestrial Biology, part of the UK's Natural Environment Research Council - quite a mouthful in itself.

He turned the tables on us, by quoting a paragraph from an earlier Office Life story, which read:

"At the heart of the humanising process is the idea of de-homogenising the environment. . ."

In defence we could point out we were quoting someone. But Tommy's contribution does serve to reinforce the message in the forefront of all our minds that constant vigilance is necessary to eliminate all unnecessary and superfluous examples of prolixity or verbosity. To that ultimate objective, let us all wholeheartedly and without reserve commit our future efforts.***

*And the winner is. . .

** The last word

***Must try harder

You may still e-mail any examples of gobbledegook.

Click here to submit your entry.

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