Weasel Words: Translating Deceptive Corporate Language
Over the years, various websites have featured business buzzword generators that cleverly produce corporate-sounding phrases. These phrases, such as systemized reciprocal matrix approaches, sound ridiculous—but at the same time strikingly familiar, as if you might have heard them just yesterday from your higher-ups. Although these websites generate what is obviously gobbledygook, some clueless souls no doubt grab these phrases and plunk them into the slides for their upcoming presentation.
For more legitimate gobbledygook phrases, you need look no further than the book Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceptive Language. This book is a compendium of words and phrases that have actually been used in business, politics, law, medicine, real estate, the arts, and elsewhere that will help anyone achieve, as the book blurb puts it, “the art of terminological inexactitude.”
Some of the phrases are merely amusing, such as deceptionist, which the book defines as “an office receptionist trained to discourage potential visitors.” Some are so obvious as to fool no one, such as distressed produce, defined as “spoiled fruits and vegetables.” And some you may find immediately applicable, such as descope, defined as “to narrow the goals or scope of a project, frequently so one can declare it successful without having to complete the original mission.”
The goals of such weasel words, of course, are to obfuscate, deceive, and soften the meaning, presumably so those on the receiving end will feel less of a wallop than if they hear the more direct term. Consider, for example, the vast number of words and phrases that mean being fired, such as downsizing, rightsizing, delayering, trimming the fat, getting lean and mean, and streamlining operations. In fact, Spinglish features almost a full page of euphemisms for firing employees, including such mouthfuls as “effectuate a workforce adjustment,” “institute an involuntary reduction of force,” “carry out normal involuntary attrition,” and my favorite, “require fewer people to wear more hats.”
Of course, none of this deliberately deceptive language is new. Published in 1996, the book The New Doublespeak: Why No One Knows What Anyone’s Saying Anymore aptly addressed language designed to deceive, evade the truth, or mislead. And attempts to do just these things have probably existed for as long as language has existed.
If such deceptive language appeals to you, the web offers access to resources galore to help you develop your doublespeak expertise. But if such language annoys you, listen for its use in those you interact with, and remind yourself not to do as they do. And monitor your own language: Given the choice, aim to be direct. Leave the obfuscation to others.