A century of complaints about business jargon

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Joshua Friedman traces this strain of peevery back to the early 20th century ("Jargon: It’s not the business world’s fault!  Why we blame the wrong people for our most annoying phrases", The Boston Globe 9/15/2013):

“The spoken [English] of the Americans is now taking on a very pronounced commercial colour,” wrote the British expatriate editor Douglas S. Martin in a 1914 article for The Academy and Literature. “At the tea-tables in the St. Regis, in New York, and the Copley Plaza in Boston…the breezy gossip of the American woman is simply redolent of the broker’s office, the curb market and the warehouse.”

No realm was safe from this commercial talk. Young clergymen, for instance, were warned not to speak of “selling” a new idea to their congregations. “Just a bit envious of the precision and efficiency he notes in his visit to the president of the tomato-can factory,” wrote Lloyd C. Douglas in the Oct. 12, 1922, issue of The Christian Century, “he even finds it pleasant to adopt the tomato-can president’s business lingo, and tries to think of himself as a manufacturer. He is a manufacturer of ideals, he says.”

But when one looks closer at the complaints about business language being leveled in the 1910s and 1920s, one discovers a surprise: The offensive terms were generally just the slang of the moment. Here’s a partial list of words and phrases that Martin railed against: “stop in,” “deliver the goods,” “win out,” “the straight dope,” “make good,” “get away with it,” “put one over,” “show down,” “come across,” “get wise,” “on the level,” “bawl him out,” “got his number,” “get his goat,” “get warm around the collar,” “hit the ceiling,” “fall for it,” “get busy.” Why did people hear these expressions as business talk?

Friedman describes my examination of "impactful", "going forward", "low-hanging fruit", and "at the end of the day", which found that neither their origins nor their current patterns of usage are especially business-heavy, and concludes:

Why do we think this if it’s not true? Liberman argues that we are unconsciously combining our negative feelings about work or “bosses” with our discomfort for new slang. “Different groups—and groups in different settings—do have different ways of talking and writing, and everyone knows this as a matter of personal experience,” says Liberman. “But ordinary people have reasons to dislike managers more than they dislike sportswriters or particle physicists.” Managers give us orders. They make us attend meetings. Occasionally, they fire us.

“So when a neologism rubs someone the wrong way,” says Liberman, “and their stereotype-forming system is looking for a group to associate with it, ‘managers’ are a likely target.” Business does produce some strange new language, but so does everyday culture. In the end, we may have to admit that the language we hate is really our own.



  1. Perry Hewitt said,

    September 15, 2013 @ 8:06 pm

    Terrific post. It does feel like conflation of the language (sometimes clunky and sloppy) with the villains (business and management).

    I often hear similar objections to technical terms seeping into language, which is one part fair criticism and one part irritation with the consuming role technology plays in our lives.

  2. Hugo said,

    September 15, 2013 @ 11:32 pm

    Reminds me of this xkcd: The Pace of Modern Life http://xkcd.com/1227/

  3. Jeroen Mostert said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 2:11 am

    @Hugo: reading some of that, it strikes me that the phrase "the art of X is dying out" is very often applied to an X that is neither particularly artful, nor worthy of independent preservation beyond historical instances.

    It's also striking that so many of these authors never bother to point out why their observations indicate that anything objectively bad is happening, beyond the vague feeling of unrest they get from things no longer being what they were — assuming they are even correct about the change occurring in the first place!

    I guess nostalgia is, in fact, exactly what it used to be.

  4. maidhc said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 3:44 am

    Managers do seem to pick up and promulgate certain types of jargon. Some of it comes from books, like "moving the cheese" of a few years ago. Then there was Total Quality Management, "six sigma" and "five nines". And last year "taking X to the next level" was popular, replacing the "paradigm shift" of yore. But perhaps we notice those phrases more than phrases used in other contexts because few people enjoy sitting through presentations on such topics.

    But you can find phrases becoming popular in other areas too. "Boots on the ground" is a big one right now in political commentary.

    [(myl) I'd amend this a bit, to say that people do seem to pick up and promulgate various types of jargon. The interesting question, in my opinion, is which changes (or perceived changes) are registered as bad (because empty, wrong, excessively fashionable, or just plain annoying), and who gets blamed for them. As far as general propensity for jargon-promulgation is concerned, I'll claim that managers are no more active than (say) athletes, artists, actors, or archeologists.]

  5. Grabcocque said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 5:48 am

    Business is by its nature *incredibly* faddish. We should be not surprised to see business willing adopting neologisms with aplomb.

    And we should also not be surprised that the embracing of neologisms by business feeds back into the feelings of antipathy towards words which remind us of our own mortality or outsider status.

  6. Corey B said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 9:03 am

    I wonder if American slang has generally been more business-sounding than British slang has, in general. That certainly is the perception of a lot of readers, and has been probably since the late 1800s. But I bet a lot of that perception is just selective listening, and associating these kind of terms with the supposedly American "get-ahead" mentality…

  7. Roger said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 9:47 am

    Among my coleuges, we catelogue the worst offenses. A recent one: "We went in open kimono and they tried to put their feet in our shoes. "

    We were unsuccessful in translating this gem. But had decided it could have been worse if it were instead stated as, "We went in open kimono and they reached for the low-hanging fruit."

  8. Roger said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 9:48 am

    Apologies for my lack of typing skills and failing to spell-check before I posted.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 10:13 am

    Are these peeves really being being generated by "ordinary people" or, like much prescriptivist peevery, are they disproportionately being promulgated and popularized by a not-necessarily-representative subset of the population clustered in certain social/occupational niches which might (for, e.g., status-competition reasons) have a particular animus against businessmen?

  10. Joe said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 10:33 am

    I figure that jargon (of any type) is also used as a kind of shibboleth for those who use it – I imagine that the resentment of being excluded contributes to this peevery. It seems that some of the objections Pullum has with "nerdview" has less to do with achieving clarity (eg, I don't have any confusion about what "For external use only" means here) and more to do with the resentment of using shibboleths within common language.

  11. bookmarks for August 31st, 2013 through September 16th, 2013 | Morgan's Log said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 11:00 am

    […] A century of complaints about business jargon – – (linguistics jargon ) […]

  12. Mr Punch said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

    @ Corey B – Actually, some of the supposedly business-y supposedly American usage seems like Briticisms to me -"at the end of the day," for example.

  13. Mark F. said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

    Talking about some of the modern ones — "going forward," "low-hanging fruit," and "at the end of the day" — I don't think their association with the business world is just because people have a prejudice against business types. They are all the kind of expressions you might use when you are talking about planning or decision making. So it's natural that you'd hear managers use them a lot in meetings. It's also natural that you'd hear coaches and politicians use them, as Mark found when he looked at the NYT database. But either way they're the sort of thing that people would associate to managers, and it's easy to conflate managerdom and business.

    None of this is to criticize the expressions. Some people probably do need to try for better variety, but they all convey useful concepts or shades of meaning.

  14. We All Speak Business Speak | Caxton said,

    September 17, 2013 @ 3:05 am

    […] quite as it seems. Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania, and a regular contributor to Language Log, has examined some of these expressions and found that ‘neither their origins nor their current […]

  15. Assistant Village Idiot said,

    September 19, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

    I echo j.w.brewer. I work in social services, and we certain generate plenty of our own jargon, which has crept into general usage. But we like to criticise business for things we don't like in society. Well, these days we like to work in the word "corporate," accompanied by either clenched teeth or rolled eyes. "Business" is so 1950's.

  16. Guanaco said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 5:29 pm

    In the early 2000s I started hearing corporate visitors, and eventually my bosses, use and overuse the phrase "on a go-forward basis". This irritated me to no end and contributed to my decision to take early retirement.

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