Language, going forward

20:36, Jun 27 2013

A month before Christmas 2005, a man named Frank Traina walked into the China Grill in Levittown, New York, pulled a gun from his pocket and ordered the restaurant owner to hand over his money. 

As he made the demand, the restaurant owner looked down at the gun and noticed there was water dripping from the barrel. 

The guy had not come in heavy. He had relied on a water pistol to make his threat, and just to be sure, he had loaded it. 

Sometimes, when I read and and hear some of the nonsense people say in the course of their highly-paid jobs, I don’t see an impressive executive. I see Frank Traina in Levittown with water dripping from his barrel.

There are moments when you just know they’re using language as a smoke screen.

Perhaps, if only subconsciously, they know the awful truth: if their language was clear and simple, the meandering logic of their thinking and limitations would be all too clear.


So they stuff their words with jargon and drag sentence fillers all about them: in terms of; at the end of the day; going forward — in the fashion of an invalid propping themselves up with pillows. 

A friend described spending a morning with someone who was highly qualified, well regarded, senior, and in all respects someone you would imagine would be fascinating to speak with. “I didn’t understand a word he said,” she told me. “And what’s more, I didn’t understand a word I said either.” 

That’s the point — you do and don’t know what’s being exchanged. In some circles this would go by the name of a ‘Barney relationship’: no actual business is conducted, the relationship extends no further than saying, in essence, “I love you, you love me.”

I can’t hear someone say ‘proactive’ without clenching my jaw a little. I think of the octopus. You would be amazed where those things can go. If you don’t have a padlock on the hold of your boat, the octopus will slide aboard, flip the hatch, ease itself in and crack open your crabs.

For an invertebrate, it has a lot of spine. More impressively, it can wrap its legs around its head to make itself look like a fallen coconut shell and back away from danger.  

When I hear people talking about ‘incentivising the client base with valued-added methodologies’, I see an octopus with legs wrapped around its head. I also wonder what they’re backing away from. 

Maybe that’s the clue, maybe people would rather be somewhere else, doing something more interesting. They say if you ask a man about politics, he’ll hedge. Ask him about sport and he’ll talk for half an hour. 

Maybe people would use more interesting words and more vital language if they found their work more interesting. And if they found their work more interesting, maybe they would coin new and better expressions than so much of the nonsense they volley back to the people who opened the service.