23 October 2013

An A-Z of modern office jargon

Annual leave

When even the word holiday is thought to sound too frivolous and hedonistic, so that people on their holidays set their out-of-office autoreply to announce grandly that they are instead on annual leave, then surely we have entered a hellishly self-parodic downward spiral of capitalist civilisation.

Backfill

After someone has been sacked – sorry, "transitioned" – they tend to leave a person-shaped hole in the landscape. What do you do with a hole, especially a person-shaped one that reminds you a bit of a hastily dug grave? You fill it in – in other words, you backfill (verb), or address the backfill (noun).

Originally, backfill was an engineering term, meaning to fill a hole or trench with excavated earth, gravel, sand or other material. Now it means "replacement" or "replace", eg: "We are recruiting for Tom's backfill" or "We will have to backfill Richard." Meanwhile, a job vacancy that exists to replace an ex-employee, as opposed to a newly created role, is called a backfill position, even if that sounds more like something an adventurous type might adopt at an S&M club.

Close of play

The curious strain of kiddy-talk in bureaucratese perhaps stems from a hope that infantilised workers are more docile. A manager who tells you to do something by end of play or by close of play – in other words, today – is trying to hypnotise you into thinking you are having fun. This is not a sodding game of cricket. Though, actually, it appears that the phrase originates from the genteel confines of the British civil service, when there might well have been cricket, or at least a very long lunch, on the day's agenda.

Synonymous with asking for something by close of play is requesting it by the end of the day. End of whose day, exactly? Perhaps the boss is swanning off at 3pm while everyone else will have to stay till 8pm in order to get it done. A day can be an awfully long time in office politics.

Flagpole, run this up the

Let's run this up the flagpole! Using this exhortation to mean "give it a try" or "test it" came to prominence in the 1950s Madison Avenue advertising industry. It derived from a yarn that was doing the rounds about the first US president, George Washington. When Betsy Ross presented the new American flag to him, he was supposed to have quipped: "Let's run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it."

The original sense was to test something (eg an ad campaign) in public, or at least in front of the clients, rather than just around the office: a nuance that has since been lost.

Later variations on the theme include: "Let's cross the sidewalk and see what the view looks like from over there", or "Let's put it on the radiator and see if it melts", or even (so I am assured) "Let's knife-and-fork it and see what comes out". (Comes out from where? That's disgusting.) There seems no end to the forced jollity (and despair-inducing implied exclamation mark) of such constructions.

Going forward

Top of many people's hate-list is this now-ubiquitous way of saying "from now on" or "in future". It has the added sly rhetorical aim of wiping clean the slate of the past; indeed, it is a kind of incantation or threat aimed at shutting down conversation about whatever bad thing has happened. This aspect of the phrase proves to be especially attractive to politicians, who like to accuse their critics of being mired in the past. The official pronouncements of Barack Obama's administration are littered with going forward, or its sibling moving forward, which at the time of writing have been deployed nearly 600 times in the past year in official White House transcripts and press releases.

Paradigm shift

The term paradigm shift was made famous by Thomas Kuhn's 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. There, a paradigm is a whole way of understanding the world, and a paradigm shift is a dramatic transfiguration in that understanding. Paradigm shifts are hugely important intellectual developments such as "the Copernican, Newtonian, chemical and Einsteinian revolutions". Sadly, owing to the widespread phenomenon of linguistic deflation, it has since become possible to call a much less world-shattering change a paradigm shift. One educational article in Forbes ambitiously begins by sketching historic paradigm shifts – the Copernican revolution, Mendelian genetics and the guy who discovered that peptic ulcers are caused by bacteria – and then gets down to business. Now, the author claims, "a discontinuous paradigm shift in management is happening. It's a shift from a firm-centric view of the world in which the firm's purpose is to make money for its shareholders, to a customer-centric view of the world in which the purpose of the firm is to add value for customers." It probably would be a paradigm shift (to an economic epic fail) if firms really were going to abandon all hope of making money, but that is not quite the claim here. Instead, firms are going to pretend that they are not completely self-interested and really care about their customers. In the service, of course, of making more money.

Vertical

Oh, right, the verticals. Yep, we need to "leverage" the "learnings" across all the verticals. I'm totally on board with that. Oh, we need to talk about "content strategy in a difficult vertical"? Sure, good idea! [Sotto voce] What the hell are verticals again?

According to Forbes, a vertical is: "A specific area of expertise. If you make project-management software for the manufacturing industry (as opposed to the retail industry), you might say: 'We serve the manufacturing vertical.' In so saying, you would make everyone around you flee the conversation."

In business, there is a distinction between horizontal and vertical organisation. Apple, for example, is sometimes thought of as a vertical company because it makes "the whole widget" – both hardware and software. Vertical integration can also be a matter of owning the factories that supply your components, and so forth. In consulting lingo, meanwhile, a vertical can just be a new industry that you want to move into, by setting up a separate business unit.

The upshot of all this is that vertical in ordinary office use can almost always be replaced with "market", which has the advantage of being a word that everyone understands, and the concomitant disadvantage (for the machiavellian jargon-wielder) that it won't serve to browbeat and intimidate workers.

Oh, you know what else is vertical right now? My middle finger.

- Steven Poole, Guardian, 22 October 2013

[Extracted from Who Touched Base In My Thought Shower?: A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon by Steven Poole, to be published by Sceptre at £9.99 on 31 October 2013. Order a copy for £7.99 with free UK p&p from guardianbookshop.co.uk]
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