Money Talks Back: The Linguistic Infrastructure of Corporatese (i.e., business jargon)

David SchneiderGears

I applied for a copywriting job the other day. The employer was a maker of some intriguing educational technologies, and needed someone to fully update the website's text, and determine a new voice for the firm that would be more appealing to buyers. It was a good job; and a not inconsiderable one. The firm, at the nexus of the technology and educational industries, had necessarily constructed a language that blended tech and ed terms into a rich and potent polysyllaby, really tasty for the search engines and industry insiders but a bit tough going for most other people.

I proposed that the ease of a product's language, deep within the soundings of each phrase, helps to sell the ease of using the product – take it a step further, introduce a little fun to the reading experience (beauty, wit, humor, attitude, individuality) and you've just connected a positive emotion to the logical and psychological idea of ease of use. That's marketing and advertising in a nutshell (or, at least, it should be). And teachers, the end users of this product, are probably overburdened enough with the challenges of technology; wouldn't they like a product that's easy to understand, easy to learn and use, and allow them to concentrate on the true arts of teaching? (Well, I 'm not sure about these things; they might really prefer the optimization of educational subjects' skill sets for successful threshold achievement of national graduated assessment agendas. It sounds more professional, at any rate. And it's up to the company whether I'm right or wrong.)

But then it came time to submit my application. As with any large or fully technologized company, these days, the firm had a proprietary online “human resources manager.” I could tell, from the way the app worked, that a human was likely to read my work only at a very late stage of the game; instead, a little Pac-Man was going to munch its way through my word-maze, gobbling up jargon keywords like Power Pellets. I panicked, and like a digital sariman on level 40, with the Four Ghosts of the Depression bearing down on me at bankruptcy speed, I raced through the tunnels of the Web looking for a conversion tool. Hey, fight fire with fire, right?

In the midst of this panic, I just had to laugh. Here I was, proposing to update a company's lexical machinery with a more efficient and user-friendly model, yet being thwarted from communicating that by the very systems associated with the industries' language machineries!

That got me thinking. Ever been frustrated with your company's computer network? The New York Times recently devoted an entire Sunday Magazine to the issue of infrastructure – the gist of it being that from roads and bridges to computing systems, there are small, local, idiosyncratic systems that are difficult to link together; and extremely large systems that must perforce be developed as inexpensively as possible. The problem is that as larger, better systems are grafted onto the older, smaller ones, like palimpsests, they become more and more complex; whereas the vast systems can protect themselves against superior competitors through equally vast reserves of marketing capital, and sheer ubiquity, which encourages inertia.

I just read another article, well publicized around the web, that tackles the question of whether language shapes the way we think. It's been a guiding principle of literary theory for decades, but Leah Boroditsky has apparently been able to disseminate the idea among general interest readers – at least insofar as I can see links to it popping up on a lot of different sites – and give it greater credibility, both through natural, non-jargonistic prose and a linguistics approach.

The nature and characteristics of a language system do indeed affect how we perceive our realities, but of course this effect isn't limited to the thought processes of a Portuguese versus a Bantu speaker. With the growth of the technocracy, with advanced industry and professionalization, and with the spread of the career into the private life, the toxic elements of industry jargon have infiltrated our mental environments just as mercury has leached into fish.

Let's take just one example: “leverage.” We all know what a lever is: horizontal, fulcrum, weight, Lever counterweight. Press down hard, and Mr. Acrobat flies up to swing on the trapeze. Leverage, in its strict financial definition, is to borrow capital to finance an investment. But about a decade ago, I began hearing a new buzzword: leveraging human capital. Back then, I just cynically disregarded it as corporate fluffery; I simply didn't anticipate how swiftly and thoroughly it would infiltrate the lexicon. We might not sense the pervasiveness of its Orwellian tendrils, but it's there, influencing things, like background radiation.

Human capital – why do I hear “human cattle” in that phrase? Is it just me? Leveraging human capital – I'm always suspicious whenever anyone tries to rename me, and thereby transform me into something else: I fear lexical conjurers from outside the literary space. I used to be an employee, with a job title; now I'm human capital? I'm not making any accusations here, but I do wonder what the Nazis might have done with such a phrase.

Leveraging human capital – the most positive way to work this would be to carve it out, and extract it from the marbled mouth of corporatese, like Michelangelo did with the David: “hey, guys, we're going to go into debt, pay you much more money to retain you, and bet that you're more than worth it.” That, of course, is the mechanism and culture of finance, which is why Wall Street is addicted to outlandish corporate bonuses.

LeverageBut it's not the entirety of finance's mechanism and culture. Leveraging human capital – I wonder: who's the weight, what's providing the force, and how heavy is that debt load that needs to be lifted? Is the debt load really being lifted? A lever is a tool: does the tool experience any net gain from the transaction of force? There's a lot of pressure placed on the human capital, by which we mean “workers.” In a healthy Newtonian world, you get a healthy steam engine fueled by a coal-fire of debt. It's classic physics: with a heavy debt load, all the available force is lifting a deadweight three inches off the ground. You can't have the give-and-take fun of a session on the seesaw: the workers stay down, under pressure to keep that deadweight in the air, while a debt-financed lifestyle (million-dollar corporate retreats in Vegas, etc.) lets off some steam.

We've written our way, unwittingly, into a world that almost entirely exists within the dictionaries of business and technology. I ran across an article, in a 2002 edition of Mumbai's Financial Express, headlined, “Leveraging Human Capital Critical for Competitive Advantage.” The lede paragraph reads –

Should corporates look at ‘Human Capital’ as an investment which can deliver financial returns? How relevant is it for human resource (HR) professionals to arithmetically measure Human Capital? Are there any sureshot ways by which HR professionals can gauge the effectiveness of their people management systems?

The article discusses ways of quantifying the investment in “human capital.” It's actually, in its own way, trying very hard to bridge the languages of business and technology in an objective piece with a hint of bias – and it exemplifies the wide range of definitions a business-engendered neologism can acquire. In fact, the entire article (detailing a conference on “The Return to Human Capital”) can be seen as striving toward a common definition, neatly summed up as: “use your staff's intellectual talent, and don't rate them solely on the basis of their job perameters.” (Use – yoose; euze – has its own difficulties however. Leverage has more caché.)

But no matter how hard they tried, neither the reporter nor the conference members were able to escape the language of business, as much as they sought to: no matter how enlightened the thought, in corporatese the distinction between a human and a commodity is not altogether that great. Except on the far end, wherein New Age Californian language makes an appearance in the words of Ms. Lalita Gupte, of ICICI Ltd, whose company's job is to think about its customers: ” Our endeavour has always been to leverage the criticality of our professionals for holistic customer service.”

More and more, these days, I have people asking me to help them make their corporate language easier, more accessible – usually younger firms, start-ups. Our language infrastructure is just as degraded as the rest, a hollow language of arbitrary signs, designated by those who make tools to make money: and all too often, they're invented to facilitate a hollow business model. (Here we go 'round the prickly pear.) Too long have businesses regarded their customers as consumers, their workers as human capital to be leveraged. We're people who make things, sell things, and buy things too.

I am genuinely concerned about the health of the language in the age of “search engine optimization” (writing down abstract words that are most frequently used to define your business, to jump you to the top of Google searches). The uniqueness of an individual firm or product faces an unending battle with Search terms that are desperate to abstract it. If we're not careful, our language could devolve into Communist storefronts: “cheap liquor store northside.”

But then, just as every action has an equal and opposite reaction, we're seeing social media (MySpace, Facebook, every site your old high school friends try to look you up) prove itself as a genuine competitor: this system forces you to talk like a human being, to other human beings, rather than as Corporate Entity to Consumer, and to take an interest in one another's interests. From the abstract nature of Search to the highly personal elements of digital networking, we have a weight and a counterweight acting as each other's leverage. It's a steam engine: one in which the quantifiable and the unquantifiable aspects of advertising are moving in syncopated beats. Maybe we'll get somewhere with this bipartisan approach. For the first time in a while, people are leveraging poverty to bring corporations down to size, so that we can talk eye-to-eye: like people who have interests, make things, sell things and buy things to and from one another. You know, an economy.