Stormy Monday

Celebrity math

Words, words, words

Like most of us, Don Watson hates corporate jargon. But Watson, a former speechwriter for the Australian prime minister, is trying to do something about it — this year, he published Death Sentences: How Clichés, Weasel Words and Management-Speak are Strangling Public Language, a witty and incendiary attack on the jargonization of everyday life.

One good example? The current US president. George W. Bush recently said “We need to counter the shockwave of the evildoer by having individual rate cuts accelerated and by thinking about tax rebates” — a statement that Watson argues is symptomatic of the jargon mindset. “Bush has got a few catchphrases in his mind and he tacks them together whether they make sense or not,” as Watson recently said in a Q&A with MSNBC. This, for him, is the central problem with jargon: It helps people get away with saying nothing, by allowing them to simply remix meaningless blather. Later on in the interview, Watson drives this point home:

I was answering letters of frustration and despair every week from people who say everything is infested with marketing language. Teachers have resigned because of it. They say how much they hate their work because they have no idea what’s being said to them … One of my favorites is from a high-school [evaluation]: “Just as the skill and processes are not compartmentalized in the creation process, the evaluation of outcomes will occur against a background of understanding that separation of outcomes into discrete components is subordinate to the evaluation of the total process as a comprehensive outcome.” Nobody has any idea what that means.

I think Watson’s got it wrong. That sentence is not incoherent at all. On the contrary, it’s perfectly understandable. The teacher is saying that when evaluating students, the most important thing is to organically assess their overall performance — not to focus on specific markers of skill, or individual outcomes in tests or essays. It’s not elegantly said, but it’s not mysterious.

No, the problem with that sentence, and indeed with today’s jargon, is not its meaninglessness — it’s the manner in which it generates meaning. That quote from the teacher, and indeed Bush’s quote above, are delivered entirely in the rhetoric of business. That is what’s truly appalling about this teacher: She thinks it’s appropriate to discuss a child’s intellectual development as if she were assessing the number of Corvette engine-blocks rolling off the conveyor belt at Magna International. That’s the true malaise of modern jargon: It forces people to treat any subject as if it were always a managerial problem of inputs and outputs.

Despite what Watson argues, the language of business is neither imprecise nor devoid of content. Sadly, it has a very precise style — and one that is absolutely wretched for civil discourse.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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