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From Jargon to Mumblefug and Bafflegab

Updated on January 4, 2012

There seems to have been a lot of negative mention of “management speak” or “Business Speak” recently with its penchant for, among other things Euphemism (“downsizing”), coining of new terms (“rightsizing”) and borrowing of words, such as “bandwidth”, from other professions

Language can be taken to comprise syntax, semantics and pragmatics. Syntax is the form words should take for a speech act to be comprehensible, semantics is the meaning of the elements in the utterance, some of which change with context, and pragmatics is concerned with how the utterance is used, the intent of the speaker: the aims may include communication, persuasion or manipulation.

Unfortunately some speakers seem to have the aims of confusion, intimidation and avoidance of thought. Current Business Speak and Politician Speak seem to be particularly concerned with this.

After reading one online discussion of the apparent unintelligibility of Management Speak it became clear that Management Speak is not necessarily meaningless drivel and that what is happening is the emergence of a technical language for the Business Community, primarily for those concerned with management of resources and organisation of the enterprise.

Jargon

Technical language arises in all skilled and learned professions. A work related conversation between bricklayers, circus performers, lawyers, mathematicians, physicists, IT specialists or accountants would be almost as unintelligible as 18th century thieves can't is today. Indeed a technical conversation between two forensic accountants would be hard for a general accountant, used to dealing only with small businesses, to follow. This is fine, because it allows rapid communication of complex concepts between experts. In many fields technical terms have a precise definition. In some the definition may have elements of ambiguity.

Technical language is often referred to as “jargon”. It is language used by people working in a particular field and can be hard for outsiders to understand. It differs from slang in not being associated with a lowering of the tone of the conversation: in fact it may also be associated with increased formality. Also, unlike slang, it is seldom used as a secret language or to exclude outsiders. Like slang however, it assumes familiarity with whatever is being referred to and can serve as a marker for identifying peers.

Thus in the IT field the proper use of terms such as “framework”, “Continuous Integration”, and “Multithreading” or acronyms such as “TDD”,“OOD” ,“LRF”, “TCP/IP” or “RTOS” can be used not just to establish professional competence but sometimes to establish how up to date the skills a professional has might be. IT Speak changes relatively slowly as technologies go in and out of fashion and are relatively well defined.

Management Speak

Management Speak seems to be a form of technical language for the management community. It is marked, among other things, by Euphemism (“downsizing”, “letting go”, “resizing” etc), the use of shorthand forms for relatively complex concepts (“Added value”, “shareholder value”, “Mission Statement”) and acronyms such as “ROI”, “RAROC” and “CEO”), the generation of new terms to indicate modifications of a concept (“rightsizing”) and the borrowing of terms, such as “bandwidth” from other fields. Some areas of management have very precise terminology: any project manager should know the meaning of “Gantt chart” or “Critical Chain Planning” for example. Other areas are more fluid.

Generally speaking however management is concerned with people rather than technologies, and, as in the case of Pidgin, managers from different domains and even countries swap and coin terms, and use paraphrase, analogy and metaphor in order to communicate insights that are novel, or may be novel in one field but commonplace in another.

BaffleGab

This does not mean that everything a manager says is meaningful. Returning to pragmatics, the use of language, Management Speak may be used to establish professional competence, confuse rivals and opponents, intimidate resisters, and reassure risk averse doubters. It can also be used to hide an absence of thought and cover weaknesses in a business strategy. When used to intimidate or confuse it is Bafflegab, a word defined by its creator Milton Smith as,

“multiloquence characterized by consummate interfusion of circumlocution or periphrasis, inscrutability, and other familiar manifestations of abstruse expatiation commonly utilized for promulgations implementing Procrustean determinations by governmental bodies.”

An excellent example of definition by example. Except it is not confined to government bodies, though they often provide prime examples of how bafflegab can hide nonsense. When Bafflegab is used to hide a weak or barren argument it is mumblefug

Nuts

An excellent example of Bafflegab, and possibly mumblefug is the (in)famous groundnuts order which says

In the Nuts (Unground) (Other than Groundnuts) Order, the expression nuts shall have reference to such nuts, other than groundnuts, as would, but for this Amending Order, not qualify as nuts (Unground) (Other than Groundnuts) by reason of their being nuts (Unground).

Since Groundnuts are actually peanuts this can be rephrased as

In the Nuts (Unground) (Other than peanuts) Order, the expression nuts shall have reference to such nuts, other than peanuts, as would, but for this Amending Order, not qualify as nuts (Unground) (Other than peanuts) by reason of their being nuts (Unground).

This still needs a lot of parsing but simply changing one term makes it easier to see it appears to be nonsense and further rephrasing seems to confirm this

In the unground nuts (Other than peanuts) Order, the expression nuts shall refer to those nuts, other than peanuts, as would, but for this Amending Order, not qualify as unground nuts by reason of their being unground nuts.

Or, if the exclusion of peanuts had already been mentioned

In the unground nuts Order, the expression nuts shall refer to those nuts as would, but for this Amending Order, not qualify as unground nuts by reason of their being unground nuts.


Further examples can be found here

Summary

Management Speak is derided by many non managers as incomprehensible bovine manure. On examination however Management Speak seems to be a rapidly evolving form of technical language for the management community.

As with other forms of technical language, such as legalese this form of language can be used not only to communicate technical concepts rapidly but also for establishing confidence, peer bonding, reassurance, intimidation, manipulation, deception and to hide intellectual barrenness of an argument.

The same things can be said of technical languages in other fields and of public and many private statements by politicians, though in the latter case emotionally charged language and the (perhaps) deliberate conflation of radically different ideas, such as attempts in recent years to equate “refute” with “deny” and “Tax Avoidance” with “Tax Evasion”, replace the use of bafflegab.

Unfortunately the development of Management Speak as a technical language threatens to drive managers, shareholders and those who actually do the work more and more apart.

As always the best thing is careful analysis of unfamiliar utterances and terms and, where possible, asking people what they mean.

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