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Meeting room jargon

If you can’t understand half of what your colleagues are saying in meetings, take heart — you are not alone.

A survey of a thousand office workers in Britain was published last week by the firm of recruitment consultants Office Angels. It reported that two-thirds of office staff used unnecessary jargon terms, for the usual reasons of wanting to confuse opponents and seem superior. But 40% of those surveyed found it irritating and distracting, and 10% thought it made the most frequent users sound pretentious and untrustworthy.

Nothing very new or startling so far. But the list of buzz phrases that were reported as being at the same time most common and least understood was intriguing:

Low-hanging fruit, e-tailing, talk off-line, blue-sky idea, win-win situation, think outside the box, holistic approach, level playing field, sanity check, put to bed, whole nine yards, helicopter view, gap analysis, touch base, rain check, sing from the same hymn sheet, finger in the air, get in bed with, big picture, benchmark, ball park, ticks in all the right boxes, strategic fit, bread and butter.

It’s clear that jargonisers in British offices are picking up terms from American English, some from the standard language, but mostly from business jargon. The survey suggests they are doing so because more business people have access to the American-dominated Internet.

You can see that phrases like rain check, ball park and touch base could confuse hearers in Britain, because we literally don’t play the game. (But one supermarket in Britain uses rain checks as its name for the vouchers it gives out when special offers are in short supply, so some of us have been exposed to it.)

Some terms are odd and would stop almost anybody for a moment — low-hanging fruit, for a target that’s easy to reach, helicopter view, for an overview, and gap analysis, for assessing untapped opportunities. But several — such as level playing field, benchmark, and blue-sky — have been in British English for many years. And are strategic fit or bread and butter really so hard to figure out, in context? It would seem so, from the survey.

Jargon is all right in its place. But what the survey shows is that people are easily confused by the unfamiliar, good enough reason for sticking to plain English the rest of the time. Giving bored attenders at meetings the chance to play buzzword bingo is hardly a substitute.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 26 Feb. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/jargon.htm
Last modified: 26 February 2000.