How to speak business: A guide to office cliché
Few things are as irritating as the jargon of the modern workplace. But what do our everyday office catchphrases really mean - and where do they come from? Sean O'Grady introduces an essential guide to middle-management speak
It probably won't surprise you to learn that "thinking outside the box" has just been voted the most overused business cliche in the country. We're grateful to a Nintendo-sponsored poll for that piece of news, and for highlight¬ing many of the other irritating buzz words and phrases etymologised on these pages.
Apparently "thinking outside the box" was spawned by some suit in the Walt Disney organisation years ago, and, tiresomely enough, is even now being used by apparently-serious office workers - not least as a slogan by the Welsh Development Agency.
In fact, next time you're on a British Airways flight look out for WDA's little ad during the in-flight movie programme. In Wales " thinking outside the box comes naturally", intones the voice-over, although the organisation's thinking is obviously not sufficiently "outside the box" enough for them to avoid using the cliche "outside the box".
Anyway, you may agree with the poll's verdict, or you may disagree, having your own least favourite bit of biz jargon. After all, there's plenty to choose from: a whole lexicon of irritating phrases that refuse to die, despite their capacity to depress. "It's not rocket science", to take another much-hated example, scarcely has the impact in an office environment these days that it might once have enjoyed, since it is heavily over-used. However, it still occasionally gets thrown around as if it was the most withering put- down ever invented.
Of course, people do still all too often decide to offer each other a " heads up" on things, as if they were meerkats. I think my choice of word for banning would be "workshop", and I have never wavered from the view expressed most forcefully on it by Alexei Sayle: "Anyone who uses the word 'workshop' who isn't connected with light engineering is a wanker."
Elsewhere, it is strange how the greyest of tribes - the accountants the management consultants, the, oh dear, "senior executives" and " team leaders" - have managed to coin usages that, smooth with age and abuse as they may be now, were once colourful, fresh and filled with meaning. Once upon a time "let's touch base" must have been a relatively charming way of getting a business "contact", if I can use that expression, to keep in touch. When someone got up in a Powerpoint presentation and said, for the first time in human history, that they wanted their company or department to "push the envelope", it must have stimulated corporate minds. "Swallow the frog" is more recent innovation, which has not yet become boring and nicely sums up the idea of getting the nastiest task of the day out of the way first. But soon, as with all it predecessors, it will quickly become contemptuously familiar.
But why? Why bother with the expressions such as "shoot the puppy" ? Partly it's a matter of competition; the more memorable and lightly amusing the words scribbled on a flip-chart, the more kudos the inventor will win. Partly, as with the indecipherable handwriting of GPs or the impenetrable customs of the legal profession, it's a matter of baffling the uninitiated and keep¬ing them out. Mostly, though, it's probably because there really isn't much that is genuinely new for people in busi¬ness to get excited about.
Despite the proliferation of laptops and BlackBerrys and Excel spreadsheets, working in an office is as sedentary and limiting as it ever was. Some people love to, ahem, "rebrand" old, tired ideas in different ways, often to justify their own existence. A rebranding exercise, after all, will involve establishing new multi-platform formats via a system of tailored workshops designed to achieve the key objectives of optimising blue-sky thinking and leadership via mentoring. See? That's a £35k job plus car, benefits already.
The absurdities of office life, including its strange language, have been satirised many times over the years - from The Office and Alex and Dilbert nowadays back to Bristow, The Peter Principle and Parkinson's Law decades ago - but sometimes, as these examples demonstrate, the world of bizspeak really is just beyond parody...
A lexicon of office slang
Elephant in the room
The elephant in the room is the big problem that is obvious to all, but which everyone ignores (or avoids mentioning) because it might be politically or socially embarrassing. The phrase is thought to be American in origin, dating back to the 1970s, but has meant subtly different things at different times. It crossed into business use in the late 1990s and has spawned the synonymous expressions " the moose on the table" and, very recently, a "the 100lb gorilla" .
It's not rocket science
Word experts believe this most patronising of phrases - meaning, "duh, are you stupid?" - came into the American business community's consciousness during the Cold War when, spurred by the shock launch of the Russian Sputnik satellite in 1957, rockets were developed and began to start taking off in the US.
The act of launching craft into space was considered so outlandish that the science behind it was presumed to be extraordinarily difficult. So anything else must be relatively easy. The big question is, what phrase rocket scientists might choose to employ when they decide to patronise one of their esteemed colleagues?
Push the needle
Synonymous with "taking things to the next level", the expression "pushing the needle" was inspired by motoring (the needle being the speedometer or rev counter).
The phrase is a recent bastardisation of the equally exasperating management term "pushing the envelope", which means to go beyond accepted boundaries, and first came to prominence in Tom Wolfe's bestselling 1979s book about the space programme, The Right Stuff.
In that book, Wolfe wrote: "One of the phrases that kept running through the conversation was 'pushing the outside of the envelope'... [That] seemed to be the great challenge and satisfaction of flight test."
As this quote suggests, the phrase's origins were in the world of aviation (it ought to have nothing to do with the world of stationery). In aeronautics, the term "flight envelope", which has been used since the Second World War, describes the upper and lower limits of speed, engine power, manoeuvrability, wind speed and altitude at which it is safe to fly. By " pushing the envelope", test pilots could determine how far planes could go. By 1978 the phrase was in use in print and was picked up and turned into jargon by Wolfe.
Shoot the puppy
When it's not enough to bite the bullet or grasp the nettle, there's only one thing for it - you're going to have to do something really shocking, and shoot the puppy.
The phrase, used to characterise the most brutal decisions a boss can make, is thought to come from a satirical advertisement for a ficticious US game-show, which was screened in a comedy sketch show during the early 1980s.
Chuck Barris, the TV producer behind Shoot the Puppy, would ponder how far contestants would be prepared to go to achieve fame or riches. In the fictitous show, the audience would be offered money to shoot a puppy being held by a small child. The money on offer would then be reduced to see who would shoot the puppy just to get their face on TV.
Run it up the flagpole
Now considered to be a cliche in
its native America, where besuited bigwigs popularised it in the late 1950s and early 1960s, "let's run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it" means, simply, to present an idea and see whether it receives a favourable reaction.
The phrase was associated with New York advertising agencies, and was frequently the target of comedians and satirists, who also mocked the popular use of the suffix "wise" (as in, "we've had a good year, revenue-wise").
After " run it up the flagpole" became hackneyed, it spawned a series of joke versions, including "Let's drop it in the pool and see if it makes a splash," "Let's throw it against the wall and see if it sticks," and "Let's put it on the five-fifteen and see if it gets off at Westport" (a Connecticut suburb on the line out of Manhattan popular with successful middle-management executives).
Swallow the frog
This phrase, meaning to tackle the hardest task possible, first crops up in 1884 in Mark Twain's classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
In it, Huck's best friend, Tom Sawyer, says: "If you have to swallow a frog, don't look at it too long." (which suggests that the more you delay doing something difficult or unpleasant, the worse it gets).
Although its proper home is on the trash TV show I'm a Celebrity... Get me Out of Here!, the phrase is now a favourite with chief executives and so-called business gurus.
Office jargon is jarring enough without being assaulted by this overtly American piece of public relations-speak. The frivolous phrase, which, sadly, has crossed the Atlantic in recent years, has its roots in the American baseball diamond, where hitters must touch all bases before scoring a run.
In the workplace, tasteless managers and sales executives say, "let's touch base", instead of the traditional "let's get in touch", presumably when they're also working towards a particular "goal" (fortunately not yet called a "home run" )
Hit the ground running
The first literal use of this phrase appeared in the early 20th century, when newspapers told derring-do tales of robbers fleeing from moving freight trains and paratroopers landing in war zones.
The first figurative use of the phrase, meaning to get off to a brisk and successful start (often after being "thrown in at the deep end") is thought to have occurred in a media column in the American Hayward Daily Review in 1940, when the writer noted, "It sometimes seems to me that the young nowadays want to hit the ground running and to tell the old editors how to run things."
A very popular expression amoung accountants, meaning the "real" bottom line, the bottom bottom line as it were, that is net of all taxes, costs and absolutely everything. Net net first entered the lexicon about five years ago to the bemusment of casual onlookers and has since taken on quite a currency of its own. In what can only be described as an act of brutal competitiveness, however, estate agents have recently gone one better. If a property you're interested is net net net, it means you will be responsible for all expenses relating to the premises, including snow ploughing, rubbish removal, insurance, and more....
Regularly used in sport (eg, "it's a big ask, but it's a game of two halves and anything could happen"), it has been current in business speak since the early 1990s, where ask as a noun is infuriatingly commonplace. Take this extract from the internal email of a utility: " [We] must have your approval to move forward so please respond to the ask as instructed."
Mentoring is that process whereby wet-behind-the-ears rookies are inducted - or " helped" into an organisation, system, or company. The person doing the supporting is the "mentor". The person being mentored is the " protege" - if they are particularly talented - or maybe just a " mentee".
A mentor is generally believed to be a cross between a trusted colleague and a friend, but may well be the one that tells you to have a shave; or takes you down the pub.
Get our ducks in a row
A particularly pointless phrase, meaning to get things organised (why not say that?). Its origins, however, are disputed.
The earliest reference, and most likely origin, dates back to 1700s Europe: contemporary lawn bowlers used "duck pins" in place of skittles, and would need to get them in a row before launching their balls. Other mooted explanations include the way ducklings follow their mother in a row, the row of metal ducks in a fairground shooting arcade.
Behind the curve
If you're reading this online while uploading tracks to your mp3 phone via Bluetooth while sipping cappuccino as you sit in a wireless zone with your laptop, you're not the behind the curve. In fact you're ahead of the curve, the curve being a figurative depiction, of unknown origin, of one's grasp of technology and modern life. If you're not, then get with it, luddite!
To purists and business bastardisers alike, a paradigm is a set of norms by which we operate; thus, when this set of standards shifts radically because of an innovation, it is called a " paradigm shift". The term was first used by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to describe a change in assumptions within the ruling theory of science. A perfect example of the paradigm shift was the invention of the automobile which necessitated a radical departure in transport technology. As a result, the "buggy" or coach whip became a casualty of this great change; and horse-drawn carriages were virtually eradicated. Analogue television will shortly be another casualty of paradigm shift.
The term "boiler room" inspired rather than originated from the 2000 movie of the same name, starring Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel and Ben Affleck as brokers who hype stocks and sell them at inflated prices (a practice known as "pump and dump"). In fact, the practice of "pumping and dumping", in which unwitting investors are usually told certain shares are about to soar as a result of a still-secret takeover offer or other change in a company's fortunes, emerged in the 1990s.
In most cases, the shares are not listed so investors cannot sell them. " Boiler room" refers to the hastily arranged, cheap offices inhabited by bleary-eyed brokers, often squeezed into tiny backrooms.
A relative newcomer, the term "bottom fishing " has nothing to do with bottoms, but a lot to do with fish - figuratively at least. Popular with beach-bound holiday makers and anglers without rods, "bottom fishermen" cruise the seabed, often in shallow water, tying weights to lines sporting hooks in the search for slim pickings - or the dregs of the sea. On trading floors, bottom fishing describes an approach to buying stocks which focuses on the search for shares whose prices have dropped so low they represent excellent value, even if the company's prospects are bad in the short term.
Screw the pooch
This delicate phrase denotes the avoidance of productivity. It is often shouted in a confrontational context - for example: "Are you going to sit there and screw the pooch all day?" - and was first, reputedly, uttered in Arnold Schwarzenegger's early 1990s vehicle True Lies, where Charlton Heston, as the head of a security services organisation, confronts his bungling team. The phrase has an earlier pedigree: like many other subsequent cliches, it first appears in Tom Wolfe's 1979 book The Right Stuff, where the author reports it as slang used by test pilots in the Californian desert. The test pilot who "screwed the pooch" was the one who died in the wreckage of his plane.
One of many food-related phrases that have polluted the office lexicon in the past 10 years, to " knife-and-fork" a problem means to deal with it bit by bit. " We'll have to knife and fork it," a beleaguered manager might cry. It is thought the phrase may be related to "the knife and fork model" , which means something important in DNA synthesis. Knife-and-forking it may be a lot more appetising than some of the other culinary catchphrases bandied about by the big men. If you've been urged to "eat your own dogfood" (sample your own products) or "eat some reality sandwich" (be realistic), you might want to get a new job.
This relentlessly-bandied term means brainstorming and was a favourite of Tony Blair, who employed his crony Lord Birt as a sort of full-time blue-sky-thinker. There is much dispute over where it originates from. Some suppose the phrase comes from "blue sky laws", a local American law that places restrictions on the way citizens can behave or act.
The phrase is well known in US and UK business circles and can relate to the concept of opening up your mind in discussion - as wide as the "blue sky ".
Others place the origin of the management cliche with the ancient Greeks, who speculated on the sky's colour; they considered it so detached from our normal world that it could not be considered in everyday terms.
If you're reading this at your desk with one eye on your inbox and another on the salad you're spooning into you mouth, you are a desk jockey. The modern incarnation of the pen-pusher, today's desk jockey has more than biros to contend with. Ringing phones, beeping Blackberrys and bulging inboxes - the modern office worker finds it increasingly difficult to walk away from the desk. The phrase arrived after disc jockey, from which it is derived, and which was coined in 1937.
Jump the shark
This colourful boardroom phrase is used in marketing, when a product or service is well past its best and some ridiculous device is introduced to try to improve it. It first turned up in an episode of the American television series Happy Days, which was broadcast in September 1977. The scene in question has Henry Winkler's character, The Fonz, water skiing, wearing his trademark leather jacket and broad smile, and jumping over a shark. The phrase acquired its subsequent meaning because the episode of Happy Days was broadcast when the series was well past its best.
Just add water
Derived from the cooking directions of convenience food such as Pot Noodles and Cup-a-Soups, a " just-add-water " idea is one that is so brilliantly simple yet effective, that it requires little by way of preparation.
The phrase is also used by comedians and musicians to describe the type of show that needs minimal technical set-up. These are "just-add-water" shows, requiring little more than a mic, a stool, and a few well-positioned lights.
This is a marketing term that means " unique selling point" or "unique selling proposition". It is a grande dame of cliche, and was introduced to the business lexicon in the 1940s to refer to those successful products that had unique, specific attractions to consumers - so much so that they were willing to switch to it from their brand of choice.
Examples of successful products to employ this include Head & Shoulders ("I didn't know you had dandruff") and Red Bull (which is supposed to give you wings).
Much theorising has sprung up around the use of USPs, and it forms a centrepiece of many a marketing degree. For this, we must thank one of the companies to employ the USP concept, advertising agency Ted Bates & Company, which carried out market research successful marketing campaigns.
The phrase has several meanings, but relates to an advance warning. Its origins are vague, but several of the suggested etymologies allude to holding one's head up and concentrating. Some studies point to early uses of the phrase in The Washington Post at the turn of the last century. "Heads up" is also a baseball and American football term which signifies alertness and action, and was used in reference to baseball as early as 1924 in major US newspapers. And " heads-up displays " have been used in aircraft since the 1960s, allowing pilots to work out their future flight path while looking where they are going.
Hot-desking will be a term familiar to the younger staff of many major British companies, and is a term that sprang up in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It means one desk is shared between a number of different people, who are constantly changing (hence its supposed " hotness").
Many people roll their eyes at the phrase. This is because a primary reason for "hot-desking" is cost reduction through space savings - and it has been a common ploy in the financial sector.
According to the TV show Countdown's resident word expert Susie Dent, this was one of the buzzwords of the 1990s and 2000s. A successor to the term " options", this usage of the word entered common currency in the 1980s, where it sat well with Margaret Thatcher's free-market ideologies. In the 1990s, instead of "choices" or "options", " solutions " became pre-eminent. In the computer industry, " solutions" referred to packages of software and hardware that were put together by IT companies to do a particular job. Because of its ubiquity, The term is regularly lampooned in Private Eye.
Additional words by Simon Usborne and Rob Sharp